Tuesday, April 17, 2012

01 - Start Screen

The latest version of the world’s most widely used operating system, Windows 8, was developed with a vision of unifying the interfaces used on the Operating Systems of tablets and traditional PCs. When we reviewed the Developer Preview of Windows 8 late last year, we found the Metro interface to be fresh and invigorating; but we also found it a lot lacking. In this review of the next preview version, the Consumer Preview, we say that while Microsoft has improved considerably on an already-excellent effort, it has yet to smoothen out all the uneven edges. Read on if you want to know our thoughts. You can also find the link to the free, licensed download of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, at the end of this article.

Download and Installation

There's not much that has changed from the Developer Preview as far as download and installation of the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 goes. The few changes that have been made aim to make the download and installation process easy for the average consumer.

There are two ways you can get the Windows 8 Consumer Preview:

If you have an Internet connection fast enough to download nearly 4 GB (for the 64-bit version of Windows 8) worth of data in a few minutes, then you can go for the standard installation method of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which would download a Setup file, and then install Windows 8 through the Internet. The other option is to download the entire setup file prior to starting the installation. You can download the .ISO file and then use the Microsoft Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool to flash the ISO to a USB pen drive or a blank DVD of the required capacity. From there on, it works like a standard software installation. When you use this second method to install the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you can upgrade the Windows 8 Developer Preview OS (if that is already installed on the PC), perform a clean installation of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and upgrade an installation of Windows 7 that is already installed on the PC. We haven’t tried upgrading an installation of Windows 7 (which requires a minimum of 20 GB of free space on the Windows drive) but the other two worked fine. Just keep in mind that if you want to upgrade a previous installation of Windows, you would need to start the installation of Windows 8 Consumer Preview from within the installed version of Windows. If you want to perform a clean installation of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you would need to boot to the USB/DVD created from the downloaded .ISO image. Once installed, the new OS provides a few setup features which reminds us of the initial setup steps found in modern smartphones. It looks to us like Microsoft is hell-bent on making the use of Windows 8, right from the start, as easy as using a modern smartphone.

Metro User Interface

02 - Start Screen, scrolled

If you have been following the development of Windows Phone 7 and/or Windows 8, you'll surely be aware of the Metro User Interface and its advantages and limitations. We won't delve into all the details here, but we'll take a look at the most prominent changes to the UI since the release of the Developer Preview of Windows 8 last year.

One of the more minor changes to the user interface, but which makes a big difference in terms of usability is something that we found to be a major problem with the Developer Preview – the navigation of the main Start interface.

While in the Developer Preview, we had to click and drag the tiny scrollbar at the bottom of the screen if we wished to navigate within the main Start screen, in the Consumer Preview, simply moving the mouse left-right in the main "Start" interface now scrolls the screen. However, this much-improved method of navigation has not been brought into all the Apps; in the Photos app, for example, we have plenty of albums listed - but moving the mouse cursor left-right does nothing. We are once again forced to find the archaic horizontal scroll bar at the bottom of the screen in order to move the screen to the left or the right. Such an outdated navigational element seems completely out-of-place in the otherwise bold Metro UI. We're pretty sure such minor niggles would be fixed in the release version of Windows 8, but still - the niggles do exist currently.

03 - Start Screen, zoomed out

One of the conversation-worthy changes in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is the way you login to the system - as an alternative to the standard password login, you now have the option of setting either a PIN or a picture password. The picture password is perhaps the most insecure (and the most fun) method of logging into Windows. The OS allows you to select your own picture, and then you can make three gestures (with a finger on a touchscreen, or the mouse in a traditional computer) which need to be repeated in a similar order and manner to login every time. In case you forget the gestures, never fear, the standard password option can be used.

The main "Start" screen has got a few new options to facilitate customization. There now exists, in the bottom right corner of the Start screen, a button that can be clicked to zoom out and view the entire grid of tiles in the Start screen as arrays (see above image); each group of tiles can then be moved around and arranged as desired. The background colour for the Start screen can be changed and Microsoft has provided certain patterns which can be selected to be overlaid on the background colour. While there are options to change the lockscreen image to any image of your choosing, you cannot yet use your own image as a wallpaper for the Start screen.

There are three OS-wide Metro features that we kept using repeatedly, and feel will change the way you work with Windows:

1) App Switcher

2) Charms Bar (App Settings and App Actions)

3) Split-screen Apps.

