Windows 8 beta: What works, what still needs work

Windows 8 beta: What works, what still needs work

Summary: After spending a couple weeks working with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, here's what I think works and doesn't work in this beta. Some early complaints are overblown, but there's no denying the split personality of Windows 8 has reshaped the user experience.


There are plenty of places to go to read about the new features in Windows 8. Since Microsoft released the Consumer Preview, many sites have posted their "first impressions" (my own quick summary is here). Rather than catalog the features, after spending a couple weeks working with Windows 8, I thought I'd focus on what works and what doesn't work. The caveat here is that this is a beta with preview apps. I fully expect that Windows 8 will undergo significant changes by the time it launches later this year.

Because Windows 8 is designed for a much broader range of hardware than any previous version of Windows, the experience depends in large part on the device. That seems to be reflected in some of the early reviews. Microsoft provided some reviewers with Samsung tablets pre-loaded with the Consumer Preview, and those reviewers have generally had positive impressions. Others who have tried Windows 8 on a standard laptop or desktop have more mixed feelings. I've been testing on several systems including a pair of laptops and a high-end desktop.

See also: Windows Phone: The passionless platformIs there a Plan B if Windows 8's Metro fails?Virtualizing Windows 8 under OS XA Linux desktop and tablet user and Windows 8Here's what's wrong with Windows 8

You can create a username and password specifically for logging on to the device, but Windows 8 works best with a Windows Live account. This works in much the same way it does on many smartphones and tablets. You enter a Windows Live username and password, and the device is personalized with your settings and Metro apps. It remembers the usernames and passwords for any services associated with your Live ID and automatically signs in, so you immediately have access to your mail, calendar, contacts and social feeds, documents and photos stored on SkyDrive, instant messages, and more. This is a great feature for people who work on multiple devices.

You can replace the password with a picture log-in, which is a custom pattern of dots, lines or circles you draw on any photo. It's a bit gimmicky and doesn't save any time on a device with a physical keyboard, but I can see how it might work well on a slate.

The Start screen is the single biggest change in Windows 8, and a lot has already been written about this--both pro and con. Instead of desktop shortcuts, the Start screen uses Windows Phone's Metro-style interface with tiles that not only launch apps but also display notifications or other information. These live tiles work exactly as you'd expect-the Mail app notifies you of new mail, the Finance app tracks major market indices, the Weather app displays the forecast based on your location, the Photos app cycles through your photos, and so on. In a sense this is the latest of many attempts by Microsoft to make the desktop more useful and engaging from Active Desktop, in IE 4.0 for Windows 95, to the Sidebar in Windows Vista, and most recently the Desktop Gadgets in Windows 7. None of these have been very successful (last year Microsoft shut down the Windows Live Gallery that distributed the Gadgets).

But there are reasons to think Microsoft may have come closer this time. First, the tiles are more flexible: You can pin (or unpin) any app to the Start screen to create a tile, drag them into groups, and turn live tiles on or off. Second, developers can build Metro apps with live tiles using standard tools and languages. Some third-party preview apps, such as those for MSNBC and Slacker Radio, take advantage of live tiles; others such as the USA Today and Evernote apps do not. Businesses can create their own Metro apps and use live tiles to deliver a dashboard. Finally Metro apps leverage the cloud so you can have the same Start screen, with the same apps and settings, and with access to the same data and up-to-date content across all devices.

Still there is no denying that Windows 8 can be jarring for the 1.4 billion Windows users accustomed to the Start button. When you upgrade an existing system to the Consumer Preview, for example, major applications such as Microsoft Office 2010, do not even show up on the Start screen at first. You can switch to the classic Windows environment by clicking on the Desktop tile, but there's still no Start menu (though any desktop shortcuts are still there). All of your apps are still there too--it's just that they aren't easy to find at first without a Start menu. The simplest way to uncover them is to right-click anywhere on the Start screen's background and choose "All apps." From there, you can select any app (or multiple apps) and pin them to the Start screen or the taskbar.

Most users are likely to get Windows 8 on a new device, and when you install Metro or desktop apps on a system that is already running Windows 8, they automatically appear on the Start screen. But this needs some work too because Windows indiscriminately create tiles for everything you install. For example, if you install Office 2010 on a Windows 8 system, obscure applets (Digital Certificate for VBA Projects, Office 2010 Language Preferences, and Office Anytime Upgrade) all get tiles that are as large and prominent as those for Word and Excel, even though most users don't know--or need to know--about these. The overall effect is a bit confusing-sometimes Start doesn't show you enough information; other times, it is showing you too much. But, as I mentioned above, it is easily customizable.

