Is Microsoft finally doing things right?
November 2, 2001 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Is Microsoft finally doing things right? According to this usability study putting Win98 and XP side by side, the answer seems to be affirmative - on favour of XP. Won't make me trade my Mac for a Wintel machine though.
posted by betobeto (31 comments total)
MS has done many things right on many occasions.
posted by davidmsc at 9:10 PM on November 2, 2001

I'm sticking with Windows 2000 and Linux for now. After my short and bad experience with Windows ME I'm not going to trust microsoft to get this one right for at least a year.
posted by MaddCutty at 9:30 PM on November 2, 2001

I must confess, I viewed XP as the tool of Satan.

...then my Win98SE machine died (insert screaming about HP here), and installing the XP upgrade saved all my data. Suddenly I like XP a whole lot.
posted by aramaic at 9:30 PM on November 2, 2001

The study's reliance on subjective user feedback doesn't impress me. I'd expect a bias toward XP just because it's the shiny new thing, and people tend to respond in a way that lives up to what they think the researcher wants to hear. Not that user feedback shouldn't have been included.

I wish they had recorded the trials and come up with hard factual data, such as how long it took users to complete certain tasks.

And from the networking section: "Technical problems precluded the Windows 98 Group from completing these tasks, so data is reported only for the XP Group."

Not a thorough study.
posted by D.C. at 9:55 PM on November 2, 2001

I've been using XP for a few months and have been pleased with the usability improvements. A lot of configuration stuff and tools that used to sprinkled all over the place have been consolidated and yea, it looks pretty.

None of that convinced me there had been a change in the MS approach to users though. That is, until I crashed XP (on purpose to see what would happen - its been really stable) - the old blue screen of blame that bitched at you for not shutting down correctly is now a black page of apologetic text and helpful suggestions. Finally MS admits that their OS fails. This is a new day indeed.
posted by holycola at 10:21 PM on November 2, 2001

Yeah, well...but comparing XP with 98 is like...well...Dick Cheney seems pretty usable and sharp when put "side by side" with that guy from Texas, too.

Read this. Then switch to Linux.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 11:00 PM on November 2, 2001

I saw this, and am now seriously considering switching to Mac. :-) I read everywhere about how Macs are easier than PCs, and faster too! And now Mac OS X, with a cutesy interface and Unix!

But after years of Wintel, something deep inside is uneasy about the whole Apple thing. Are there any people here with experience of switching from PC to Mac, and what are their thoughts on ease of use and stability and so on?

posted by chrismear at 12:09 AM on November 3, 2001

PC > Mac = not so hard
Mac > PC = not so easy

Make sure you make backups of all your files, and make sure that you can get programs that can read your PC files. You have about a 95% chance of being able to use all your PC files on a Mac, if you save them correctly and use a conversion tool when needed.

Stability is what you make it. Up the RAM allocation for your major apps, try not to futz with the System files, and you should be fine.
posted by Down10 at 12:32 AM on November 3, 2001

I use both Macs and PCs, and while I've been pretty happy with Windows 2000 as an OS, I have a lot of problems with XP. At a high level, the UI is very "task oriented" and I can see how it would do well in a study such as this - but at a detail level the UI is very poor. Actually I would go so far as to say that out of the box the UI is a flickering, twitching nightmare - so much so that switching back to Windows 2000 or OS X.1 is a very soothing experience. There seem to be some serious bugs in terms of what gets redrawn and when that result in a lot of extra redraws, tearing and other artifacts, in particular with menus and window resizing. In addition, between myself and others I know who've installed XP, I see a lot more BSOD-type problems than should really be expected from something based off of the NT codebase.
Of course, YMMV...
posted by pascal at 12:43 AM on November 3, 2001

Finally in XP you can throw your pointer at the edge of the screen and hit something (scrollbars, start button, taskbar). The new start menu, as a flat list, would be quicker for the majority who only ever use a half dozen bits of software. My habit of flicking between drop-down menus isn't usable anymore as XP can't keep up drawing shadows on every damn menu (instead I see the black hardware overlay). XP didn't detect half my hardware (external Dynalink modem, onboard sound, etc.). This Luna theme tastes like nutrasweet. It crashes less than 98 but more than Mandrake, and if the current Linux kernel didn't suck so much I might be tempted to switch.
posted by holloway at 2:04 AM on November 3, 2001

"I wish they had recorded the trials and come up with hard factual data, such as how long it took users to complete certain tasks." D.C.

