A deep dive into Windows 8 Consumer Preview

After a few days of working with the new version of Windows 8, it looks as if desktop users may be shortchanged.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview is one of the biggest changes that Microsoft has made to Windows, moving it from an operating system aimed at a single class of hardware (PCs and laptops) to one that spans a wide range of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

It's a gamble that only partially pays off. For tablets and smartphones, the new Metro interface is a clear winner: beautifully designed, simple to use, function-rich and offering a wealth of apps that bring information directly to users rather than requiring users to search it out.

For owners of traditional Windows-based computers, however, the results are mixed. Metro isn't as easy to navigate with a mouse and keyboard as it is with touch. In addition, the Windows Desktop is less useful in Windows 8 than it was in previous Windows versions for a number of reasons -- notably because the Start button has been taken away. As a result, Windows 8 feels like a transitional operating system, uneasily bridging the gap between traditional PCs and tablets, with more attention lavished on the latter.

For tablets and smartphones, the new Metro interface is a clear winner.Click to view larger image

Perhaps because of this -- and because, despite the growing popularity of tablets, most workers are still using desktop PCs and laptops -- I installed the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a PC, and this review reflects its use on desktops and laptops rather than tablets.

I reviewed the Windows 8 Developer Preview when it came out, and this Consumer Preview is a considerably more polished piece of work. There have been many major interface changes, fixes and additions -- Microsoft claims that it's made more than 100,000 changes, although that's obviously impossible to verify. Key among the changes and additions are new navigation features, completely revamped Metro apps and the addition of "charms," tools that bring a variety of features such as Search within easy reach.

The Developer Preview was a hint of what the operating system would be; this Consumer Preview is a far more realized piece of work.

Welcome to Metro

Metro, which is patterned after the Windows Phone 7 interface, made its appearance in the Developer Preview, and it's been considerably improved, including the newfound ability to place apps into customized groups.

Windows 8 boots directly into the Windows 8 Metro Start screen. Rather than seeing the traditional Windows Desktop, you're greeted by a group of large colorful tiles, each of which is a separate app. (To show how Microsoft has relegated the Desktop to the sidelines, the Desktop is merely one app among many on the Start screen. It's also the only app that isn't written for Metro.)

Metro apps are "live" -- that is, they can grab information from elsewhere, such as from social networking services or other Internet locations, and use it and display it right in the tile itself. So the weather app, for example, displays the current weather, a stock app displays current stock prices, a calendar displays current meetings, and a social networking app (called People) can display the latest updates from social networking services. In this way, you don't have to open many of the apps to reap their benefits; all you need to do is glance at them onscreen. You can, of course, click on any app to launch it in order to get more information and interact with it.

Metro is very clearly designed for tablets , because the tiles are all quite large, even those that don't display changing information. There are so many tiles that they scroll off to the right of the screen. On a tablet, you use the swipe gesture to see them. On a traditional computer, you need to scroll to the right, which is a lot more awkward. Although the Metro start screen is aesthetically pleasing, I found myself longing for the Desktop's more efficient use of real estate, where I could to see all my apps on a single screen.

That being said, the Start screen is easy to customize, so you can make sure that all of the apps you use regularly are immediately visible. And you can remove apps pinned to the Start screen by right-clicking (or, on the keyboard, Ctrl-right clicking); a menu appears at the bottom of the screen that lets you unpin, resize or uninstall the app. Not all apps can be resized, though -- Microsoft's cloud -based SkyDrive storage service can't, for example.

A menu appears at the bottom of the screen that lets you unpin, resize or uninstall the app.Click to view larger image

You can also put tiles into their own groups as an easy way to see related apps at a glance. Click a small icon at the bottom right corner of the screen and all the apps on the Start screen shrink into a small space. Move tiles anywhere you want on the screen, including into groups. You right-click a group to name it. Click anywhere on the Start screen and the tiles return to their normal size.