The key to navigating the Start screen is hotspots at the edge of the display. The left and right sides of the display are for system-level commands. If you drag the cursor (or your finger) to the left edge to display thumbnails of open apps and switch among apps (the Alt-Tab method still works fine too). Drag the cursor to the right edge and you get the Charms bar, which provides access to Search, Share, the Start screen, Devices and Settings. The corners behave a bit differently. You can click on the lower left corner to return to the Start menu and the lower right corner to zoom out so you can see all of your tiles on one screen without swiping or scrolling. The top and bottom edges are reserved for app-specific commands-menus, in other words. This is critical since Metro apps are full-screen.

The Consumer Preview includes several pre-installed Metro apps that were not part of the Developer Preview such as Mail, which connects to Hotmail, Gmail or Exchange; People, which merges contacts and social feeds (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn); Messaging (Live Messenger and Facebook); Calendar; Photos; SkyDrive; and the Video and Music stores. The beta also has a functional Windows Store, which currently lists more than 90 free apps.

The more you use these Metro apps, the more you notice the trade-offs involved in this new environment. If you try them on a 10-inch tablet, they will feel just right; on the other hand, if you use them on a desktop with a 23-inch, high-resolution display, they seem oddly stripped-down with over-sized fonts and lots of wasted whitespace. Since Metro apps span the entire display, you must swipe or right-click to open menus from the top or bottom to access basic commands despite all of this empty space on the screen. You can split the screen, however, to display two full-screen Metro apps (or a Metro app and a desktop app) at the same time. For example, you can put your Twitter feed (the People app) in a vertical pane using one third of the display while working on a Word document or Excel spreadsheet in the remaining area. You can either leave all Metro apps open, or close individual apps by opening the pane on the left edge of the screen that shows all open apps, right-clicking on a thumbnail and selecting Close (the Alt-F4 hotkey still works too).

The other issue with Metro apps is that they require lots and lots of horizontal scrolling. That works fine on a touchscreen-in fact, it's quite natural-but it is tedious with a keyboard and mouse. Microsoft is addressing this by using the mouse wheel. One or two apps in the Consumer Preview use the wheel to scroll horizontally, and it does make things easier. But right now it is isn't applied consistently-the mouse wheel scrolls horizontally in some apps and vertically in others (hopefully that's just a beta issue). When you jump to the classic Windows desktop, of course, you're back to vertical scrolling for everything.

This is just one small example of the many ways that the split personality of Windows 8 impacts the user experience. The Metro environment is good for certain tasks, but it is also limited. For example, the easiest way to start browsing is to open the Metro version of Internet Explorer. But it doesn't support plug-ins or add-ons, so if you want to watch a Flash video on The New York Times site or clip something to Evernote, you have to switch to the desktop version of IE (there is a "View on the desktop" command but it takes an extra three clicks). As a result, I often find myself having to stop and think about the next couple of tasks I want to do in order to select the right environment and application.

To be fair, the Metro apps will get better over time. In particular, if developers make extensive use of Windows 8 contracts--a promising feature that lets apps search within and share data with other apps--it will go a long way toward making the Metro experience more flexible and productive. But there's no getting around the fact that Windows 8 feels like two operating systems joined at the hip.

This is the result of a series of design decisions. Windows 8 is designed for consumers, not for businesses (though it has a few features that will appeal to businesses); it is geared toward smaller displays on tablets and desktops, not large displays; it is optimized for touch input, rather than a keyboard and mouse; and it is suited more for content consumption than for content creation. The classic desktop environment, by contrast, is there for continuity. It runs all your old apps and it's where you go to get real work done. Given that Microsoft only releases a new version of Windows every three years, this dual-headed approach may be the company's best chance to catch-up on mobile devices and stay competitive for the next few years. But it sure takes some getting used to.

Businesses have some legitimate concerns about the training costs involved in upgrading to a version of Windows that has no Start button. But some of this overblown. Yes, it takes a few more steps to completely shut down the system. But the reality is that nearly all of the old ways of working with Windows are still in there; it just takes a little digging to find them, especially with a keyboard and mouse.

