Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands-On: No Going Back

Windows 8 is a radical departure from anything Microsoft has done before. When you try it for the very first time, it feels a bit like stepping out onto ice. It is so slick as to be slippery. Commands, icons, apps and menus glide on and off screen, and things zoom in and out of its Metro interface in a near vertigo-inducing fashion. Getting your feet beneath you is tricky.

But as you learn your way around the interface, instead of slipping you begin to glide. As your intuition and muscle memory overtake your need to reason out your actions, it becomes a wonderful and efficient way to navigate actions and data. There are still rough spots that can send you tumbling, but the consumer preview is already a far better product than the developer preview that came out in September. By the time the final version ships later this year, it's clear that Windows 8 is going to be a remarkable, daring update to the venerable OS. It is a departure from nearly everything we've known Windows to be. You will either love it or hate it.

I love it.

Gestures

The gestures are transcendant. Actions are pushed to the edges of the screen, where you can get at them with your thumbs and they don't take up too much screen real estate. Swipe from the right and the Charms launch (Microsoft refers to the icons in the right-hand side menu as Charms) to help you easily navigate from wherever you are back to the Start screen, Settings, Search, Share and Devices.

That's very literally the broad strokes, but the little touches are what make the difference. After you tap Settings, for example, your current app's settings appear where that icon was, automatically positioning your thumb or mouse where it needs to be. It's a great productivity touch.

Gestures have been greatly enhanced and refined to perform complex tasks. For example, you can swipe from the left edge of the display to control your running apps, but that's just the beginning. Depending on how you complete that gesture, you can swap which app is running full screen, run one in a minimised quarter screen view (this is great for apps like music or IM) called a Snap state, or view all the apps you currently have open. You can even grab an app and drag it down to the bottom edge of the screen to quit it. And now, the Metro Start screen always lives in the bottom left corner — it's a memory of the vanquished Start button. Even in the standard Windows Desktop mode, all of these features are there.

Windows is betting a lot on touch. Which is smart. Touch and gestures are the fast-approaching future of user interfaces. They are simply another way to access and manipulate data. But of course touch is not completely there yet. There are some actions where you will want an input device. So Windows 8 hedges. It lets you go both ways, touch or mouse and keyboard input. Or a combination thereof. (And yes, there's a stylus option too.)

But Windows 8 has made those actions corollaries, by and large, so that you don't have to learn how to do the same things two different ways. If you know how to do something with a gesture, you should be able to accomplish the same thing with a mouse, even though the action is slightly different. While touch works on the edges, mousing is designed to take place in the corners.

So, for example, if you move the mouse to the top right corner of the screen, a ghost-like vision of Charms appears. Drag down from there, and the Charms window appears in full just as it would from a right edge swipe. The logic is that you are going to want to use your mouse for various things on the edges, like scrolling, which the Charms should not obscure. And you want to be able to move your mouse there, without accidentally bringing Charms up. Similarly, Start is always in the lower left corner regardless of input method.

A New Look and Order

If you aren't familiar with the Metro interface from the developer preview, the biggest change you'll need to get used to is seeing apps take over the entire screen. While you can run multiple apps at once in the background, and even run apps off to the side in a Snap screen, the focus is on one app at a time.

And it really is all app. There are no top side menu bar buttons in Metro. There is no application chrome (the borders and bars and buttons that surround an application's window) whatsoever, for that matter. You can pull up an App Bar by dragging up your finger from the bottom of the display, or by right-clicking with a mouse to access many of the controls that would typically be found in a menu bar. But they are absent until you want them to appear. And that is quite nice.

Semantic Zoom is wonderful. This was demonstrated in the developer preview, but it wasn't working. Now it is. You can pinch the Metro start screen to zoom out from the tiles so that they all minimise on screen. This makes it easy to navigate across them so that if you want to move quickly from one app on the left side, to a pinned website on the far right, you can do that nearly instantly without having to scroll and scroll and scroll. While there aren't many apps to choose from yet on Windows 8, once you have a ton of tiles (and you will) this is going to be a great feature.

It also helps with organising your apps. Metro begs for adjusting and personalising on the Start screen, which is basically an app launcher. You can arrange things in all sorts of ways there. You can move tiles from one group to another, rearrange them in a group or move whole groups. You can name your groups to keep them organised. For example, I named one of mine "stuff that I will never use" and moved it over to the far right. But once you load up that screen with lots of stuff, it gets harder to move things in a full-screen view. So Semantic Zoom makes it very easy to rearrange everything quickly and efficiently.

