Last September, Microsoft delivered the first public preview of its next generation Windows, codenamed '8'. That first public release, the Developer Preview, was obviously unfinished, missing large portions of user interface and a whole suite of applications.
The Developer Preview was intended to get developers used to touch, and to coding with the new WinRT programming model, building Metro-style applications. This week, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft unveiled the second public release, the much more polished Consumer Preview.
Building on the Developer Preview, the Consumer Preview is very close to the final Windows 8 user experience, with new touch gestures and improved support for mouse and keyboard. Microsoft's choice of name for this release is important, for this isn't a traditional beta. Instead, with a near feature-complete version of Windows 8, Microsoft will be using the expected millions of downloads to get telemetry from its users, aiming to understand just what they're doing and why. There's also a whole new installation method, using a small installer to download all the files you need from the web, with the added option to make a bootable installer from a USB drive.
You'll see differences from the Developer Preview as soon as you turn on the Consumer Preview, with the lock screen now supporting notifications. Right there in the middle of the screen is your next calendar appointment, as well as notification icons from up to five different applications. Any application can offer lock screen notifications, but you get to choose which are displayed — as well as which can pop up toast-style notifications in the top right of the screen. If you're using a Windows On ARM tablet (or a device using an Atom SOC), you'll find the notification icons used as indicators for messages received while your device is in connected standby.
The familiar Windows beta mascot, the Betta Fish, is still there. Introduced with Windows 7, the fish has gone through something of a transformation in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, gaining a somewhat cartoony look as a Metro-style fish on the cleaned-up Windows 8 Desktop (and on its Metro tile). It's a nice touch, letting you know that what you've got in Windows 8 is both the old familiar desktop and the authentically digital new world of Metro, side by side, just a swipe or a click away.
There's no start orb in Windows 8, just a hardware button on a tablet or a keyboard that takes you into the Metro start screen, mixing application tiles with live information. Just start typing to search, or click to open an application — either in Metro or on the desktop.
Fine-tuning the UI
A lot of the work in the Consumer Preview has gone into improving the look and feel of the Metro start screen. Microsoft has filled in many of the missing features, as well as introducing additional gestures and improvements for mouse and keyboard users (including a range of new gestures for its touch mice). The desktop loses its start orb, replaced by the physical Windows key and a set of gestures and mouse actions, giving you more space for pinning applications to the taskbar.
Managing tiles on the Start screen is a lot easier, as the much-heralded Semantic Zoom is in place at last, making it a lot easier to customise. You can quickly zoom out to see groups of tiles, and can organise and name them. Moving an individual tile is easier too; just drag it to the bottom of the screen to open Semantic Zoom, where you can drop it in the appropriate tile group a lot quicker than you would across the screen.
Groups of icons on the Start screen will always line up with the Start text at the top of the screen. It's a technique that should make it easier to launch apps from a touch screen, as tiles will always be in the same places.
Similarly, Semantic Zoom lets you rearrange groups of tiles. Speed bumps separate the groups, making it easier to control adding program tiles, as well as forcing groups to line up under the Start text. You'll also see Semantic Zoom in applications, like the Finance app, where it's used to provide quick navigation between different views. There's also a quick gesture to show you all the applications you've installed — not just the ones with tiles on the Start screen.
Microsoft has done a lot to fine tune the Windows 8 touch UI in the Consumer Preview, focusing on how it interacts with the edges of the screen. The aim is for controls to always be in the easiest place to hit, so the left and right of the screen are windows controls. The left lets you switch between applications, the right opens up the Windows 8 'charms' — for search, share, devices and settings. Switching between applications is fast, and you can slowly slide in from the right to a see a list of the six most recent running applications, as well as pinning applications to the left of the screen in a minimised, almost phone-like, view. A new close gesture lets you quickly throw away running Metro applications. Swipe down from the top of the screen to the middle, shrinking the current application, then quickly drag it off the bottom of the screen. The top and bottom of the screen are for Metro-style applications, opening application bars and menus.
Mouse and keyboard improvements
If touch is all about the sides of the screen, mouse and keyboard interactions with Metro are all about the corners. Microsoft says that's to reduce the need for accuracy, especially with full-screen desktop applications using the left of the screen for scroll bars. You can mix and match mouse and touch, with each working the way you'd expect.
The top left corner is where you use a mouse to switch through applications, initially showing the last used application and with an option to scroll down and see more. You can also use this view to pull out and pin applications. When you roll over the initial frame at the top of the screen you see a hint that there are additional tiles — adding a hint of discoverability to the mouse gesture. Similarly the lower left shows a thumbnail of the Metro Start screen, which you just click to open. You can also slide up to see the list of running applications. If you want to see more than 6 applications, use Alt-Tab (which also lets you see and switch between individual Desktop applications). When you take the mouse to the top right you open up the Windows 8 charms, showing initially as hints. Although the hints are visible, you can interact with the rest of the screen, and they only become usable when you roll over and open up the full charm view. Pulling away makes the charms disappear.
In the Start screen you can use the mouse scroll wheel to scroll through the Metro tiles, or drag up from the bottom of the screen to see the All Apps view, with desktop applications grouped together appropriately. If you don't have a scroll wheel you can drag the Start screen from left to right to scroll, or if you have a Microsoft touch-enabled mouse, you can take advantage of new Windows 8 gestures — swipe from left to right on the Touch Mouse to scroll through Start.
There's plenty of scope for keyboard navigation. All the familiar key combinations are supported, along with a selection of new combinations for new Metro features. The fastest way to get started is to press the Windows key on your keyboard and start typing, which will let you quickly search for and launch an application. End takes you to the end of a list, PgUp and PgDn scroll through it. There's even a shortcut for taking a screenshot in Metro and saving it straight to the photos folder.
