For the past couple monthís the ActiveWin Team has been evaluating the latest phase of Microsoftís next major release of its operating system, Windows 8. Looking back at the developer preview, I must say it was quite comfortable for pre-release code, although it did have its pain points, so I was especially looking forward to the beta which resolves a lot of the problems I experienced while using build 8102. Part of my aim with the latest build is to try using it more in real world scenarios since I used the Dev Preview on partitions separate from my Windows 7 installations. Before we get into the details, letís discuss some of the minor details, such as the new name scheme Microsoft is using for Pre-release code along with a new Windows logo.
Where is the beta?
A month or so before Microsoft released build 8250, sites that had access to early builds of Windows 8 started demonstrating some of the features that users should look forward to. One interesting change was the description of the build, which now was labeled as Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Persons who have been following Windows development closely over the years will remember the routine where Microsoft had the typical Public Developer and WinHec Conferences (now defunct), where early pre-release code was released, followed a few months later by a stable beta with a private beta program where Microsoft invited privileged individuals to join a small testing programme to kick the tires, find the bugs, report them and engage with product teams both virtually and in person. Windows Vista was probably the pinnacle of this form of software development where the company engaged with a super-set of customers who were willing to be on the bleeding edge. One specific difference since Windows Vista, Microsoft has eliminated CTPs (Community Technology Previews) and interim builds. CTPís were more snapshots of the operating system in development, these builds along with interim builds were not at the same quality as a beta, but because of Vistaís long gestation gave testers something to occupy the time while the product was engineered.
With Windows 7, things changed a bit, there was still a private beta, but for the first time Microsoft released a public beta (build 7000), which some of you might remember was announced at the 2009 CES trade show. Subsequent builds were also made public. This in a sense changed the value around private beta programmes that existed prior to Windows 7. Microsoft also noted that the way it tested Windows and improved its quality has evolved, instead of having a beta program with a few thousand individuals versus an opportunity to receive voluntary feedback from hundreds of millions of Windows users was more effective and insightful. This new strategy is called telemetry data, the new science came out of the Customer Feedback Program first introduced in Windows Vista. Microsoft uses this data to find out a lot about how its users are using the product, what works, what can be improved and how it can improve the overall user experience. Microsoft has also brought this strategy to many of its other popular products such as Microsoft Office.
Does this mean it is the end of small controlled beta programs? Microsoft does have beta programs, but these are a bit more sophisticated, highly controlled and very privileged, accessible to key Microsoft customers and partners. The Technology Adoption Program allows Microsoft customers to have an early impact on the direction of future Microsoft code, in fact, these customers are able to make Design Change Request, something that pretty much has become impossible because of the frozen state of code at the beta /Consumer Preview phases of development. When beta testers make DCRís, those are acknowledged, but are more likely considered for the next revision of the product. This is with good reason; Vista was too much of a moving target that suffered from feature creep causing the product to take a long time to reach market. Settling on a feature set, coding it, testing and refining has been a winning formula for Windows with the release of Windows 7 and this strategy continues with Windows 8. For TAP customers they are the crŤme de la crŤme who are able to see something and say, I want that changed and it is likely to be acknowledged and changed if necessary.
Of course, Microsoft will still acknowledge customer feedback in cases where there might be based on lots of customer complaints, the Building 8 blog was a great opportunity for this and a significant amount of changes you will see in the Consumer Preview are largely in part based on comments left on the blog after users tried out the Developer Preview. The Windows Team even noted that over 100,000 changes have been made to the product since September, which is really amazing. So, there are ways to still get your DCRís, but it takes unison of voices.
Why Consumer Preview? The dynamics of beta testing have changed over the years, experimenting with software is more trendy than risky. Bleeding edge still carry its risks and I honestly would recommend, if you are going to install it on a production machine, at a minimum, backup your current installation and dual boot with your current installation instead of replacing it. Along with the new branding is a new logo to go with the new release. The Windows logo has evolved over the years, from a retro window for version 1.0 to a flying window in motion Windows 3.1 to Windows ME and a flag for Windows XP to Windows 7. The new logo representing Windows 8 defines what itís all about, the Metro Language which uses a tile based interface for interaction. I must admit, itís different and I will greatly miss the colorful flag that has been used for the past 11 years to define a recognizable brand. It will have to grow on me too, the perspective look and the simplicity is certainly a departure but also communicates what the platform signifies.