Now that there are actually a few Metro apps, the Snap state already feels like a vital interface element. It lets you run apps in a minimised, but visible, mode in what's basically a sidebar on the left-side. I loved using the Music app in this way. I can imagine it will be great if you are watching live video of, say, a baseball game while focusing on a work spreadsheet in your main window.

Personalisation was quite nice. Microsoft has added the table stakes to the consumer preview (you can adjust colours and set pictures for the lock screen, for example). But more dramatic is how the company is angling that personalisation to be reflected across all of your devices. Change your profile photo on your slate at home, and it will also change on your desktop machine in your office. Connect to Flickr with Windows Live on your desktop, and your photostream will show up in the Photos app on your slate. In short, the things you do on one device are reflected everywhere. The device is a mere gateway to your data, after all, and so once you personalise that data, you can keep it consistent wherever you go.

Applications

And then there are the apps. Microsoft has bundled several of its own Metro apps with Windows 8 consumer preview, and you'll be able to download more from the built-in Store. It still feels pretty barren, although it has been beefed up substantially since the developer preview. But let's look at what comes with it.

Internet Explorer 10 has been greatly enhanced and is simply delightful in Metro. The version of Safari running on my iPad feels primitive in contrast. The full screen version is incredibly responsive, it moves with a natural momentum when you scroll quickly, and slows down as if by friction or gravity. Zooming and panning are great. And using gestures, swiping left or right, to go forward and back just makes sense. It makes navigation very seamless, too. Tap the address bar, for example, and your frequently visited and pinned sites appear at the top of the screen. If you tend to visit the same places over and over again, this makes for a great way to get around the Web.

One downside is that browser plug-ins do not work in IE 10 for Metro. Go to Hulu, and where you should see Flash video instead there's just a gaping black box. Yet Microsoft is trying out a relatively clever way to have its cake and eat it too. Clicking on an icon in the IE 10 App Bar launches IE 10 in the Desktop mode, where everything is supported. Sure it's a mere two-click operation, but it's a little weird. It's unproductive. While it makes sense for people using Windows 8 on a touchscreen, if you are only using it on a laptop or desktop computer that isn't touch capable, this is a chore.

The People app is like a contacts mash-up. Not only does it list your address book contacts, but if you connect services like Facebook and Twitter you'll even see live updates from those people under a "What's New" heading (or in their individual contact listing). If you're a Windows Phone user, you're familiar with this already. You can also pin people to your Start screen and see their tweets and Facebook status updates right on the start screen. It's integrated with the Mail and Messages apps, so you can pretty seamlessly fire something off, long form or short.

The Music app is fairly well done, but could use some polish. It is both a player and a storefront. I found the former worked better than the latter. (The Zune branding, contrary to reports, isn't completely dead. When you buy something, you confirm the purchase through Zune Music.) While I enjoyed being able to access and control playback no matter where I was and what I was doing, the storefront experience was still relatively rough. While it's convenient to have store items appear right in the app, I found browsing it inelegant and it seemed better suited to discovery than finding something specific. It beats iTunes, but that bar's so low you'd have to dig to get to the top.

The Mail app may be the most vital improvement from the developer preview, but it too still needs some work. It lets you run multiple accounts, and has some neat features (emoji!). Most useful is the ability to send large files via SkyDrive rather than as an attachment. I also liked having it run in the Snap mode so that I could keep tabs on email while doing other things. But it felt more like mobile mail than a desktop client. While Metro is certainly tablet-optimised, this app made me want to swap into desktop mode in order to see more of my inbox at once, and swap folders more easily.

The SkyDrive account worked well, though. You can choose which files to upload with a single click, and it was fast and responsive. Compared to Dropbox, it's nice to use an app that gives you a visual interface of your remote files.

The apps for Maps and Weather, both of which are powered by Bing, are simply beautiful. They work well, and of course you can pin your Weather tile to the start screen so that you get live weather updates.

Other apps include Finance, Xbox Games, a Camera app, Video, Messaging and a Remote Desktop — a Metro-style way to browse another system.

Weird and Wonderful

Shit can get weird too. Twice, when using a keyboard, I inadvertently launched Narrator, a Windows accessibility app that reads aloud all the onscreen actions. This unleashed an avalanche of nearly unstoppable, certainly not understandable, audio alerts. Did I mistakenly hit a hotkey? Did I three-finger double tap the screen inadvertently (the gesture that launches Narrator)? Maybe. I guess I might have. But when your computer begins suddenly barking stream of consciousness verbiage at you, it's disconcerting. There is so much going on in Windows 8 that it's pretty easy to do things, especially with gestures, without meaning to.