06 - Start Screen, App Switcher left edge

The App Switcher comes up if the mouse pointer is held at the top-left or bottom-left corners of the screens; the Start screen is shown at the bottom-left corner, with other open Apps present in a column on the left edge of the screen. If we right-click on the thumbnail of an App displayed here, we have options to close the App or snap the App to the left or right portion of the screen. Simply clicking the thumbnail of the App would display the App fullscreen. We find the App Switcher (Windows key + Tab) an excellent way to move between open all open applications and close them or run them in the splitscreen mode detailed later in this review, since the widely used Alt+Tab switcher is quite buggy; there are times when currently open Metro Apps are not displayed for Alt+Tab switching. Metro Apps, akin to Windows Phone Apps, don't have an Exit/Close option and if you prefer that only essential Applications are kept open in order to keep the RAM free, the App Switcher is a must-use.

04 - Start Screen, Settings right edge

If the App Switcher lives on the left edge of the screen, the Charms Bar can be found by pointing to the bottom-right or top-right corner of the screen anywhere in Windows 8 (see above image). The Charms bar is a navigational menu with options that you can access wherever you are in the system. It consists of five buttons – Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings.

The Search function can be used to search for anything on your computer – whether it be applications or settings - just open the Search app and start typing to search for any required item. The Search function also comes into play if you press the Windows button (on a keyboard) and start typing. If you were used to the Start-search functionality of Windows Vista/Windows 7, this should be easy to get used to. The Share button allows you to view share options for the currently running application among social sharing apps. Clicking the Start button takes you to the Start Screen. Devices allows you to access and change the settings of Devices connected to your computer. Settings lets you access context-specific App Settings, in addition to six basic system preferences (WiFi, Audio, Brightness, Notifications, Power, and Language) with an option to access more PC settings.

The Charms Bar was invaluable to us to see the various settings available in the new Metro Apps. Although not much is available, the fact that this menu is available for all Apps is a good thing.

05 - Start Screen, App Actions bottom edge

When a right-click is performed anywhere in the Metro UI, the bottom edge of the screen brings up another set of context-sensitive options, called App Actions. In the Start screen, the only option available upon right-clicking is to view all applications present in the system as a list (see above image). In the Videos App, this right-click bar at the bottom of the screen brings up options to play/pause, rewind, forward, etc. Considering the fact that Metro apps are utilitarian, with no clutter and no menus, App Actions becomes a much-needed part of the Metro UI. While we certainly felt something was lacking since there were no full-blown menus in Metro Apps, the App Actions bar presented the requisite options in various Apps, as required. The options available in the App Actions bar also vary based on the context; while composing an email in the Mail App, we were presented with a variety of editing and formatting options. In the Photos App, if a photo is selected there are options present to make it the default image for the Photos App’s live tile or delete it. These options are not displayed otherwise, when no photos are selected.

10 - Apps, Splitscreen

Split-screen Apps is a feature that we didn’t find much use for in the Developer Preview version of Windows 8. Currently, however, with the expansion of available Apps for Windows 8, the split-screen mode for Apps is something that we found ourselves constantly using. As depicted in the image above, this mode becomes very useful to run certain Apps such as the Music App (we foresee Facebook/Twitter feed Apps becoming common-place in the split-screen mode) while we work in the larger portion of the screen. The split-screen mode in Windows 8 provides an easy method to run an App on the side for glanceable information, which has not been available in previous versions of Windows, although multi-tasking in previous versions of Windows has always been powerful.

Desktop Interface

14 - Desktop Interface

The Metro User Interface is very nice eye-candy, but what about the applications that we are used to working with in Windows? Will they be compatible with Windows 8? As far as we can tell, we are yet to run into any compatibility with applications in Windows 8, since Microsoft has kept the old Windows interface in the new Desktop Interface. As can be deduced from the image above, we have tried out a variety of applications which were not built for Windows 8. Each of these applications works without issues in Windows 8. Features introduced in Windows 7, such as Aero Snap (clicking and dragging the title bar of an open application to snap it to the left/right to tile vertically or snap it to the top of the screen to maximize the application).

Media Apps - Photos, Music, Video

13 - Apps, Photos

The Photos App is clean and minimalistic, and showcases the design aesthetic of the Metro UI very well. Like we said before, Microsoft still has to improve the horizontal scrolling when using the mouse - in the Start screen, moving the mouse pointer to the left/right edge of the screen scrolls horizontally; in all the Apps, though, we need to use the frustratingly difficult-to-use scrollbar at the bottom of the screen. As you can see in the image above, Photos pulls in photos from Facebook, SkyDrive and Flickr. If you don’t want to use Skydrive or Flickr, those tiles can be switched off using the Settings for the Photos App. If you have photos in your Google Picasa account, you’ll be left out in the cold here; the Photos App currently has support for displaying online photos from Facebook, SkyDrive and Flickr only.

