Windows 8: Something old, something awkward

Microsoft's old Windows desktop and tablet-friendly Metro UI make strange bedfellows

InfoWorld's Enterprise Windows blogger, J. Peter Bruzzese, described Windows 8 as "Windows Frankenstein." I'm tempted to call it a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" operating system, but I can't decide which name to assign to the Metro side of the fence and which to the Windows 7-like desktop.

Just as Jekyll and Hyde managed to coexist in a somewhat strained way, Windows 8 hangs together reasonably well -- if you buy into the premise that one operating system has to run the electronic gamut from touch-sensitive small-screen tablets to monster desktops with football-field-size displays. The abrupt personality switches take some getting used to.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Windows 8 Consumer Preview: A visual tour for IT | Blogger J. Peter Bruzzese calls Windows 8 Consumer Preview a "Windows Frankenstein" -- do you agree? | Stay up on key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

The Metro part is cool, clean, fast, and -- as we heard a zillion times in Microsoft's Consumer Preview release presentation -- fluid. The legacy desktop looks every inch like Windows 7 and, with a few infuriating exceptions and some amazing improvements, works much the same way.

How will Windows-savvy users respond to the new touchy-feely OS? In my experience, with rare exceptions, longtime Windows users don't like Windows 8. There's too much change, and it isn't at all clear that the adjustments benefit people who've grown accustomed to mice and "legacy" programs. I've been living and breathing Windows 8 for months now, and I'm still not used to the jarring switch between Metro and legacy modes. It doesn't help that the Metro Start screen has only one level of organization.

And though Windows 8 introduces some nice new features, they're minimal. If you're looking for a business desktop OS with revolutionary improvements comparable to Windows 7, Windows XP, Windows 95, or even Windows Vista, it has yet to be seen. If you aren't planning to get a touch-enabled tablet any time soon, Windows 8 should be near the bottom of your wish list.

But if you're considering a move to a Windows-based tablet, you'll want to dive into Windows 8 with both feet. Technically, Win8 is an amazing piece of work, and if the legacy desktop remains better suited to a mouse and a physical keyboard, the Metro UI succeeds in delivering a clean and smooth tablet experience. Ultimately, Windows 8 will appeal mainly to "straddlers" who want a tablet and good old Windows too.

It's going to take weeks -- more likely, months -- of hard pounding to see where Win8 wins and where it falls short. Clearly, parts of Win8 (the Metro apps come to mind immediately) aren't yet ready for prime time, and it would be unfair to tar Win8 with their dirty preview brush. There are also plenty of niggling bugs, many of which complicate the navigation between the Metro and legacy environments on touch-driven devices.

Microsoft still has work to do and questions to answer. In the meantime, this article offers a critical assessment from a seasoned Windows user, a guide to some of the lesser-known nooks and crannies in Win8, and a reflection on what experienced Windows users will find when they start digging.

Getting set up to test While you can run Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a traditional PC and give Metro a spin using ye olde keyboard and mouse, the complete Metro experience of course requires a touch-enabled tablet. Unfortunately, choosing a test tablet isn't easy.

Microsoft published a list of the machines it used to test Win8 during development, but several of them won't work very well for a Win8 evaluation. You need a screen that's at least 1,366 by 768 pixels to see the multipane "Metro snap" in action, and a wide bezel makes thumb action difficult. That knocks out three of the Microsoft-listed tablets. In the end, only three pass muster: the Samsung Series 7 Slate tablet, the Dell Inspiron Duo convertible, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X220 tablet.

On the desktop, many people install Win8 inside a virtual machine. You'll find detailed instructions for installing Win8 on VirtualBox and VMware Workstation all over the Web, and Win8 will run under VirtualBox, Parallels, or VMware Fusion on the Mac as well. (Note that Windows 8 Consumer Preview won't run under Microsoft's Virtual PC.) Personally, I avoid testing beta operating systems on a VM because tracking down problems gets hairy quickly.

Fortunately, the hardware requirements for Windows 8 are basically the same as for Windows 7 -- and not all that different from Windows XP. If you're going to test Hyper-V, read the section below for additional hardware needs, and make sure you install the 64-bit version of Windows 8. (Hint: Any Intel i-series processor can handle Hyper-V virtualization.) Realistically, just about any PC that's less than a few years old will work.

Windows 8 can be installed by downloading the ISO file and burning it on a DVD or USB drive. Microsoft has a new installation option, where you install directly from the Web. The Web installer gives you three options: migrate your current programs and files, migrate files only, or perform a clean install. To minimize future problems, a clean install is the only way to go. Keep in mind that if you use the Web install, you won't have an ISO backup handy, thus won't be able to test Reset or Restore.

Starting with Metro Start If you have a touch-enabled piece of hardware, it's easy to dig in and start playing, er, testing. If you're stuck with a mouse, you'll learn sooner or later that you can scroll your mouse across the screen and the tiles move with it; you can also drag the slider at the bottom of the screen or use the PgUp and PgDn keys.

I won't pontificate on the Metro Start screen -- heaven knows there's enough of that going around -- but I'd like to point to some details to consider as you're going through the tiles.

As I noted last week, Windows Live is dead, but to see the full extent of the carnage, you should survey the Metro "preview apps" sitting on the Start screen: Mail, People, Calendar, Messaging, and Photos all have direct analogs in the Windows Live lineup. Finance, Weather, Maps, Music, SkyDrive, and Videos all hook into websites.

The Metro apps have two things in common: First, they aren't quite cooked. Mail doesn't even have a way to attach documents or format text. Photos can't upload or manage albums. Contacts can't put a pic to a name. Yet.

