Review: Windows 8 Metro Interface

Windows 8 Developer Preview Start screenQuestion #1: Steven Sinofsky, President of Microsoft’s Windows Division stated in his keynote at the Windows Build Conference:

“We reimagined Windows. From the chipset to the user experience, Windows 8 brings a new range of capabilities without compromise… a bold re-imagination of what Windows could be”

Which, in translation, means the Metro user interface on everything from Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360 console – including the Desktop PC. It’s about a Microsoft ecosystem to compete with Apple, connecting all platforms through Windows Live, Skydrive and an ‘app store’ (court cases notwithstanding). Discuss…

The Metro UI is designed for touch-screen swipe and gesture devices, but supports both mouse and keyboard navigation. Windows 8 Developer Preview is ostensibly pre-beta code and is buggy and slow in places but as a feature set, expect the final version to operate this way; don’t expect any changes in UI behaviour or desktop metaphors – Developer Preview or not, this is it. There is no way I can see Microsoft changing or back-tracking Metro operation part this point for fear of a PR disaster. This represents the Metro roadmap and everyone better get used to it. How ‘without compromise’ is going to work with the corporate customers remains to be seen…

Windows 8 Developer Preview Lock ScreenBeginning at the lock screen, which shares the same features of Windows Phone displaying the date/time, scheduled appointments and unread message summaries, this is the Metro stamp. Personalise it with a hi-res image if you like.

The login screen behind it presents the first opportunity for Cloud Integration. Microsoft’s consumer cloud service Windows Live will be a key component of the Windows 8 ‘user experience’, allowing you to log in to a Windows 8 machine using an existing Windows Live ID, or create a new one from scratch. Windows Live handles much of Windows 8’s connectivity and social media features. There’s a new version of Windows Live Essentials. What’s unclear is how far Microsoft intends to tie users into the Live SkyDrive storage platform, particularly given the recent service outage. Microsoft wants to provide roaming profiles for Windows 8 but doesn’t want to get into providing terra-bytes of Cloud Storage for years to come – certainly not as a free service of the kind killing current Cloud storage providers.

An upward swipe gesture raises the lock screen for you to login. Windows 8 supports three pass-schemes; traditional passwords and PINs (optionally using a Windows LiveID password) or the new Picture Password tool, where you can select a picture to use as a reference grid to create a three-point pass-gesture – effectively a pattern password based on gesture co-ordinates, adapted from certain keypad pattern logins. Rather than remember a number, you’d use a visual mnemonic, say pointing to ‘boat, palm-tree, flamingo’ to trace the pattern on your favourite photo. The co-ordinates are supposedly more difficult to guess or crack.

Windows 8’s Metro Start screen is the new Windows shell, relegating the old Start menu and desktop to simply another application. The Start screen is filled with Metro Live Tiles, showing live information, more than just short-cuts launching applications. The Start screen is entirely the Metro look-and-feel from Windows Phone 7. More than a program launcher, it gives you a panoramic, scrolling view of pinned application tiles.

Tiles can be resized small or large, with different layouts for different tile grids at different screen sizes. Groups of tiles can be created to organise things how you want, without using folders, by simple drag-and-drop.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of new stuff to learn in order to know where to find things and how to operate in Metro. It seems there is a compromise, that is the simplification of the interface for the new user at the expense of speed and efficiency for the power user. Let’s hope this is a surface impression and not a hideous road-block to adoption.

Like all new interfaces, it’s not inherently intuitive, it has to be learned and committed to muscle memory:

  • You are reliant on the Start button in all apps, including the desktop in order to achieve the basics.
  • You will need to know how to invoke the Charms menu to find and set options for each Metro app.
  • You will probably need to learn some or all of the key-combination short-cuts in order to make fast efficient use of Windows 8.

Putting up the Metro UI and the Live Tiles to see music, personal photos, Facebook, tweets and RSS feeds make sense for consumer use, Joe Public with no technical interest in folders and Libraries and the baggage of old-school computing guff that we veterans carry.

Here’s an issue; scroll bars are not very Metro-style at all yet they’re all over the Start screen. It’s disappointing to still see these ugly lumps even in this early build. Sideways scrolling is something we’ve avoided in UI design for years (spreadsheets excepted as a necessary evil), but suddenly it’s ok? It’s still a new thing for me and a more than a little awkward.

