Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

By Mat Honan on at

Windows 8 is a radical departure from anything Microsoft has done before. When you try it for the very first time, it feels a bit like stepping out onto ice. It is so slick as to be slippery. Commands and icons and apps and menus glide on and off screen and things zoom in and out of its Metro interface in a near vertigo-inducing fashion. Getting your feet beneath you is tricky.

But as you learn your way around the interface, instead of slipping you begin to glide. As your intuition and muscle memory overtake your need to reason out your actions, it becomes a wonderful and efficient way to navigate actions and data. There are still rough spots that can send you tumbling, but the consumer preview is already a far better product than the developer preview that came out in September. By the time the final version ships later this year, it's clear that Windows 8 is going to be a remarkable, daring update to the venerable OS. It is a departure from nearly everything we've known Windows to be. You will love it, or hate it.

I love it.

 

Gestures

The gestures are transcendant. Actions are pushed to the edges of the screen, where you can get at them with your thumbs and they don't take up too much screen real estate. Swipe from the right and the Charms launch (Microsoft refers to the icons in the right-hand side menu as Charms) to help you easily navigate from wherever you are back to the Start screen, Settings, Search, Share, and Devices.

That's very literally the broad strokes, but the little touches are what make the difference. After you tap Settings, for example, your current app's settings appear where that icon was, automatically positioning your thumb or mouse where it needs to be. It's a great productivity touch.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

And gestures have been greatly enhanced and refined to perform complex tasks. For example, you can swipe from the left edge of the display to control your running apps, but that's just the beginning. Depending on how you complete that gesture, you can swap which app is running full screen, run one in a minimised quarter screen view (this is great for apps like music or IM) called a Snap state, or view all the apps you currently have open. You can even grab an app and drag it down to the bottom edge of the screen to quit it. And now, the Metro Start screen always lives in the bottom left corner — it's a memory of the vanquished Start button. Even in the standard Windows Desktop mode, all of these features are there.

Windows is betting a lot on touch. Which is smart. Touch and gestures are the fast-approaching future of user interface. They are simply another way to access and manipulate data. But of course touch is not completely there yet. There are some actions where you will want an input device. So Windows 8 hedges. It lets you go both ways, touch or mouse and keyboard input. Or a combination thereof. (And yes, there's a stylus option too.)

But Windows 8 has made those actions corollaries, by and large, so that you don't have to learn how to do the same things two different ways. If you know how to do something with a gesture, you should be able to accomplish the same thing with a mouse, even though the action is slightly different. While touch works on the edges, mousing is designed to take place in the corners.

So, for example, if you move the mouse to the top right corner of the screen, a ghost-like vision of Charms appears. Drag down from there, and the Charms window appears in full just as it would from a right edge swipe. The logic is that you are going to want to use your mouse for various things on the edges, like scrolling, which the Charms should not obscure. And you want to be able to move your mouse there, without accidentally bringing Charms up. Similarly, Start is always in the lower left corner regardless of input method.

 

A New Look and Order

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

If you aren't familiar with the Metro interface from the developer preview, the biggest change you'll need to get used to is seeing apps take over the entire screen. While you can run multiple apps at once in the background, and even run apps off to the side in a Snap screen, the focus is on one app at a time.

And it really is all app. There are no top side menu bar buttons in Metro. There is no application chrome (the borders and bars and buttons that surround an application's window) whatsoever, for that matter. You can pull up an App Bar by dragging up your finger from the bottom of the display, or by right-clicking with a mouse to access many of the controls that would typically be found in a menu bar. But they are absent until you want them to appear. And that is quite nice.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

Semantic Zoom is wonderful. This was demonstrated in the developer preview, but it wasn't working. Now it is. You can pinch the Metro start screen to zoom out from the tiles so that they all minimise on screen. This makes it easy to navigate across them so that if you want to move quickly from one app on the left side, to a pinned website on the far-right, you can do that nearly instantly without having to scroll and scroll and scroll. While there aren't many apps to choose from yet on Windows 8, once you have a ton of tiles (and you will) this is going to be a great feature.

It also helps with organising your apps. Metro begs for adjusting and personalising on the Start screen, which is basically an app launcher. You can arrange things in all sorts of ways there. You can move tiles from one group to another, rearrange them in a group, or move whole groups. You can name your groups to keep them organized. For example, I named one of mine "stuff that I will never use" and moved it over to the far right. But once you load up that screen with lots of stuff, it gets harder to move things in a full-screen view. So Semantic Zoom makes it very easy to rearrange everything quickly and efficiently.

Now that there are actually a few Metro apps, the Snap state already feels like a vital interface element. It lets you run apps in a minimised, but visible, mode in what's basically a sidebar on the left-side. I loved using the Music app in this way. I can imagine it will be great if you are watching live video of, say, a baseball game while focusing on a work spreadsheet in your main window.

