Weinberg’s New Law, and the Upgrade Cascade

When I started the experiment of running Windows on a MacBook (continued here and here), I really expected it to just be a "travel" laptop, continuing with something like my Alienware R17X as primary machine. That changed rapidly when I got addicted to the MacBook’s better weight, format, screen and, it must be admitted, style. However originally I had purchased a relatively low spec second-hand MacBook, in particular without a Retina screen, and I promised myself an upgrade at some point. On the Bhutan trip I got to play with the newer, lighter, MacBooks some of the others were using, and with the end of my financial year approaching, over Christmas I decided to go for it.

The purchase process was "non-trivial" (polite version). To get the performance improvement I wanted, I was attracted to the top-spec model of the latest MacBook Pro. A bit of research also established that I didn’t have much choice: the new MacBooks use a new SSD technology which is not yet fully supported by the parts market, and only the higher spec machines have a 1TB disk to match my older machine. Purchasing a brand new MacBook is not for the faint hearted: full price from Apple they are bloody expensive. Even allowing for inflation the MacBook is about 35% more than my Alienware laptop (itself a custom-built machine of then-equivalent spec) was in late 2011. And this is supposed to be a market with downwards price pressure!

I decided to look for alternative options. At first I thought I’d cracked it with someone selling a refurbished item via Amazon, but when it turned up it was completely the wrong spec, including a Spanish keyboard. Amazon and the vendor were both very helpful and a refund was arranged promptly, but neither could help regarding providing the item I actually wanted, so that was a dead end. On eBay there are few options, but making enquiries they are mainly "grey market" imports which are just dodging the VAT, which doesn’t help me. However persistence paid off and I finally found an affordable deal for a brand new MacBook which came with a proper VAT receipt, bringing the effective price nearer what I’ve normally paid. I would happily recommend the very helpful suppliers, TRDuk Ltd.

Then the "fun" started!  The famous American consulting guru, Gerald Weinberg, wrote his advice in terms of a number of "laws". The shortest and simplest is The New Law, which simply states "Nothing new works". Unfortunately, as many of us know, he’s right. There’s an inevitable bedding-in period with most new technology, during which we get to know and understand it, and get it set up correctly. So it was with the laptop.

I lost a couple of days trying to find a short-cut to the set-up/rebuild process. Although the new machine has no DVD drive, I managed to find an old USB one, plus there are some fairly well-established routines for building bootable memory sticks. However Apple have changed the architecture of the 2014+ MacBooks so much they won’t boot natively from a Windows installer or Acronis backup disk, and in El Capitan they have removed the ability to build native Windows boot installer media under BootCamp. That eventually put paid to any attempt to restore a copy of my installation on the older MacBook, or to install Windows onto a blank disk. It also become apparent that Apple no longer provide driver support for Windows 7, so I was going to have to bite the bullet and install Windows 10, and under a BootCamp installation. When I tried that on the older MacBook it left the disk in a very inflexible state, but somewhere between Apple and Microsoft the former problems had gone away, and Windows 10 and appropriate hardware drivers installed very nicely. The only side-effect is that there’s a 40GB OSX partition (which for some reason is now unbootable) stealing a bit of disk space, but I can live with that for now.

This is the point to introduce Johnston’s Even Shorter Corollary to Weinberg’s New Law: "Upgrades Cascade". We’ve all see this, a new X means upgrading Y, which means upgrading Z. In addition, Microsoft’s core products are definitely now on the Slippery Slope of Unnecessary Enhancement of the Software Utility Curve. Windows 10 has a number of definite capability reductions compared with Windows 7, and so far I’m really struggling to find any real "Wow, that’s a definite improvement" to compensate.

The rot set in quite early in the process. All versions of Windows since 2000 have included a version of the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard (it’s had a few different names). By Windows 7 this was quite powerful, and, for example, successfully transferred all my Office add-ins to the first MacBook without problems. However, when I say "all versions", I mean "all versions except Windows 10". For reasons which are not explained, Microsoft have dropped this essential utility, replacing it with a free subscription to a Laplink service which just isn’t as good. Not only does it ignore anything which looks like it might be program-related (unless you are prepared to pay them extra money), it also missed a few files and settings which I’m sure transferred without problems in earlier moves. To add annoyance it only works over the network, which is both slow (especially as I was only able to use WiFi at this stage), and wouldn’t work in all environments.