The bigger question is how users will react to having what really boils down to two separate environments. I suspect it will come down to the device. I spend most of my time using a conventional laptop--and that's not going to change--so I will probably skip right past the Start screen to the familiar desktop. Those who get a tablet, however, are likely to spend nearly all of their time in the Metro-style environment, and that's where we'll see whether Windows 8 has what it takes to catch up to iOS and Android.

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

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  • Issues I have

    On a desktop with a single display, Windows 8 is awful. Running a metro app side by side with another app (desktop or metro) not even possible.

    I include a network location for the photos app in the library, and that from what I'm told will not work, and it doesn't

    I can not get WHS to recognize the login/password when using the windows live login. I have tried the user it creates (my windows live first name), the first part of my email address associated with windows live, and nothing works.

    Having to use the charm bar to search within the music app seems like an extra step that isn't needed.

    Running 2 screens with Win 8 is tolerable but metro still has to drop out and bring up the desktop on the main screen whenever I run a desktop app. It should be smart enough to launch it on the screen that is running the desktop already.

    It would also be nice to be able to have metro run on one screen while the "main task bar" is on the other screen (The task bar where i can get to the notifications area)

    Again, running Win 8 on 2 screens is not so bad, but I still find myself just using the desktop 90% of the time. Using metro/metro apps just seems so.... Single-Task
    • The apps keep running in the background

      There is no way to close or kill these apps directly, and they keep running in the background. You need to get to Task Manager if you want to kill these apps. Getting to the Task Manager is a different story in itself. In fact, it is not even intuitive how to get out of an app, let alone close it or kill it. This is quite bothersome, as you may have run away apps eating up battery or RAM.
      • I can't even imagine using something like this in an office.

        ...and even though most Windows OS users still use windows primarily for the gaming experience. Generally when your full screen playing Skyrim, Half-Life, etc. you don't want a mail indication message coming up. Not everyone wants Messenger loading in the middle of the screen every time the device is started either.

        It's as if "social" was crammed into Win8 the way many updates were crammed into Vista. But now instead of having a utility you don't need or a printer that lacks support, you have a permanent link to the outside world you can't lock down that makes every app a social application. What market exactly are they trying to target?
      • Can easily kill an app

        Just point your mouse to top of the app 'window' and then a hand appears instead of the mouse pointer. Now drag the window to the bottom of the screen and the app is killed.
      • right-click works as well


        You can right-click and select snap left/right and close. Saves some mouse travel.
      • Uh... Metro apps DO NOT run in the background. If you are not in them they are suspended in memory. Therefore, they are not eating any ram thus do not need to be closed.

        However, if you wish to close them you can grab the top of the screen w/ your mouse and drag all the way to the bottom of the screen. Bring up the preview pane on the left, right-click and select close, use alt+F4, or as you stated go to the Task Manager.

        A little research goes a long way.
      • My $0.02

        Sounds like you're still running the Developer Preview.

        In the Consumer Preview, you can close Metro apps as others have suggested by dragging from the top of the screen to the bottom with your finger/mouse or by hitting [ALT] + [F4] as in every version of Windows.

        You can switch apps by dragging your finger from left to right or hit [ALT] + [Tab] as in every version of Windows. You can also hit [ALT] + [Windows] key to cycle through apps using a new app switcher.

        @Whyn6 pointed out that Metro apps are suspended within 3s of being switched away. They remain resident in memory, but are not scheduled on the CPU unless you switch back. If the OS needs memory that suspended apps are using, they are automatically terminated. It is recommended that Metro app developers serialize app state to storage when they're switched away from so that even if the app is terminated by the OS, when the app is restarted, the user can pick up from where they left off.

        To the author's comments re Metro: To most app developers and users, Metro is a brand new design language with several new themes and metaphors. It'll take time for developers and users to figure out how to create killer experiences for Metro-style apps, but figure it out they will.

        I remember when Windows first arrived how many of the first wave of Windows apps were poor and literal translations of the text-based UI's of old - windows filled with grids of edit boxes and buttons. It took a while until developers came to understand what GUI's could really do. The same adjustment of thinking is required when moving to Metro - it's all about rich, fluid experiences and graphical data visualizations. It's about providing experiences that allow users to express information in more effective ways than entering numbers into grids of edit boxes. Think more infographic-like screens and less spreadsheets.
      • @Socratesfoot: "most users for the gaming experience"?

