Windows 8 Release Preview First Impressions

Windows 8 is a highly controversial product, and it’s clear that people either love the new design changes, or they hate them. The introduction of Metro to Windows is definitely a step towards the tablet market, and it is those with touch screen monitors who will get the most out of Microsoft’s new OS. The whole Metro Style App methodology is a totally new direction for Microsoft, and as a user of Windows for around 12 years, I’m watching it with quiet interest.

But enough of an introduction – if you’re looking at tech blogs for reviews and opinions of Windows 8, you’ll already know all of this anyway. So into some more in-depth opinion.

The Install Process

Windows 8 Install
The Windows 8 install is almost identical to that of Windows 7, except for the later set up process.

Not much to say about this. The colour scheme’s been slightly updated and somewhat muted – but if you’ve ever installed Windows 7, it’ll all seem familiar. A notable difference with Windows 8 is the prompt asking you to log into a Windows Live account – whilst you can set up a purely local account, Microsoft is pushing the use of Live accounts, seeing as their use allows you to sync your settings between all the Windows 8 PCs that you use. A nice feature, but I’ve not yet been able to test how well it works.

The Start Screen

The Metro Start Screen
The Start Screen’s use of live tiles is very effective to give you snippets of information.

The first thing you see when you log into a Windows 8 box is the new Start screen. Infinitely improved since the Developer Preview, when it was barely customisable and permanently set to a shade of vomit green, the Release Preview allows you to pick from 25 separate presets of coloured backgrounds with complementary accents. It would be nice to see more customization on option here, such as the option to pick an image for the background instead of a limited choice of solid colour with some swirly backgrounds.

Windows 8 Start Screen Customisation
Additional options for customisation are welcomed, but there still needs to be more for a screen that will replace most user’s desktops.

The Metro Apps

When I first used some of the Metro style apps in the first Developer Preview, I was dismayed. They were clunky, looked terrible and were worryingly light on features. They’ve come a long way since then, but I’m still struggling to find nice things to say about them. Certainly, they’re now faster, and some of them (especially the new Sport and News apps) look stunning…but I struggle to see the point of them. The fact that they’re full-screen only (with the exception of “snapping” them to the monitor edges) reduces productivity and starts to seem pretty stupid when you realise that many people have 24″, 27″ and even 30″ monitors attached to their computers – they didn’t buy all that screen real estate just to use a single app at any one time.

I’d like to take a moment to focus on two new Metro Apps in particular: Travel and News. The News app is, for me, the best Metro app available and a brilliant example of what can be done with the new platform and the tools provided in Visual Studio 2012. It has a clear, clean interface and its ability to pull news stories about any subject you care to mention from the internet is effective and well executed.

Windows 8 Metro News App
A fine example of the Metro framework, the news app is both beautiful and functional.

The Travel app is an example of an app that aimed high, but fell slightly short. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful, but the execution of the design falters slightly as you scroll through the cities on offer. To it’s credit, it seems to have information on almost every major city in the world – as well as some unusual choices – Callendar, a small town in Perthshire, Scotland with less than 3,000 inhabitants is listed for example. While browsing through each city or location, you are presented with maps, photos and lists of the best hotels and restaurants in the area – unfortunately you cannot click on any of these for more information which seems like a strange omission. Further along is the 360 degree panorama gallery, which appears to source the panoramas nearest to the location you are browsing – this doesn’t always work, as shown by the panoramas of Washington when you look at the aforementioned Callendar page for example. Relevant or not, they’re spectacular and load much faster than similar imagery on services such as Streetview.

The Metro Store is also filling up with some quality apps, but it is clear that this store was designed for swiping through on a tablet and the design seems a bit barren – there seems to my taste to be too much white space which just results in excessive amounts of scrolling to reach the app category you want. Additionally, Microsoft control what apps are in the Store, so why have categories (ie- Government) on display when there are no apps held within them?