Second, the Metro apps can and will be updated asynchronously with Windows itself. If that sounds like the Windows Live shtick, it is: Microsoft originally created Windows Live to let app development proceed asynchronously with Windows releases. We're seeing the same mechanism here. Microsoft claims, with little conviction, that the Metro apps aren't part of Windows itself.

It's entirely possible that the specter of antitrust actions past is influencing the weasel words. It's also undeniably true that Apple and Google are doing the same thing -- but without the market share that Windows enjoys. In the end, you have to believe (or at the very least hope) that the Metro apps are going to get much, much better before the final Windows 8 bits arrive.

We're also seeing Microsoft marketing in action: The Metro Start screen has all sorts of hooks into Microsoft properties, where we can while away our excess time and money.

You can click and drag tiles anywhere on the screen, forming a new group by dragging a tile to the right of all existing groups. Click on the tiny icon in the lower-right corner or pinch your fingers, and you'll see the "semantic view" shown below. To give a group a name, tap and hold or right-click inside the group, choose Name Group, and type in the new name.

In the Windows 7 world, when you install a new app, you usually get a handful of entries on the Start menu. In Win8, those same entries get turned into tiles and stuck in the right-most group on the Metro Start screen. In Windows 7 and previous versions, Start menu entries had a hierarchy -- menus and submenus kept items sorted out. In Win8 there is no hierarchy; the tiles are dropped en masse in the right-most group on the Start screen.

You can put just about anything on your Start screen -- drives, shortcuts, folders, files -- just as you could with your Windows 7 Start menu. To pin an item to the Start screen, navigate to it (using Windows Explorer in the legacy desktop, of course), right-click, and choose Pin to Start. If that doesn't work, create a shortcut to the item, and pin the shortcut. You can pin people to the Metro Start screen as well, using the People app.

What's new with the legacy desktop As you may have heard, the Start button has turned into the Metro black hole: Click in the lower-left corner of the legacy desktop, and you're rocketed back to the Metro Start screen. It's jarring but, like it or not, it's the way of the future. Presumably, tapping the lower-left corner will accomplish the same on a touch-driven device, but this -- and a few other gestures -- didn't work on our Samsung Slate 7.

Right-clicking (or tapping and holding) in the lower-left corner brings up a menu of tasks (pictured right), many of which were buried in Windows 7. This trick works in both the legacy desktop and in the Metro Start screen, although I've seen many reports that people can't get it to work in one or the other.

The Programs and Features, Power Options, System, Device Manager, and Disk Management entries all bring up Control Panel apps of the same name. Event Viewer and Computer Management invoke the respective MMC snap-ins. I talk about the new Task Manager and the new Metro-fied, tiled Search in the next section. Yes, that's the old Windows XP Run box -- and you thought the 'Softies weren't nostalgic.

Several legacy desktop apps work better than they used to. I talked about many of them last week, but one in particular is well worth your attention.

The Windows 8 client contains a fast, if still somewhat buggy, implementation of Hyper-V. In order to run Hyper-V, you need to have a sufficiently recent CPU -- again, any Intel CPU with an "i" at the beginning will do, as will an AMD processor on this list -- and you must be running 64-bit Windows 8.

To get a new VM going:

  • Right-click the lower-left corner, and choose Programs and Features.
  • On the left, click Turn Windows Features on or off.
  • Check the box marked Hyper-V and click OK.
  • Win8 installs the necessary files. Click to restart your machine.
  • You'll see a new tile called Hyper-V Manager on your Metro Start screen; click (or press) it.
  • On the right, click Connect to Server.
  • Choose Local computer and click OK.

From that point, you have to figure out how to get an operating system into your new VM, probably by booting from an ISO file or physical media. Setting up a new VM is amazingly easy and fast with Hyper-V.

If you lament the passing of the Start menu, you're not alone. There's a simple way to bring back much of the functionality of the Windows 7 Start menu -- although the interface isn't exactly elegant, and the spot you have to hit with your mouse runs only a chevron wide.

The trick sets up a shortcut on your Taskbar that points to the location of the old Start menu's All Programs folder. Programs designed for earlier versions of Windows put shortcuts inside that folder in order to appear in the All Programs menu. You can go straight to the trove from your legacy desktop Toolbar, and you don't need Windows 8 to do it for you. Full instructions -- and a more elegant downloadable program -- are available on Microsoft MVP Vishal Gupta's AskVG blog.

Covering all of Windows 8 A major challenge for the Windows 8 user is navigating between the old world and the new. Permit me to run through a handful of additional features -- and limitations -- that may not be obvious.

No doubt you've seen the Charms bar -- the pane on the right side, brought out by a swipe from the right edge or by hovering your mouse in the upper- or lower-right corners -- that includes icons marked Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.

The Search charm works just about everywhere. To search for an email message, for example, go into the Mail app and click or tap the Search charm. If you're looking at the Metro Start screen or legacy desktop, and you go into Search, you see a complete list of all of the programs, er, apps on your computer. The apps are grouped using an algorithm that escapes me, but within each group the apps are listed alphabetically -- making it very hard to find an app unless you know its name. Typing in the search box doesn't help much; try typing "w" and you'll see what I mean.

The Share charm has a long way to go. You would think that Share would allow you to copy items between apps, but it doesn't. At this moment, People, Calendar, Messaging, Mail, SkyDrive, Camera, Music, Video, Finance, Weather, and any application on the legacy desktop all come up with a notice saying the app "can't share." Photos will "share" with Mail -- which means you can click on a photo, select Share, and have an email automatically created with the photo attached. That's the only Share combination I could find that works.

The Start charm cycles between the Metro Start screen and the legacy desktop. That's it.

The Devices charm doesn't do much just yet. The Settings charm leads to a severely restricted (but very pretty) set of Windows settings: volume, brightness, power. In case you were wondering, that's where you go to turn off your PC.

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