Personalisation was quite nice. Microsoft has added the table stakes to the consumer preview (you can adjust colors and set pictures for the lock screen, for example). But more dramatic is how the company is angling that personalisation to be reflected across all of your devices. Change your profile photo on your slate at home, and it will also change on your desktop machine in your office. Connect to Flickr with Windows Live on your desktop, and your photostream will show up in the Photos app on your slate. In short, the things you do on one device are reflected everywhere. The device is a mere gateway to your data, after all, and so once you personalize that data, you can keep it consistent wherever you go.

 

Applications

And then there are the apps. Microsoft has bundled several of its own Metro apps with Windows 8 consumer preview, and you'll be able to download more from the built-in Store. It still feels pretty barren, although it has been beefed up substantially since the developer preview. But let's look at what comes with it.

Internet Explorer 10 has been greatly enhanced and is simply delightful in Metro. The version of Safari running on my iPad feels primitive in contrast. The full screen version is incredibly responsive, it moves with a natural momentum when you scroll quickly, and slows down as if by friction or gravity. Zooming and panning are great. And using gestures, swiping left or right, to go forward and back just makes sense. It makes navigation very seamless, too. Tap the address bar, for example, and your frequently visited and pinned sites appear at the top of the screen. If you tend to visit the same places over and over again, this makes for a great way to get around the Web.

One downside is that browser plug-ins do not work in IE 10 for Metro. Go to 4oD, and where you should see Flash video instead there's just a gaping black box. Yet Microsoft is trying out a relatively clever way to have its cake and eat it too. Clicking on an icon in the IE 10 App Bar launches IE 10 in the Desktop mode, where everything is supported. Sure it's a mere two-click operation, but it's a little weird. It's unproductive. While it makes sense for people using Windows 8 on a touchscreen, if you are only using it on a laptop or desktop computer that isn't touch capable, this is a chore.

The People app is like a contacts mash-up. Not only does it list your address book contacts, but if you connect services like Facebook and Twitter you'll even see live updates from those people under a "What's New" heading (or in their individual contact listing). If you're a Windows Phone user, you're familiar with this already. You can also pin people to your Start screen and see their Tweets and Facebook status updates right on the start screen. It's integrated with the Mail and Messages apps, so you can pretty seamlessly fire something off, long form or short.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

The Music app is fairly well done, but could use some polish. It is both a player and a storefront. I found the former worked better than the latter. (The Zune branding, contrary to reports, isn't completely dead. When you buy something, you confirm the purchase through Zune Music.) While I enjoyed being able to access and control playback no matter where I was and what I was doing, the storefront experience was still relatively rough. While it's convenient to have store items appear right in the app, I found browsing it inelegant and it seemed better suited to discovery than finding something specific. It beats iTunes, but that bar's so low you'd have to dig to get to the top.

The Mail app may be the most vital improvement from the developer preview, but it too still needs some work. It lets you run multiple accounts, and has some neat features (emoji!). Most useful is the ability to send large files via SkyDrive rather than as an attachment. I also liked having it run in the Snap mode so that I could keep tabs on email while doing other things. But it felt more like mobile mail than a desktop client. While Metro is certainly tablet-optimised, this app made me want to swap into desktop mode in order to see more of my inbox at once, and swap folders more easily.

The SkyDrive account worked well, though. You can choose which files to upload with a single click, and it was fast and responsive. Compared to Dropbox, it's nice to use an app that gives you a visual interface of your remote files.

The apps for Maps and Weather, both of which are powered by Bing, are simply beautiful. They work well, and of course you can pin your Weather tile to the start screen so that you get live weather updates.

Other apps include Finance, Xbox Games, a Camera app, Video, Messaging, and a Remote Desktop — a Metro style way to browse another system.

 

Weird and Wonderful

Shit can get weird too. Twice, when using a keyboard, I inadvertently launched Narrator, a Windows accessibility app that reads aloud all the onscreen actions. This unleashed an avalanche of nearly-unstoppable, certainly not understandable, audio alerts. Did I mistakenly hit a hotkey? Did I three-finger double tap the screen inadvertently (the gesture that launches Narrator)? Maybe. I guess I might have. But when your computer begins suddenly barking stream of consciousness verbiage at you, it's disconcerting. There is so much going on in Windows 8 that it's pretty easy to do things, especially with gestures, without meaning to.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview Hands On: No Going Back

Sometimes that weirdness is serendipitous though. The address bar in Internet Explorer annoyed me at first. It's on the bottom of the screen, which essentially contradicts what years of usage of every single major browser ever released has taught me to expect. Microsoft has done all kinds of usability testing; internally, by monitoring developer feedback and by bringing in test subjects to watch and study their usage. This is a radical action, and I didn't get it.

But after using it for a weekend, and surfing a lot of sites from the tablet position rather than the desktop, I discovered I actually liked it. The address bar is on the bottom because that's where your thumbs probably are when you're holding a slate in landscape mode — and if you're reading a Web page that's likely how you'll be oriented. The desktop version of IE still keeps the address bar up top, where it's always been. But when you're using it in Metro, it's on the bottom, so you can tap and grab it easily. I came away feeling that the bottom side is where the address barshould be on a touch device.

Weird can be brilliant. Weird can be daring. Windows 8 is all of those things.