Windows 8 Consumer Preview: a fresh start for Microsoft

Summary:With today's release of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft is finally ready for the public to pass judgment on its most important software release in nearly two decades. Here's what to expect.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview
Windows 8 Consumer Preview

A modern computing device must do certain things, right out of the box. It must connect you to the web and to social networks. It must enable communications with your friends and family and co-workers. It must play music and video. It must provide a framework for extending its capabilities with apps that are easy to discover and install.

Those capabilities require a blend of hardware, software, and services that collectively add up to an experience, which is much more than a list of features or a page of specs or a collection of screenshots.

Microsoft has been talking about experience for a long time. (The XP brand, introduced in 2001, came from the word eXPerience.) But it has taken a full decade for the company to turn its talk into something real. Windows 8 is the first operating system that Microsoft has consciously designed to work in harmony with hardware, apps, and services to deliver that consistent experience.

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Although you won’t see the word beta in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, that’s exactly what it is. It’s too early to run benchmarks or pass final judgment on a product, but this milestone is solidly built and feature-complete. It’s a good time to assess Microsoft’s progress with what is arguably its most consequential product release in nearly two decades.

I’ve been running Windows 8 Build 8250 for about a week on a Samsung tablet identical to the one developers received at Microsoft's BUILD conference last September. (The hardware and preinstalled software were provided on a loan from Microsoft. The equipment will be returned before the final release of Windows 8 is available to the public.)

The Samsung slate is a well-built tablet that shows off Windows 8’s touch capabilities impressively. My review unit also included a docking station, which made it possible for me to connect to a 24-inch monitor, attach a keyboard and mouse, and evaluate this release the way most people are likely to use it in the near future: on a conventional PC, without touch capabilities.

If you dabbled with the Developer Preview edition of Windows 8, released nearly six months ago, you experienced bits and pieces of what Windows 8 would eventually become. But that incomplete release lacked the polish—not to mention the apps—that would have made it suitable for sustained use by nondevelopers.

With today's unveiling of the Consumer Preview, the picture becomes considerably clearer. Microsoft says they’ve made "more than 100,000 changes" since the Developer Preview release, and it shows. It’s still a work in progress, but there’s no question that this release is ready for enthusiasts, early adopters, and especially skeptics to evaluate critically.

Dozens of small changes (and a few large ones) address complaints about the Start and search screens. You can manage groups of icons more easily (and optionally assign names to those groups) using the semantic zoom feature. (For an overview of what’s new and changed, see “A closer look at the Windows 8 Start screen,” on the next page.)

There’s considerably more polish in the keyboard/mouse interface than was evident in the Developer Preview. It took me a day or two to adjust to a handful of new navigation techniques. With that brief period of adaptation out of the way, though, I find that many tasks are indeed faster and easier than in Windows 7.

On the Windows 8 desktop, the most obvious change is the absence of the Start button in the lower left corner. It’s not gone, though. If you move the mouse to the top or bottom corner on the right side of the display, you’ll see the Windows 8 Start icon in the center of the Charms bar shown below. (In fact, all four corners play a crucial role in using a mouse with Windows 8, as I explain in “How Windows 8 works,” later in this review.)

(By the way, there are at least three visual puns hidden in that default background. For details, check out the comprehensive screenshot gallery I’ve put together, which digs deeper into the bits and pieces of Windows 8.)

The Developer Preview included a motley collection of demo apps that had literally been built by student interns working at Microsoft over the summer. In the Consumer Preview, those apps are gone, replaced by a much more useful suite of 18 Metro style apps. Mail, Calendar, and Messaging are there, as are the media apps that were missing from the developer preview: Music, Video, and Photos. You’ll find connections to services from Microsoft (Hotmail, Skydrive, Xbox Live) and third parties (Gmail, Facebook, Flickr). I’ve got more details in a screenshot gallery that lists all 18 apps.)

Third-party Metro style apps will also be available via the Windows Store, which is scheduled to open when the Consumer Preview bits are made available to the public. I didn’t have early access to those apps.

A week is just enough time to scratch the surface of something as detailed, complex, and still incomplete as Windows 8. I fully expect a nontrivial number of Windows users to absolutely hate this radical reimagining of a product that wipes out a decade’s worth of muscle memory. The big question is whether the general public will come to a different conclusion after they experience it for themselves.

Keep reading for more details on what you can expect.

Page 2: A closer look at the Windows 8 Start screen

Page 3: How Windows 8 works

Page 4: What’s next?

Page 2: A closer look at the new Start screen -->

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A closer look at the Windows 8 Start screen

You’ll get used to it. You might even learn to like it.

The Start screen is the first thing every Windows 8 user will see after logging on. It’s a program launcher, a dashboard, and an app switcher that unifies functions that are distributed along different parts of the Windows 7 taskbar.

Out of the box, the Windows 8 Start screen consists of a mass of brightly colored blocks identified with white icons. But after you customize the Start screen and connect individual apps to online services, it takes on a completely different character.