Once you dive into your own Pictures library or Facebook album, each separate photo album is displayed as a vertical tile, very much like the main page for Photos. It’s a new and eye-catching way of browsing through photos, but with very limited functionality for editing/modifying the photos. If Microsoft brings in at least some of the functionality that its Windows Live Photo Gallery currently provides, it would make the Photos App a must-have. If not, we’re sure some capable developer out there would whip up the perfect Photos App for you to use (a few are already available on the Windows Store).

07 - Apps, Music

Content that has been accessed using Windows Media Player for well over a decade is now accessed by two new Apps – Music and Video. Both these Apps plug in to the Zune marketplace, which currently has limited use in India. The Zune service cannot yet be used to purchase music or videos in India. By changing your location setting (in Windows) to the United States, you may be able to browse the huge library of content in the Zune marketplace. We’re hoping that Microsoft comes up with some solution for the huge populace in our country who would begin using Windows 8 upon release.

The Music App does not just display a laundry list of songs that you have. It displays three sections (see image above) -Spotlight, Collection and Music Marketplace. The Collection section displays songs from the Music library on the hard drive, while the Spotlight section seems to be for featured artists and the Music Marketplace displays top content from the Zune marketplace. The Spotlight and Music Marketplace sections are aimed to make music discovery and acquisition easier; but like we said, unless the Zune Marketplace is accessible to those in India when Windows 8 launches, this App and the Video App would be showpieces with no functionality whatsoever. Apart from that, we found this App to be quite capable with a highly useful split-screen mode which makes listening to music on the side (pun intended) a refreshingly easy task.

08 - Apps, Video

As for the Video App, it works much the same as the Music App and supports all video formats that Windows Media Player in Windows 7 supported. There’s no video editing here so we’ll have to wait and see if Microsoft releases a Metro-styled version of Windows Movie Maker or if they decide to let third-party App developers provide solutions through the Windows Store. Of all the included Apps in Windows 8, we found the Video App to be the most buggy. It freezes quite often and throws up error messages. If you would still prefer to go the old-school way, Windows Media Player is still hanging around but you would need to use it in the Desktop interface as there is no Metro-styled version of the Player.

Productivity Apps – People, Mail, Calendar

09 - Apps, People

The image above is a view of the What’s new section of the People App. The People App attempts to be a one-stop shop for all your online contacts. In our time with the Consumer Preview of Windows 8, we found that what the People app does do, it does it admirably. So admirably, in fact, that when a basic feature is missing it makes you frustrated that such a beautifully designed App could be so lacking.

The People App easily pulled in our Contacts info from our Gmail accounts and our Facebook accounts but it doesn’t yet have the ability to combine information from multiple accounts for a single contact into a single entry in the People App (as far as we could see); we think it should be able to do that in the final release of Windows 8 since Windows Phone 7 has the ability to group the same contact obtained from different sources. Once the People App links successfully to your Facebook account, you’ll see updates from your Facebook newsfeed (or your Twitter timeline) in the What’s new section. Status updates posted by you, your notifications, your photo albums are all available under the Me section. The All is nothing but a grouping of all the contacts who have been synced from the various online accounts that you have linked to the People App. You can use the Messaging App to talk to Facebook friends who are online, but you can’t use it to send offline messages or chat with them via Google Talk.

The Mail App has a similar layout to the Mail Apps which are currently the rage for Tablets - there is a list of the messages in the selected folder on the left, and a view of the selected email on the right. Right-clicking brings up the App Actions from which you can select the option to switch folders or accounts. If you maintain multiple email accounts, you will find this feature quite useful. Currently, however, the only email accounts that can be automatically synchronised with the Mail app are Exchange, Windows Live Hotmail and Gmail accounts. It should be possible to connect email accounts from other service providers by providing their respective server details, but we haven’t tested this out and so can’t comment on this. The push notification feature of the Mail app is about 10-20 seconds slower in notifying you of new email than the Android Gmail app and considering that Windows 8 and the included Mail App are not Google products, we found this to be quite impressive. One surprising shortcoming is the lack of a Trash in Mail - if an email is deleted from the Mail app, it is lost forever. Other than that, the Mail App is something that we constantly use and are comfortable with using. It looks good, and fulfils the basic requirements.

