Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac: Get used to the lack of visual feedback

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Windows
January 26th, 2007 • 5:45 pm

I have been using Windows XP on my Mac Pro computers for a while now and thought I would occasionally post notes about that particular experience, in case they can be useful to anyone.

I have been using both Windows XP under Parallels and Windows XP with Boot Camp. More specifically, I have been running XP on my second Mac Pro quite a bit lately, because I have become slightly addicted to Half-Life 2.

As a software package, Half-Life 2 is a bit irritating in that it absolutely requires an Internet connection to run. What is more irritating is that this Internet connection is used by the software in ways that the user has very little control over. And what is even more irritating is that the application that requires that Internet connection is some kind of background application called Steam that runs in very mysterious ways, at least to the untrained eyes of this long-time Mac user who’d avoid using XP altogether if he could.

When you first install Half-Life 2, the installer puts a shortcut to Steam on your desktop. But it also automatically adds Steam to the list of applications that are launched at startup. Once it is launched, it appears not as a regular window in the Windows task bar, but as a small icon on the right-hand side of the task bar, where all the little icons with those very irritating tool tip messages popping up all the time (for network connections, additional hardware, etc.) are. That is the only sign that the application is running.

But what is really weird and really irritating is that there is absolutely no visual feedback during the time this Steam application is launching. When Windows XP starts up, once you are logged in, you get to see your desktop with all your shortcuts, the task bar gradually filling up on the right-hand side, and then finally it looks like Windows is ready and you can start using it. The mouse pointer is the regular white arrow, and there is no discernible sign that Windows is still launching something. But it is. It is actually in the process of launching Steam (which takes a while longer). But there is absolutely no visual indication of it.

If you are impatient or don’t know and you double-click on the Steam shortcut because you want to launch Steam and access your Half-Life 2 game, or if you double-click on the shortcut to Half-Life 2 itself, which actually launches the game within the Steam environment, then what happens is… absolutely nothing.

There is absolutely no indication that Windows is actually in the process of launching Steam and that you have to wait until this is done before you can do anything with either Steam or Half-Life 2.

This is absolutely insane. God knows I am no big fan of application icons bouncing in Mac OS X’s Dock, but at least you can see what’s going on and know that something is still in progress. In Windows XP, there is absolutely nothing, no visual feedback, no hourglass cursor or whatever to show you that Windows is actually busy doing something in the background. You can listen closely to your hard drive behind the computer’s walls to hear if there is some activity going on, but that’s a pretty primitive way of determining that the system is actually busy doing something!

And when Steam decides to update itself over the Internet, well, it gets even worse. Because the Steam icon appears on the right-hand side of the task bar, but you still can’t launch Half-Life 2. You have to wait until it’s downloaded its update files and applies them. And what is the visual indication of this? The only thing is a small tool tip that shows up for a few seconds when you put your mouse pointer over the Steam icon in the task bar and tells you the percentage of downloading completed so far. That’s it. And that tool tip disappears after a few seconds, even if you leave your mouse pointer over the icon. So if you want to see the progress, you have to move away and then back to force the tool tip to reappear. Argh!

Have those guys ever heard of, you know, like, progress bars? Or windows with messages telling the user what’s going on?

Also, Windows being Windows, when this self-updating takes place, sometimes the Steam icon does not even appear in the task bar. So Steam is actually running and updating itself, but it doesn’t even look like it’s running. Then you double-click on the Steam shortcut on the desktop because you think it’s not running, and you get an error message telling you that it’s already running. But it’s not there in the task bar! Double argh!

It’s not just Steam, however. The more I use Windows XP (thankfully not that much, but still…), the more I realize that the problem is actually everywhere. In many cases, when you try to launch/execute something, there can be fairly long periods where there is absolutely no visual feedback in the system regarding what is going on and whether the system is actually doing what you asked it to do. And, as my experience with Steam indicates, sometimes it actually doesn’t do what you asked it to do, for whatever reason, and there is no indication of why it didn’t do it.

I realize that a Mac Pro with 1 GB of RAM (soon to be upgraded to 3 GB) might not be the latest and the greatest in terms of performance for a Windows XP machine, but still… It can’t be that slow. (Half-Life 2 certainly runs fairly smoothly once it’s running!) So obviously this means that my experience is probably the experience of many Windows XP users out there.

What I find most insulting is the total disregard for the need for user feedback. It’s like your system knows what it’s doing, but cannot be bothered to tell you.

Then I switch back to Mac OS X and to a more civilized user interface. Mind you, I am not particularly fond of the spinning beach ball (also known as Spinning Pizza of Death), Spotlight hiccups, or Finder-wide network-related seizures, but, you know, at least Mac OS X gives you some indication of what’s going on, and you have readily accessible tools such as the Activity Monitor application to further diagnose the situation.

There are probably Windows tools out there that make the computing experience more palatable and gives you back some semblance of control over what’s going on. But I still find the pervasiveness of this lack of visual feedback quite shocking. I guess that’s what happens when a long-time Mac user dares to venture into the world of “real” computing, eh?

3 Responses to “Windows XP on an Intel-based Mac: Get used to the lack of visual feedback”

  1. jking says:

    “Real” computing from Microsoft died with DOS, I think, which tells you something. Windows has so many inconsistencies that it drives me positively nuts sometimes.

    A simple example:
    Open a terminal (“cmd”). Right-click on terminal window in taskbar. Move mouse pointer up to nearest option, expecting “Close” to be there and find, instead, “Properties”. Why is this like this? I have no idea, but it’s been like that forever (or at least for as long as Windows has had a taskbar). Management consoles (like “services.msc”) are similarly brain-dead, just to annoy you.

    And then of course there’s applications that like to either “close” to or minimize to or even, as you described, simply exist altogether in the system tray (the aforementioned place where Stream ends up). Microsoft could have implemented a new titlebar widget for all windows that have a “minimize” widget ages and ages ago, but instead we just get completely, totally inconsistent behaviour with something as basic as the “X” button. Oftentimes in a non-configurable way.

    I could go on, but I’ll just depress myself…

  2. danridley says:

    This very particular issue — the freshly booted desktop that looks like it’s usable, but isn’t — is much worse in Windows XP than prior versions. To add insult to injury, Microsoft heavily emphasized the fact that Windows XP “boots faster” than previous versions in the leadup to XP’s launch. In the real world, it turns out that it looks booted faster than previous versions, but even a completely fresh XP installation takes a solid 30 seconds to become responsive once you first see the desktop and all visual indication of activity has ceased.

    I really, really wish they’d put in some kind of indicator, even an Apple-style sham progress bar. Alas, Vista just seems to accelerate the trend, creating even more mysterious pauses where there’s no indication of what’s happening — and even more instances where objects look usable but aren’t really.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Glad to hear I am not the only one. :-) I am not surprised that things aren’t any better in Vista. This kind of issue is simply not “sexy” enough for Microsoft to bother. Look at how many words it took me to try and describe it!

    So I guess people just put up with it and end up having this weird relationship with their computers where they are kind of resigned to the fact that the system is abusing them (their patience, their will to get some work done, etc.) continually and there’s nothing that they can do about it.

    In that sense, it looks like we’ll continue to live in a “beta” world for many years to come. Mac OS X users are just somewhat more fortunate—or less masochistic, depending on how you look at it.

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