Here’s a before-and-after look. That’s the default Start screen on top, and a fully customized version below it.

Yes, the garish green background of the Developer Preview is gone. You can replace the Start screen background with a combination of colors and textures (but not an image). When you connect new apps to web services, the live tiles light up with pictures and updates from those apps: unread messages, upcoming appointments, what album or tune is playing in the background, and so on.

Although shortcuts to Metro style apps dominate the default layout, you can pin anything to the Start screen: individual files and folders, local or network drives, Control Panel snapins, shortcuts to Windows desktop program, links to web pages—in short, just about anything you would pin to the Windows 7 Start menu or taskbar. (You can’t assign friendly names to pinned file-system items on the Start screen, however.)

Just as in Windows Phone 7, you can also pin individual items within an app to the Start screen, as long as that app supports it. So, if you follow someone on Twitter or Facebook, you can visit that person’s page in the People app and pin it to Start for live updates and one-click-or-tap access.

In the Consumer Preview, options for grouping icons on the Start screen are far more robust than they were in the Developer Preview. That’s important, because the number of icons you can pack onto the screen increases dramatically as available display size increases. (On a 24-inch display, you can show up to seven rows of tiles, with an unlimited number of groups.)

To manage those groups, use the pinch gesture on a touchscreen or hold down Ctrl as you use the mouse wheel to zoom the display so you can zoom out to see all tiles—an option called semantic zoom. You can drag any group to move it into a new position. Selecting a group displays a Name group option in the app bar. The name you enter appears above the group when you return to normal view.

On smaller displays, screen real estate is far more limited. At 1366x768, for example, you get three rows of tiles, with no more than three groups (plus a hint of a fourth) visible on the Start screen. You can use the mouse wheel to scroll to the right to show hidden tiles, but it’s much easier to just bump the edge of the screen with the mouse pointer; in the Consumer Preview, that simple action automatically pans to show you what’s off the screen—no clicking or scroll bars required.

The Start screen also turns into Search as soon as you begin typing, and there are now a full assortment of search-enabled apps that you can use to change the scope of a search.

If you’re hoping for a way to replace the Start screen with a Windows 7–style Start menu, I have bad news for you. That option will not be there. It’s not in the Consumer Preview, and it won’t be in the final release. And the registry hack that temporarily enabled the Start menu in the Developer Preview doesn’t appear to work in this release.

Much (far too much, in fact) has been written about the demise of the Start button and the Start menu on the Windows 8 desktop. While it’s true that the familiar Windows flag is no longer present at the left side of the taskbar, Start is not gone. Indeed, you’ll find its successor in two different places in the new Windows 8 user interface, as I explain on the next page.

Page 3: How Windows 8 works -->

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How Windows 8 works

It’s not just for tablets.

It’s no secret that part of the big “reimagining” of Windows 8 is a massive effort to optimize the entire user interface so that it works well on touchscreens and tablets. But that doesn’t mean the mouse and keyboard have gotten short shrift. The touch interface was largely complete in the Developer Preview—a logical decision, given that the goal of that release was to encourage BUILD attendees to create touch-friendly Metro style apps.

With the Consumer Preview, the mouse and keyboard get their turn in the spotlight.

The touch UI in Windows 8 is all about edges—swipe from the right to reveal the Charms bar, swipe from the left to switch between running apps.

If you use a mouse, the UI is all about corners. Aim the mouse pointer in the lower left corner of any running app (including the Windows desktop) and you’ll see this hint to let you know you’ve found the secret grave where Microsoft buried the Start button. Click that corner to switch to the Start screen.

I was initially confused a bit by this  new behavior. I wanted to move the mouse to the Start screen hint, thinking it was a tile/icon to be clicked. But moving the mouse away from the target in the corner—roughly 16 pixels square—makes that hint disappear. Just click in the corner to make the switch.

The upper left corner functions in similar fashion, showing a thumbnail of the next running app in the queue (counting the Windows desktop as a single app). Aim the mouse pointer at that corner and click to achieve the same effect as swiping in from the left on a touchscreen.

Those corners on the left also lead to a clever new app-switching alternative. Aim at either corner and then move the mouse pointer along the left edge toward the center of the screen. That gesture reveals a row of thumbnails, each representing an open app—with the Windows desktop considered a single app.

You can switch to any app with a click of its thumbnail. The keyboard shortcut for this new app switching bar is Windows key+Tab; you can still use Alt+Tab if you want to see an expanded list of apps where each desktop app gets its own thumbnail.

Aiming the mouse pointer at either corner on the right side displays a ghosted version of the Charms menu. Move the mouse pointer up or down to change the menu background to black and display the labels for each of the five icons, one of which is conveniently labeled Start. (See the side-by-side screenshots at the right.)

So the fastest way to get to search with a mouse is to bump the pointer into the top right corner, slide it down to the Search charm, and click. For Settings, start in the lower right corner and move up to the Settings charm. Clicking Start, of course, has the same effect as pressing the Windows key on a keyboard (or the Windows button on a slate).