You might want to have a look at this - it's an XP/2000 comparison, but may give you more of an idea about benchmarked tests. It isn't exactly encouraging though, as this snippet shows:

"Finally, our cross-generational testing, which measured the performance of Windows XP and Office XP directly against that of Windows 2000 and Office 2000, found that once again, newer means slower. In every one of our scenarios the combination of Windows XP and Office XP took noticeably longer -- from 35 percent to 68 percent longer -- to complete the script than Windows 2000 and Office 2000."

[link from]
posted by Gamecat at 6:45 AM on November 3, 2001

(As long as we're letting in irrelevant political slams...) Looking to Linux for good interface design and usability is like looking to Ralph Nader to design a nuclear power plant.
posted by darukaru at 6:46 AM on November 3, 2001

The good news: subjective test shows XP to be better.
The bad news: Objective test shows XP to be sloooower

[link courtesy your big brained friends at /.]
posted by swerdloff at 6:51 AM on November 3, 2001

I've always hated (because I was hated by) Macs. I'd get within 5 feet of one and it would crash, it seemed. That was high school.

Then along comes college and I get sick of the Win2k blue screen and get my boyfriend to hold my hand during the Linux install. Without that hand holding, I couldn't have done it though. There's a reason every Linux person I know sticks to the command line. (see Darakaru above.) Anyway, with that confidence in hand, I got a cute little iBook from work, and I can't bring myself to use the Linux box except through remote login. I need less handholding, plus I get all the command line things I can remember - and downloads I don't have to compile.

I guess I'm really off topic, but I've had no trouble making this transition, but I don't think I could have gone Win -> Mac without Linux in the middle. I also think that XP is just another knockoff of X, but that could be my new biases. And that they hired the same graphic design firm.

Even more on topic, I've heard that the icons are so big it makes your monitor feel as crowded as 800x600 mode. Eww.
posted by phoenix enflamed at 6:51 AM on November 3, 2001

Is the Start menu still upside down? If you have to cursor over "Shut down" to get to your most-often-used applications then I can't believe that usability is a priority at Microsoft.
posted by nicwolff at 8:37 AM on November 3, 2001

swerdloff, fold_and_mutilate, you might be interested to read this from WinInformant (which I snagged off a comment from /. on the same "WinXP is slower" article):

"InfoWorld stood alone this week when it declared that Windows XP significantly underperformed Windows 2000 and Windows 9x in its tests. Not only do the controversial InfoWorld results fly in the face of Microsoft's published results and actual real-world use, they refute every independent XP performance test performed to date. One gets the idea that ... nah ... InfoWorld was trying to make XP lose. Don't believe me? Consider this: The following organizations have tested XP, independently of Microsoft: CNET/ZDNET, eTesting Labs, eWeek, PC Magazine, and PC World. All these independent labs came to the same conclusion: XP meets or exceeds the performance of Win2K and Win9x. The InfoWorld results are also at odds with real-world XP use, which already includes hundreds of thousands of beta testers, tens of thousands of IT professionals and developers, and hundreds of thousands of enterprise customers. "Microsoft has not received any indications that users are experiencing reduced performance compared with Windows 2000," a company spokesperson said. "We have had extensive feedback that Windows XP is better performing than Windows 9x." Go figure. And yet, you just know that every anti-Microsoft site on the planet is going to run with the InfoWorld story and not any of the positive stories. Ain't life grand?"

Which, of course, is what slashdot did.
posted by Grum at 8:51 AM on November 3, 2001

It's interesting that no one has mentioned the nag-ware. Routine tasks on an OS should be transparent, yet XP brings the clippy aesthetic to the whole OS.

"I notice you're dragging Microsoft Money to the trash! Before you're allowed to do this, let me show you why it's been rated higher than Quicken Deluxe 1998 in at least 4 studies! Click here".

Another thing : apps shouldn't be able to auto-focus themselves to the foreground. In OSX, when something needs your attention, you get a bouncing icon. When you're good and ready, you see what the problem is.

On my Windows2000 machine at work, AOL Instant Messenger will throw an incoming message directly into your line of vision. You have no choice but to read the message, which is inconsiderate.

I wish they made it harder for Windows apps to take over what you're currently doing. Very few Windows apps patiently flash their task bar light, preferring the "notice me now" method instead.
posted by jragon at 10:27 AM on November 3, 2001

Looking to Linux for good interface design and usability is like looking to Ralph Nader to design a nuclear power plant.

