Hands On With Windows 8 Consumer Preview

  • Category: Software

First Developers got a look, now it's time for the rest of us to try out Windows 8. Today at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the leading OS maker unveiled Windows 8 Consumer Preview, making it available for the public to download and install on any Window 7-capable PC. It's available at Microsoft's Windows 8 Consumer Preview page.

The tablet- and touch-centric operating system would seem to be a hard sell to users of good old PCs, but Microsoft claims there's no need for the "tyranny of or"—Windows 8 can serve both tablet and desktop users without compromises. That's the party line, anyway. We'll get a better idea of whether the general public agrees after this Consumer Preview is more widely adopted.

Microsoft's mission with Windows 8 is not an easy one to pull off: Creating an operating system that works equally well on both a touch tablet and a traditional PC with keyboard and mouse. Apple, by contrast, has expanded iOS for tablet duty, as well. Microsoft's take is that Windows 8 will deliver a full-power OS, without compromises, for both types of users.

MWC Logo

In some ways, Windows 8 resembles OS X Lion—and Mountain Lion—more than iOS, with swiping to switch between apps and a fully accessible file folder system. Where Apple has migrated features from its mobile OS to its desktop OS, Microsoft has created a hybrid that should be comfortable in both settings, and though Windows 8 lacks the final polish and sturdiness of iOS, Microsoft has made admirable progress towards that goal.

An even closer comparison might be Google's Chrome OS (remember that?), except that, with Windows 8, you don't just get the Web-app-like Metro apps, but also the full body of Windows apps, too. And unlike Chrome OS, on which everything lives in the cloud, Windows 8 gives you both the cloud and powerful local apps and accessible storage.

For this hands-on report, I used the same Samsung tablet that was handed out at Microsoft's Build Conference last September. My first quick impressions are that it does an even better job of smoothing out the transition between the Windows Phone-like Metro tile interface and the more traditional Windows desktop mode that will be more familiar to longtime Windows users. It also makes even smarter use of touch gestures.

When you first run the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you need to go through a four-step setup—Personalize, Wireless setup, Settings, and Sign in. Each step is very simple and uncluttered, using the readable Windows 8 sans serif Segoe font.

Right off the bat you get a new choice that wasn't in the Developer Preview: you can choose a background color. This customizability is one reason Microsoft decided to go with a new Windows logo that didn't specify set colors. You just tap one of the nine choices along a bar, and the background instantly changes to reflect your choice. The only other choice on this Personalize page is to enter a name for the device.

Windows 8 - windows 8 start screen

The Wireless setup is a matter of tapping your Wi-Fi SSID from the typical list showing signal strength bars, with an optional "Connect automatically" check box that's checked by default. You can actually skip this step, but that will limit your Windows 8 experience. Hit Connect, and then you're asked for a password if your router requires one. For a deeper dive into networking in Windows 8 read, Windows 8 Wireless Networking Secrets Revealed.

The Settings page of this initial setup process is more complex and text-heavy—unless you just use Express settings. That choice sets the device to automatically install updates; turns on malware protection; sends Microsoft usage data; lets apps access your location, name, and account picture, enables network sharing; and sets the localization to U.S. English. If you instead choose Customize, you are simply taken through a page for each of these choices. The only option you can't turn off is to send usage info to Microsoft's Customer Experience Improvement Program, which only makes sense, given that this is a free test version of the operating system.

Signing In
Next comes signing in. In order to download apps from the Windows Store and take advantage of the SkyDrive cloud service that stores files and photos and syncs your settings with other machines, you need to sign in with a Windows Live ID. You don't have to sign in, and can sign in locally instead, but you'll lose a lot of advantages of Windows 8 and apps designed to use these services. Even after you do log in with a Windows ID, you are asked for a mobile phone number or alternate email address, about which the setup says, "We'll only use this info to help you recover your password and keep your account more secure." Nevertheless, it seems similar to the way Facebook tries to verify your identity.

