What's surprising, misunderstood about Microsoft's Windows 8? Testers weigh in

Now that Microsoft's Windows 8 Developer preview has been out for just over a month, what do some of the hackers of earlier leaked builds think of it?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Before Microsoft made a first public developer preview of Windows 8 available in September, a number of hackers had been tearing apart leaked earlier builds to try to discern what was new and different in the coming operating system.

Now that these same hackers have had a chance to tinker with Windows 8, I thought it would be interesting to see what surprised them and what they've learned since getting their hands on the developer preview release.

I asked three individuals -- all of whom I've spoken with previously about Windows 8 -- for their latest takes. The three: Michael Brown (MB): Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in Client Application Development, and President Kharasoft, Inc., blogging at http://azurecoding.net/blogs/brownie, and tweeting at @browniepoints. Jose Fajardo: Senior Developer involved with Silverlight “and other cool things,” who blogs at http://advertboy.wordpress.com, and tweets at @josefajardo. Sandro Villinger (SV): Blogger, book author who writes extensively about Microsoft and operating systems for ITWorld and runs the TuneUp Blog.

Fajardo's response to my query is worth noting, as he has been one of the most vocal of the hackers of early Windows 8 builds. When I asked about his perceptions of the Developer Preview release, he told me:

"Unfortunately I haven’t been playing much with Win 8 and it’s purely because I just don’t feel compelled to build anything for it until it can support my interests. What I’m waiting for is: 1. DirectX in WinRT so that I can use DirectX in my XAML apps; 2. XNA in XAML (SL5 3DApi has still to make it into XAML, I’m waiting on DrawingSurface etc.); and 3. Blend tooling to help create XAML apps, currently it only allows us to create HTML apps."

The other two I contacted had spent a lot of time with the Developer Preview and had some interesting observations. Here are my questions and their answers:

MJF: What’s your biggest surprise about Win 8 now that you’ve gotten to work with the Dev Preview for a month-plus?

MB: Once Windows 8 was made available, I installed it on primary laptop dual booting Windows 7. I planned to just kick the tires around, but two weeks later I realized I had only booted into Windows 7 once (to get a file that was locked on the Windows 7 partition).

I didn’t have many surprises from a developer’s view. I think all of my assumptions based on what had gone public were all spot on except one: no emulation for “classic” desktop. The biggest surprise to me is that the “classic” desktop is full on Windows. (Previously) I was hypothesizing that classic mode would only be supported through Emulation/Virtualization similar to Windows XP mode on Windows 7. Instead, it is a full blown desktop. I have yet to have any application compatibility problems. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It seems Microsoft swallowed a bitter pill with Vista and are cautious when it comes to breaking changes.

Another surprise came when I pressed the start button from the classic desktop. Instead of seeing the start menu it took me to the Metro Shell. It took me a second to figure out what was going on. Then I realized the new “Metro Shell” is in reality the new start menu. When I got the tip that typing in the start menu brings up application search including classic desktop apps, I was happy. In reality that’s all I use the start menu for now (on Windows 7). I think it’s a bold move but it makes the new Start Menu the star of the stage.

SV: Battery Life! I installed Windows 8 Developer Preview on my main machine, a 2011 MacBook Air which is powered by a Core i7 1.8 GHz. On my first trip, I was blown away: Instead of the usual 6 ½ -7 hours I had on Windows 7, the Air went dark after 7 hours and 45 minutes using Windows 8. We’re talking an hour of additional battery life here, which I couldn’t believe at first.

