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Windows 8 review

Good

  • Quick log-in and boot-up times
  • Metro apps look great
  • Sync feature brings seamless transition between devices

Bad

  • Steep learning curve
  • In-app navigation isn’t obvious

Windows 8 has been leaking from Microsoft’s Redmond labs in various iterations since September 2010. Now though, the Release to Manufacturers(RTM) version has been, well, released to manufacturers to start shoving it into their laptops and tablets.

It’s likely to become the world’s most widely installed operating system. So how has it shaped up ahead of its full October launch? And has Microsoft succeeded in creating an app-friendly cloud-integrated operating system that seamlessly bridges the divide between touchscreen tablets and mouse-operated desktop PCs?

Our chums in the US   have picked up the keys to the latest version, kicked the tyres and revved the engine, so we’ve updated our own preview with their initial feedback. We’ll report back when we’ve had more time with Windows 8 and will update this page accordingly.

Metro interface

First things first, Windows 8 is quicker than its predecessor to boot up — averaging 25 seconds. Microsoft claims waking from hibernation is 35 per cent faster than with Windows 7. But it’s the overhaul of the interface that’s the big change here.

Windows 8 draws from the lessons learned from mobile device interfaces and brings them to the world of personal computing in a truly innovative way. In practice, it means cloud access to personal files, updates and connectivity are all interfaced simply.

The first thing you’ll notice is the new Metro start screen. You’ll love it or hate it but, either way, you’ll have to accept it, as you’ll find yourself staring at its blocky, intelligent stacks every time you switch applications throughout your working day. Windows 8 puts menus in an accessible but out of the way place on the screen’s edges. On the right-hand side, the Charms bar provides a unified place to tweak settings, search in-app and across Windows 8, and share content.

No matter what app you’re in, your Windows 8 settings are always accessible from the bottom of the Settings sidebar. And the left edge lets you swipe through your previously used apps.

Microsoft devotes the side edges to the operating system, and the top and bottom to the apps, although in practice it’s not always that intuitive. It generally works smoothly, with moments of clunkiness, but the whole thing will take time to get used to.

Every block on the start screen is a quick-launch app, including the block for the old-style desktop, through which you’ll run traditional applications. They can’t be dropped into folders, but they can be regrouped simply by dragging them about the interface, which extends to the left and right beyond the edges of your screen.

The Desktop tile takes you to a Windows 7-style desktop, if you need to take things back to the old school. Here, you’ll find the familiar Recycle Bin, Internet Explorer, File Explorer and taskbar. CNET.com described it as “a visually jarring jump” and an “uneven compromise”, but perhaps necessary to convince people to adopt the new OS.

Detail test

The Metro start screen replaces the traditional start menu with app blocks that you can move around (click image to enlarge).

Metro apps

Metro apps are largely web front ends built using a series of new runtime APIs. They all run full-screen and can be coded using HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, so they run on both of the processors for which Windows 8 is being developed: traditional x86 and tablet-focused ARM chips. Traditional applications that run in the old-style Windows interface must be coded for each architecture separately.

Because they plug into a common set of underlying APIs, Metro apps can swap data without any further configuration, in much the same way that your Bluetooth keyboard can talk to both your PC and your smart phone thanks to a set of standard protocols. This does away with the need to copy things to the clipboard or save them to an intermediary file as you would with Windows 7.

For example, find a web page you like and you can post a link directly to Facebook through Socialite or to Twitter through Tweet@rama, each of which you’ll find among the Metro tiles. You do this by moving your mouse to the lower left corner of the screen and picking ‘share’ from the pop-up. For those apps that can’t share their content, Windows instead offers the option of taking and sharing a screenshot.

Detail test

Metro apps can share data among one another courtesy of the underlying APIs (click image to enlarge).

Start screen

The start screen has been greatly influenced by Windows Phone 7. Look more closely at our opening screen grab and you’ll see that the blocks aren’t simply dumb app launchers, but information sources in their own right, with recent tweets appearing on the Twitter app, quotes on the Stocks app, temperatures on the weather app, and so on.