Not much to mention regarding the Calendar App; we just wanted to say that no extra setup was required. The Calendar App simply pulled all details from our Google Calendar account, and the Live Tile on the Start screen kept reminding us of upcoming appointments. If you would care to view the first image in this article, you may notice that the Tile for the Calendar App is not only showing the date (when we took the screenshot) but also a test appointment that we created in our Google Calendar. Since we’re used to creating appointments and reminders for events in Google Calendar through our Android smartphones, the fact that Windows 8 can just pull this information seamlessly from Google and display it on the Start screen is nice, to say the least.

Windows Store

12 - Windows Store

The Windows Store, which will be the only Microsoft-sanctioned place to download Metro-style Apps for Windows 8, has 110 Apps as on 17th April 2012. Of these, a good number are the pre-installed Apps provided by Microsoft – such as Photos, Music, Video, Mail, Calendar and so on, and there is a fair share of games as well.

However, the number of third-party (read: non-Microsoft) Apps is quite less. If the quantity of quality Apps for Windows 8 does not increase by the time Windows 8 launches in its full version, any PC with an ARM processor running Windows 8 is going to be severely handicapped. Since traditional Windows applications won’t run on ARM processors, these Metro-style Apps are the only Apps available for PCs with ARM processors running Windows 8. The situation is more critical for Tablets, since most Tablets with Windows 8 are expected to be released with ARM processors. If Windows 8 has to dethrone the current Tablet king, Apple’s iOS on the new iPad, and not become a “miss” like Android on Tablets, then Microsoft would have to do something big, and soon.

The Apps that we tried out from the Store were all beautifully designed; each has utilised the unique functionality available to Metro-style apps in Windows 8, such as the split-screen mode, live tiles and background notifications. Apps such as Carmen Sandiego seem to be built perfectly for touchscreen interfaces that we found it a tad unusable with a mouse and keyboard. Searching for Apps in the Store is a breeze, but here too, there are bugs and missing features related to the viewing of available updates, viewing installed apps, etc. Since we’ve been impressed with the quality of this Consumer Preview version, and the significant improvements over the Developer Preview, we really do hope that Microsoft would be able to smooth out such issues before the final release.

Final Thoughts

Start - Windows logo

So, Windows has a new look, a new logo and a new plan – to bring the intuitiveness of touchscreen computing to a traditional computer Operating System. Does it work? We definitely think it does. On many levels, we immensely like what Microsoft is doing to its Desktop OS. However, the fact that we need to keep going back to the Desktop mode (all posts for The Indian Geek are written in the Desktop mode, for example) just goes to show how immature this new Operating System is.

If you are wondering if you could use the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8 as your sole, main Operating System – we would not recommend it. As a preview version (beta software) it does have its share of bugs, including frequent freezes and hang-ups.

Microsoft has done to their Operating System what users have been doing for ages to troubleshoot - when stuck, switch off and reboot. And what a lovely reboot this OS is.

Let us know your experiences with, and any thoughts on Windows 8 in the comments below.

Download: Windows 8 Consumer Preview


Merwin James said...

Running into a situation where the Shockwave Flash player keeps crashing (causing Google chat and Skype to crash and VLC Media Player to simply stop midway and report errors) and the only thing that can make it work again is a reboot. Bug? I dont know. I hope so. Anyway, read this post quite late and by that time I had already setup Win 8 CP as my sole OS. Lets hope that I can stick out with it till the time MS feel they've readied everything up to release the actual OS.

Any thoughts Dan?

ajcfreak said...

Hi Merwin, thanks for stopping by.

Been using Windows 8 CP for nearly two weeks now. Experienced the first major "crash" which forced a reboot just today. At any given point of time I've got several applications open in the Desktop mode - IE, Chrome, Live Writer and Google Talk - apart from several Metro applications running in the background - Windows Store, People, Mail, etc.Have not experienced any serious crashes or issues so far, even while trying to view some heavy-duty 4k videos on YouTube. I guess you should try isolating the issue by testing different Desktop browsers - IE 10 (Desktop version) seems quite buggy right now. I'd suggest sticking to Chrome/Firefox and switching between the two depending on the occurrence of this issue. Also, is it some specific website that is causing the repeated crash? It might be worth looking into that as well.

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