Yesterday, Microsoft released the Windows 8 Developer Preview to the general public - Microsoft's first public release of their new Windows operating system. We have seen hints of the new OS in screenshots leaked and posted on their blog, so naturally plenty of people jumped at the chance to grab a functional copy of the new Windows operating system. You can grab yours from here.
Lots has been made of Microsoft's new OS, including what it needs to do to stay competitive against Apple's OS's in both the desktop and mobile space. Microsoft has announced that Windows 8 will be the same platform across x86/64 desktop devices and ARM-based mobile devices - importantly, tablets and mobile phones, which Microsoft entered recently with the Windows Phone 7 operating system.
There's plenty to remember when reviewing any software that is essentially still in Alpha, or brand new Beta. Importantly, it's not complete software. Many people often review software at this stage as completed software, when it isn't! It is far from complete, so bugs come as part of the package. The idea of the Developer Preview of Windows 8, is to allow developers time to develop applications to suit the Windows 8 framework, and to see if their current apps can be certified. Interestingly, there are 2 types of certification - either a Metro-style "app" available in the Store (for use from the Metro home screen, or use on a mobile device with the changing of a few lines of code), or Desktop apps, which are no doubt 'traditional' Windows applications that run from the desktop. It's a great idea for Microsoft to release this, much like Apple does with it's developer builds of iOS, to allow developers time to build apps for certification well before final release. The Developer Preview has Visual Studio 11, as well as a full tool kit of Certification and build tools to help build and certify apps as part of the preview.
Firstly, it's worth pointing out my perspective in reviewing this build of Windows 8. I have used, in one way or another, every Microsoft desktop operating system since Windows 3.1. I've seen a number of UI changes over the years, and while far from being a UI expert, I will admit to growing comfortable with the various changes in the interface over the years. Which isn't surprising, given the basics haven't changed since Windows 95. There's a Start menu, and from there you have several sections that take you to programs, settings, files, etc. Microsoft have made a big song and dance about changing everything for Windows 8, which is a scary statement for a Windows user set in their ways. So lets take a hands-on look, with an open mind, about what they are proposing.
I am running Windows 8 Preview on a virtual machine using VirtualBox. I installed it using 2 CPUs, 2GB of RAM and 20GB of hard drive space. I enabled all hardware virtualization settings in VirtualBox, as well as 2D and 3D acceleration. This was run off my ASUS G53SW, with an Intel Core i7-2630QM, 4GB RAM and a GTX460-M video card on Windows 7 64-bit.
[This review is focusing on the Windows 8 UI and functions. Plenty of other tech sites and blogs have, or no doubt will, look at the more development-oriented features of the release. But for the moment, let's indulge in what Microsoft is giving to us upfront]
Welcome to Metro
From the get-go, you know this is a completely different interface to what Windows normally is. The installation screens are identical to Windows 7's (At this stage, but that isn't really a point). Windows setup, however, is a Metro-inspired process. Green-background, simple screens and words. Even the licensing agreement page begins with "Please read this to make our lawyers happy". This is the first indication that Microsoft has finally found it's sense of humour, while simplifying things again.
Interestingly, you need to use a Windows Live ID to create a user using this preview. I, for one, hope this is for the developer build only, and doesn't make its way into the final build. While it is easy enough to create a Live ID from an email address, far too many users either don't have internet access when they first start up a machine, or, in the case of custom-built machines, users won't be able to be created properly without an ID. The use of a LiveID is to enable Live integration, and importantly Microsoft's cloud storage capabilities through SkyDrive, so the use of an ID is critical for what Microsoft want to achieve. I would hope that this gets changed to 'optional, but recommended' along the line.
While I would hope the need for a Live ID is changed to optional at some stage, the irony of this thought is how easy plugging in a Windows Live ID makes Windows setup. It extracts your Live ID (in my case, a Hotmail address) and even uses the same password as the local password on the machine, and display pic you last used in Messenger as your user icon. I forgot I had one until it pulled it down:
Yes, it's a Hammer Time prompt box. To distract you, here is the Welcome screen that greets you with Windows 8. Hint - to get past it, drag the screen up. This is the first sign that Windows 8 is far more touch and mobile friendly.
So far, so good! Logging into the machine takes you straight to the Metro home/Start screen. This is the main screen you get to, and the screen you return to when you press Start from the desktop. This took a little while for me to get, but it finally clicked. This *is* the Start menu. You have access to the same menu and features, as well as what has been the "All Programs" part of the Start menu, from one screen. It is no longer a menu; but a screen. Optimized for widescreen monitors and tablets, and most certainly touch, it's a radical departure from the traditional Start menu. But its a departure that works on many levels.
Interestingly - no tiles apart from the ones that link to the desktop, would work on a screen resolution less than 800 x 600. And by not work, you could smash on them all you like, and nothing happened.It isn't until you set a resolution at or above 1024 x 768 that apps start working. This is understandable - no doubt Microsoft enforces a minimum resolution for apps to work. But when the system originally set the resolution, you would think that a message of some sort would appear alerting you to change the resolution. Given this is barely a Beta build it can be excused, but after messing with it for over an hour trying to get it work it was somewhat frustrating.
