Walking Away from Windows 10
April 29, 2016
Whenever I have friends or colleagues ask me for recommendations for getting a new computer system I always give them the advice that they first need to figure out what it is they want to do with said system. Will they be doing video editing? Will they be playing AAA computer games? Will they be working with multiple applications at the same time frequently? It’s important to know the answers to these questions to determine if a given computer system will meet the person’s needs. I’ve recently discovered that it’s equally important to answer similar questions with regards to a computer’s operating system. What I discovered is that Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system was not developed for me and does not match my needs.
It’s been over half a year since Microsoft rolled out Windows 10 (for free). At the time that it was released I was in the middle of developing my computer game Sleuthhounds: The Cursed Cannon. I didn’t think it was a good idea to make any major changes to my development computer (and changing operating systems certainly counts as a major change) so I stuck with good old Windows 7. It’s only been in this past month that I’ve gotten around to evaluating Windows 10 and realizing it’s not for me.
I’ve heard some good things about Windows 10 and friends of mine have upgraded to Win 10 without any problems. As you’ll see from my lengthy tale below, I was not so lucky. I’ve tried to keep ranting to a minimum but it’s probably crept in in various places.
Back in 2015, I’d heard rumblings that Windows 10 was coming. I hadn’t paid much attention to its release date or Microsoft’s plans for rolling it out. As I mentioned, I was in the middle of developing a game at the time and knew I wouldn’t be upgrading to Win 10 anytime soon. I also just assumed it would be the same as previous Windows releases. Go out to a store and buy a boxed copy. Or at a stretch, go online and purchase a digital download.
I was more than a bit surprised when I logged onto my Windows 7 machine one morning and was presented with a large “Upgrade to Windows 10” message splashed across my monitor. And by more than a bit surprised I mean downright worried. My stomach dropped because my first thought was that I’d been hit with a virus. A virus that wanted me to install additional software. After some frantic checking online, I discovered that the message was indeed legit from Microsoft. Even so, my introduction to Windows 10 in that way was not a pleasant one.
I dismissed the upgrade message but thought I might eventually upgrade to Windows 10, so I let it kick around on my computer, dismissing it whenever it decided to show itself again. The odd thing is that after that first message appeared, I started to notice my internet connection was slower. It was at a time when I was downloading a couple large games I’d purchased so the reduced download speed was definitely noticeable.
It was only a couple of weeks later that I discovered why download speeds were temporarily reduced. I do a fair amount of tweaking on my machine, changing settings and configuring hardware and so forth. It’s necessary because of all the development I do on it. One of the options I have set on my computer is to see files and directories that Windows ordinarily hides.
As I was going through my computer one day, I noticed a new hidden directory in the computer’s root, one $WINDOWS.~BT. A quick check on this directory showed it was sitting at a whopping 20 gigabytes! I had no idea where this directory had come from. I went online again and did some more research and discovered that Microsoft had been playing silly buggers and had downloaded everything for a Win 10 install behind my back and without asking. It’s never the friendliest of things taking liberties with a fellow’s computer. It also raised the question, what about people that have monthly download caps? I don’t, but I imagine people who do probably weren’t too happy to pay extra on their internet bills because Microsoft downloaded data without their consent.
April 2016 rolled around, and after putting up with the Microsoft nag screen for all that time I decided to finally give Windows 10 a try. I figured it would be a relatively quick process seeing as how Microsoft had already dumped all that data on my drive.
When I went to install Win 10 it was on a Monday. The update application wanted to schedule my update for “a time that will work for you”. In my case, it was suggesting Friday. But I had already set aside time to do it on Monday. Fortunately, there was a small link on the screen to update immediately. So I clicked it and Windows displayed the message “Preparing to download Windows 10”.
What the heck, I thought (or something a little less politically correct). I thought Windows had already downloaded many gigabytes of data to do the install. Imagine my surprise when I went checking and discovered that the $WINDOWS.~BT directory that Microsoft had previously set up without my consent had, at some point, been removed. Also without my consent.
Anyway, after waiting a couple of hours, the update application was still stuck on “Preparing to download Windows 10”. A quick check of network and hard drive activity showed that the application had done nothing. Zero. Nada. Zip.
OK, back to the internet once more to find out what was going on. I never found an answer to the question of why the application got stuck although I did see several forum posts of other people having the same difficulties. The recommendation was to go on the Microsoft site and find the download to create Windows 10 install media, which I did. I figured it would be good to have a copy of everything needed to install Win 10 burned on a DVD anyway, so that was OK. I did wonder about the file size though, given that the $WINDOWS.~BT was much larger than a DVD. As it turned out, that wasn’t a problem.
Once I manually started the download off the Microsoft site it took about 40 minutes to get everything I needed to create a bootable DVD to install from. As burned on the DVD, the final download size was about 3.5 gigabytes (I still have no clue what the other 16 gigabytes from the original $WINDOWS.~BT directory was all about).