Detail test

The weather app is a great example of the kind of graphical data presentation at which the Metro apps excel (click image to enlarge).

Microsoft champions the new start screen as a means to deliver a touch-first experience, but what about those of us who’ll be using Windows 8 on a regular PC? The good news is that the start menu is still there. Hover your mouse in the bottom left corner of any full-screen Metro-style app and up it pops. This is a neat implementation, and the two gel perfectly.

Detail test

The start menu includes options for sharing data, searching the current application and managing settings and devices (click image to enlarge).

Now for the bad news. Click ‘start’ from any regular app in the old-style Windows interface, and in swoop the Metro tiles, which is inappropriate if all you want to do is launch Word to run beside Excel. The world of pointers and pull-downs is being pensioned off.

Why? Look to the app store. Microsoft has spent the last few years in slow decline, while Apple has built a multi-billion dollar business selling 69p iPhone games and £1.99 MacBook apps. By encouraging more of us to do the same through the Metro interface, Microsoft too can expect to receive a passive income for merely authorising each app and taking a cut of the asking price. It’s unlikely Microsoft would be able to do the same on the traditional desktop, where apps will almost certainly continue be sold as they are now.

Detail test

The Windows Store will be the only place you can buy Metro apps (click image to enlarge).

The more forcefully Microsoft keeps pushing us back towards Metro, the quicker we’ll tire of running smaller apps in the traditional workspace and instead opt for Metro-friendly alternatives, using old-style Windows for just the biggies: Photoshop, Office, games and the like. At least, that’s what Microsoft hopes.

Windows 8, then, is a curious mix of tappable blocks and clickable buttons. But our buddies over at CNET.com are smitten, saying: “It’s impressive how well Microsoft has been able to replicate the touch workflow with the mouse and keyboard. We’ve never seen the two integrated quite like this before. The multiple ways to interface with the interface will go a long way toward convincing previous Windows owners, and perhaps even skeptics, that Windows 8 is all that.”

They believe the new start screen displays apps in an elegant way, challenging received wisdom about how apps and icons are presented — icons are an extension of the app itself, streaming info from the app. And although tiles are designed more for touch, they’re not annoyingly large if you’re using a mouse.

A big new feature is multi-touch gestures on touch pads. Three default gestures will come with all laptops: pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scroll along the X and Y axes and edge swiping. The latter offers an easier way to activate the edges on non-touchscreen computers besides using the mouse.

Internet Explorer 10

Internet Explorer 10 works in both halves of the OS, but in slightly different ways. In vanilla Windows 8, it’s the browser we’ve come to know and love — or hate — over the last 16 years, complete with hooks for regular plug-ins and add-ons.

But not in its Metro incarnation. Here, plug-ins are out in favour of pure HTML5. This is in the interest of improving ‘battery life… security, reliability and privacy for consumers’, according to IE team leader Dean Hachamovitch. That means no Flash, Silverlight or ActiveX. If you do need to use these, then switch to the desktop version or, better yet, switch to a site that doesn’t require such legacy support.

Detail test

The Metro incarnation of IE10 doesn’t support plug-ins. The old-style full edition, which runs in the desktop app, does (click image to enlarge).

This is bad news for Adobe, as it will see Flash further marginalised on tablets. If we really are moving into the post-PC era, as declared by Steve Jobs and suggested by the prevalence of Metro, then Flash’s 99 per cent installation base on Internet-enabled desktops will quickly become irrelevant.

Let’s hope this encourages greater adoption of HTML5 by the web’s biggest names, as right now the experience is somewhat unpredictable. Click a YouTube link inside Tweet@rama, for example, and it sends you to the Metro flavour of IE, where YouTube asks you to update Flash — which you can’t. Yet visit the same Twitter stream in Metro IE, click the tweet containing the link to open it in the sidebar, and the video plays using HTML5.