Actually, your analogy is right on but not for the snarky reason you thought it was. "Linux" has nothing to do with interface design and doesn't attempt to do anything (except to give you a default) just as Ralph Nader has nothing to do with designing nuke plants.

Use third party UIs with Linux. That's the whole point of having an API... With Microsoft/Apple/etc you're stuck with the minor variations that they allow you to make on THEIR UI. With Linux, you use whatever UI you like.

Is the Start menu still upside down? If you have to cursor over "Shut down" to get to your most-often-used applications then I can't believe that usability is a priority at Microsoft.

Windows key, down-arrow (repeat down arrow as necessary) puts you right at the top of my most used application list... I understand that some people are mouse users and some people are keyboard users, but when it's THAT easy, it's ridiculous not to switch for that one task.

Actually it amazes me how few people know about keyboard shortcuts. Not that this is really on topic or anything but I might make somebody's day with this:

Windows key+E = Explorer
Windows key+F = Find
Windows key+M (or D) = Minimize all
Windows key+R = Run app dialog box
PrintScr = Takes snapshot of entire screen and saves to clipboard
Alt+PrintScr = Takes snapshot of active application window only and save to clipboard
Tab = toggles through the items on your desktop
[any key] = toggles through items on your desktop or start menu or Explorer window starting with that character
Ctrl-Home = Teleports you to the top of a document
Ctrl-End = Teleports you to the bottom of a document

Anyway, you get the point. There are so many more... Keyboard navigation is the bomb and makes you much more efficient.

That said, I really loathe Windows. With Macs, you can't (or couldn't before OS X) do a lot of tinkering and you don't really need to. With Unix, you have the power to change absolutely everything and you need to, especially at setup. With Windows, you have limited power to change things, and the things you can change are difficult and obscured. And yes, you need to change things quite often.

Windows makes everyone feel like an idiot...
posted by fooljay at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2001

jragon, I completely agree. The most annoying thing in the world is not looking at the screen and having an IM window (or something) pop up while you're typing. I've actually typed my password into one of those rude windows and hit enter before I realized that the focus was no longer on the app that needed the password.

posted by fooljay at 11:58 AM on November 3, 2001

I was a die-hard PC user who switched to Mac about a year and a half ago. It was prompted by a job switch where everyone was pretty much all on Macs, and I found I liked the user interface better -- for example, it's definitely easier to close application windows with Apple-W than with Alt-F4.

Now that Mac OS X is out, I'm trying to see if I can switch miy web server, too. I'm comfortable with the command-line, since I've been creating/managing web sites on on Linux/Unix since 1994-ish, and the combination of great user interface with the Unix-based core and command-line access sounds like heaven.
posted by nstop at 12:05 PM on November 3, 2001

I definitely find the Mac shortcuts to be MUCH easier than PC ones (like said above, 'CMD+W' rather than 'ALT+F4'; or the even easier 'CMD+S' rather than 'ALT+F, S') and I like how screen shots are saved to the hard-drive rather than clip-board (although in some cases I do prefer clip-board), but in terms of application UI... I prefer Win98.

Maybe it's because I have customized the hell out of it to fit my needs more precisely... and maybe it's because I have simply spent more time familiarizing myself with it... but I like my win98.

Regardless, I'm thinking of going the OSX route when I'm getting a new computer rather than the WinXP route.
posted by mkn at 2:22 PM on November 3, 2001

I bought a PowerBook G4 when I was living on the road for weeks this summer. I'd never owned a Mac before but had used Macs at school and help some designers with more recent Macs. OS 9 reminded me of why I hadn't owned a Mac before - the way it's so modal and too easy to crash balanced out the many nice little UI elements.

OS X 10.1 is what I've wished Linux could become. It's fast, ultra-stable and it has both an excellent command line AND GUI. BeOS was my earlier hope for that but it never reached that critical level of support.

<rant> I don't subscribe to the common myth that graphical means easier to use - this confuses the separate issues of ease of learning with ease of repeated use. With rare exceptions, GUI apps attempt only the former and do that imperfectly at best, and yet so many assume that being graphical will magically counteract the maze of unobvious icons, inconsistent menus and patronizing dialogs ("You appear to have clicked on Delete but we don't think you're smart enough to understand what that does. Did you really mean to delete this?").