Microsoft has noted if your system can run Windows 7 or Vista, you are in shape to upgrade to Windows 8. Exact requirements were still sketchy until the Consumer Preview reveals what Windows 8 requires to run on a PC. Whether you have a logo PC or youíve built your own PC, the recommendations for the Consumer Preview include:
One new element to Windows 8 is the requirement that Metro style applications have a minimum of 1024x768 screen resolution, and 1366x768 for the snap feature. If you attempt to launch a Metro style app with less than this resolution (e.g. 800x600, 1024x600) you will receive an error message.
Of course, users should be aware that there is more than one way to install Windows 8, over 10 years ago, the only way you could acquire Windows XP was on a CD which you ordered at an online merchant or bought at a brick and mortar store. With the release of Windows 7, Microsoft provided an online element to purchasing and installing Windows, although cumbersome, the Box setup files was Microsoftís first real effort at distributing Windows digitally on a wide scale. Windows 8 simplifies the acquisition process with a Web Installer which makes it easy to both download and create a local backup copy for future use. The digital distribution works this way, you download the installer, launch it and it will download Windows 8, the time it takes is ultimately dependent on the speed of your Internet connection. Microsoft has noted that the Web Installer includes some sophisticated compression technology which downloads bits in 10 MB chunks to ensure it is delivered safely. When you download the installer, the setup program creates a folder called 'WindowsESD' at the root of your C:\ drive (if you have multiple partitions this folder could be on a different one). From there you will find a complete disc image of Windows you can burn to a blank DVD and make your own physical copy or store on a USB thumb drive.
As noted in our Windows 8 Developer Preview article, Windows 8 introduces a less flashy user experience, adopting certain cues from its mobile cousin, Windows Phone 7. The operating system has become heavily touch centric while still maintaining support for the traditional desktop form factors which utilize input devices such as mouse and keyboard. One concern among users I hear a lot is Windows 8 is too heavy on the new Metro look and feel. I admire Microsoftís desire to create a cohesive platform that spans PC, Smart Phone, TV and even console. The company has done a lot over the past 6 months to really make what is literally a completely new user experience as familiar and comfortable as possible. There is a learning curve and I would be lying if I did not say that. Hopefully with societyís ability to embrace new platforms easily (iOS, Android), Windows 8 will be one that will generate similar enthusiasm.
It has its ups and downs and I was very disappointed with Windows 8 Consumer Preview which I was looking forward to work with on a daily basis, but it was not meant to be. My primary computer which you could say is the system you will find me on most of the time which initially had the Dev Preview dual booting with Windows 7. The thing is, the Consumer Preview adds in place upgrade support and I really wanted to evaluate the experience moving from Windows 7 in addition to working with it on a daily basis while maintaining my library of applications. I attempted the upgrade using the familiar preparation tips I have given others over the years, disabled start up items, disconnected any non-essential devices attached to the computer, uninstalled incompatible programs suggested by Windows 8 setup program.
Even after doing this, Windows 8 setup still failed after the first restart. Personally, if Windows 8 decides it is not going to upgrade on this machine, I will just let it remain a Windows 7 machine. I have too many applications and configured it to the point where it is too perfect to discard using a custom install. There is something preventing the installation from completing, I donít know what it is, but I am not going to give up and hopefully the next build (Windows 8 Release Preview) will work with in place upgrades on this install.
Just to provide an overview of what the upgrade wizard is like, itís pretty much identical to Windows 7, but is less overpowering. When you launch the setup program from within a running version of Windows such as Windows 7 or XP, you are greeted by a splash screen which displays a small setup program wizard. One difference in Windows 8 is you are now required to enter the product key before you can proceed. Windows 7 had moved this to the Out of Box Experience, but I assume persons found this either annoying or problematic. Another issue could be related to persons wiping out their qualifying installations which an upgrade version requires to do a compliance check. If you want to do a custom install, you have to boot from the Windows 8 setup medium, this is no longer available when you start it from within a running version of Windows. Windows 8 setup program offers few options when migrating from a previous version of Windows.
Depending on the options you chose during setup, you might have to reinstall your applications.
