Hands-On With the Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Maybe the biggest news coming out of Mobile World Congress this year came in the form of the world’s very first official look at Windows 8, the future of Microsoft’s operating system. And there should be an emphasis on the word future, because, as Microsoft’s Steve Sinofsky put it, Windows 8 is the biggest redesign of Microsoft Windows since Windows ’95.

Revealed at the announcement was the existence of two forms of Windows 8 – a mobile one designed around touchscreen interfaces and one for desktops and laptops, designed to work with a keyboard and mouse (or touchpad) combination. Both will be based on Microsoft’s Metro design – think Live Tiles from the current iteration of the Windows Phone OS. Also, apps. That Metro design will eventually dominate and define all products running on Microsoft software – smartphones, tablets, desktops, laptops, the XBOX 360, and whatever comes after the XBOX 360.

Windows is also rolling out a new app store, the Windows Store, that is taking aim at the Android Market and the Apple iTunes Store. Windows 8 is an all-out effort by Windows to compete with Android and Apple in the mobile sphere – and they’re bringing the desktop OS along for the ride in an effort to build one coherent Windows experience, which doesn’t sound too far off from what Apple’s been doing for the past few years (the transition from OS9 to the more iOS-like OSX comes to mind).

What does all that mean for desktop users who have spent almost two decades with almost the same operating system? If you fear change, don’t start sweating bullets just yet. The desktop version of Windows 8 involves switching back and forth between Metro and a UI suited for desktops – one that doesn’t look much different from Windows 7. You’ll still have your share of comfort food with Windows 8, at least for now.

Before you get into Windows 8 proper, Microsoft has you register your PC to a Windows account. This account will handle future purchases from the Windows Store, and will be a bridge between all Windows devices you own. This is likely part of Microsoft’s new strategy to build what the tech industry likes to call an “ecosystem.” Much like Apple and, to a lesser extent, Amazon have done, Microsoft is planting the first seeds in its digital walled garden. Those seeds, ideally (from Microsoft’s point of view), will grow into snares that will bind you to Windows for all your electronic consumption needs. Some people call it convenience, others call it a walling off of what was a free and open Internet. To each his or her own.

Once you get past setting up an account, you get to the home screen. This is where the old guard might start having palpitations, because the home screen of Windows 8 looks like this:

Windows 7 it isn’t (at least, not yet). The first thing you might notice is that pinball, inexplicably absent from Windows Vista and 7, is back. Well, kind of. It’s not the same indescribably awesome 3D Space Cadet Pinball from XP. It’s a free XBOX Live game that has some weird sound effects, and has a way too complex menu for a simple game of pinball. After a couple minutes of playtime, I just wanted to play Space Cadet.

OK, that’s probably not the first thing you noticed. The Metro home screen is dominated by Live Tiles that work the same way as their Windows Phone counterparts – once you start using those apps, the Live Tiles feature constant real-time updates.

Once the Windows Store gets into full gear, you’ll be able to download plenty of apps – plenty more than will fit on that home screen. Clicking on the bottom right corner of the screen (or a pinch gesture on a touchpad) will zoom out, which looks like this:

You can also use the arrow buttons or the scroll wheel to move from left to right on the home screen.

Scrolling to the right side of the screen will reveal the Charms bar, a set of five buttons – search, share, start, devices, and settings – as well as the time, date, and battery meter in the lower left corner:

Start brings up the Metro home screen (clicking on the lower left corner of the screen also does this – redundant, but at least it gives you options). Settings gives easy access to personalization features and the control panel, which is largely unchanged from Windows 7. Share gives sharing options that are app-specific, and devices gives information about devices connected to the computer. Search brings up a new screen that allows you to browse your “apps,” which include the programs that have become familiar to you. Basically, anything executable is going to be found here:

You can search for programs by name by typing into the search bar. Better yet, typing on the keyboard while on the Metro home screen will automatically bring up the search bar, which is very convenient in practice.

Remember when I mentioned comfort food? One of those Live Tiles is called Desktop. Click that, and you’ll see an old friend:

That’s Windows 7, except for one big absence – there is no start button of any sort. The “start menu” is now the Metro interface, so the need for the start button has been removed, in Microsoft’s eyes. For the end user, it’s going to take some adjustment, but after using Windows 8 for a few hours, I didn’t feel like I missed it.

