The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is here my friends, and I have spent the last week test-driving Microsoft’s newest gamble in the OS market. While some things have remained the same from the current Windows 7 release, much of the Windows Graphic User Interface which we have become accustomed to has been revamped; some for the better, some for the worse.
I do want to add this disclaimer: while all marking indicates this is a beta release, this is still beta software (perhaps the reason Microsoft is using the Siamese fighting fish or ‘Beta’ as the mascot for this release), and because of this fact this is not the final release of Windows 8. There is a strong possibility that due to customer reviews or planned design changes not implemented in this release, the final version of Windows 8, due for release later this year, will have features added, removed, or changed. Given this, however, the Consumer Preview is a strong indication of what the commercial release of Windows 8 will roughly look like.
I tested the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a Toshiba Satellite L305D-S5955. It has an Intel 2.2GHz dual-core chip, 4GB of DDR 2 RAM, Atheros Wi-Fi chipset, and for this test I used a 350GB Western Digital HDD. Why did I use a laptop that honestly should be retired instead of the latest and greatest, off-the-shelf wonder-rig? Well first, many people will not have the newest hardware and I did want to see how Windows 8 would work on older hardware. I also wished to simulate what many people will experience, and that is using Windows 8 on older hardware.
With all that said, onward to the review.
The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is available free to the public from the Microsoft website. You can download a small web-installer or, if you prefer, you can download the .ISO files for 32-bit or 64-bit systems. I chose to download the .ISO files and create an install DVD instead of using the web-installer.
I noticed that the installation of Windows 8 is very smooth and streamlined, even more so than Window 7. The boot time for the DVD is quite long and unless you are familiar with computers, this can make you feel like the installation has frozen. There is nothing to indicate that the installation is actually in progress, aside from the DVD drive working overtime. Once the installation boots, you notice initial installation pages are ripped right from Windows 7. Once you have passed the basic installation drive and partition questions, the remaining pages are new and very user friendly. This can only help allow users with no tech experience to install Windows 8 without the need to call one of their more tech-minded friends.
Once Windows 8 was installed, I had a feeling of apprehension when a page appeared asking me to either create or sign in to a Hotmail or Live account and link it to the Windows 8 user account. While I did create an account and it went quite smoothly, I will explain later why this makes me leery and leads me to question the direction that Microsoft is taking with Windows 8.
What I noticed immediately when Windows finally loaded into its GUI is that Microsoft has tailored this version of Windows towards mobile devices. I do understand why Microsoft is pushing a touch-based operating-user interface, since tablets and smart phones are a growing market for OS makers. However, I do not understand why the touch-based GUI is still being forced onto systems driven with a keyboard and mouse, not a touchscreen. It is cumbersome and awkward to use. I see no benefit to the desktop/workstation/laptop user and in fact the coding Microsoft has done to allow the GUI to be controlled by a keyboard and mouse feels like a half-hearted afterthought.
You are introduced to the new “Start” menu right away as it is Windows 8′s default GUI display. Many of the apps listed on the default start menu require you to have internet access and the Hotmail or Live account linked to your Windows 8 username for them to function properly (if at all). I noticed that if an Internet connection was not present, I was limited on the apps I could run. This can cause issues for those in areas without Internet access.
Once you wish to close a Metro application, you need to drag downward from the top of the screen until the app you’re looking at shrinks down to a thumbnail, then keep dragging that off the screen to close it, or use the Alt+F4 keyboard combo. Alt+Tab will allow you to see all other programs currently running and allow you to click on a red, circled “X” to close the app. This will cause much confusion to those who are unaware of any of these keyboard shortcuts or about the new drag-to-close feature. Bad form, Microsoft.
Windows 8 now has built-in auto-correct for your spelling which is a nice addition, however the library of recognized words is rather limited. Also, Windows 8 has native support for MP3, AVI, DivX, MKV, and OGG file formats, which I find a refreshing change.
The new notifications in Metro work quite well as they pop up in the top right corner of the screen where they’re not likely to be in the way if you are busy with an app and you can tap these notifications for various options. The first time I inserted a USB thumbdrive, I was given the option of opening Explorer or doing nothing. Users will need to be careful about how they respond, as that will happen automatically next time they insert the drive.
To access the Windows Explorer desktop, you just need to tap on your Windows Key on your keyboard (the one with the Windows logo, by the space bar). As the new ‘Metro’ GUI has taken the place of your start menu, Windows 8 no longer has the Start bubble on the taskbar (and there is no way to create one via options or preferences…it’s gone folks).
As a desktop user, I personally would like to see an option to go back to the old-style Start menu though I doubt Microsoft wants this to happen. Failing that, I would prefer least some changes to the new Metro-based Start menu that would simplify some common desktop functions or give the user the ability to make the Classic desktop the default GUI. Because of the lack of this option, I have serious doubts that corporate enterprise network administrators will move to Windows 8 for desktops and traditional notebooks no matter what Microsoft does at this point. For tablets, I see the reverse as true but as we are still just in the infancy of the tablet-era (with tablets in less than 20% of all computer/mobile device users hands) Windows 8 will need to become the 800-lbs Gorilla in the mobile device market to salvage the costs that Microsoft has placed into development of this OS.