Here are the options you might see:
If you choose ďNothingĒ, make sure to do the following before you continue:
To put even simpler, this is what you get to keep depending on the version of Windows you are running:
The Windows 8 setup program adds some useful features such as the ability to uninstall incompatible programs discovered on the fly. If a restart is required, Windows 8 will even pick up from where it left off, a very nice convenience. This worked on off in my trials, on one occasion; it said it could not find the installation media, so I had to restart the installation manually. I only had two programs that required uninstalling, one of which was Microsoft Security Essentials (understandable since Windows 8 includes Windows Defender which is a rebranded version of the current Security Utility).
Once you are ready to install, Windows 8 will change to a full screen setup with a simple indicator that notes the progress of the installation. The time Windows 8 takes to install will vary by system, considering that my installation was nearly successful, it took approximately 90 mins to complete. This is on a system with an AMD Turion X2 2 GHz, 4 GBs of DDR2 RAM, and ATI Mobility Radeon X 1600. My data set which consisted around 68 GBs and a library of apps around 108.
The installation goes through some routines such as the following:
After the final restart, you will be taken to the new Out of Box Experience, which we discussed in details in our Developer Preview. Not much has changed in the Consumer Preview. The OOBE now adds an option to choose a color scheme and choose between either a Microsoft Account or Local Account. The Microsoft Account utilizes your Windows Live ID (Windows Live, Hotmail or MSN email) to sync data between all your Windows 8 PCís. So if you want to maintain settings such as Windows Theme, Color Scheme, Bookmarks and other personalized settings, you can do this with a Windows Live ID used to sign into Windows 8.
The Start Screen continues to be the focal point of this release, there is no changing it. You canít turn it off, you canít hide it and you canít customize to a degree that some would desire. Microsoft has listened to customers personal opinions though and there are nice improvements which I will discuss in a little while.
The Lock Screen, a new feature of Windows 8 enables functionality not available in the Dev Preview; notifications are now working and are very handy especially for Calendar, Mail and Instant Messages. I use Windows 8 everyday on my work PC, when I leave my workstation which is in an open area, I always lock my screen. Quickly I can view notifications of which event I have to attend to, in addition to this, I have a notification displayed for unread mail along with my Network status, itís something I was initially hesitant about, but I find it invaluable. I am usually within different places within the same location, when I return from lunch, I am off to the next place I need to be, all I need to do is take a quick glance at my Lock Screen and I know where to go next.
The bulk of my time in Windows is spent mostly on the Desktop, or what is known as the Windows Desktop App in Windows 8. Meeting the new Desktop App, you will be in for a little awakening, I donít want to call it rude, but the furniture has been moved around and replaced, put it this way, 15 years of seeing something in the same place, is no longer there. Well, itís there, just not immediately visible to the naked eye. The Start Menu no longer exist which many might already know from using the Dev Preview, but so is the Start button. The Start button is there but the way it works is this; you can access either it by pointing your pointer to the left hand corner of the screen and click it or hover the pointer to the right hand corner then click Start on the new Desktop Charm bar, new to build 8250. The Desktop Charm Bar displays access to four common buttons; these include Search, Share Contract, Start and Settings button.
The biggest complaint so far among early adopters is the in ability to quickly access Power Options. Yes, I agree, it is definitely out of sight. Personally, thatís not a problem, since I rarely shut down my computer. In fact, I have my system unitís power button set to hibernate the computer when I press it. I can go for up to a month without hibernating. With Windows Updates ability to postpone non-critical updates until the end of the month, restarting is even rare. Another reason why shutting down Windows 8 might become less of a need is the type of systems that will be coming online later this year. Windows 8 will target a new class of devices based up on the SoC standard which features principles such as Connected Standby, which is a low power mode that allows Windows to continue receiving updates and instantly awake from deep sleep while remaining energy efficiency and lasting for days or weeks, especially if itís an ARM based device. The point is, Microsoft is making Windows more appliance like and Shutting down should not come across as such a big deal. There are work arounds for it though, as I previously said, you could set the Power Button on the system unit of your machine to shutdown Windows when you press it, create a shortcut to shutdown or do it through the command line.
The Taskbar in the Windows Desktop App is solely for hosting your favorite apps and working with open applications, nothing more, of course the functionality like Jump List are still there.