Sometimes that weirdness is serendipitous though. The address bar in Internet Explorer annoyed me at first. It's on the bottom of the screen, which essentially contradicts what years of usage of every single major browser ever released has taught me to expect. Microsoft has done all kinds of usability testing; internally, by monitoring developer feedback and by bringing in test subjects to watch and study their usage. This is a radical action, and I didn't get it.

But after using it for a weekend, and surfing a lot of sites from the tablet position rather than the desktop, I discovered I actually liked it. The address bar is on the bottom because that's where your thumbs probably are when you're holding a slate in landscape mode — and if you're reading a Web page that's likely how you'll be oriented. The desktop version of IE still keeps the address bar up top, where it's always been. But when you're using it in Metro, it's on the bottom, so you can tap and grab it easily. I came away feeling that the bottom side is where the address bar should be on a touch device.

Weird can be brilliant. Weird can be daring. Windows 8 is all of those things.


Comments

    I must be getting old, because this thing looks ugly as hell. And having every single thing always being referred to as an 'app' is driving me crazy!
    Whatever happened to programs?

      I think it is a good distinction between proper software applications (no-one still calls them "programs", do they?) and stupid, largely useless toy "apps" that run on pared-down OSes that don't do anything. I suppose a few years ago we probably referred to these kinds of "programs" as "utilities" or "applets", but "apps" works fine for me. e.g. Photoshop Touch is an "app", Photoshop CS5.5 is an "application".

      You're getting old.

      Don't worry, so am I. We all are.

      Keep in mind, they used to be 'applications' as well as 'programs'. Ah well.

      I'm 31 and I love it. But I worry about what the hell my dad is going to do....

      'App' (particularly 'killer app') was used back in the late 80's and early 90's.
      I used to always group my start menu into [apps, development, games, system tools] (these days I don't worry so much as I just type in the search bar).
      'Apps' might've made a resurgence with the iPhone, but many people used it throughout.

      Besides, apps is just quicker and easier to say than programs or applications.

      Good work imo.

        interesting.... but will they make me breakfast?

      I agree completely.
      I'm happy enough to let "app" go for phone and netbook tablet stuff (ipad, tab etc.), but not what we really have always called programs.
      You start calling Photoshop and word "apps" then you're a fucking tool.

    Will be interesting to see what they do with Office. Not sure how metro office would work out...

      Metro Office already exists in Windows Phone and it seems to work OK, although I am by no means a big Office user. But you'll still have the full desktop Office to fall back on.

    I think its a big step in the right direction blurring that line between PC, Tablet and Phone. It's new its innovative and something that will move the industry towards the right idea of having a device that can do it all. Imagine the day when your Phone will be your main PC, plug it into a dock to a monitor KB and mouse and you have a full blwon OS. I think well done Microsoft for Windows 8 and as an Apple user I think this will be better!

      I don't think you'll be docking your phone in the future. I would imagine the thing would be atht all the files you work on and all sign-ons, programs, music, movies and games and stuff like that will hosted online and will all be fully accessible to any system that you come into contact with.

      Maybe your phone or even a body embedded NFC chip will have some sort of passport authentication to transfer your session securely, I don't now, but it's less cumbersome than docking.

    It seems a bit either/or at the moment but I imagine that what will be needed is for third party vendors to start recompiling their software for ARM, assuming that Win8 on ARM will support the full range of peripherals. e.g. The perfect Win8 tablet might be one that plugs into a dock via Light Peak (Thunderbolt), like the Vaio Z Series does at the moment. That way you could have your SoC graphics when you are on the go, then plug into a full-blown QuadroFX set-up at your desk, for more serious work/gaming. Kind of like the way laptops have optimised settings for running on battery. (My Zenbook runs like a dog on optimised settings but only gets about 2 hours from a charge on high performance.)

    Realistically, I think MS are in for a lot of grief, in much the same way they were with Vista. Vista itself was fine, awesome after SP1, but most of the problems people had around it were to do with third party vendors being slow to offer updated drivers. It will be the same here, only more focused around software. MS just need to keep the mood positive until it reaches critical mass, which could take a year or more. But, as they found with Vista and Win7, if people are perfectly happy with their existing version of Windows they won't update until they need to, giving MS plenty of time to stuff their store full of apps.

      Definitely a good point, and I love that idea about switching graphics when plugged into a desktop.