Of course, not all apps are necessarily visible on the Start screen. To see all your apps, you right-click on the Start screen and click the "All apps" icon that appears at the bottom of the screen. You'll then see every app listed, along with small tiles that represent each. Right-click any app to pin it to or unpin it from the Start menu (or to/from the Desktop taskbar -- the same taskbar you'll find in Windows Vista and Windows 7 -- if it's a Desktop app). Depending on the app, you may have more options as well. For a Desktop-based app, you'll be able to also uninstall it, open it in a new Window, run it as an administrator, or launch Windows Explorer opened to the location where the application is installed.

To see all your apps, you right-click on the Start screen and click the "All apps" icon that appears at the bottom of the screen.Click to view larger image

Pity the poor Desktop

It's not just that Microsoft has ignored the Desktop; it has also made it less functional than it was in previous versions of Windows. When you click the Desktop tile on the Metro Start screen, you're sent to what is essentially the old Windows Desktop, including the taskbar at the bottom, icons for launching programs, and so on. It looks and works like the Desktop you've grown used to over the years, with a few minor changes.

The biggest change, and possibly the worst one, is that the Desktop no longer has the Start button -- which feels to me like a step back. In Windows 7 and Windows Vista, the Start button was a paragon of simplicity, packing many useful features into a small amount of real estate. You could click it to launch recently run programs and the programs you most commonly run, to search your computer and the Internet, to open documents you'd recently used, to run the Control Panel, and to see a menu of all the programs on your computer, among other tasks. Taking away the Start button makes the Desktop less useful than it was in Windows Vista and Windows 7.

When you click the Desktop tile on the Metro Start screen, you're sent to what is essentially the old Windows Desktop.Click to view larger image

The Quick Launch bar has also been eliminated. In Windows 7 and Windows Vista, that bar made it easy to quickly launch the applications you most commonly use. In Windows 8, you can no longer do that, because the bar is gone.

Because the Start button has been killed, so has its search box, and that's a loss. To do a search, you now have to move your mouse to the upper right or lower right portion of the screen, and select the Search charm.

And the search you can perform simply isn't as good as the older version. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, the search displayed multiple results in a small, easy-to-scan list, and let you quickly switch between searching your computer and the Internet. Not so with the Search charm -- it drops you into a Metro interface in which each result takes up more real estate. The new Search charm does let you more easily narrow your search -- still, Microsoft should have kept the old Desktop search, to give you a choice of different search methods.

The Desktop also isn't integrated well with Metro. Inside Metro apps, for example, the Settings charm is context sensitive -- those settings are specific to the app you're running. But inside the Desktop, the charm isn't, and doesn't relate to the app itself. Rather, it relates to the Desktop.

On the plus side, the Desktop seems to run Desktop-based Windows applications with no problems. I ran SugarSync, Microsoft Office and Libre Office with no trouble.

Navigation and mousing around

Although the large tiles practically cry out to be touched rather than clicked upon, Metro is still navigable using a mouse. If you're like me, at first you'll find it takes some getting used to. But after a full day, I found myself comfortable with it, so much so that when I went back to my Windows Vista and Windows 7 machines, I occasionally found myself using the Windows 8 mouse movements (to no avail, of course).

Apps themselves are launched with single clicks rather than double-clicks. Although the navigation inside Metro apps varies on an app-by-app basis, generally you'll find yourself using scroll bars. (On a tablet, you'd be swiping to your heart's content.)

Windows 8 employs global navigation, usable when you're in Metro, the Desktop, a Metro app or a Desktop app -- in other words, no matter where you are.

To switch between where you currently are (such as inside a Metro app) and where you were, either press the Windows key on your keyboard, or else move your mouse toward the lower left-hand corner of the screen and click. Hover your mouse there and you'll see a thumbnail of the last place you were, so that you know ahead of time where you'll be switching. If you move instead to the upper left corner of the screen, you'll also see a thumbnail of your last app -- and if you then move your cursor down, you'll display the thumbnails of your other open apps.

There are keyboard shortcuts as well. You can press the Windows key and Tab key simultaneously to open thumbnails of your open apps, and then move to any you want to run. And the old Alt-Tab standby still works.

If you then move your cursor down from the top left corner, you'll display the thumbnails of your other open apps.Click to view larger image

At first, there doesn't seem to be a way to actually close a Metro app. I finally discovered that it's possible by moving the cursor to the top of the screen and dragging it down towards the bottom of the screen. The app first shrinks from full-screen size to a window, and when you drag it off the bottom of the screen, the app closes.