If you want to access your Library applications, you do it by going to Start Screen or Pin them on the Taskbar or search for them, which brings us to the Start Screen. Working with Windows 8, you can feel that it is in a stage of transitioning, I look at Windows 8 like I look at Windows 3.0, Program Manager and DOS. The Start Screen is similar to Program Manager in the sense that Microsoft is building an environment around an operating system, but unlike Windows 3.0, Windows 8ís Start Screen is actually the future of Windows User Experience, like it or not. Windows Desktop App is the new Command Prompt; it is like DOS in Windows 3.0 where you go to launch your old legacy DOS apps like you did in the 90ís. Do I like this idea? Well, I have been in the process of adjusting to it since I have been using Windows 8 for a while now, but of course itís a drastic departure.
The Desktop interface features subtle changes that have been introduced based on customer feedback. For instance, the Ribbon based Windows Explorer is now minimized by default, which makes it easier on the eyes. There are some rearrangements of groups within the Ribbon, a lot more accessible functionality such as quicker access to Folder and Search options. In addition supporting opening in Command Prompt, the Windows Team has added Power Shell support to the File menu. Apart from this, Windows Explorer remains pretty much the same since the Dev Preview.
The new Charm bar menu which conveniently list menus for Start, Settings, Share, Devices and Search makes it easier to operate in key parts of the Windows 8 user interface. The Settings menu for instance provides quicker access to the Power Options along with general PC functions such as Control Panel, Personalization, PC Info (System Properties) and Help. The thing about the Charm bar on the desktop is how you have to access it, the quickest way I find is through a keyboard command (Windows + I). When using the mouse, it is not so obvious, since you have to hover the mouse pointer over the right top or bottom corner of the screen to bring up the Charm bar. Not intuitive to be honest. Another thing if you want to access some power user features, you might be a bit lost at first if you are not told where to look. For instance, if you want to open Command Prompt with Admin privileges, you might search for it through the Start Screen, right it and click ĎRun as administratorí from the App bar (which appears at the bottom of the screen). In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft has added a hidden contextual menu just for such Power User features, when you right click the left hand corner of the screen, a menu pops with common options for Command Prompt, Admin Tools, Control Panel, Run, Windows Explorer, Network Options many common tools you would normally have to dig through the Start UI to find. Very convenient, but not easily discoverable and I must say schizophrenic in a sense, since you will be moving all over the UI unless you have developed a good memory map of how the Windows 8 UI functions.
Going further into the Start Screen you will notice differences in how fluid the interface feels compared to build 8102. What I most appreciate is the convenience improvements; the Charm Bar makes a world of difference, for basic things like accessing Power Options. The Dev Preview was rather quirky and I will forgive it for what it was. The Windows 8 Consumer Preview still a little more effort is required because of how the interface is geared towards touch. When you bring up the Charm bar, you donít even click Start to access Power Options; instead, you must click Settings then click in the Power Options list box. Two steps too many, I have worked around this by creating Power Options for shutting down my machine much quicker. If you are keyboard command savvy, you can quickly access some options like Power Options by pressing (Windows Key + I). I think the Windows Team should add a Power Options menu to the right click Context menu you can access when you right click the left hand corner of the screen. In sense, I still donít like the setup for Power Options, it is indeed easier to work withÖcoming from Dev Preview, but for a Windows 7, Vista or XP user, it is definitely an unrefined departure.
Going back to the Start Screen since I went of course a bit, as I was saying, I like the interface a bit more, itís not something I have committed to using every day, but Microsoft is making me use it more because of how applications now function in the operating system. Organization is a key beneficial improvement added since the Dev Preview. For instance, I can setup groups with particular applications. For instance, I have a Desktop, Communication, Media and Favorite groups which adds some sanity to finding and moving through out the Start interface. Another nice feature is the ability to get a birds eye view of all your applications, when you right click your mouse in the Start Screen and click View All Apps, you are able to see everything, which really is nice and is actually a lot nicer to navigate than Start > All Programs, if Microsoft made this the default view, I would be such a fan too. You are able to see Apps, System Settings and Accessories in one go.
As noted, organizing is a lot easier, dragging around apps is still a bit rough and feels a bit unintuitive. One case is when I was trying to organize Metro apps a certain way, I notice every time I moved an app, it shifted another app which I did not want. It was not until I realized, when apps are in one big group, you will always have this design behavior. My work around was to create a group, which requires that you drag an app outside of the un-named group until a separator appears which indicates you can create a new group.