So I went back and did some serious testing, not only with the Air but also with a couple of other laptops (one HP netbook and an Acer 17” laptop) and confirmed it: The Dev Preview squeezed between 5-15% of additional battery life out of the laptops, which is quite a technical achievement in my opinion; I’m going to put together a comparison with a different scenario and compile a blog post in the near future. Go to the next page for more on Windows 8 misperceptions and expected changes

SV (continued): It’s clear that Microsoft made a huge investment in power efficiency, both on the server and on the client: We’re seeing apps suspending, more aggressive timer coalescing, less memory usage, less and/or combined disk writes and services, that start when they’re needed and stop when they’re not needed. Windows 8 also pushes the hardware to enter lower power states much sooner. Digging around the advanced power management settings, I also found 19 (!) new options to control memory management in favor of (or against) power efficiency:

I expect Microsoft to combine some of these options into a setting that’s a bit more easier to understand. Anyway, battery life is one of the killer features of today’s mobile world and it’s good to see Microsoft making such investments.

MJF: What’s the biggest misperception by the community (dev community/user community and/or press) about Windows 8 that you’ve seen circulating?

MB: I’m still hearing “Silverlight/WPF/.NET is dead” from the community. It puzzles me. .NET is still a premiere language for Metro style apps and the classic desktop isn’t going anywhere. The WPF team is still hard at work for the next release and Silverlight 5 just reached Release Candidate status. The fact remains that if you’re developing for Windows, the majority of your target users will be able to run standard WPF, Silverlight, and .NET applications. And as I mentioned before, the skills that you’re learning today in WPF and Silverlight will carry over to Metro when the time comes.

SV: That the Metro-style interface is aimed purely at tablets and that it’s utterly unusable and unproductive. First of all, (Windows President) Steven Sinofsky acknowledged that there will be changes in and around the Metro UI (more on that below).

Second, how can anyone judge this UI without actually using some real Metro-style apps day in and day out? What we've got so far are samples written by summer interns (which Microsoft acknowledged during BUILD), that are extremely basic. Do we actually spend enough time in those apps to judge usability? No. Do we know what big ISVs will have “in store” (quite literally) when Windows 8 hits the market? No.

Right now, everyone who’s using Windows 8 Developer Preview lives on the classic desktop and not in the Metro UI, since there’s no real reason to spend hours in this new environment. Let’s just wait until the Windows Store goes live and see how the combination of “real” apps and the usability improvements promised by Microsoft change this perception.

And if even then you can’t stand the new (Metro) UI, just turn it off – there’s a Group Policy setting for that and it’s called “Do not show the Start Menu when the user logs in”. Et Voilà! MJF: Is there any one Windows 8 feature you’re expecting MS to change/tweak based on user feedback before the beta hits?

MB: I’ve tried Windows 8 in a number of scenarios. The story I’m most interested in is remote desktop. As of right now, it appears that Windows 8 has taken a step back with remote desktop composition. Even connecting to a Win 8 machine from another Windows 8 machine, desktop rendering is performed server side (as opposed to Windows 7 RDP which offloads the rendering to the client). I know Microsoft is pushing the RemoteFx technology, but GPUs on server hardware aren’t common and asking clients to upgrade servers to support Windows 8 as a Remote Desktop Session host (especially with many companies moving to VDI) is going to hamper adoption of the OS. I expect Microsoft will address that by RTM.

SV: Yes, (I think they'll address) the major complaints focused around being able to close apps (which is the No. 1 discussion point on Microsoft's Dev preview Forums – with 94 answers and 15,000 views), cycling through apps and mouse-behavior, which still feels like it’s far from finished. All of these issues will be addressed in the future by another 9,000+-word blog posts from Steven Sinofsky, I presume, and then baked into the beta.

I also know from my sources at Microsoft that the “classic” desktop will get more love going forward, after the initial focus of Microsoft’s attention was on Metro and getting developers to write apps. Some of the desktop features are either in early development stages (“File History” aka History Vault or their new “Automatic Maintenance”, which is still largely a mystery) or not present in the UI at all (remember Protogon?). I expect them to talk and unveil a lot more of what they’ve done to the desktop.

Others of you who've been testing the Windows 8 developer preview: What have you found to be most surprising -- and most misunderstood -- about the OS so far?

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