In reality, tasks divide into classes - few of which are intrinsically graphical (e.g. graphics, web browsing, DTP), as opposed to being declarative (you tell it what to do) or selective (you choose from the presented options). Most applications make the procrustean attempt to force everything into the WIMP model. In general, once the size of the action vocabulary reaches a certain size, attempting to display it graphically becomes extremely difficult without producing a modal mess. This issue is partially addressed by GUI apps which provide extensive scripting support or built-in command-lines, but I think it will turn out to be one of the major problems left in computing. </rant>

Windows has a crappy CLI and an acceptable GUI (there's too much focus on the newbie at the expense of the frequent user). Linux has an excellent CLI and GUI environments which are best tolerable. OS X has Linux's excellent shell tools and a GUI which is at least as good as Windows. There are definitely elements I'd change (e.g. I'd replace the bouncing this-app-needs-attention feature of the dock with a less obtrusive overlay on the app's icon, and they really need replacements for the apple menu and spring-loaded folders), overall it's quite nice. It's also interesting to compare Microsoft & Apple when it comes to integrating applications and services - classic stick & carrot in many ways.

The programming interface for the respective operating systems seems to be heavily weighted towards OS X. Windows has too many features which are buried under inconvenient APIs - they desparately need to migrate developers over to a new, consistent framework (MFC is *NOT* it, .Net might be).

Right now I'm extremely happy with the combination of FreeBSD/Linux/Solaris servers and OS X clients. They all play nicely together and I think that approach takes advantage of their respective strengths.

posted by adamsc at 3:01 PM on November 3, 2001

Is the Start menu still upside down? If you have to cursor over "Shut down" to get to your most-often-used applications then I can't believe that usability is a priority at Microsoft.

Move your start/task bar to the top of the screen, and voila, no more of that.
posted by aki at 5:38 PM on November 3, 2001

On my Windows2000 machine at work, AOL Instant Messenger will throw an incoming message directly into your line of vision. You have no choice but to read the message, which is inconsiderate.

That is design of AOL Instant Messenger, not Windows. You got the wrong pushy company blamed. MSN Messenger, on the other hand, does not bring focus to a window, but rather shows a small bit of the text in a flip up window which disappears nicely after a few seconds. Look down if you want, if you don't want to, don't. Completely unobtrusive. Yahoo! messenger same way. Of course ICQ, which simply blinks an icon in the tray until you answer it. I'm still trying to decide which I like better.

But I am very anti-AOL messenger. Yahoo! is cool with me, as is ICQ and MSN messenger. I only load AIM when I must talk to someone on AOL who has no clue.
posted by benjh at 5:51 PM on November 3, 2001

lol. True, true, I usually push the start menu to the top. I have little else to contribute for the moment, except my accumulated ignorance about OS X (it really has a command line?).

Anyhow, although I enjoy XP greatly, OS X sounds like my kinda deal.
posted by firestorm at 8:40 PM on November 3, 2001

and it does run faster than 2k.
Aside from previously mentioned graphical issues, it can be quite beautiful as well.

Also, w/ regards to interface customization, third party utilities do a fine job for Windows, e.g. Litestep, from those Unix influenced people, and DesktopX, from those old OS/2ers.

This is putting aside actual administration and knowing what's going on, of course.
posted by firestorm at 8:44 PM on November 3, 2001

Re: Benchmarks (Gamecat, swerdloff)

The original post is about user testing, so the type of timing data I was talking about is how long it takes users to accomplish tasks.

Automated benchmarks such as the ones in the linked Infoworld article are a different sort of beast entirely. Such scripts can reveal bloat (or the lack of it), but they don't show how interface changes effect users.
posted by D.C. at 11:23 PM on November 3, 2001

Review of XP
posted by holloway at 2:20 AM on November 4, 2001

Good tip, aki. Thanks.
posted by davidmsc at 9:48 AM on November 4, 2001

Even rude applications can be prevented from stealing focus, unfortunately the option isn't enabled int he default GUI, but it can be switched on if you download TweakUI, part of the Power Toys for Windows XP.

And, as far as shortcut keys for saving go, Mac users might be comfortable using Ctrl-S to save, as a direct parallel to Cmd-S.

Also, I'd recommend anyone on any version of Windows move their TaskBar to the top of the screen, it clealy seems to be how the bar was originally designed to work.

Now if they just had a way to permanently turn on the grayscale UI that the user sees on an XP logoff, I'id be happy.
posted by anildash at 10:58 AM on November 4, 2001

Anil: You can use XP skins, TGTSoft has created a neat lil hack that allows everyone to use unsigned .msstyles. You can find Luna UIs at various sites including NeoWin's Forum. You'll find atleast one semi-greyscale UI there.
posted by riffola at 4:12 AM on November 5, 2001

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