        Where did you take that sample from? Windows is used by people of all ages, social groups and walks of life. Many, if not most of them, couldn't care less about games or even hate them outright. Just for a start, with the odd exception, women usually are not very fond of games, and they are half the population and half of Windows' users as well. Also, as your own subject line reminded, most copies of Windows are run on office computers for work and productivity. Obviously, gaming would be completely out of place there.
      • How to close an open app

        Closing an app is simple. Point the cursor arrow at the top of the screen. The arrow changes to a little hand, then left click, the hand. The hand will grab the edge of the app and all you have to do is pull the app down. The app will get smaller as you pull it down and by the time you reach or are near the bottom the app disappears.
      • ...

        [i]Closing an app is simple. Point the cursor arrow at the top of the screen. The arrow changes to a little hand, then left click, the hand. The hand will grab the edge of the app and all you have to do is pull the app down.[/i]

        To all the comments regarding how to close an app. Thanks for the tips... I was as confused about that as iRMX. but I have to wonder, how in the world is that any easier than clicking an 'X' in the upper right corner? Seriously. Why make it more difficult? Shouldn't the goal of a new OS to be easier to use?
      • Two ways of solving that issue.

        Drag from the top to the bottom, or in the slide out tray on the left, right click the app you want to close, and hit close.
      • "Killer experiences"?

        [i]Metro is a brand new design language with several new themes and metaphors. It'll take time for developers and users to figure out how to create killer experiences for Metro-style apps, but figure it out they will.[/i]

        Sounds like a load of hyperbole to me. Thrown in some bunk adjectives like this and you'll have a real shill going on here.
      • I'm with ya, man

        [i]but I have to wonder, how in the world is that any easier than clicking an 'X' in the upper right corner? Seriously. Why make it more difficult? [/i]

        I'm with ya, man. But this is all a part of having change for change's sake. Otherwise developers wouldn't have any more useless things to develop.
    • @Badgered

      Actually, the "grab the top of metro app" to close serves two purposes. You can use that gesture to close an app or use it to snap an app to the left or right screen.

      Grab and drag down to close.
      Grab and drag left or right to snap to left or right of screen.
  • Scrolling on a laptop is difficult

    I've been testing W8 on a laptop. The experience is too awkward if you don't have a mouse connected to it. Navigating Metro interface through touchpad is very difficult. You have to figure out after several try/error attempts, how to access common tasks.
    • Not so bad with Multi-Touch Touchpad gestures

      These types of touchpads are found on many (if not most) newer laptops. It's hard to explain in words but I found this video.

      I have Win8 in a VM and on a newer Dell Vostro 3450 with a multi-touch capable touchpad and it works rather nice.
      • It helps

        To also have a trackpad with a scroll "wheel" built into it. But you are right, multi-touch trackpads are another reason Metro is on the desktop.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • I've found this to be true

        When I first loaded it on my ProBook at home, which does support multi-touch gestures, it didn't work until I went to the HP site and downloaded the Synaptic drivers and software. Now that it does using Windows 8 on the laptop with the touchpad isn't bad at all. For some reason a lot of the apps (CookBook I'm looking at you) don't support it for scrolling, be it left-right or up-down.

        Microsoft should allow both up-down scrolling and left-right scrolling to work though. It's strange sliding down on the trackpad to move the screen to the right. I should be able to slide it left-right on the trackpad. Leave both though so my scroll wheel on my mouse does what it should. Although support the tilt function of the scroll wheel on your own mouse MS!
    • try updating your synaptic drivers for your touch pad.

      I put in all the possible touch options and now it works much better than many of the mice i have tested
  • Concerning app discovery

    You explained that the easiest way to find apps not pinned to the start screen was selecting the "Show all apps" option.

    I disagree, I think that in using the start screen this way, you are essentially trying to duplicate the WinXP start menu. The experience should be awful.

    I tend to use the Start screen the way I used the Win7 start menu: Clicking pinned apps or using the search field (Windows key+your app name). Using the start screen the same way (Windows Key then "Wo" then Enter for instance to open Word) works like a charm.

    Under Win7 I almost never navigated the start menu arborescence, and I am under the impression that the Windows Team thought the Start screen to be used this way too.

    It's (according to me) the most efficient way of doing things with the start menu/start screen, but I am not sure that it's the way most people were doing things under Windows 7.