After this, you finally get your first look at the Windows 8 Metro start screen! This gridlike display of brightly colored rectangular "live tiles" is where you launch any apps, control settings, and enter the more traditional Windows desktop. After a shutdown and restart, you'll see the lock screen (which will be familiar to any smart phone user). On this you can see battery charge, Wi-Fi signal strength, and notifications for email and any other apps you've allowed. A new type of notification for Consumer Preview is the "toast" that pops in from the upper right if, for example, you have an incoming instant message. The new preview also adds the ability to boot from a USB stick or other external device or disc.

Windows 8 - windows 8 start screen

Picture Password
There's a new way to get past this informative lock screen—the picture password. I was a little surprised that the setup process didn't offer to let me create a picture password, since Microsoft has talked about this feature a lot in conferences and on the Building Windows 8 blog. It's a clever feature that saves you from having to type on your touch screen. To create a picture password, Tap Settings, then More PC Setting, and choose Users. From here, you can not only create the picture password, but also switch to a local account (without SkyDrive benefits), change your regular password, or create a 4-digit PIN that lets you quickly start, much as you can with iOS devices.

The first step is to actually choose your picture. Something with several objects and shapes is best. You then simply draw any combination of three circles, taps, or lines. You then repeat the pattern to confirm it, and, voilà. The first time I tried to sign in, my "password" wasn't accepted, but it soon became second nature. The feature shows how deeply Microsoft has been thinking about touch interfaces, letting you log in with gestures rather than character entry. And for those worried about security, Microsoft has done the analysis that shows there are over a billion possible gesture combinations for this type of password.

New Gestures
A key Windows 8 concept for touch input is that the sides of the screen are for Windows, while the top and bottom are for the app you're running. Swipe in from the right side, and you'll see the Windows 8 "Charms"—or icons that give access to basic OS functions, including Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. These Charms have been redesigned in the Consumer Preview, with the new Windows logo showing up for the Start choice and the rest getting new polish. Using the mouse, you get to the charms by moving the pointer to the upper-right corner of your screen.

Swiping from the left edge of the screen switches you to a previous running app, but also lets you pin a sidebar showing the apps content (formatted just for this space). New in Community Preview is the option to easily swap the large and small views by swiping down from the top and moving the resulting smaller window. Swiping up from the bottom or down from the top opens an app's own menu.

Windows 8 offers an advantage over both iOS and Lion—the ability to use a swipe gesture to give a peek at another running app. In iOS, you have to completely switch out of one app to take a look at another. The gesture of swiping to show a sidebar populated with a second app works for full-blown Windows desktop apps, too.

Semantic zoom is a helpful innovation. By using a pinch gesture on the Start screen, the app icons shrink, but not in the simple way you zoom out on a photo, the tiles resize to remain readable, and your groups of tiles stay together, all visible on one screen. This lets you do things like moving an app's tile from the first to the last page without a lot of scrolling.

App List

Entering Text with Touch
Windows 8's on-screen keyboard springs up from the bottom of the screen whenever you touch a text entry field. It's a very versatile tool, more so than other mobile operating systems' equivalent. You can either use a full keyboard, a split keyboard suited to thumb entry, or stylus handwriting recognition mode. New for Consumer Preview is the ability to resize the thumbing keyboard, with a small, medium, and large option. Also new is system-wide spell correction.

Another input method supported by Windows 8 is pen input. In my testing, my writing was accurately converted to text. The stylus also makes sense if you want to use the Desktop interface on the road without benefit of keyboard and mouse.

Windows 8 - touch keyboard

One important note about touch input—the on-screen keyboard didn't appear for me when I tried entering text in Desktop mode, but, thankfully, a keyboard icon in the system tray pops up the touch-screen keyboard. Now let's look at what you can do with an actual keyboard and mouse.

New Keyboard and Mouse Functions
Microsoft's philosophy for mouse interaction with the OS is that the corners are key—previous versions of Windows' Start button were in the lower-left corner, every app's X to close its window was in the top right corner, the most important menu item was at the top left, and the Aero Peek button in Windows 7 is in the lower-right corner.

An important improvement to using Windows 8 with a keyboard is that now you can scroll the Metro Start screen's tiles simply by nudging the mouse cursor against the right side of the screen. With Developer Preview, you had to move the cursor down to the bottom edge of the screen and grab the scroll bar, or hit Ctrl-Right Arrow. You can still scroll the Start tiles with the mouse wheel, which is nice.