There’s a mode called ‘semantic zoom’ to quickly zoom out if you’ve got a lot of Live Tiles spread wider than your physical display; you lose the detailed information on the Live Tiles, but you get to see the full Start screen to select to the tile to use, or reorganise your tile layout.

If you right-click in a Metro app (or Windows key+C), to get the Charms menu, you’ll see a new set of icons – ‘Charms’- a quick way of accessing system and application functions; Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings, with the ubiquitous clock and a set of system notifications. For each, a pane opens up equivalent to a child menu of options. Settings, for example, present the options for network settings, volume and brightness, notifications and power management.

Windows 8 Developer Preview PinningThe good news is you can pin anything to your Start screen. It’s simple for Metro apps, using the Charms menu. For conventional applications, use the Start hotspot, go to Search and Start Typing the program name. This will display the list of programs to choose from. Right-click the one you want then use the Pin icon to pin it to your Start Screen.

No Closure
The new Metro apps follow the Windows Phone model in that they run full screen, they have no ‘chrome’ – that is window borders or control buttons. Microsoft also assumes they don’t need to be closed, so they are suspended when they’re not in focus. If you really need to close them, you will have to use the heavily revised Task Manager to force-quit misbehaving apps or to free up resources.

My issue is that you need the Task Manager quite a lot in this build; you you better pin it to your Start screen or learn the key combination ctrl+shift+esc. We’ll look at Task Manager in more detail another time, as it is now a feature-rich (albeit non-Metro) application.

Windows 8 Developer Preview IE10 Metro versionYou would think Metro is everywhere in Windows 8, in the lock, logon, Start screens and Metro apps. Wrongly referred to as ‘immersive’ applications, Metro applications have only a full-screen mode, with no borders or window controls, minimal controls for anything else, just the content. Internet Explorer 10, for example comes with a seriously stripped-back address bar; url, forward, back refresh, pin (pinning a website Tile to Start) and, ominously, a ‘switch to desktop mode’ button. I think someone realised IE10 needs integration with the conventional Windows desktop if users are to make best use of a lot of web pages. Anything you want to cut and paste, or that interacts with Microsoft Office, for example. It actually seems to have less functionality than the browser on my phone.

IE 10 desktop and IE10 Metro share the same rendering engine, drawing pages accurately and fast, but otherwise the Metro version is a huge disappointment. Just the cosmetic change of address bar and controls at the bottom of the screen is a disorienting experience whilst the lack of access to the feature richness of IE 8 and 9 is akin to suffering multiple amputations (apologies to amputees, but it’s the best metaphor I can produce). The IE10 charm is limited solely to selecting and opening new tabs. There is literally nothing else there.

The Metro-style apps get more functionality in terms of Sharing and ‘contracts’ – the manners and limits on what is shared – which is subject matter for a separate post.

Conventional Rails
Windows 8 Developer Preview DesktopFor anything not written Metro-style, you are back to the conventional desktop metaphor and indeed, conventional Windows 7 desktop; in this case, running as an app in the Metro space. At this point, Metro is exposed as a shell wrapped around, essentially, Windows 7. This is where your ‘legacy’ software including MS-Office and most of your vertical market applications will live for as long as it takes for developers to re-write them. Maybe forever. The promise is that all Windows 7 apps will run in Windows 8, and that any machine that can run Windows 7 can run Windows 8. Backwards compatibility is, we are told, assured.

Scratching the Surface…
…is indeed all we’ve done here; no discussion of productivity tools, mail, developer tools, performance or the real story of browser compatibility in IE10. More on these soon. AJS

3 thoughts on “Review: Windows 8 Metro Interface

  1. Albert says:

    I genuinely hope Microsoft continue to innovate with Windows. We all know they took their eye off the ball with Vista (or maybe XP was still good enough) – but anyway, keeping up with (and continuing to challenge) Google and Apple is ultimately good for customers.

  2. Mark says:

    Windows 8 is just a ploy for Microsoft to get back in the smartphone market, Android took off and Apple is staying steady, yet Windows phones went almost to nothing. If they can make people like the Windows 8 on a PC, they might be able to convince people to get the phone, especially since they plan to integrate them to work together. If you think about it, there are more Windows users than any other operating system, if they can only convert 5% of those people to smartphones, they are on their way back to victory. If you want to try out the Windows 8, or Windows Developer Preview

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