In everyday use, sites load speedily and you can pin them to the Start screen as tiles. It features a new interface too, with the location bar on the bottom, and large thumbnails for open tabs at the top. Tap the location bar itself to search, or to see your pinned sites, frequently visited pages and favourites.

Control panel and preferences

The control panel, too, straddles the graphical divide. A simplistic, touch-friendly Metro version presents the core functions in a bold interface, at the bottom of which a link opens up the traditional Windows 7-style control panel for everything else.

For really quick fixes, there’s also a settings overlay on the start menu within the Metro side of the OS. You can use it to fix volume, network access, brightness and so on.

Detail test

You don’t need to visit the full control panel to make quick changes to common Windows settings (click image to enlarge).

Task manager

Skip into old-style Windows and you’ll see that most of the improvements are under the hood.

In the old-school interface, you can’t launch any apps directly unless you’re prepared to hunt them down through Windows Explorer, keep them permanently mounted on the task bar or clutter your desktop with shortcuts. But clicking ‘start’ returns you to the Metro tiles, where your best move is to start typing right away. A search box pops up to intercept your keywords and narrows down the list of results in real-time. You can then click the one you want.

Detail test

The easiest way to launch an app is to simply start typing its name. Windows 8 found matching results very quickly in my tests (click image to enlarge).

The task manager , has been given a thorough going over and now exists in two forms: a quick and dirty panel for killing unresponsive applications, and a full-on diagnostics tool for identifying and remedying problems. Processes and applications are now split into groups, with inactive Metro tiles marked as suspended.

Detail test

Task manager has been greatly improved, with darker backgrounds for processes consuming the greatest resources (click image to enlarge).

You can organise all processes — active and dormant — in order of their consumption of processor power, memory, disk space and network bandwidth. Those using the greatest resources have darker backgrounds, making it easy to see at a glance which processes are hogging your PC’s resources.

Other tabs let you see each of the columns in graphical form, split resource usage by user, remove items from your Windows start-up sequence without digging around in the config files, and view historical resource consumption app by app. This latter feature concerns itself primarily with CPU time and network bandwidth, so you can quickly ferret out both which apps are slowing down their siblings (and potentially draining your battery), and which risk hitting your Wi-Fi or 3G cap.

Ribbon returns

The ribbon interface has been extended to Windows Explorer and adopts a number of context-sensitive add-ons. So, open an Explorer window and click a drive and the existing ‘file’, ‘computer’ and ‘view’ tabs will be joined by a ‘drive’ tab, complete with a highlighted ‘disk tools’ topper to explain what the tab does. This certainly won’t be as easy to use on a touchscreen as the Metro tiles.

Detail test

Windows Explorer has adopted the ribbon, which sprouts new tabs according to what you’ve selected within the main window (click image to enlarge).

Elsewhere in Explorer, ISO disc images now mount natively, so ISOs are presented as a live DVD.

Refresh and reset

The two killer features sit in the control panel. ‘Refresh’ is a digital panacea, removing all third-party apps — apart from those installed through the app store — and reinstalling the base Windows system files without removing your settings, documents or data.

Detail test

The Refresh function reinstalls core Windows files and removes apps that weren’t downloaded through the Windows Store, without losing your personal data (click image to enlarge).

‘Reset’, meanwhile, goes one step further, zapping all of your personal data and cleansing your machine so that it’s ready for selling on.

Conclusion

Windows 8 represents great value. While pricing has yet to be confirmed here, CNET.com reported that if you’re running a Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 computer, upgrading will cost you $40 in the US. For the security and speed upgrades and better driver and utility support, that’s worth the outlay.

Beyond that, the OS represents a serious attempt to unify computing across PCs and tablets in a cohesive way. It’s impressively quick, apps are presented in an original manner that avoids the repetitiveness of Android and iOS, and it hooks in well to your life on the Internet.

While the learning curve may be steep, there are more than enough similarities between Windows 7 and 8 to ease the transition. It’s well worth the upgrade, but it’s not yet the ultimate operating system Microsoft wants it to be.

Check out the video below to see some of the new features of Windows 8 in action.

 

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64 Comments

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