      I think comparing it to Vista is a little extreme. It's pretty obvious that this is Step 1 in a long-term plan for Microsoft to develop a full ecosystem. Even the Windows 8 UI design choices reflect a compromise between the Windows 7 desktop UI and the XBOX Live dashboard. Unless i'm catastrophically misinterpreting things, the eventual plan is to have full, or near-full compatability between the next Xbox system and Windows 8. The lack of apps was a problem for every system at launch time (it's STILL a problem for RIM), but once developers can see the compatability between the next Xbox (reaching millions) and Windows 8 (also reaching millions), including Kinect, the apps will surely flow thick and fast.

    Hmmm, i've been using Windows 8 developer on my PC for a few months and after a week I disabled the tile interface (you can revert back to the old skool windows 7 UI), mainly as the tiles would sometimes invisibly overlay when i'm playing a game, leading me to open apps ingame... wtf.

    Overall it's stable, pretty and solid. Though I just can't help thinking the tile interface is for touch users only and the normal interface is for the desktoppers.

    This looks great for tablets, but terrible for desktops, I will use windows 8 on a tablet but never install it on my desktop. Windows 7 FTW

      That's because they are only showing the new, touch-first side of Win8. The desktop is still there and it still works mostly like it always has. If you look at the Semantic Zoom image with all the tiles zoomed out to the size of icons, that's what has replaced the Start Menu and it is way better. If you are used to typing a few letters to search your start menu, that is supported here, too. Everything else is pretty much as it always was on the desktop and you can pretty much ignore all the good, new stuff if you want to.

    How well does it work on multi-monitor desktops?

      +1, I would also like to see this

      According to CNET's review, it works really well, putting the Start Screen on one monitor and the Desktop on the other by default. Engadget also mention that multiple monitors are fully supported.

      I am running it on a vm, over two 23" widescreens. Works as you would expect unless you launch an app from the metro start menu.. I haven't worked out how to move the launched app to my second screen.. e.g I can't launch the mail app, move it to my second screen and then launch the browser in the first screen. anyone else having this?

    I wasn't a huge fan of the Developer Preview. It seemed a little too focused on touch and I didn't like how it worked on a dual monitor setup.

      I never liked the way anything works on dual monitors. I gave up on them about 8 years ago. But I loved the Dev Preview and can't wait to get this new preview up and running on my main machine.

        Windows 7 works perfectly with dual monitors.

          Only if you have two graphics cards, otherwise you can't get any sort of useful performance. OpenGL, which I rely on every day, goes right down the toilet with multiple monitors on a single card. I have two monitors on the MacPro at work but I pretty much never use the second one for anything. Two HD screens has me constantly rubbernecking from one side to the other, so I tend to open each application in one screen or the other. Its probably better on a Mac, with its hopeless Window management but on a PC I can't see any point.

            Really? My hd6970 OC (Gigabyte) drives my Dell Ultrasharp and a secondary 1080p monitor just fine, runs games well as well. Its not that hard to turn your head man.

              Really? Then you can't be using it for anything too hard. Turning your head is a waste of time. Surely the whole idea is to be able to see more at once? If I have to turn my head to see, what is the point of a second monitor?

                LOL U funny. I have 3 monitors (2 x graphics cards) on my professional graphics design rig that I also game on. Performance is good enough to widescreen game (which is an impressive experience) and when working it's awesome to have that much screen real-estate. Wake up dude, we're not in the '90s any more.

    I don't want to touch my monitor..

      Then don't touch your monitor. You don't have to.

      +1

      whats the point making OS touchy if million apps will never work including all the games etc...

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I installed it this morning and used it for a while...I can see this being huge with tablet PCs but a failure on desktops..

      Why? I find it perfectly usable on my laptop. I can't see why you'd have any issues.

        Extending your arms to interact with a vertical screen is going to be very tiring. In other words, surely it will only be usable for more than about 5 or 10 minutes on tablets, not desktops or laptops.

          It's MS' new exercise program. NO MORE FLABBY ARMS!!!

          On a more serious note - I agree that this won't be as useful on a desktop as it would be on tablets, but at the same time it will be interesting to see if peripheral manufacturers start creating multi-touch pads for desktops, just like Apple's. Now THAT would be pretty interesting.

          Did you not notice the bit where I said "on my laptop"? I've been using Win8 without any touch devices just fine. If you don't have a touchscreen, you get scrollbars and you can perform gestures with your mouse just as easily as with your finger. Its easy. In fact, it is much much better than the Win7 Start Menu and that is the only time you have to deal with it.

            No, I got that bit. My comment was more a general comment than a specific reply to you.

    can we play Diablo III with touch interface lol :)))))))))

    Coming from a Mac, the tiles look really garish and kindergarten-y. Is it possible to tone the colours down?

