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 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 .

Read more about windows in Computerworld's Windows Topic Center.

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

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