Slide to the right of the screen and you'll open up a drawer full of 'charms'. Here you can search and share, as well as use attached devices and open up system settings.
Contracts and charms
As with the Developer Preview, contracts (and charms) are the key to how Windows 8 Metro applications work together. For example, the Share charm exposes applications that use the Share contract (and similarly the Search charm works with applications that implement search). Part of the Metro WinRT programming model, contracts allow applications to expose specific functions that can be used by other applications — with no need for either application to know about the other. The Consumer Preview lets users personalise the list of tools used for the publicly available contracts — including sharing and choosing files. Microsoft sees contracts as a tool for developers to differentiate their applications — for example letting web services produce the canonical implementation of their APIs, so developers don't need to keep reinventing the wheel each time they want to use an API. As applications update, one application can take advantage of new features in another without having to make any changes, helping keep Windows 8 live and current.
If you didn't like the green background to the Developer Preview's Start screen, there's an option to customise the background in the Consumer Preview. Don't expect to be able to use your own pictures or download any themes though, as there's just a choice of nine different colours and six different background patterns. They're all subtle, and fit in with the "authentically digital" message of Metro's design language (and the new Start icon changes colour to fit in with the scheme you've chosen). If you're using a Windows Account to login and sync settings with SkyDrive, then any changes are replicated to all your Windows 8 machines, so a WOA slate will have the same look-and-feel as a desktop PC. If you don't want all your settings to roam there's the option to choose just what synchronises — including your Internet Explorer history.
One area that's been improved is Windows 8's multi-monitor support. You can use separate backgrounds for each screen, or one large panoramic background across multiple Windows desktops, with Metro and desktop applications running on different screens. You can now manage the desktop taskbar, pinning icons to specific screens, and dragging an application from one screen to another moves the icon to a different taskbar.
A new view lets you see all the applications you've installed, mixing Metro and desktop applications in a single view – with desktop applications sorted into the groups they're installed in.
It's an app app app world
The applications that shipped with the Developer Preview were very much placeholders. Written by interns over the summer, they showed what could be done with Windows 8 and Metro, but lacked much of the spit and polish we'd normally expect. That's all changed with the Consumer Preview, as Microsoft has finally bundled the applications it demonstrated in the Build keynote. With tools from Windows Live, Bing and Xbox, they're a useful mix of information and utilities. They're all labelled as App Previews, signifying that they're not yet complete — although they're all perfectly usable, especially the SkyDrive and Mail tools. There's no Live branding on the tools, as Microsoft intends for these to be canonical applications in Windows 8.
SkyDrive is baked into much of the OS. It's employed to synchronise user settings, to share files and folders, and to provide cloud storage for your data and images. Photos can be uploaded to Skydrive from the camera application, while you get access to all the pictures you've uploaded from a Windows Phone — as well as your Internet Explorer favourites and Office Web Apps files. Microsoft's consumer cloud story is finally coming into focus, and SkyDrive, with its 25GB of cloud storage, is the foundation. The desktop SkyDrive application isn't available just yet, but Metro-style applications can take advantage of the Metro SkyDrive, with its support for the various file contracts, giving any application the option to use cloud storage without needing custom code.
Initially Mail only supports three options: Hotmail, Gmail and Exchange. There's no support for POP and IMAP connections. Other applications include Music, Video (based on Zune and from the Xbox team) and a People application that shares many of the same features of the Windows Phone 7 People Hub (including the option to pin live tiles for contacts that show social network updates). Xbox integration is an important feature for Windows 8, and its Xbox Companion uses the PC as a remote control for Xbox applications — including operating as a companion browser and a control surface for Xbox's video applications. You can purchase a video in the Windows 8 Video application and play it on a big screen via Xbox.
One example of what can be done in Metro is the new Bing Maps application, which takes advantage of the code that Bing had already developed for its Silverlight browser control. Modifying the existing XAML and C# code and building a new application took only a couple of weeks. Microsoft is also using the launch of the Consumer Preview to unveil the Windows Store, which is intended to be the source of Metro-style applications. With an initial tranche of software from selected third parties and from the winners of a developer competition, the first apps in the store will be free.
Metro v The Desktop
The Developer Preview release made it seem that there were fundamental differences between Metro-style and Desktop applications. Those differences still exist, but there's a lot more coherence between the two ways of working.
Windows development is driven by the numbers, and those numbers (from Windows opt-in telemetry) shows that people work in different modes. Many use a single application, and will find Metro does everything they want. Others switch between primary and secondary applications, while working on and with a selection of different tools; these people need the windowing capabilities of the desktop, and will still benefit from mouse and buttons. It's not a battle between old Windows and new Metro — at least not in this release. Instead it's a tool that can switch quickly between different modes of working, with different user input devices. The desktop isn't going away, and nor is Metro: what the Consumer Preview really shows is that there's a long future ahead for both ways of working.
The Consumer Preview is a major milestone for Windows 8. The tuning Microsoft has given it makes more sense of its Metro user interface (and how it works with a traditional mouse and keyboard). The result is something very close to what should be the final release, with Microsoft aiming for wide distribution in order to get as much telemetry as possible.
There's a lot more to the Consumer Preview than its user interface — for one thing, it finally supports Hyper-V, and a new way of exploring folder history makes it easier to recover accidentally deleted files. Enterprises will need to see how it works with Windows 8 Server, and with Microsoft's enterprise cloud offerings.
We've been using the Consumer Preview for a couple of days now, and we've found it considerably easier to use than the Developer Preview, especially with a keyboard and mouse. A mix of significant changes and fine-tuning of familiar concepts makes it well worth installing. Developers can use it to continue to get to grips with WinRT and Metro, while end users (both consumer and enterprise) can start to learn a new way of working that's likely to be the foundation for Windows for the next decade.