The much-discussed Windows 8 Explorer receives a preview in the Windows 8 Developer build. The biggest change to Explorer is the addition of an Office 2007/2010-style ribbon to the top of the Windows. This has been received with a bit of contention, however when you see and use it, it becomes a very natural addition:
I have often lamented the loss of menu items in Explorer in Vista and 7, so the ribbon makes up for this - and more. Having Move To and Copy To options on the ribbon for quick access, without needing a PowerToy or a change to the registry is a massive boon for power users. Similarly, Sharing and viewing options were often small and confusing in Vista and 7, but no more in Windows 8! Take another look at the Windows Explorer screen, and have a look at a feature that has been missing from Aero boxes since Vista:
The 'Up Drectory' button! Next to the address bar makes a triumphant return as a default folder viewing option. To go up directories you had to click on the previous folder in the Address Bar. While this is still possible, the Up Directory button makes quick navigation incredibly easy. If you can't half tell, I'm a fan of the new Explorer interface. So many options are clearly and easily presented for use. It's a natural extension of the Ribbon interface from later versions of Office, but in this execution it's simple and elegant.
The more you use Windows 8 Developer Preview, the more interesting things you find. For example, if you move the mouse to the far left of the screen, towards the middle, you get a preview of the previous window you had open, and can return to it:
Windows Task Manager has been redesigned for new interface. It comes in both a basic and advanced flavours:
The Performance tab opens up to some user-friendly graphs that display CPU and RAM usage, as well as disk activity - infinitely useful when trying to diagnose performance issues that aren't CPU or RAM related. It also shows network usage statistics. It is a radical departure from the traditional Task Manager that has evolved since Windows 3.1 and remained all but unchanged since Windows 2000. The information is presented quite well and easy to get at. I haven't had a need to use it properly, but I'd say it would be a pleasurable experience if I had to.
The Windows Charm can be accessed by either pressing Windows Key + C, or moving the mouse to the lower left corner of the screen. From here you can see the menu options provided. Importantly, going to the Settings option takes you to Shut Down and Restart options. Originally I didn't know this, so Iogged off and found the shut down options from there! Slightly embarrassing, but slightly confusing nonetheless. Like a lot of things, the more you know, the easier it gets to find things.
In fact, everything seems to revolve around the Windows key, much like the 'Home' button on iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod). When you have an app launched, there is no red 'X' to close the screen; rather you need to press the Windows Key to return to the Metro screen, or either Windows Key + D or Alt-Tab to return to the Desktop. This is something that will take getting used to, as the return mechanism is different depending on what you use. On mobile devices however, this is a no-brainer: use one key to return to the home screen. I'm not sure if the Windows Desktop will be present on mobile devices (I'll take a stab in the dark and say no), but I can see this navigation will be confusing to the average Windows user unless this is smoothed out.
In my travels around the operating system, I even managed to get it not to boot (don't ask me how) and came across a brand new Blue Screen of Death:
I think this is a subtle dig at the "Sad Mac" of old Mac OS's. And even if it wasn't, I love it! Quick description of the error, a nice screen and 3 seconds before it reboots automatically. Much more user friendly than the Blue Screens of Death that has plagued Windows since its conception, but it still gives some diagnostic information. I hope it doesn't go the way of the Red Screen of Death, I would much prefer a user saw this when something went astray!
So far, so good, from Microsoft's new offering. There is a lot going on and being promised for Windows 8, and Microsoft needs it to perform. Key to this, is the new OS's ability to be run on either the x86/64 platform, or ARM platforms, which allows the operating system and any apps designed for it to be run on both desktop PCs and mobile tablets and phones. The touch optimization is evident already in the UI, and from other reports its evident that this preview build works on most touchscreen devices already, which is great news for Microsoft.
Naturally, this preview build of Windows 8 raises more questions than it answers. What other features are planned? What different feature sets can we expect between versions? Plenty of applications, such as Windows Media Center have been bundled previously, haven't been mentioned. Will there be a Professional version? No doubt there will be plenty of desktop-only users, such as in corporate environments who will have no use for a touch/mobile interface, and will only need regular Windows desktops. Dare we mention gaming? Microsoft has given us some hints as to XBox Live integration, but it remains to see how PC gamers will be catered for in Windows 8. Given how much money Microsoft has invested in PC gaming, there will be lots of love given.
Microsoft have learnt from their poor development progression from XP to Vista, and the development of Vista. They took great steps in designing and producing Windows 7, and the transparency they learned seems to be shining through again. It has to; this is Microsoft's Operating System of change. It needs to bridge the gap between PCs they have known for years, and modern, mobile devices. What is better, is Microsoft's want to have apps running on both x86 and ARM platforms natively. This is exciting for developers, as they can sell their apps to desktop, tablet and mobile platforms quickly and easily. It is just as exciting for Microsoft, as this approach will no doubt become a thorn in competitor's sides as this develops.
It was once said, that Microsoft needed Apple to do well, for it to do well. How times change. It's not just Apple that needs Microsoft to do well in developing a new operating system to span the plethora of personal computing platforms there are now. Microsoft needs to do well. From all indications so far, Windows 8 will be a great operating system. It remains to see how well it works on ARM mobile devices; I dare say it will work well. Microsoft's approach to "one OS for all platforms" shines through even at these early stages. As a fan (but not fanboi) of Microsoft's Windows, I really hope it does well. I will glad to follow it through its evolution to retail product.
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