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Windows 8 test drive: How Metro won me over

Microsoft has thrown a curve ball with Windows 8 on a tablet: it's slick, intuitive and actually makes you want to use it. More than that, it manages to keep disappointments to a minimum. So what exactly has the company done to get me interested in Windows again?
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Topic: Windows
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1 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

Windows 8 Metro UI

We're fortunate at ZDNet to get access to a vast range of mobile technology.

Name a device, OS or brand, and it's passed through my hands not too long ago.  Alas, it's for that reason that the chance to use a new product doesn't always bring the level of excitement you might imagine. 

Recently, however, I've been taken aback at how impressed I am with one particular piece of software: Windows 8.

Microsoft's new OS completely confounded my expectations, particularly when used within the confines of the Metro interface (pictured).

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2 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

Windows 8 apps

One of the reasons it confounded me so was my experience of the developer preview earlier in the year. I was using it with a bog-standard laptop and it was missing even the simplest of features that would make it a pleasurable experience without a touchscreen.

However, I've recently spent a decent amount of time with it on a tablet - and my opinion of the OS has been entirely changed.

The context-sensitive features and settings (pictured) in Windows 8 are shockingly logical.

For example, once you know that the right-hand side of the screen is always going to be the quickest way to access the options of any Metro app, or get to the Start screen, or check system settings, navigation is simple.

Microsoft might not spring to mind as a designer of cutting-edge UIs but somehow it has pushed itself with the Metro interface and delivered something people will want to use.

It's surprising to me as much as anyone, but Metro really does make you want to flick your way around to see what the OS can do.

When I did, I was pleasantly surprised to find an alternative keyboard layout geared towards typing with two thumbs while holding the tablet.

Of course, if you look far enough beneath, you'll find a much more familiar view of Windows in the desktop mode but it's not one you'll want to spend much time with if you're using a touchscreen device. Not that it doesn't work, or is excessively fiddly, it's just not as enjoyable nor as well optimised for touch controls.

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3 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

Windows 8 uses IE 10 as the default browser

Realising I liked Windows 8 also forced me to re-evaluate other Microsoft resistances I've built up over time.

Internet Explorer isn't a browser I've had too much time for in the past decade; I switched to Firefox, and then to Chrome, when Firefox got too slow and bulky for my needs.

But with IE10's 'chromeless' Metro view filling the whole screen this could change. I imagine other vendors are furiously working away to deliver Metro versions of their browsers but until they do, IE10 is my preference.

These are words I didn't anticipate saying this year.

That's not to say it's perfect: it bugs me that with IE10's Metro view filling the screen I can't have two instances, or tabs, displayed at the same time.

You can get around this for now by using another browser in the desktop view and docking it in the side (pictured), but it's not the same thing. Similarly, switching away from Google Mail to another tab constantly results in being signed in and out of Google Talk, but that's another pretty minor gripe.

And that's what I mean: the OS is by no means perfect — using a browser or other small-windowed app in the desktop view on a tablet isn't the best experience — but there's so much that is impressive and easy to use that I want to keep using it in spite of its annoyances, rather than it being a case of having no choice in the matter. No other version of Windows has ever managed that for me.

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4 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

Windows 8 share charm

Put simply, Windows 8 makes Windows easy and fun to use again.

If I don't know how to do something, there's a really good chance I can work it out without resorting to Google or other forms of help, and that can't be taken for granted.

Sharing links and other content using the 'share' charm (pictured) that's baked into the OS is so much easier than having to fire up another tab or window for Twitter or Facebook and paste it in directly.

Are there other tools that do the same job on Windows and other platforms? Without a doubt, hundreds of them. Have I bothered to download and use them? Rarely, and I suspect the average user would be in a similar position.

I don't share half as many links as some of my colleagues, but when I'm using the Windows 8 tablet I'm far more inclined to.

And if you haven't downloaded some form of social sharing app, no problem, you can share straight to Twitter and Facebook natively using the People hub, which can also be accessed through the 'share' charm.

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5 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

Windows 8 IE 10 uses a feature called Flip Ahead for navigation

I also like the way the gesture controls feel natural and intuitive: swiping between apps is predictable and easy.

Again, it needs to be tweaked — it bugs me that swiping backwards (from the left-hand side of the screen to the right) never returns me to the Metro start screen in the same way it would with Windows Phone, for example - but generally it does exactly what you'd expect.

IE 10's 'Flip Ahead' feature also makes excellent use of a touchscreen. Flip Ahead just lets you navigate to the next page of a multi-page story, or open a related link just by swiping forwards, from right to left. It's simple, but it really works well, and makes browsing much more enjoyable than prodding at back buttons.

As I mentioned a little earlier, I wasn't expecting to write this piece. I don't see Microsoft as a company that delivers slick, easy-to-use UIs, but in this instance it seems my first instinct could be wrong.

Maybe when it launches there'll be bugs, crashes, BSOD and all other manner of problems, but I haven't seen any of that so far.

All I know right now is that I have a tablet that boots from cold to the lock screen in less than 10 seconds, has an engaging and easy to use UI but still runs every desktop app I've got on my other Windows 7 laptop, and for that Microsoft deserves some praise.

Time will tell if the RT version of the OS runs as smoothly, but Microsoft will have a tougher time on its hands with me because I now have expectations that it will actually be good.

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