Wednesday, December 1

Windows (II): User Interface

(This is a part of a series of posts on my recent experience with Windows. See Windows (I) for the first post.)

The Windows user interface is definitely acceptable. The charge that it is too colorful or toy-like is completely unfounded. Rather, perhaps geeks should spend less time looking at their gray Motif boxy controls. In terms of speed, the UI is generally more responsive than on Linux, though maybe less so than previous versions of Windows (that could be because my Intel video IGP is a slouch).

An interesting observation is that apps are almost as heterogeneous in terms of interface as in GNU/Linux, even though the standard controls are ubiquitous. Even apps by Microsoft can be separated into different "generations" of UI (e.g., folder windows, Control Panel, Microsoft Office).  Also it is clear that generally more attention is paid to UI and usability by app developers, although perhaps not as much as in Apple products.

The greatest asset and the worst offender at the same time, by far, is the overall GUI orientation of the system. Needless to say, it aids discoverability, but reduces scripting capabilities. Problem is, even if you do not need to write scripts per se, command-line actions are useful because they can be repeated and chained very easily, using shell history. In Windows, I occasionally find myself doing much repetitive clicking that would likely be an "Alt-Tab Up Enter" (or sometimes just one key) sequence in Linux. Moreover, the lack of good standartized scripting is a huge pain during app deployments which tend be repetetive. I did not like Windows on servers before, and I do not like it now.

To be fair, my complaints about scripting capabilities may be partly moot because I have only used vanilla Windows batch files, and have not looked at all into Windows PowerShell, which is a new-generation scripting tool. The examples are fairly impressive. The language has a nice look and is clearly powerful, but also looks somewhat complicated which keeps me away until I find a good reason to learn it.

Initially I missed workspaces. The one app I found that was supposed to emulate workspaces would take several seconds to switch the workspace, so it was completely unusable. I learned to do without them rather quickly though. Actually I'm starting to think that using many workspaces is a sign that you are doing too many things at once and also they are an invitation to distraction (how many of you have a "blog reader" workspace right aside your "work" workspace, ready at your fingertips at a moment's notice?). Workspaces do have one killer feature: you can jump directly to a given workspace instead of cycling through windows. This is very useful when working with more than two apps, in which case without workspaces you are forced to think about the morphing Alt-Tab queue when switching windows.

Speaking about UI generations, I much prefer the ribbon toolbars of the new Office. The still-prevalent toolbars with zillions of old-style 32x32 (or 16x16) toolbar icons are really ugly. Typically only a few of the toolbar buttons are actually useful, and they make the user interface unnecessarily cramped and busy. The move to fewer and larger toolbar buttons is definitely on the right track.

The explorer context menus also tend to grow crazy long. Every app wants to get in there, and in the end you have a context menu that takes up half a screen vertically. Needless to say, most of those items are not used much. Sure, you can opt out during app installation, but at that time it is difficult to say how useful the context menu item will be, and there's no easy way (i.e. easier than just ignoring the cruft) to remove the entries afterwards.

In my coming posts I will cover package management and application development on Windows.


Anonymous said...

"In terms of speed, the UI is generally more responsive than on Linux"

Write another review when the install isn't so fresh.

Gintautas Miliauskas said...

I don't know, GTK in particular has always seemed sluggish for me. It's been better lately though, possibly because of X improvements.

muchan said...

"Initially I missed workspaces. The one app I found that was supposed to emulate workspaces would take several seconds to switch the workspace"...

I use a app called VirtuaWin, after trying some.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: it's only your fault if you put trash on your machine. It easy to do on Windows, I'll give you that, but a properly maintained Windows machine (read: proper maintenance that takes less time than on Linux) will buzz just as fast after 1 year. Does for me.