Henry VIII and his Touchscreen
How much easier life would have been for Henry VIII if only he could’ve beheaded his wives with a flick of a finger. Instead, he had to waive that finger in the air, wait for his soldier to apprehend his wives, pay for an executioner (though I would hope he just had one on staff, or at least had a Frequent Beheader Disloyalty Card), and then go through all the pomp and circumstance a royal beheading requires. It probably made things more fun and was a nice way to spend an afternoon with his daughters, but he didn’t have entertainment apps and games either.
A few weeks past, my desktop popped out of existence at the most maddening of moments. I can’t claim that I’ve been the most respectful to my computer over the last few months, but it still died a strange and lonely death.
During the flooding, I had attempted to hermit crab my computer and move it into a new case. In the process, one of my hard drives, which was unfortunately part of a RAID1, flashed out of existence and lost all my data. I felt like a tool telling people I lost data during the flood, mostly because it was completely unrelated to the flooding itself.
After spending three days trying to rescue my data and being utterly rebuffed, I admitted my negligence and rebuilt my hardy 4.5 year-old desktop. A few weeks later, with everything up and running, I accepted a research intensive journalism job to work on in my spare time. That Thursday, I awoke to dead silence in my room; no whirring fans, no blinking lights. The power button was unresponsive, the computer DOA. It took three days to diagnose the motherboard (and possibly its peripherals as well) had failed.
I spent two days working at the library for limited periods of time, using their 2 hours of free computer time per day as best I could. I spent one day at the offices of the publication to which I was contracted, working on my contact’s computer while she was in meetings. I borrowed an old netbook for a week from a truly kind friend, and shortly before returning it received a retired motherboard, chip and RAM from another friend, allowing me to rebuild my desktop (at an admittedly slower, yet more than functional level).
Finally, I ordered a new laptop. My old laptop died in the Spring after a long, wonderful life. It could run on battery power for a whopping 9 minutes before it needed to be plugged in. The headphone jack was broken, as were the speakers. The case was cracked, the power supply unit dinged and dented, and the screen scratched mildly (which is impressive given the wear and tear I put on it). It was purchased in 2004, lasting well beyond the 5-6 year lifespan of my average machine, and its 17 inch screen and 25 lb weight were archaic and cumbersome. True, it was running Linux and doing little but web surfing and document editing at the end, but it was more than serviceable.
Yesterday, my new laptop arrived. In many regards, the Asus VivoBook S550CA is a shift away from what I would’ve looked for in a laptop a few years back. While smaller, its 15.6 inch screen is hardly tablet size, though it’s infinitely lighter, weighing in at a meager 5.7 lbs. Despite the reduced size, it has a full numerical keypad built-in, which my old desktop replacement laptop lacked. Its touchpad mouse is built around gestures, recognizing multiple fingers at once, and its battery, while hardly revolutionary at an estimated 5 hours, is orders of magnitude better than the 9 minute average on my old laptop I never wanted to test.
But the biggest changes for me are Windows 8.1 and the touchscreen.
The reviews of Windows 8 have been less than stellar. Most of the complaints seem to be related to the change in navigation. The start menu is no longer menu, instead a full screen that prefers to connect to the Windows App store. Programs run as apps don’t have a button to close them, instead requiring a touchscreen or mouse gesture dumping the app off the bottom of the screen. Hot spots at the edge of the screen allow access to app lists, other programs, and settings both for the applications themselves and the computer in general.
Contrary to the complaints, it took me a few hours of playing around (while the computer updated, so not really wasted time) to figure out everything I needed to know to get around. I still feel like a fumbly high schooler moving around, but things are becoming smoother and easier with use.
There are still a few things I’m struggling with, the most primary is multitasking. I often like to leave streaming media open while I play games or read or work on things. I’ve been mainlining ESPN as I worked on that project the last few weeks. When Windows 8 swaps from one program to another, it pauses/prioritizes windows and programs depending on the focus. This means my background program, wonderfully hidden out of sight, doesn’t continue streaming. Instead, Windows 8 wants me to use one of their “features” to place two windows side by side. This is somewhat cool, as apps connected to social media sites allow your feed to scroll on the side very naturally. Using non-apps, however, means extra steps to get it to keep running while I do other things.
Don’t take this the wrong way: background apps such as file maintenance, updates, and even social networking stuff will run quietly in the background doing what they do. They’ll even pop up notifications as necessary to draw your attention. When Google Chrome isn’t the focus, however, I can’t successfully stream ESPN. It’s not a consistent problem, either, seeming to function sometimes and then flail and fail at awkward moments. If I’m running everything from the desktop, however, all apps run like prior versions of Windows.
The touchscreen, while not always intuitive, certainly offers some benefits. Already, I find myself running my fingers over the screen more often than using the touchpad for many things without even thinking about it. I switch back and forth with more regularity than I’d expect. Oddly, several of the important gestures (such as closing a program) are much easier with the touchpad than the touchscreen, despite being essentially the same movements. It doesn’t feel like a problem with the touchscreen’s sensitivity, but it certainly my be a technological drawback of early technology. On Halloween, a friend of mine brought over his Nintendo 64 and we played Mario Kart and Super Smash brothers. The controllers were far from responsive, and I felt so spoiled with XBox 360 controllers. It was a definitive reminder that hardware has actually gotten better over the years, and that video game nostalgia should be tied to software, not hardware. I’m sure in ten years, touchscreens will be more responsive and functional, though this one is no slouch.
Perhaps the biggest drawback/benefit (and no, I haven’t decided which it is yet) is the App store. Much like Apple, Droid, and even Xbox, Microsoft is pimping easy installation of apps. It’s funny that I find it at once mesmerizing and damning given that Linux (especially Ubuntu) has long offered a similar style of marketplace albeit in a less flashy outfit. I keep wondering if the app version of my favorite applications is better or at least worth running instead. The ESPN app is great at letting me personalize my news feed, but when you try to watchESPN, it just opens a browser window, making it less than ideal. There isn’t an app version of Thunderbird yet, at least not the old 64-bit build I use, and other mail clients are underpowered and have less than stellar reviews. Microsoft has foisted Skydrive, their free (with Microsoft account) cloud storage system, but there’s no Windows 8 native Google Drive support to compete (though it’s still completely functional via the browser or the integration program that runs from the desktop).
I know in the back of my head that I can just pull p the desktop and run everything sans app just fine, but I feel this intense need and desire to adjust to apps, as if they’re supposedly more natural and will be more effective. I have no evidence, just a nagging feeling. There’s still a lot to get used to, many tricks and tips to learn, but I feel like the negativity against Windows 8 is more closely related to a general dislike of change than to anything else.
I spent the last hour searching, but despite my efforts, I haven’t found a touchscreen beheading game to play out my Windows VIII fantasies. I’m sure it’s coming though. And I plan to be ready for it.