Windows 8 Consumer Preview: What should testers expect?

Microsoft is launching the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 on February 29. Here's what testers may see once the bits are downloadable.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is launching the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 on February 29. By going with the "Consumer Preview" name rather than the traditional "beta," the Softies are emphasizing that the coming bits are ready for everyday users to try on their x86/x64 PCs and tablets.

So what are those who download the Windows 8 CP likely to encounter?

Those who already have downloaded and have been testing the early Windows 8 bits (the Developer Preview, released in September 2011) will have different expectations than those downloading Windows 8 Consumer Preview bits for the first time. Those who've been test-driving the bits and studying the thousands (and thousands) of words in every "Building Windows 8" blog post authored by the Windows 8 team are most likely going to be looking for user interface tweaks. They'll be watching to see, as former Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Hal Berenson put it in a recent blog post, "Can Windows 8 Metro succeed on the desktop?"

Microsoft officials acknowledged in Building Windows 8 blog posts back in October 2011 that the team knew that the early Developer Preview bits were not optimally navigable using a mouse and keyboard -- despite the fact that Microsoft is touting Windows 8 as a "no compromises" experience that will work equally well on touch tablets and PCs and regular laptops and desktops. Microsoft officials said last October that there would likely be improvements coming in the future around mouse scrolling, app-switching and how app-search results are displayed.

Testers using the Developer Preview haven't gotten a good perspective on how Metro-style apps will work on Windows 8 because only a few sample apps were available in conjunction with the preview bits. Microsoft is expected to release more Metro-style apps with the Windows 8 CP -- and to open its promised Windows 8 app store at the same time.

Free ZDNet Webcast on "Windows 8: What We Know (and What We Still Don't)" Register today. Starts at 12 noon ET on March 1 (the day after the Win 8 CP launch)

Will the Windows 8 CP make it easy for users who don't want/need/like the Metro-tiled Start Screen to do away with it? A number of business users have been requesting a Group Policy or some kind of setting that would allow this. I'm thinking this isn't happening -- primarily because Microsoft is positioning the Start Screen as its replacement for the current Windows Start Menu and taskbar and not as "just" another UI layer.

Those who will be downloading for the first time the Windows 8 bits with the Consumer Preview won't have early Developer Preview experiences and expectations against which to compare. Some who have used or seen Windows Phones will likely see the Consumer Preview, with its Metro-inspired Start Screen as similar in look and feel. Those who've seen and used the Windows Phone hubs (People, Messaging, Office, etc.) will likely grok more quickly how to work with Windows 8. For the other 99 percent -- the non-Windows Phone users out there -- Windows 8 is going to look very different and feel unlike previous versions of Windows.

First-time Windows 8 testers downloading the bits will have different experiences depending on what kind of devices they're using the operating system. Windows 8 is designed to be a touch-centric operating system, meaning it will be best experienced and appreciated on a touch tablet or touch-enabled PC. The Building Windows 8 blog listed late last year a number of currently shipping tablets and PCs which the Softies have used internally for Windows 8 testing purposes.

The x86/x64 version of Windows 8 allows legacy apps (with any associated browser plug-ins) to run on the Desktop. The ARM version of Windows 8 will allow only a few Microsoft apps to run on the Desktop and no plug-ins. But Microsoft isn't making the ARM bits available to testers to download; instead it will provide them some time, starting in the coming weeks, to select partners and developers preloaded on ARM-based testing devices.

For those asking, I don't know when Microsoft will make the Windows 8 CP bits available for download. Its launch event starts at 3 pm CET/9 am ET on February 29 in Barcelona. The event is not being Webcast. Nonetheless, we'll have coverage throughout the day tomorrow on ZDNet on all things Windows 8-related.

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