Although Windows 10 is massively better than the almost-unusable Windows 8.x, it still has some user interface oddities which are a definite downgrade from earlier versions. The most annoying of these relate to the settings functionality, which is doubly troublesome as this is something you need to work cleanly and reliably early in the cycle of setting up an operating system. The preferred settings architecture consists of a series of allegedly touch-friendly "overlays" on a sort of "web page" paradigm. However, it doesn’t work very well. Key settings are buried in illogical places, and there’s no clear way to confirm/cancel/reset changes, which I would have thought is fundamental. The worst aspect is the "brain dead" implementation of Windows Update, which loses its context if you switch away to inspect another setting while it’s running, and has to start again. There’s also no way to download updates but install them at a convenient time, or any of the other management features of the Windows 7 system. Worse, in an effort to provide a "cool" interface this page has no scroll bars on the update list, so unless you deliberately try and navigate with the mouse you have no way to see whether there are just 5 updates waiting, or you are just looking at the top 5 of 100!

What I discovered fairly quickly, however, is that Control Panel, and most if not all of the applets, are still present and work well. They are well hidden, but if you type the appropriate name into Cortana you can get a shortcut and put it on the desktop (or into XStart, which still, thankfully, works well under Windows 10, unifying launch across all my PCs). That doesn’t help where Microsoft have fundamentally redesigned the settings architecture, such as with language and keyboard management, and there’s no "Windows Update" fix, but otherwise it’s much better. It’s also a nuisance that Microsoft have removed the straightforward one-click on the desktop way to change screen resolution, but a shortcut to the "Display" control panel is a reasonable fix and much better than trying to use the appalling standard settings page.

Remote desktop, of which I make extensive use, doesn’t work as well with a Windows 10 target as with older versions, with much more limited functionality around display and power management. There are some usable work-arounds on the web, but like the loss of the one click to change display resolution, this is a case of breaking something which previously worked fine.

In fairness to Microsoft, beyond the settings the software annoyances have been relatively few. I use the excellent Windows Live Writer for blogging, and was disappointed to find initially that I could no longer download it, having to settle for a currently inferior open source version. However today I’ve resolved that and got Live Writer running again. I had to upgrade a couple of small applications, and install others in compatibility mode, but no major problems. The one application which seems less tractable is Apache, which was a pig to install even under 64 bit Windows 7. My solution there is to run it in a Windows XP VM, but taking the content files from the disk of the main machine, which is what I’ve done with some other legacy apps. There are a couple of wrinkles to iron out, but essentially it works.

There were a few annoyances in terms of the hardware and drivers, but nothing insuperable. The native resolution of the MacBook Retina screen, 2880×1800, is unusable under Windows, and I expected that I’d probably run most of the time at exactly half that, 1440×900, which would be the same as native on the older machine. It was a good plan, let down by the completely inexplicable absence of built-in support for 1440×900 in the AMD drivers! Fortunately they support "custom resolutions" (although it’s by no means obvious how), and after a little bit of googling and registry editing 1440×900 was duly added to the list and works exactly as expected. Now we just need to shoot the 16 year old with hawk eyes who doesn’t get the requirement… The lack of built in ethernet support is also a pain, especially as due to a separate minor procurement problem my thunderbolt to ethernet adapter didn’t turn up on time and I had to do all the main set up using WiFi. Now I appreciate that the MacBook is so thin that it cannot support a full-sized RJ45 port, but at the price you pay why can’t Apple include a thunderbolt adapter in the box?

Minor annoyances aside, the good news is that I really like the Mac hardware. It’s very fast, with Windows boot to login taking no more than 10s and login processing not much more again. Battery life is excellent at 5-6 hours of office work. The keyboard is identical to its predecessor, and accepted the same bodges to make it work well with Windows without problems. The real gain however is the Retina display, which is brilliant in terms of colour consistency, and viewing angle tolerance. Why have only Apple cracked this? It’s arguably not quite as sharp or bright as the non-Retina display of the older machine at its native 1440×900, but the difference is negligible and the improved colour accuracy more than makes up for it.

So where does this leave us? The MacBook is still a great, and improved "PC", but so it should be at the price, and that’s despite Apple trying hard to make it more difficult to run Windows than it used to be. Windows 10 is OK, but that’s damning with faint praise, with no real improvement that I’ve yet spotted, and some things definitely downgraded. A former senior designer at Apple and usability guru, Bruce Tognazzini, recently wrote a piece blasting  current Apple design for prioritising "beauty" over utility (How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name), and there’s obviously more than an element of the same in Microsoft’s copy-cat actions. Can we have a bit more focus on "easy to use professionally (by users of all ages and physical abilities)" and a bit less "make it look pretty to appeal to teenagers" from both companies, please?

Oh, and the best news? The big Alien is going on eBay, and early indications suggest that it’s worth more than half what I paid for it. Not bad for a machine more than 4 years old, and a challenge for the new MacBook to live up to…

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