Microsoft threw a big bash in Barcelona today to throw the switch on the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. This early look at the next major version of Windows is now available for download to allow interested parties to take it for a test drive on existing hardware. This version of Windows is a radical departure from earlier versions as it is designed to be the OS for desktops, laptops, and tablets. I couldn't wait to give it a try and installed it on an old Lenovo ThinkPad X200t convertible notebook. I figured this notebook would let me test both the desktop user experience and the tablet experience with its touch screen. Having spent an hour with Windows 8 my thoughts are mostly good, although a bit confused.
I approached the Windows 8 experience from that of a new user. I avoided reading up on the new interface, choosing to just jump right in as most consumers will end up doing. I won't get into the details of installing it on the ThinkPad as this strictly covers my impression of the new user interface that is Windows 8. Kudos are due Microsoft for the slick download and install of Windows 8 as it couldn't have one better.
The first boot of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview stepped me through the setup process smartly. I gave it my Windows Live credentials, now called the Microsoft Account, and I was up and running. The new Metro user interface is a collection of colorful tiles representing apps installed by Windows 8. Interacting with Metro by mouse is straightforward and largely intuitive, with the screen panning to the right or left by moving the cursor to the appropriate edge of the screen. It works smoothly and without surprise.
The first thing you have to learn about Windows 8 is to pay attention to the left corners of the screen. Moving the cursor to each corner triggers a specific action for working with the interface, and you can't get very far without those corners. The lower left corner pops up a little depiction of the Start screen to provide an easy way to get back there from any app that may be running. The upper left corner triggers a bar on the left containing recently run apps to make switching between apps as easy as clicking on one in this bar. The right edge of the screen triggers a charm bar that gives access to common system functions such as access to settings. The top and bottom edges trigger actions specific to the app running at the time.
The familiar Windows desktop is present and accounted for in Windows 8, as it is a simple click on the appropriate tile away. It looks exactly like the Windows 7 desktop, in fact the Windows 8 install process brought my entire customized desktop along into Windows 8. The desktop is used to run legacy apps, which are those not designed specifically for the Metro interface in Windows 8. Most Windows users will find this desktop to be comforting, as it is a familiar sight. At times it can be a bit jarring to see it pop up when you click on what looks like another Metro app tile on the Start screen.
The first time I clicked on the Internet Explorer tile I expected to see a nice Metro version of IE open up. I was instead surprised to see what looks like the Windows 7 version of IE. Internet Explorer is a desktop app, not a Metro app, and it runs on the old Windows desktop. That seems counter-intuitive to me, as I would think the basic web browser app should take full advantage of the new Metro interface. That in a nutshell sums up my impression of the new Windows 8 Metro interface. I like it when it's there, but find it jarring to get thrown into the "old" Windows often. It's like Windows 8 is schizophrenic, and by design.
The Metro apps included in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview are nice but very early versions, so I won't get into details about them. They are enough to give me hope that the app ecosystem will come along nicely by official launch time.
After playing a while with Windows 8 in a pure laptop mode, I was anxious to give the touch interface a good test. I rotated my ThinkPad screen around to put the device into a touch tablet configuration and went to town. What I immediately ran into was a frustrating experience, some of which may be due to the particular hardware I am using but a lot of it is due to the design of the touch interface.
A touch interface for use on a tablet must be completely intuitive, and it must be obvious how to operate a computer by touch. The simple actions work well enough, like scrolling sideways by swiping the Start screen. Those special corner-activated actions quickly came to give me fits, though. Microsoft has chosen to leave the corner actions unmarked, and as a new user I was regularly looking at the screen to see what I could do, only to see nothing. The corners and edges of the screen that can be swiped to generate some action are not marked, and thus it's not intuitive that an action can be triggered.
I also ran into an inconsistent experience swiping these areas to make something happen. While moving the cursor into the lower left corner always made it possible to get to the Start screen in laptop mode, that's not the case with pure touch operation. Sometimes swiping out from that corner does nothing, sometimes it makes a previously used app open, and occasionally the legacy desktop opens. I don't make much of the inconsistent actions, as this is a very early version of Windows 8. I do think the screen should give the user a visual cue when touching an edge of the screen could trigger some action, and even give a hint as to what that action might be. After my brief time with the Windows 8 touch interface, I found myself frustrated more often than not, and Microsoft needs to improve that for mainstream consumers.
I am excited at the potential I see in Windows 8 from the Consumer Preview, but I think the interface needs improvement in the areas I have noted. I questioned the decision to make Windows 8 the sole OS for both PCs and tablets, and I don't think the interface is ready for touch tablet operation just yet.