At this point I have to admit to not reading instructions properly. I’ve been installing and upgrading Windows operating systems with little trouble since way back with Windows 95. In previous cases, whenever going off bootable media like a DVD you, you know, actually boot from that media. So I restarted my computer with the DVD in the drive and it booted into the Windows 10 install program. It then presented me with a questionnaire of sorts used for doing initial configuration on Windows for things like Cortana, keyboard layouts, and turning off all the spyware that Microsoft was inclined to enable by default. It probably took me about fifteen to twenty minutes to work through all the settings and get them the way I wanted them.
All was in readiness, so I hit the install button. And then the installer popped up and basically said, “Oh, you already have Windows 7 installed. Well, you don’t want to do an install install then. You want to do an update. For that, you should start Windows 7 normally and then run the setup application on the DVD.”
Now, as I said, I read the instructions on the Microsoft website wrong. When I went back and checked, they actually did say that if you’re upgrading instead of doing a clean install then you should not boot from the DVD but from the setup program directly. So my fault there for missing that. Of course, the installer could have told me that before making me go through the questionnaire.
So, I restarted in Win 7, ran the setup directly from the DVD, and went through the questionnaire. Again. After another fifteen to twenty minutes I hit the install button and finally, mercifully Windows 10 was installing. I’d been doing other things that morning and checking in on the Win 10 progress periodically. My overall time to get the Windows 10 installer started was about 2 or 3 hours. The elapsed time (from me wandering off to do other things) was closer to six hours.
The very first thing that Win 10 did in its install process was to come up and ask to get updates. By this point, as you may well imagine, I was rather frustrated. Having just downloaded Win 10 brand spanking new that day I was wondering what the fudge updates it could possibly be getting (again with rather less politically correct phrasing). Surely, I thought, Microsoft of all companies would have automated nightly builds figured out to include updates in their install. Evidently not. I figured it wouldn’t be long before I’d have to get updates to Win 10 anyway, so I told the installer to not bother checking for them.
The installer then moved on to a message that stated “Making sure you’re ready to install.” Now, ordinarily this type of message wouldn’t bother me too much beyond the basic patronizing that the user is clueless as to what they’re doing. However, since I’d been ready to install Win 10 for six hours by this point…well, it was just more one aggravation in the whole process. Especially since that message just sat there for upwards of ten minutes before the install proper finally began.
Windows 10 was finally, truly on its way. The whole process took about an hour, during which my computer restarted three times. I was finally ready to use Windows 10, where one of the lines in the upgrade application that had been nagging me for over half a year had said something to the effect of “all your files where you left them.”
Starting Windows 10 for the first time showed a bevy of changes beyond just the aesthetic. Here we go:
- First, my dual monitor, 1080p set up had switched from an extended display to just mirroring the primary display on both monitors. And at a resolution of 800x600 at that. During the install, Windows 10 apparently couldn’t cope with the video drivers (for a common AMD Radeon based graphics card) and so had dumped them in favour of the basic display driver. So off I was to the AMD site to get the driver updated and the dual displays working again.
- Second, I have fifteen shortcuts setup on my desktop and arranged by the type of application they are (programming, writing, internet, etc.). Two things happened here. A) Win 10 had lost the arrangement and B) it had also lost two of the shortcuts (I don’t know why, I couldn’t see anything different about them from the others). Windows has never been the greatest with managing shortcuts on the desktop so I’ve gotten in the habit of taking a screenshot of my desktop whenever I change up the icons. From that I was able to restore the missing icons and get everything arranged back to the proper order. Files still where you left them indeed.
- Cortana was cheerfully smiling at me from the taskbar. I distinctly remember changing some setting that I thought would turn Cortana off during that questionnaire from the install. Apparently that setting was either for something else or the installer just decided to ignore the answer.
Whew, that took care of the immediate problems, but as I really started working in Windows 10 other issues began to creep in. Let’s take a run through those, shall we:
- First up, I like to run DVD movies on my computer. When I’m doing artwork for my games or comics I’m working on my Win XP laptop. While I’m doing that I’ll leave a DVD running on my desktop computer (the one I was upgrading) and just listen to it in the background. Not on Win 10. Microsoft removed the ability to play DVDs directly with Windows Media Player. However, they’re quite happy to direct you to the Microsoft store to buy software to play DVDs. Well, I guess they have to subsidize the free operating system upgrade somehow, right? :-) Fortunately, I had a bunch of DVD playing software from the early 2000s when everyone and his dog was creating software DVD players.
- The next problem I ran into was with my blog. When I came to write the blog post for that week, I found I couldn’t preview it on my local computer. You see, I’ve set up a simple Apache webserver just on my computer to test out changes to my website. Apache had come over from the upgrade but I discovered when I went to preview my blog that it wasn’t running. And attempting to manually start it didn’t help either. It turns out that on Win 10 Microsoft silently puts its own internet service in, operating on the same default port that Apache runs on. As such, it blocks Apache and so the Apache server can’t start. Now, I know Microsoft can’t test every software combination out there for conflicts when they’re QAing their operating systems, but Apache? Apache?! Come on guys.