By the way, for those who are fans of the keyboard, you'll find that Windows 8 has some very useful keyboard shortcuts. In combination with the Windows key, you can press the "I" key to open the Settings pane, the "F" key to search through your files and the "W" key to get to a settings pane.

Charmed, I'm sure

One new interface feature that takes some getting used to is what Microsoft calls "charms" -- icons that let you perform an action, such as searching or changing options. When you move your cursor to the upper-right corner or lower-right corner of the screen, five of these charms appear: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Some are quite useful, while others appear to serve no purpose.

Search, as its name indicates, lets you search through local apps, local files files or via the Web -- its quite customizable.

Share is designed to let you share with others from within your current app, but I was unable to find a way to use it. When I clicked it in the Mail app, for example, I got the message "Mail can't share." I received the same message when I attempted to use it in every app I tried, even in the People social networking app, whose primary purpose is sharing. Perhaps it will work better in future versions of Windows 8.

The Devices charm is also somewhat baffling. By its name, one would expect that it would help with configuring and managing devices. However, the only device setting that was visible was for using two monitors with Windows 8 -- I found none for tasks such as setting up a printer. And when I attached an external USB hard drive to my test system, that wasn't listed.

"Charms" are icons that let you perform an action, such as searching or changing options.Click to view larger image

One would expect that clicking the Start charm would always bring you back to the Metro Start screen, but that's not what it does. Instead, it switches you to whatever you were just doing -- the same thing that happens when you press the Windows key or click in the lower left portion of the screen.

Settings, as the name indicates, allows you to change systems and/or settings, depending on the context. In Metro and Metro apps, the Settings charms is context-sensitive and will change the settings related to the app you're currently in. Inside Desktop apps, however, you can only change the overall Desktop settings, not those for the program you're running.

Built-in Metro apps

The Developer Preview shipped with a small number of Metro apps, which were a bit rough around the edges. But the Consumer Preview comes with a full suite of them, including email, calendaring, maps, SkyDrive, messaging, Xbox and social networking, among others. As expected, they appear to have been designed more for tablets than traditional computers, with simple, colorful bold interfaces. The results are often striking, such as the visually compelling Weather app.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview comes with a full suite of apps, such as the visually compelling Weather app.Click to view larger image

However, in the pursuit of simplicity and tablet-friendliness, Metro apps often sacrifice power and functionality. The best example of this is the Mail app. On the plus side, it's simple, colorful and makes it very easy to add and read mail from multiple mail accounts. On the downside, it offers very few tools that you expect in a modern email program, such as creating rules to automatically route mail to specific folders. In smartphone and tablet-based email software, these limitations aren't unusual, because those devices typically aren't someone's primary computing device. But you expect more in a desktop or laptop app. The Mail app simply won't be up to the task for most users of desktops and laptops.

The Metro-based Mail app is simple, colorful and makes it very easy to add and read mail from multiple mail accounts.Click to view larger image

Where the Metro apps generally shine is in their ability to grab information from elsewhere and display or use it in some way. For example, the Calendar app automatically grabs the birthdays of your Facebook friends and displays them on the proper day. And if you've created a Google account, it will also automatically populate and sync the Calendar with your Google Calendar information. But once again, powerful tools are missing. I found the display of people's birthdays distracting and looked in vain for a setting that would tell the calendar not to display them. And I also didn't find a way to display multiple Google calendars; it only displayed the default one for my account.

Other apps are more useful, and some play to Microsoft's strengths, such as one that lets you link to Xbox 360. You'll be able to not just review your account and make changes to it, but play Xbox 360 games as well. And I found the Remote Desktop Metro app to be a paragon of simplicity. Within a minute or two I was able to take remote control of another computer on my network.

Metro apps do take some getting used to. They don't have menus, and so it's not clear at first how to access certain features. But right click anywhere on the screen, and a serious of icons appear for that app, such as adding locations in the Weather app, or viewing all of your accounts in the Mail app. There is one a very simple and useful navigational tool missing, though: There's no minimize button. That's because you don't minimize Metro apps -- you just you switch away from them.