Fans of keyboard shortcuts won't be disappointed: Windows 8 includes a ton of very useful shortcuts, many of which take advantage of the Windows key. Hitting this by itself at any time takes you back the Metro Start screen, and hitting it again returns you to your running app. The venerable Alt-F4 now closes any kind of Windows 8 app (as does slowly swiping to the bottom of the screen) Of particular interest to the tech journalist is the new screen capture feature, Windows Key+PrtScn. A final very useful option is Ctrl-Shift-Esc, which opens the task manager. I'll do a separate article going into more depth on what you can do with keyboard shortcuts in Windows 8.

New Apps
At the Build Conference launch of Windows 8 Developer Preview, the new operating system launched with a couple dozen Metro apps coded by college interns, in an effort to show how you don't need a PhD in computer science to write for the system. With the Consumer Preview, we get several new polished apps programmed by professionals. There are actually far fewer included apps this time, but the Windows Store's grand opening means even more choice. Since the store didn't go live till February 29th, look for a separate article detailing that soon, too.

The Consumer Preview's included apps are limited to a dozen or so essentials—mail, photos, weather, finance, Maps, People (for social updates), Calendar, Video, Messaging, Photos, Music. You also get a couple games—good old Solitaire and a pinball game. This last is connected to Xbox Live, which you're encouraged to get an account with, to sync your gaming on different devices. I appreciated that the Photos app let me view pictures on Flickr, Facebook, and SkyDrive as well as on the local device.

All of the utilitarian apps are very clean and minimalist, but they still offer most of the features you want. The Mail app gave me no problems hooking in a Gmail account and composing messages with attachments. The messaging app let me connect through Facebook and Windows Live Messenger, but it's not an SMS replacement like Apple's iMessage, spell-correction wasn't working, and there was no video chat. The People app did a nice job of aggregating my Facebook, Twitter, and Live feeds, but its use of space wasn't very efficient, with each tweet taking the full screen height. A lot of the quibbles are certainly things Microsoft will address before release.

New for the Desktop
It's true: The beloved Start button is gone. Or is it? The Start button is still there in the lower-left corner: It just doesn't take up any screen space until you move the mouse there. When you do so, you'll now see a thumbnail view of the Metro Start page—a good visual indicator of where you're going when you click. My only problem with this is that it behaves differently from most Web apps that use a similar interface technique—instead of letting you click anywhere on the thumbnail, you'll only be taken to the Start screen if you click with the mouse cursor all the way in the lower-left corner.

Despite this detail, the thumbnail on-hover start button is another example of Microsoft's having made the transition between Desktop and Metro views smoother in the Consumer Preview.

The Desktop workspace is for what Microsoft folks call "power users," even though it's what every Windows user has been using for the past 20 years. Windows Explorer's new File management tools, complete with ribbon have been tweaked since the Developer Preview. Now you can hide the ribbon (just as in Office 2010), and there are a bunch of new file-moving and copying capabilities that we've already detailed.

The Cloud Connection
SkyDrive is Microsoft's online storage service that offers anyone a free 25GB. The new OS makes SkyDrive cloud storage and syncing service available to any Windows 8 app that wants to use it and that you allow to use it. In my test tablet, the SkyDrive app itself got a small start screen tile, and the app's own interface used pages of tiles. This makes sense for touch interface, but I'd like to be able to switch to a more concise list view—there wasn't even a semantic zoom view.

But Windows 8's cloud capabilities go way beyond this simple SkyDrive Metro app, and, indeed, you can always hop onto the more powerful Web interface of SkyDrive. The system integrates messaging and sharing throughout, using whatever communication services you've enabled. As with Chrome OS, when you sign into any Windows 8 PC, you'll see all your same personalization, settings, and even Metro apps.

The Devices charm, accessible by swiping in from the right on a touch screen or moving the mouse cursor to the upper right corner. From here I only saw the multi-monitor setup choice, but heading to the Devices section of PC Settings let me check for new hardware and connect Bluetooth mice, speakers, keyboards, and the like. It also lets you prevent device software from being downloaded when you're using a metered mobile connection.