Windows 8 also irritates me because Microsoft flips between the Classic and Metro user interfaces as it seems the developers have not managed to create a consistent user interface. It is annoying that clicking on a tile on the Metro Start Screen will dump you into things like a Classic Control Panel applet or Windows Explorer. Because of this jarring transition, Metro gives me the sense that Microsoft just bolted it on top of Windows 7′s desktop and haphazardly connected the two together. Memories of Windows 98/ME, when Windows was stacked on top of the original MS operating system, DOS, gives Windows 8 a Windows ME vibe, and Microsoft can ill-afford to suffer under another Windows ME-like failure in their OS line. Since I am a long-time Linux user, I have had experience with half-baked GUIs for various Linux OS releases. I find that incomplete user interfaces make you question the value of the entire OS and unless you are a power user that likes to work the command line, the GUI can make or break the popularity of an OS.
It only becomes worse in that much of the Classic user interface we have become accustomed with over the years has been Ribbonized by Microsoft. Paradoxically, the ribbon menus weren’t developed with touch in mind, which reinforces my belief that the development teams are not working with each other to create a cohesive OS. It feels like there are two separate development teams working with little to no communication or cohesion, tossing ideas at the proverbial wall to see what sticks.
Taking a cue from Linux and Mac OS, Microsoft has delved into invisible user interface elements in Windows 8. Move the mouse to the right side of the screen and out pops the “Charm Bar” with such elements as Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. The top-left side of your screen will bring up tiles showing apps that are currently open. The bottom-left of the screen gives you an anorexic replacement to the Start Menu. My biggest problem with this isn’t that the developers moved things around or that they added new user interface elements. My biggest problem is there’s nothing that gives the user any clue that these features exist unless they stumble on them.
As I use Windows 8, I keep having the feeling that this release would have been better off as two separate operating systems. A ‘Classic’ Windows 8 for regular desktop and notebook systems with perhaps a few upgraded interface elements (right now it feels more like a service pack for Windows 7 rather than a brand-new OS release) and a separate Metro’ version for touch-enabled hardware.
While Microsoft has made some concessions to keyboard and mouse users they are very limited and awkward to navigate with.
Why is Kinect, the X-Box 360′s motion sensing controller, not supported in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview? Given the touch-screen proclivity of Windows 8, this seems like one of the first items that Microsoft should have told the developers to create support for in this release. Since most people do not have touch-screen monitors for their desktops, Kinect support would make sense. Since Kinect is a Microsoft product, again this seems like the left hand not communicating with the right.
For mobile users, Windows 8 is not a boon. While there is a version being created for ARM processor systems (for mobile devices), which is supposed to be an energy miser, Windows 8 for the PC architecture is power hungry. My testing laptop normally runs Mac OS X, various forms of Linux, or Windows 7. Under web surfing, word processing, or basic light usage, my battery life runs between 3-4 hours (Mac OS X being the worst at 2:55, Windows 7 clocking in at 3:20, and Linux Mint or Ubuntu in the lead at 3:57 of battery life). If I am watching movies from my hard drive or using a data-intensive program, my battery life hovers around the 2 to 3 hours range. Light usage on Windows 8 delivers a battery life in the 2-hour range (2:12 to be exact from full charge).
Don’t even think about trying to watch a movie and expect to finish it, however. Battery life dropped to 1:36 hours. I made sure the battery was fully charged between tests and that the energy options in Windows 8 were all set to maximize battery life (even though I do not have those settings set in my Windows 7, Mac OS X, or Linux installations.)
I’m torn when it comes to this latest OS from Microsoft. It has vast potential as a tablet operating system. I can understand there being quite a few rough edges in this beta release that Microsoft may or may not iron out between now and the final release, however I don’t see the touch-based features being a driving force behind new PC sales. Outside of power users and those developers in Redmond, there isn’t a demand for touch on PCs from either the enterprise of consumer markets. Instead, what we have is Microsoft trying to stir up interest in touch devices and gambling that it will pay off.
I am not totally convinced that Metro works on larger screens. I have a 22” wide-screen monitor on my home system and when I connected the monitor to my laptop, I noticed a large amount of wasted screen real estate. In addition, I do not see a day when the sorts of tasks that a normal user of a desktop or notebook system will be any more efficient when using Metro apps. In point of fact, I’m not even sure that there will ever be Metrofied versions of software used for such tasks as image and video processing, or web development.
The only task that I think might be better through a Metro app might be word processing, mainly because a minimalistic word processor would focus more on the created words rather than the many features most current word processors boast. For the average user, this could be a boon but for the power user of word processors such as journalists, writers and bloggers there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost.
Windows 8 gives a sense that Microsoft’s newest OS is trying to be all things to all people… and failing. Bolting on the Metro user interface from the Windows Phone operating system into what is essentially a Windows 7 base has created a Frankenstein monster of a hybrid that’s disjointed and, as I have said before, awkward to use. One of the basic tenets of OS design 101 is that the OS designed for the masses should be easy to use for all users. Windows 8 is not that. If Windows 8 used more of the Metro influences throughout the platform, or even less of them, I would feel better about this OS. This lack of consistency is a killer when it comes to work flow and ease of use.
All in all, Windows 8, in my view, is a massive gamble for Microsoft. In its current state of being, Windows 8 has only the potential failure on the scale of Windows ME or Vista and that could be a serious detriment to Microsoft.
By Brian Schott, Blueprint IT Solutions