Review: Windows 8 Consumer Preview Features

New Windows 8 logo imageNow that the fanfares have died down, I thought it might be time to look at the Windows 8 Consumer Preview after a few weeks use and abuse. Having successfully run the Developer Preview, released late 2011, on both real and virtual hardware, I anticipated Consumer Preview without the usual anxiety for a Microsoft Beta product.

That’s not to say it’s finished; despite over 1000 improvements, Windows 8 Consumer Preview isn’t feature complete and there are a number of changes to be implemented for RTM, Release to Manufacturing, which is the final shipping build of the operating system.

I have to say the few rough edges have been smoothed, Windows 8 runs fluidly and feels like close to a finished product. You have to like, or at least tolerate the Tile-based Metro UI (User Interface), which dominates Windows Phone devices and is a central pillar of Microsoft’s cross-platform ambitions.

Windows Consumer Preview 8 Metro UI start screenMetro is the gateway through which you pass in order to get to anything; the tiled desktop is your homepage, menu and search facility across the whole of Windows. Even passing through to the conventional (Windows 7-style) desktop, you will find the Start menu is now gone completely.

If you have a touch-enabled device – phone or tablet – then the touch screen support is central and provides a reasonably intuitive experience for touch and swipe operation. Metro UI looks good, contemprary, is easy to use, and it works without crashing or lock ups. It’s even smooth in virtual hardware and on the legacy iron that sits under my desk. Microsoft has enabled “magic corners”, taking advantage of user habits with the Start button (bottom left corner of the screen) and the Show Desktop button (bottom right corner). That missing start button corner now supports tool tips, a start button-lite and on right-clicking, a power-menu of sorts.

Gesture Support
Promised touch features have now appeared in Consumer Preview. The rumour-fuelled Semantic Zoom is now in place; you pinch on the Start screen to display the whole thing in a single, miniaturized screen, and from there, you can navigate, select, move and rename groups.

Switcher. The basics of task switching are still there – flick from the left edge of the screen or use the ALT + TAB keyboard shortcut, but in the Consumer Preview, the new Switcher UI goes live. Swipe in and then down from the left edge of the screen, or by mouse into the top left corner of the screen and then down. Switcher presents thumbnails for each running app which you can click or tap to switch to it, pull an app out and down to quit it, or rearrange the order of apps using touch or the mouse.

Swipe up from the bottom of the screen, you get the hidden App bar containing a restyled All Apps list. Mouse users can use a new feature called Push to scroll to quickly zoom from one end of the Start screen to the other by pushing up to an edge of the screen.

The Metro start screen continues to accumulate features, including the ability to pin any executable, web page, contact, or document.

So like certain Linux desktops (KDE for example) Windows 8 provides common functions by mousing or touching into the four corners of the screen. The four corners represent the mouse-based way to access system-wide features, and they work equally in both the Start screen/Metro-style UI and the desktop. Microsoft expects them all to co-exist indefinitely. We shall see.

With Metro on top and various tweaks to Windows underneath, there is a learning curve, enough disruption to the old way of doing things (right back to Windows NT), enough to throw some users. Whether Microsoft can convince us that Metro is capable of re-inventing the desktop as it did Windows Phone, is yet to be proven.

Customisation
Somehow Microsoft was surprised by the bile heaped on the single green desktop background and colour screen for Developer Preview, as if people’s desire to tinker with the look and feel was something new. Customization features are beginning to appear in this edition, expect more in the final release.

Metro Apps
Some of these are derived from Windows Live Essentials and since they lag behind the developed of Windows 8 itself, have been politely branded as App Previews. Get used to Music and Video, Windows Store, Maps, Weather, Finance, Internet Explorer, Mail, Photos, Calendar, (instant) Messaging, People (contacts management, like the People hub in Windows Phone), You will also find Xbox Live and Xbox Companion. Not being an Xbox man, I won’t try to pass judgement.

The Windows Store is now live for the Consumer Preview, containing only free apps to the time being. Microsoft expects developer significant uptake. If there isn’t, Apple and Google are going to mop the floor with them when it comes to the app count in the respective stores.

Actually Metro apps are still thin on the ground, but there is a conventional desktop in there for all the legacy applications (like MS-Office, amusingly) and most of the business and corporate customers are going to drop their users right into that.

The good news is you can now close Metro-style apps! You can do so using the keyboard (ALT + F4) or by swiping down from the top of the app screen to the bottom. No more of that phone-OS suspending of apps until the system runs out of resources or something crashes.

Internet Explorer 10 Metro
One place where you can directly compare Metro and legacy: Metro Internet Explorer 10 looks significantly different from the legacy (get used to it) version on the desktop. It is designed for touch screen operation, that means big buttons and uncluttered layout. Metro Internet Explorer 10 does not support plug-ins; so no Flash player in-page. We’re dependent on HTML 5 for our media on the Metro IE’s Web, otherwise you have to drop through to the conventional desktop and the conventional IE 10 browser windows.

Metro IE 10 gets a number of improvements to make it more attractive. Panning and zooming now include keyboard-based zoom and double-tap zoom just like on my two-year old smart-phone! You can swipe directly on the page, to the left or right, to trigger Back and Forward navigation, respectively. A new InPrivate button on the Tabs bar lets you open a new InPrivate tab more easily.

Windows To Go
Windows To Go enables you to carry Windows 8 on a USB drive and boot it in any machine. You can take a reduced version of Windows with you and access your data on any machine that supports Windows 7 or Windows 8. There’s a whole article on this one, so bate you breath in anticipation.

SkyDrive Integration
SkyDrive, which is Microsoft’s own cloud service, is a part of Windows 8. There is a SkyDrive Metro application lifted from Windows Phone to make file sync’ing easier using your SkyDrive account. Browser-based tools and third-party add-ons should no longer be necessary. What this enables is Windows Live Sync, to synchronise files and settings across devices.

Charms
Mouse into the top-left corner and you invoke a global Back action; a pop-up menu lists running apps and the desktop. Click on items to navigate to them, close apps, rearrange windows, and more. This is nothing like the ugly hack we had in the developer Preview edition.

Mouse into the upper-right or lower-right corner of the screen and you’ll access the Charms interface. A new user interface component, Charms provide common controls via… what we keep wanting to call the ‘Charms bar.’ It’s not a dock, its not a tool bar. Charms will support Windows 8 touch and mouse gestures, making Windows 8 easier to navigate.

It’s not all perfect however. Despite the new Task Manager interface providing the utility we’ve wanted for years, the ghastly, over-cluttered and confusing Windows Explorer, saddled with a ribbon interface, remains a minus point, with or without the improved file-copy experience. There’s also a system-wide spell-checker as a Windows 8 platform service. Which would be great for any app that uses standard Windows text controls if only the spell-checker lexicon was any good. C’est la vie.

You can get the Windows 8 Consumer Preview from the Microsoft download site. Expect the release of the final, full version some time in Q4 2012. AJS

64-bit and 32-bit (x86) versions available. Download size 2.5 GB
Sha 1 hash — E91ED665B01A46F4344C36D9D88C8BF78E9A1B39
Product Key: DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J or NF32V-Q9P3W-7DR7Y-JGWRW-JFCK8.

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About Allan J. Smithie
Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.

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