When I plugged a USB memory stick into the Windows 8 tablet, a notification asked me to decide how to handle it, but my only option was to view files in the desktop mode—there was no Metro UI option for dealing with USB memory. I would like to have seen a new tile giving access to the USB memory, at any rate.

Internet Explorer 10
IE10 becomes a more integral part of the system with Windows 8, and if offers two guises: the full-screen Metro view and the more familiar desktop verison. The former follows all the Metro app behaviors. Instead of tabs, you drag down from the top of the screen (or up from the bottom) to reveal your open browser pages in thumbnails along the top. Upon this same gesture, along the bottom appear the standard browser address bar and icons for page reloading and pinning (which adds the page to your Start screen).

You can also unpinch to zoom, and swiping a finger left or right moves you forward or backward in your browsing history. A double tap will also zoom in on the page.

Windows 8 - internet explorer in windows 8

Like the iPad's Safari browser, the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 doesn't support Flash (or other plugins, for that matter), but should you encounter a page that uses those technologies, you can simply switch to the desktop version of IE. The modern replacement for Flash is HTML5, and there's good news on that front with the IE10 that comes with Windows 8 Consumer Preview. On the site, which measures the number of HTML5 features, it gets a score of 314. This is up from 301 in the Developer Preview, and a mere 141 for IE9. Chrome, Firefox, and others have recently scored above 300, so it's nice to see the IE is finally in the mix.

A wrench icon lets you search within the page or switch to the Desktop browser mode, which is indistinguishable from IE9. All these options also appear if you right-click your mouse button. A final helpful touch is the "Clean up tabs" option, which closes all except your current page.

In a very quick and dirty performance test, IE10 posted a 427ms Sunspider result on the 1.6GHx Core i5 tablet with 4GB RAM. This compares with 259ms on a Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz Windows 7 (32-bit) laptop with 3GB of DDR2 memory and 686 with Google Chrome on the same Samsung tablet.

The build of Windows 8 I tested wasn't as final as what's available today for download, and I did run into minor glitches. At one point, the PC settings page stopped responding, instead drawing blue boxes around my choices. At one point I even got a shutdown message with a frowny-face emoticon. The Developer Preview I tested months ago didn't have any similar issues. When I tried to shut down and restart, the accessibility voice started announcing whatever I touched, without performing the action I wanted. And when I was configuring a wireless mouse, the screen switched to portrait orientation, though I was viewing landscape. And the screen would occasionally brighten to full intensity unprovoked. But this is why Microsoft released a preview—to get this kind of feedback and fix it before it goes on sale.

A Paradigm for the Future?
I was initially dubious about Windows 8's split personality, but it is making more and more sense to me. For on-the-go Web browsing, Facebooking, emailing, and casual gaming, you've got the touch tablet interface. But you can then plug the same tablet into a dock, turning it into a full-blown desktop PC, with keyboard, mouse, and even a larger external monitor. And you also have all those Windows apps you've been using for years. I'm sure I'm not alone in that my primary work PC is a docked laptop with a large external monitor. The Windows 8 scenario just takes this a step further in portability.

This is far from the end of the story for Windows 8. Now that the Consumer Preview installer software is available, we'll be testing on more machines and running benchmarks and other comparative performance tests. We'll also take deeper dives into the included apps, the Windows Store, and the best third-party apps. And we'll be keeping you informed about Windows 8 till its expected launch later this year.

Microsoft is diving into the deep end with this one-size fits all tablet and desktop OS, and only time will tell whether it's a strategy that resonates as well as the more bottom-up iPad system from Apple has. And the contrast with Mac OS X Mountain Lion's approach is equally stark, with Apple keeping its desktop and mobile OSes completely separate, while increasing synergy and feature overlapbetween the two.

Windows 8 introduces some really innovative touch input options suited to thumb interactions, and it will benefit the desktop user as well, with faster startup and better file management. So don't count Microsoft out: Windows 8 is evidence that the old tech company is quite capable of bold moves and impressive innovation.

This hands-on is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.