Amid the more technically-oriented features — package management, Virtual Secure Mode, DeviceGuard — that I’ve chosen for what purports to be the final Windows Top 10 Features list of my career, you might not think that a feature as simple as putting all the client-side settings in a single panel belongs on the same scale.
So a bit of explanation is in order: Microsoft Windows has never been a cinch for folks to learn to use effectively. There are vestiges of previous eras of computing that are still semi-functional, just hanging around there, not really doing much — for example, the Desktop (capital “D”) itself.
On Mac OS, the Desktop tends to be used as a cache for works in progress or newly acquired items. On Windows, it could be used for ... whatever. Windows was becoming like an old bachelor’s apartment that hadn’t been kept up for over a decade, remnants of that decade being discoverable quite by accident.
Five years ago, Microsoft’s engineers decided it was time for a complete makeover. Their objective was to move Windows toward a usage model that would be essentially the same across all devices, including PCs and smartphones. And if that model was entirely different, then they decided, the best way to move users to that model was to wean them off the old one with a hybrid system that did some of both.
That was Windows 8. Its failure was that it bolted half of a half-baked idea of how to use a computer, onto a fully — and perhaps overbaked — idea that was forced to ride shotgun.
In the consumer market, Windows 8 failed largely on account of word-of-mouth — it’s harder to use, its Start Screen is stupid, why bother upgrading? Businesses took a harder look at Windows 8, and soundly rejected it for a more pragmatic reason: IT departments would be overwhelmed with support calls from employees stuck with the simplest of tasks.
And what’s the simplest of tasks? How about, “How do I set the time?”
The End of Metro World
Since 2011, Windows 8 and 8.1 have had not one, but two central locations for the PC’s operating settings. The one that dates back to the origins of Windows is Control Panel. But when Microsoft created a separate world, originally called “Metro” and later called by many something else I won’t repeat here, for the staging of apps that could also run on phones, it devised a second location called PC Settings for this second world.
Here’s the problem: It was not architecturally feasible for all system or peripheral device settings to be located in “Metro World.”
So some settings were accessible through Control Panel in “Desktop World” and others through PC Settings. In Windows 8, there didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason as to what appeared where. Windows 8.1 addressed the issue by restoring Control Panel to full functionality, although PC Settings still existed, specifically for addressing any system features that appeared to only exist in “Metro World,” such as the lock screen.
It was a compromise intended to camouflage a compromise. Windows 8 and 8.1 never achieved that bridge of functionality that Microsoft was originally striving for, where one class of apps ran without exception on phones, tablets, and PCs.
So to make sure users actually noticed the existence of this second world, Windows’ engineers literally found a way to divert them there: by removing the Start Button, and forcing the Start Screen to exist in “Metro World.”
The detour was bad enough. But splitting system settings between two worlds only underscored the problem that such an artificial divergence existed in the first place.
Many businesses rejected Windows 8 and 8.1 for this reason. Maintaining a well-trained workforce is a major operational expense. Teaching employees how to use sensible software is difficult and costly enough.
And There It Is
Windows 10’s combining all system settings back under a single location, and having that location be a window rather than a detour, is an elimination of a business expense. It’s a cost reduction for training and maintenance.
It’s no longer called the “Control Panel” in Windows 10, but there may be a subtle reason why. In many people’s minds, a “panel” is something you’d find on the wall of a room. Rooms are big. (Of course, so are windows in rooms, but that’s a metaphor we can’t eliminate just yet.) Microsoft needs users to perceive Windows as an operating system that transcends size — that can be big and small.
The main way you get to Settings is exactly the way a reasonable Windows 7 veteran would expect: You click on the Start Button, and select Settings. There’s also an “All Settings” button in Action Center (the new notifications area), but it’s not wrong to give folks many routes to get to the one thing they’re looking for.
What was wrong, was having spread the thing they’re looking for over two (or more) areas.
The design of what’s now called Settings is somewhat simplified. There are nine main categories, each represented by a monochrome icon. Rather than each icon pulling up another dozen or so icons representing subcategories, each one brings up what I still call a “panel,” with settings subjects in the left pane and gadgets in the right pane.
The Windows 10 Settings window is designed the way that Windows 8’s “PC Settings” (think about the obsolescence of that name for a moment) would have been designed, if Metro had permitted apps in “Metro World” to co-exist on the Desktop.
Most everything is here (more about “most” in a bit). If you want to refresh the picture on your account, or demote yourself to a Standard user (for security reasons), the Accounts panel now includes all the settings for accounts — not half here and half in Control Panel. If you want to change the screen resolution and the background image, there’s the Personalization panel, which beats having the screen settings half here and half in Control Panel.
The new Settings has been written using the new Windows 10 “Universal” framework, which is an upgraded form of the WinRT runtime that used to run “Metro World.” Yet this no longer means that Settings has to usurp the entire screen. It can run in a window just like every other app.
And in case the implication of that wasn’t clear enough: Every other app in Windows 10 can run in a window. Nothing commandeers the entire screen any more, unless you maximize it yourself or set it to run that way by choice.
For now, most peripherals that tend to be made by third parties will (for security reasons) include drivers that are written using one of the Desktop frameworks, rather than WinRT. In Windows 8, this fact meant that any device whose settings couldn’t run in “Metro World” could only be accessed from Control Panel on the Desktop. Try explaining sometime, to reasonable people, why settings had to be categorized that way.
In Windows 10, this isn’t a problem because Settings runs in a window. So just because your mouse or keyboard controls run in a different type of window, does not mean you’re forced to access them using a different method. You click on the Devices icon, then on the Mouse and Touchpad category, and then on Additional Mouse Options to bring up the driver. You start from the same place.
It isn’t perfect just yet. Network and Sharing Center (Microsoft’s euphemism for what should be called just “Connection”) is buried deep in Settings. You start at the right place, with Network & Internet. But then you click on Ethernet (a term which everyday folks, still today, don’t recognize) and then on either Change Advanced Sharing Options, or Network and Sharing Center — two sides of the same coin.
It’s understandable that, for security reasons, Network and Sharing Center has to run in an old-style window. But everyday users don’t care. They should have been able to click on “Connection,” and then get a “Connection” window, in whatever style it had to be, that’s a renamed Network and Sharing Center.
Normally we’d have to wait for “Windows 11” (or “14,” if they kept jumping around) for a solution. But with continuous updates becoming the new order of the day, Microsoft could now correct this little anomaly anytime.
Windows 8, in my personal opinion, should never have been released until it was possible for a user to access all her settings from one place. Microsoft would have been embarrassed by having to wait another six months or so, but it would have spared its users having had to wait four years for the company to get it right.
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