On Wednesday, February 29, Microsoft released the long-awaited public beta of its most ambitious OS yet – Windows 8. Windows 8, the successor to Windows 7, is a radical departure from the notion of traditional desktop computing. Microsoft already released the Windows 8 Developer Preview in September at its //build/ conference, but it was an unstable and buggy release and only functioned properly with touch. With the Consumer Preview, those doubts are gone. It is a stable release, and works amazingly well with touch, keyboard, or mouse. The Windows team hammered down a few phrases, the most important of which is “a no-compromise experience.” Windows 8 touts a completely new design for Windows, similar to the Windows Phone UI, called Metro. It might very well be the biggest user interface revolution since Windows 95. And Microsoft definitely showed that it was working hard on “reimagining Windows.” You can download it right now at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview website.
So let’s get started on the details.
By far, the all-new Start Screen is the biggest feature in Windows 8. It replaces the Start Menu, and instead covers your entire screen with colorful tiles called “Live Tiles.” Live Tiles provide you with to-the-second information about the app, along with a white icon. The Start Screen uses the interface first designed for the Windows Phone, which people love. You can pin apps, websites, contacts, tools, and just about anything to the Start Screen. The Start Screen is what you see when you first log on to your computer. You can easily rearrange the tiles on the Start Screen by ‘ripping’ tiles and dragging them around. You can create new categories with labels for tiles, and the new ‘semantic zoom’ feature lets you zoom out to see a panoramic view of the entire start screen.
Love it or hate it, this is the default design for Windows. You’ll see it every time you log on, and over time, you’ll probably learn to like it. As for now, get used to it.
Windows 8 was designed from the start (pun intended) to be fast, fluid, touch-friendly, and beautiful, all while working just as well with the keyboard and mouse. I speak from experience – Microsoft has fulfilled all of those goals. From the very start, Windows is loaded with beautiful pictures, elegant full screen apps, big and colorful tiles which swoop in to the start screen, and a totally revamped interface. One of the best things about Windows 8 is that it is made for so many different platforms. Let’s see if I can name a few: desktop PCs, laptops, netbooks, ultrabooks, and tablets. The best thing is that there is one, consistent, coherent interface between all of those devices. Add in the Windows Phone and the Xbox, both which now sport the Metro interface, and you’ve got a great marketing strategy. In a few years, Metro will be the norm and will be globally recognized.
Just compare iOS to that. Uninspiring, dull icons aligned in a grid.
The Desktop is Still Here!
I wrote earlier in this article about the “no compromise” experience in Windows 8. But what is that supposed to mean? The Start Screen and all the Metro-style apps are one side of the bargain, but where is the other? The desktop is still here!
Yep, the good old desktop UI is still here, in all its glory, bringing with it all the legacy Windows programs that run on Windows 7. There are some minor changes to it, which I will get onto later, but most of all it is the same. A beta fish is the default desktop background, renewing the Windows tradition started in Windows 7. This time, it’s not a photo but what looks like a paper cutout of a fish. It is blowing bubbles, the first two forming an inverted “8”.
The taskbar still works, the notification area is still there, and the sidebar is ready to use. And yes, you start with the Recycle Bin as the only icon on the desktop, just like in Windows 95. Everything from Windows 7 is in Windows 8, proving Sinofsky’s point: Windows 8 is truly a “no compromise experience,” giving you the full Metro experience, along with the full desktop experience.
There are some small things that have changed on the desktop: The Start Orb is gone, the Task Manager is revamped, and Windows Explorer finally includes the much-loved (and much-hated) Ribbon interface.
Also, the Show Desktop button has been hidden and the Aero Peek function disabled in order to eliminate confusion with the Charms Bar (which I’ll explain later). That’s pretty much it. Oh, one more thing: If you right-click on the bottom left corner of the taskbar, you get a long list of power user features that were not given a proper home until now.
Metro-Style Apps and the Windows Store
What is the point of the Start Screen if the only way to get work done is to use actual programs which you can only get to by way of the desktop? That is what the users of the Windows 8 Developer Preview wondered until now. And I think they deserve credit for braving the harsh waters of that unstable build of Windows. In the Developer Preview, there were some preview apps, but they had no point and the only way to actually do work was to go back to the desktop, defeating the purpose of the Start Screen.
Microsoft previewed the Windows Store at //build/ in September along with Windows 8, but it was not officially unveiled until Wednesday. The purpose of //build/ and the Developer Preview was to get developers excited and start developing their metro-style apps for Windows 8. True, the Developer Preview was not feature-complete, but without it, developers would have no clue on what they were developing for and we wouldn’t have any apps in the store right now.
Those doubts are lifted now with the release of the Windows Store. Right now, there are 75 apps in the store, quite impressive for a beta operating system. The apps are organized into categories: Games, Social, Entertainment, Photos, Music & videos, Books & Reference, News & Weather, Food & Dining, Shopping, Travel, Finance, Productivity, Tools, and Security.
If you install an app, it will display a subtle notification at the top-right of the screen saying that it is installing the app, and it will play a sound when it is finished. It will show up at the extreme right of the Start Screen, ready for you to move it around as you please.
These apps are not the ordinary Windows programs. These are beautiful, immersive, metro-style apps unique to Windows 8. They fill the page, and are optimized for touch. Of course, they will also work with keyboard and mouse, which I will explain in the next part of this review.
Certain apps, like Photos, Camera, Finance, and Weather, come bundled with Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Check out my upcoming photo galleries to see those apps.
Signing off for today! Coming up on tomorrow’s post: Windows 8 Logo, Optimized for Touch, Works with Keyboard and Mouse, Charms, the Lock Screen, and some final thoughts.