Or you could use keyboard shortcuts. If anyone tries to tell you that Windows 8 is only useful on a tablet or other touch-enabled device, you can counter with the fact that Windows 8 has more keyboard shortcuts than any previous version of Windows. According to the Windows development team, every possible combination of the Windows key and the letters and numbers on a standard keyboard are assigned to system shortcuts.

Here are a few Windows 8–specific shortcuts that are worth noting:

  • Windows key + C Open Charms bar
  • Windows key + I Open Settings pane
  • Windows key + Q Search Apps
  • Windows key + F Search Files
  • Windows key + W Search Settings
  • Windows key + period Snap current app to right side
  • Windows key + Shift + period Snap current app to left side
  • Windows key + comma Peek at the Windows desktop
  • Windows key + Z Display app bar for Metro style app

As in the Developer Preview, the Settings pane is context-sensitive. When you click the Settings charm or press Windows key + I, a black pane slides in from the right side of the display.

The six icons on the bottom offer quick control over current settings; click the volume or display brightness icons, for example, to see a slider that lets you adjust either one. The More PC settings link at the bottom of the pane takes you to the Metro style Control Panel.

Options at the top of the Settings pane are specific to the app you’re currently working with—in this case, you can add or change accounts and see permissions for the Mail app.

In fact, this consistency in design—you can find the settings for any Metro style app in the same location, accessed with the same gesture—is one of the big benefits of the new app format.

The coolest new UI feature of all is one that you might not discover right away. How do you close a Metro style app—or for that matter, the Windows desktop, which is just another app? Microsoft argues that you shouldn’t need to worry about using Task Manager, because Windows 8 is vigilant about memory and resource usage with Metro style apps. But if you’re done working with an app or you want to end the desktop session, just aim your mouse pointer at the top of the window until it turns to a hand icon (with a touchscreen, just grab the top of the app). Pull down, and the app shrinks to a smaller window in the center of the screen. Keep dragging to the bottom of the window and the app disappears.

Like so many new features in Windows 8, I can tell you about it, but you really need to experience it for yourself.

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What’s next?

This is a major milestone, but it’s not the end of the road.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Windows 8 is designed to enable entire experiences. It’s an important building block, but it’s not enough on its own. So what’s still missing?

For starters, there are the apps. Although the 18 Metro style apps included with the Consumer Preview are generally polished and useful, they’re far from complete. Microsoft refers to them as App Previews—with a bright gold label at the top of some apps, like this snippet of the SkyDrive app shown here.

With many of the App Previews, I found myself slightly frustrated and occasionally annoyed by missing or incomplete features.

In Calendar, for example, I discovered that Windows Live had cluttered up the display almost beyond redemption by adding 400+ birthdays from my Windows Live and Facebook friends and followers. The only way to unclutter things was to visit Windows Live on the web to remove the Birthdays calendar. The Settings tab showed me which accounts were connected but didn’t let me adjust them in any way.

The Music app is visually glorious, but navigation was slow—probably because my very large collection (nearly 30,000 tunes) is located on a network server and not on a local disk. The app insists on mixing content from the Microsoft music store with my local collection. There really should be an option to show one or the other.

Some apps don’t scale well as they move to larger screens. Both the Weather and Finance apps do a great job of using the entire screen, with more content a swipe away. Others, like the People app, are practically a sea of white space, especially on a large desktop monitor. Someone really needs to figure out how to increase the information density of that app.

The good news is that those problems can be solved easily, and the availability of an app store makes it possible to push updates in the background, without disrupting the user’s experience.

You can see hints in the Consumer Preview that Microsoft is trying to simplify its often-confusing branding, with the Windows Live and Zune brands receding quietly into the background. When you tap About in the Settings pane for the Music or Video app, for example, you’re directed to Xbox.com. There’s a bundled Xbox Companion app as well, which includes a Play to Xbox option for music and videos:

The combination of a Windows 8–powered slate and an Xbox console is a potent competitor to Apple’s AirPlay. It’s about time Microsoft began leveraging the Xbox platform and brand.

And then there’s the hardware. Samsung’s slate is a good reference design, and the current crop of Ultrabooks should be superb performers with Windows 8. But there’s a whole next generation of hardware—including ARM-based devices—that will really allow Windows 8 to shine.

For now, the biggest surprise for me is how well Windows 8 works on a conventional desktop, using my familiar assortment of desktop apps in combination with a handful of new Metro apps. In part, that combination works because of the ability of Metro style apps to snap into a pane along the side of the display, leaving the bulk of the display for another app or the desktop. Here, for example, I have a Gmail inbox snapped into place on the left while I work with a Word document in the Windows desktop on the right:

On a widescreen display, that combination is even more effective.

After a week of continuous use, I’m finding more and more to like in Windows 8, and I’m eager to begin using it as my full-time working environment. And I’m even more interested in hearing about your experiences.

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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