Switching back to the Metro interface can be done by either using the Charms bar or by clicking on the bottom left corner of the screen, where you’ll see a Windows 7-like pop-up window. Don’t try to click on the window, or it will just disappear – you’ll want to actually click on the very bottom left corner of your screen.

If some apps are already running, you’ll get that bar on the left side of the screen pictured above, where you can choose between whichever apps are running in the background. After a little practice, this bar is very intuitive and very easy to navigate.

There are plenty of apps to delve into, but I’ll just hit a few of the major ones. The mail app is a simple email aggregator, which uses a paned interface a little like what you’ll find on the iPad. You don’t lose too much functionality using the app over the browser version of your email service (I was able to access my GMail folders from the app). Whether or not you will use it depends on taste.

Music (the player formerly known as Zune) is a simpler alternative to Windows Media Player (still very much accessible) for playing music. Interestingly, Music was much faster than Windows Media Player at populating the list of songs I have on my computer. That said, the program itself runs a little slow right now – there’s a surprising amount of lag when trying to skip tracks. It’s not feature rich, but you can list albums, artists, and songs ordered in a few different ways.

The bottom bar is a menu bar brought up by right-clicking while in an app. That bar has different functions depending on which app is currently open, but is mostly a navigation bar.

This would be a good time to mention docking apps. By clicking on the very top of the screen while inside an app, you can do one of two things. Dragging down will close the app, while dragging to the left or right will dock that app on the left or right side of the screen. When you return to the Metro interface and open another app, that docked app will appear on the side of the screen, like this:

Unfortunately, this is the best way to move between tracks while Music is playing in the background. Otherwise, you need to backtrack to the app to switch songs, which is less than ideal. It’d be nice to have a more convenient shortcut for switching tracks.

Store takes you to the Windows Store, which extends from left to right (scrolling up and down moves the screen left and right, respectively). The store is pretty bare right now, as it’s still pretty young, but what is on there is all being offered for free during the Windows 8 testing period. Apps like USA Today work similarly to smartphone apps. On a desktop, you can make the argument that for quick access to news, it beats going to the website, especially given the advantage of real-time updates on the Live Tile.

As for the store itself, it’s much like any other app store, just in definitive Metro style, as pictured:

Messaging and People are chat and social network aggregators, respectively. The key word here is simple – the functionality of these apps is limited, but for people who want quick access to the basics, they’re solid efforts. By no means are they perfect (People lumps all of your contacts from every source into one list, which isn’t very convenient to navigate), but this is a very early version of Windows 8. That’s why we have betas.

There is integrated XBOX Live functionality, and there is also a Tile called SkyDrive, which provides cloud storage for your files. And, lest we forget, there is a Tile dedicated to the not-so-venerable Internet Explorer, which, while not as bad as it used to be, still has nothing special that sets it apart from Firefox or Chrome. Camera lets you use your webcam as a quick camera or video recorder.

Windows 8 is fun to use, if for no other reason than it’s something radically different to play with on a desktop. There’s plenty that could be better, especially in Music and People, but Windows 8 is well-enough designed overall to make me think that those issues will be ironed out by the time Windows 8 sees an official release, sometime this Fall.

Switching back and forth between Desktop mode and the Metro interface isn’t difficult, but doesn’t feel smooth or intuitive, either. Of the two, it actually feels more like the Desktop was tacked on than vice versa, which says a lot about what the future of the Windows OS will look like. Some features, like the multitasking navigation bar and the search function, are a joy to use, and make navigating Windows faster than ever before.

The main concern is probably how efficient of a home screen Metro will be once users start putting a lot of apps on there. The good thing is that those Tiles can be moved around at your leisure, so you can stick the most important ones wherever suits you best. Even then, I have a feeling you might be using the search feature to type those app names in manually – it’s a very fast and efficient method in practice.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to streamline user experience, as seen with the heavy presence of aggregator apps on Metro from the start. It’s all part of Windows trying to redefine itself as a brand. Microsoft is trying to create a broad-based Windows experience – one that is instantly recognizable and appealing to consumers. It would be difficult to argue that they haven’t accomplished the former with the Metro interface – now, we’ll have to see if the latter comes true. Microsoft had better hope it does – it seems they’ve gone all-in with Windows 8. For now you can download the free prerelease right here!

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  1. Start = Finished for Windows.  30 years with Micrsoft products but Windows 8 is where I draw the line.

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