A disappointing cloud

Microsoft is betting part of its future on the cloud, so it's no surprise that one of the built-in Metro apps is for Microsoft's cloud-based storage service, SkyDrive. The SkyDrive app, as with other Metro apps, is simple to use, colorful and easy to navigate.

But rather than being integrated throughout Windows 8, SkyDrive is a standalone cloud-based storage service, so you can't automatically back up data to the cloud and make it available to multiple devices, or have data on SkyDrive automatically sync to Windows 8. Cloud-based syncing is relegated at this point to syncing your settings across devices, such as language preferences, background themes, your account picture and browser settings including bookmarks.

One of the built-in Metro apps is for Microsoft's cloud-based storage service, SkyDrive.Click to view larger image

The lack of cloud integration is a big disappointment, but Microsoft claims that this will change in the future. The company says that eventually SkyDrive will be available from any Metro and Desktop app, so that you'll be able to save a file to SkyDrive and open files from SkyDrive directly in Windows 8. SkyDrive will be combined with Microsoft's syncing software Mesh so that data will be automatically synced to and from the cloud. And you'll even be able to stream audio and video from a remote PC.

I found no evidence of any of that in the current iteration of Windows 8, so we'll have to wait for updates to see if Microsoft delivers on those promises.

The Windows store

I'm not a fan of closed stores on the general principal that freedom in computing is always a good idea. But as with the Apple Store for iOS, the only way you'll be able to get apps onto Metro is via the Windows Store. This contrasts with the approach Google takes with Android, in which you can download and install apps in many different ways, not just through Google's Android Market. (Over on the Desktop, though, you can install applications in the same way you did in previous versions of Windows.)

The Windows Store at launch is a lonely place; there are very few apps there. When I went there for this review, the Productivity section, for example, had a grand total of five apps, and that included two that were already pre-installed on Windows 8. Travel, meanwhile, had four apps, including one already pre-installed. Other categories were similarly bereft of choices. I would assume that over time the store will be more populated with apps, but it has a very long way to go before it's a winner.

When reviewed, the Productivity section of the Windows Store had a grand total of five apps, and that included two that were already pre-installed.Click to view larger image

Problems with the store go beyond the dearth of apps to download. The Search charm doesn't work inside the store, and I couldn't find any place inside the store itself to do a search, either.

The result of all this? At this point in development, you won't spend much time in the Windows Store. And although over time you'll likely see more apps there, if Microsoft doesn't add search capabilities to the Windows Store, it will be far less useful than it needs to be.

Conclusion

If you haven't downloaded Windows 8 Consumer Preview yet, and want to try it, the setup can be downloaded from Microsoft's website , while the .iso images can be found here .

The new version of Windows breaks with its past, and for tablet owners that will be a good thing. The new Metro interface is ideally suited for tablets and touch. But desktop and laptop owners will likely see it as a mixed success. Metro apps are more visually compelling than Desktop-based ones, and do an excellent job of integrating information piped in from the Internet. But the Desktop is underpowered compared to previous Windows versions, and overall the operating system feels more natural to touch-based interaction than it does to mouse- and keyboard-based use.

I certainly look forward to using Windows 8 on a tablet, because it offers useful and innovative features, such as displaying changing information directly on tiles. I can't say that I'm as enthusiastic about using it on a traditional computer, though. Switching between Metro and the Desktop feels awkward, and I never shook the sense that I was using two different operating systems. While I appreciate Metro's new features, I think Microsoft should have worked on adding new features to the Desktop as well, and done a better job of integrating the separate interfaces.

Given that the software that many people use on a daily basis -- Microsoft Office -- works only on the Desktop, and that the next version of Office will be a Desktop app as well, many people will spend a good deal of their time on Windows 8 desktops and laptops using the Desktop. I certainly will. So while I'm looking forward to taking advantage of Metro's new features, I'm not at all pleased to know that for most of the time, I'll be in an interface that Microsoft seems bent on making worse, not better, with this version of Windows.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com .

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This story, "A deep dive into Windows 8 Consumer Preview" was originally published by Computerworld.

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