Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book review: "Windows 8: Out of the Box" by Mike Halsey; O'Reilly Media

My background
My first version of Windows was 3.1 at my middle school. I remember launching Accelerated Reader from Program Manager. I remember mainstream programs that would launch as a full-screen DOS windows. I also remember playing video games by shutting down Windows into MS-DOS mode, and launching the game from there. (It allowed the game to run faster, you understand.)

I didn't have a mentor to explain how to use a computer. I was the first in my family to use a computer, and I had no friends to consult. My first guide was Windows for Dummies by Andy Rathbone. That's right—we didn't need to specify the version number back then. At the time there weren't many versions to choose from. This book taught me to go from DOS to Windows and back, explained Program Manager, discussed what wallpapers are, and even listed some fun shareware like a pair of eyes following your cursor. I couldn't have asked for a better guide.

It may well be that Mike Halsey's Windows 8: Out of the Box will serve the same role to some 11-year-old. I asked my inner 11-year-old to see how it stacks up for a Windows newbie.

Exploring Windows 8

There is a new style of program in Windows 8... called an App.
In the first chapter, the book does a good job of both explaining the differences from previous versions of Windows and of not assuming any previous knowledge of Windows. We learn how to start Windows, navigate around, start apps, and shut down. The author takes the time to name each new component, such as the Charms menu, as well as to discuss how to navigate in the way convenient to you, whether you prefer the mouse, the keyboard, or touch.

Chapters 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10 go into functionality that casual users will want. The author starts with email and the Internet, proceeds to file sharing, and discusses how to watch and listen to videos and music, viewing and editing photos and videos, and setting up protection against malware and age-inappropriate content. These sections give a nice tour of the Metro-style Apps that come with Windows 8, as well as new control panel functionality.

Chapters 4 and 9 go into the specifics of App, desktop application, and how to find, use, and organize both.

A missing piece
The one area that I feel should've been discussed but wasn't is how to shop for Windows 8 hardware devices. With brand-new desktop PCs and tablets running a mix of Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows 8 RT, millions of consumers will soon need to decide what device to buy, and the decision is more difficult than ever. Even if you're set on a Windows device, you now have to consider these factors: what form-factor you want, where you plan to use it (such as home vs. work), what applications you want to run, whether you want touch functionality on a desktop PC, what screen resolution you need (since today's Windows tablets have a lower resolution than desktop monitors), and so on.

I strongly recommend researching this before committing to any brand-new Windows device.

Timeless advice
Criminals will try and trick you into installing malware/viruses; do not click/touch things casually.
Writing a book for a newbie carries with it some responsibility. After a while the newbie knows enough to be dangerous and puts down his books. A book like this is the best place to educate casual users about pitfalls of computing and the Internet. Mike Halsey does this admirably.

In Chapters 10, 11, and 12, the author discusses the tools that Windows provides to help protect you from data loss (through backups), malware, phishing, age-inappropriate content, and weak passwords (through picture passwords). More importantly, Mr. Halsey teaches common-sense ways to compute safely, such as to be wary of attachments and to keep backups. Many books skip these sections because heeding this advice is a chore; it's work. But it's also an investment, and it's so important that it belongs nowhere like it does in a person's first computing book.

One criticism I have is that the author doesn't justify creating a separate account for each person beyond that it separates files and Internet favorites. This sounds more like an organizational convenience than a true security benefit. Similarly, there is no discussion on account privileges, such as administrator vs. regular user. Maybe the author deemed it too advanced for people starting out with Windows. The rule of "separate accounts means separate files" is a big simplification, but in the absence of understanding file permissions, it works.

The author's style
Mr. Halsey does not editorialize. Any long-time Windows user has strong opinions about how Windows should work, and I am sure the author is no exception. But he keeps it to himself. He goes with the flow. Sure, he could point out that many people consider it very limiting that Apps can be displayed only two at a time without overlap. He could argue that it's unfriendly that the only way to get Apps is through the Windows Store. He could make the point that the idea of Apps and applications coexisting will take some getting used to. Windows 8 can easily be turned into a punching bag—and has by many critics. While this would endear him to many readers, it's not what he wants his book to be.

The 11-year-old who learned computing through Windows for Dummies doesn't care how things used to be and how you think they should be. All that's important is how things are and how to take the most advantage of it.

My recommendation
Despite hungrily following blogs and news about, and reviews of, Windows 8, I learned quite a bit from Windows 8: Out of the Box. It was like sitting down with an expert and taking a guided tour, learning smoothly and quickly the terminology, keyboard shortcuts, and new, cool, and useful features.

For the price ($3 for ebook, $10 for paper book, $11 for both), I recommend this book without hesitation to anyone planning to use Windows 8 on your, your friend's, your school's, or your work's computer or tablet. It'll give you enough to become immediately productive without taking your valuable time discussing optional niceties like file permissions.

But do research what version of Windows 8 you want before buying it. You've been warned.

(Thanks to O'Reilly Media for providing me with a copy of the ebook for review.)