The Metro Interface

So, whilst I’m not keen on the Metro apps myself, they certainly have potential and some of them are very well designed and pleasant to use. Interacting with them can however be difficult. The right click menu appearing as a bar along the bottom of the screen is jarring, especially when you consider functions such as Copy or Paste – this adds a lot of mouse tracking time to what should essentially be simple actions.

Windows 8 Charms Menu
The dreaded Charms menu.

Finally – my most hated feature of Windows 8. Charms. Clearly a feature designed for tablets (and a good idea on such a platform where a simple swipe of the finger can bring up extra menus), Charms are simply horrible to use with a keyboard and mouse. Bring up the totally un-intuitive Charms menu by hovering your mouse at the very top right corner of your screen, then dragging down when the icons appear to click them. But it has to be a perfectly vertical downward drag, or they’ll disappear and you’ll have to start over. Only then can you access the settings menu to configure other hidden options for the app that you’re using. It’s not like you can get by without using Charms either, they’re essential in Metro apps and you even have to use them to shut down a Windows 8 machine.

Desktop Aspects of Windows 8

It’s a shame that almost all of the focus on Windows 8 is surrounding Metro. Some of the new features introduced in the background are worthwhile and long overdue. A new file copy-and paste system allows you to pause jobs and run new ones, all while watching transfer rates on a graph and leaving awkward files until the end for you to decide what to do with when it can’t copy them instead of halting the entire process.

Windows 8 Task Manager
The new Task Manager is a real improvement, and now offers several new functions.

The new Task Manager has a cleaner interface, less scary for people new to computers and the casual everyday user – only in it’s “More Information” mode however, the default layout is overly simplistic for such a powerful tool, although clearly of use for beginners. The ability of Task Manager to stop apps from running at startup, previously relegated to the msconfig tool will help people remove crapware from new PCs and speed them up.

Storage spaces and the optimizations Microsoft had made to the boot process are spectacular, with Windows 8 now booting too quickly on SSDs to allow a user to enter the repair tools at boot – a new system had to be introduced.. All of these features are so attractive and well implemented that it seems a shame that to benefit from them you have to put up with Metro.

Windows 8 Recent Apps
Very similar to the implementation in Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich, Windows 8 allows you to scroll through your recent Metro apps.

Equally as confusing as un-intuitive as Charms are “Active Corners” where hovering your mouse in a corner of the screen will perform an action. Top left switches to your last used app, and dragging down displays all of your other recently used apps. Note “Desktop” is considered a recently used app, so you won’t have independent access to anything in that. Bottom left brings up the Start screen, and as in Windows 7 (only on the desktop) the bottom right corner will turn windows on the desktop transparent.

Improved multi-monitor support is welcomed in the Release Preview – with 3 screens, I really benefit from the taskbar stretching, wallpaper spanning capabilities that have been absent from Windows for so long, available through third party software like DisplayFusion. Yet again, an example of Microsoft doing things right with Windows 8.

Conclusion

Microsoft has done a lot of things right with Windows 8. All of the new back-end optimisations and productivity tools are very good, and they’re well thought out. But I can’t shake the feeling that Windows 8 is a tablet interface stuck on Windows. It’s the mutant love child of a classy Windows 7 Ultrabook and a Windows Phone. I’m going to continue using Windows 8 in a VM and I’ll blog some interesting bits and pieces when I find cool features or things that I don’t like so much. Microsoft has the potential for something great here, but it’s not quite there yet.

While all of the desktop features are cool, they aren’t enough to justify a whole new version of Windows by themselves – and it feels like Metro has been tagged on just so Windows tablets can be seen as viable iPad alternatives. And on a tablet, Metro would be good. But the billion PCs and laptops in the world aren’t tablets. And that’s why it feels so jarring every time you’re kicked in and out of a Metro UI. No business in their right mind is going to upgrade to Windows 8 on corporate machines without some way of disabling Metro. Microsoft is taking a huge gamble with this. But I’m just not sure it’ll pay off, or be the massive success it’s predicting – because there doesn’t seem to be any incentive to upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7.