      Maybe. Some tiles have their own colours but I don't see how it is anywhere near as "garish and kindergarten-y" as a grid full of app icons over a busy background. If you think it is too in-your-face, you can just zoom out until it feels comfortable.

      Considering it Windows, you would think it entirely possible to have entirely monochrome or greyscale icons if thats what you want.

    Does the DVD install much faster than the update way, it's taking a shit load of time.

    I really think they should've separated the OS. Metro is great on smaller screens e.g. tablets or phones, but on my 27 inch monitor workstation? No thanks.

    I'm downloading it at the moment, so I'll give the final verdict later. At the moment Windows 8 to me is Windows 7 with a pretty but impractical skin.

      Why not? You can zoom out to a comfortable level and make maximum use of your screen real estate. Look at the 3rd screenshot, showing Semantic Zoom. That would be perfect for a high-res monitor, wouldn't it?

    this is awesome, did you all expect to keep the same style of OS forever??? we still have the old desktop style so quit complaining or be a fag and get a mac

    This looks awesome!

    I am all Mac right now but am willing to be turned!

    The metro interface really seems to be like a great app launching info panel with the classic windows still hiding behind.

    Seems apple kind of had this idea with dashboard and now mission control but has failed miserably on all fronts. I really hope they plan on updating osx and ios to something a little more dynamic like this. Well done microsoft!!

    I think windows and osx are both great and use a mac but both osx and ios are starting to feel dated (thinks me while typing this on an xp machine at work, now that is dated)

    I've never owned a mac before but my next computer might have to be one the principle of not supporting this crap.

    They're focusing solely on tablet users. Why include a tablet interface in a desktop OS. Give tablet manufacturers metro but for god sake I don't want it. Some people don't want to "blur the line" between tablets, pcs and phones (and it also seems xbox).

    They got Windows 7 so right, but this so wrong. It's all based on trends, the flavour of the month and they haven't thought about anyone except the idiots that follow them.

      That's just rubbish. This review focuses solely on touch but Win8 overhauls every aspect of the OS in incredible detail. e.g. They have halved the number of processes running, compared to WinXP (30% less than Win7). They have more than halved boot time. They have made huge improvements to file handling in Explorer. They've completely overhauled Task Manager. They've created a new, faster file system to replace NTFS. Seriously, the list of improvements is almost endless.

      BTW, I think Win7 has as many bad points as good. e.g. XP's Start Menu was much better than Win7's and WMP in Win7 is badly broken. Overall, I prefer Vista to Win7 but Win 8 is a massive step up from either.

    I'm yet to see any of the reviewers address multitasking with large monitors on a desktop. Seems like everything wants to go full screen. Will be checking it out tonight when I get home...

      Only on the Metro side. Once you get to the desktop, everything is pretty much the same as it always was, although you can't see your Metro apps on the Taskbar, only your proper software. You have to swipe from the left to see Metro apps, which will be suspended (using zero resources) if they are not visible.

    My product key order didn't go through. Typical shitty software from a shitty company. I understand there is bugs but I figured I could at least install it b4 I found a major one. Back to the Mac I go.

      Translation: I'm too stupid to use a computer. Seriously, if thousands of other sheeple are getting it installed properly, who is most likely at fault? Why did you need to order a product key? It popped one up at me before I'd started downloading anything. So I'm n the opposite camp to you - I have a product key but nothing to install. (I'm not going to waste my limited mobile bandwidth hoping it all downloads properly, so I'll have to wait until I can access an ADSL connection somewhere.)

        Can you just STFU and leave people make up their own minds without having your bias shoved down their throats. Not everybody's going to cream themselves over this like you pal.

          What bias? What I have is objective first-hand experience, not speculation. Just because it doesn't match your world view doesn't instantly make it the product of subjective reasoning. Quite the opposite, in fact.

          If someone wants to make an unsubstantiated claim that flies in the face of my experience, why wouldn't I call them on it and ask for clarification? I try never to offer an opinion without explanation and it kinda gets up my nose when others feel that they can make a statement with nothing to back it up. Sorry if logical thought processes upset you, but that's the way I operate.

      Did you tick the I Agree box?

      The product key should just be appearing under the download links. If you don't have download links, you're doing it wrong.

    So check out "turn Windows features on or off" you will notice Hyper-V in the list... Is this the new Windows Virtual PC/XP mode? Is it bare metal or hosted? Props to the new interface, have been running the Dev Preview for months, noticable speed improvements.... Only 1 blue screen so far...

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