- I still have a lot of reliable tools from as far back as Win 95/98. Back then, software came with actual help files instead of just launching a web browser. That old help is stored in CHM files, which Microsoft has been trying to get rid of ever since Windows XP due to security concerns. As such, they haven’t included the application needed to view these files in more recent versions of Windows. Fair enough, but these particular applications I’ve been using for over a decade. I know them to be safe. In previous versions of Windows, Microsoft has made optional downloads available to allow the old help files to be viewed again. Not so with Windows 10. And the previous versions they’ve released are version locked so they can’t be installed on Win 10. Fortunately, because I do have a couple of Win XP machines around, I was able to go back to one of them and get the proper application and put it into place. I’d already done that on Win 7 but the upgrade had overwritten what I’d done.
- Bringing the help viewer over from my old XP laptop also revealed another problem, this one quite a bit more serious. My upgraded Win 10 machine was able to see all the computers on my network. It was able to navigate around their directory structures and see listings of files in those directories. For some reason, it wasn’t able to copy files either to or from those computers. I didn’t make any security changes on the other computers in my network so I assume Win 10 has some different security settings that essentially amount to look but don’t touch. To be honest, at this point I couldn’t be bothered looking into fixes anymore, so I’m not sure what’s needed to make the network work properly.
Moving on from the actual problems, I thought I’d try to give Windows 10 a fair chance, even though it had apparently fallen flat on its face trying to put its best foot forward with me. I used Win 10 daily for about two weeks. It was during that period that I ran into a bunch of those little niggles that, for me, make Windows 10 not a good choice for operating system.
I already mentioned how I have a dual monitor setup. After twenty years Microsoft has finally, finally extended the taskbar across all monitors in a multi monitor setup. I’d previously been using third party software to extend the taskbar and it worked like a dream (on Windows 7 that is, naturally it wasn’t fully compatible with Win 10 because that would have been too easy). I’ve been spoiled by that better software because the extended Win 10 taskbar is nowhere near as nice.
- The clock only shows on the main monitor (although you can go through some gyrations to get it onto a different monitor but you’re still limited to only having it on taskbar at a time). I like the clock on both taskbars because then I can still see it when running a full screen game, for example.
- The “Show desktop” button on the taskbar has been reduced to a tiny sliver only a few pixels wide. In a single monitor system this would be OK, all you have to do is ram your mouse down to the bottom right and it will land on the button. In a dual monitor display, ramming down to the bottom right will put the mouse on the secondary display, missing the button. Just as the secondary display’s toolbar does not have the clock it also does not have this button, making it very difficult to click.
- If you have an application running on the primary monitor, then its taskbar button will show on the primary taskbar. And if you have an application running on the secondary monitor, then its taskbar button will show on the secondary taskbar. All well and good. However, if you have an application running that displays multiple windows and you put one of those windows on the main display and one on the secondary display, then the taskbar shortcuts for all of those windows only display on the main taskbar. The third party software I was using with Win 7 intelligently places the taskbar buttons for each window on the taskbar for the matching display. Much more intuitive and productive, at least for me.
I do a lot of game development and since I don’t have a team of testing monkeys, that means that the bulk of the QA duties fall to me (and some close friends and family who are kind enough to test my games for me). When I’m in QA mode, I do a lot of testing with tweaking system settings: changing display resolutions, configuring game controllers, etc. These options used to be nicely accessible. Now they’re not. Take, for example, the display resolution. Previously you could right-click the desktop and select “Display Properties” or “Screen Resolution” or something similar and immediately be able to adjust the resolution of the desktop. Microsoft has now moved the desktop resolution from the basic display properties into Advanced properties. It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but this is the case with many system settings now. Settings are now a little more laborious to get. And all these little things really do add up. Interestingly, screen orientation and the dots per inch settings for displays are not considered advanced settings. Well, I guess they had to leave something on the basic display properties screen.
As I used Windows 10 more and more on a daily basis, I continued to come across little niggly things that were eroding my productivity. After two weeks of use, I realized that Windows 10 wasn’t really geared towards software developers. I can certainly see that for a more general audience of users some of those things that I see as minuses will be seen as plusses. They do remove clutter and options that most people don’t need to worry about. However, for me Win 10 is just not a fit.
Fortunately, before starting the Win 10 upgrade process, I cloned my Win 7 install to another hard drive. I’m happily working off of that hard drive now and am keeping a Win 10 install around for game testing purposes. Perhaps one day I’ll pull together some computer parts to make a dedicated Win 10 box for simple things like testing my software or playing games. Until then, Windows 7 works much better for me personally and I’m just fine with that.