Some form of multi-tasking is now built into Metro, called the Metro App History bar, when you hover your mouse pointer to the left hand corner of the screen whether in the Desktop App or in the Start Screen, a thumb nail interface of open applications is displayed which makes a little bit easy to cycle through both desktop and Metro applications. You can alternatively use Windows key + Tab or Alt + Tab. The only problem I find it with it, you canít cycle through multiple documents from the same application, just the active window to application. You can also use the Metro App History to let you close applications you no longer want to use, including metro apps. Just right click the desired application and click close and thatís it.
I discussed some of the user experience improvements that have been introduced to the Start Screen, some of the other changes users will discover include the name change for Control Panel to PC Settings. PC Settings adds some subtle changes such as additional personalization features such as additional color schemes and consolidation of menus. The color scheme feature is quite nice, although I find the available color palette too dark. Some brighter colors would be nice, although there might be a clash with the Tiles on the screen. There are also some patterns users can choose from. Microsoft has made it officially known that background images will not be supported, which is understandable considering it will camouflage by Tiles.
The Consumer Preview includes a collection of the sample applications, although it removes many of the sample apps introduced in the Dev Preview (which I actually miss). Some new ones include Mail, Calendar, Messaging, Music, Photos, Videos, Skydrive, People, Camera, Maps, Reader and some Games such as Solitaire and Xbox Games. Microsoft announced they will be retiring the Windows Live brand of which many of these new apps included with Windows 8 will be the successors. The apps look quite basic in design, but this would be considered as a hallmark of the Metro Language Design, which focuses on putting emphasis on the app using spacious full screen layouts. Most of these apps are considered as substitutes for Desktop apps when working in Metro, for instance, Music now handles music, while Video obviously handles video. What is particularly interesting is Microsoft now separates media task by media type. My initial experiences with these new Metro apps so far have been so-so, admittedly, they are rather buggy. Sometimes I launch them and they work and sometimes they donít and just close automatically. Usually it will take me at least four launches to get a particular Metro app whether it be Music, Video, Calendar or even Mail to work.
Mail Ė A rich mail client built for Metro, it includes support for both Microsoftís Hotmail Web Mail service and even Microsoftís Messaging and Collaboration Server, Exchange. You can also setup accounts for Googlesís Gmail, I notice there is no support IMAP and POP accounts. The interface takes a bit of getting used to, but is very clean and simple, with big bold text. Mail is deeply integrated into Metro, you will discover some of the synergies when using under the hood functionality such as Contracts, which allows you to easily share information from any Metro app that supports it. For instance, looking at a bunch of photos in the Photos app, I could easily pick and choose the photos and use the Share menu on the app bar which would bring up a suitable app, in this case Mail. Discoverability is always my pain point in Metro, I have to always remember to press right click when I need additional functionality. For instance, when I wanted to format a an email message I was composing, it was just through trial and error I remembered to right click to bring up the app bar which revealed options for formatting my text with additional features. Tools such as Creating a New Message are too hidden and could be a little bit more discoverable. Better use of color could probably make discoverability even better in both the Mail and other metro application UIís. Mail in metro might not be a complete replacement in my personal opinion, but if you are using a Tablet, it certainly will be convenient to use. Traditional mail clients such as Outlook and Windows Live Mail, both of which work just fine in Windows 8 will still remain a robust choice for me when working with a mouse and keyboard. What I most like though especially when using Windows Live services such as Windows Live Hotmail, the synchronization features help me to keep things seamless between multiple PCís and devices. Of course, I am sure Microsoft will improve this client beyond its current iteration.
Calendar Ė a similar case, Calendar features a clean design that integrates with Windows Live services really well. One thing I should note, in order to effectively take advantage of these productivity apps, you should have a Windows Live ID which allows you to keep information synchronized between multiple Windows 8 PCís. Calendar just like Mail is deeply integrated into Windows 8, from functionality like notifications to synchronization with Windows Live services. The interface while basic is functional and makes it easy to create events and keep track of them. Once you setup your events, you can view them a number of ways, automatically the Calendar Live Tile on the Start Screen will advertise your next Task, Task also show up on your Lock screen which I find very convenient.
Messaging Ė This is Microsoftís new instant messaging client for Metro, utilizing a clean UI I actually love this app. The design philosophy behind Messaging seems to be the conversation never ends. You can have multiple conversation tabs open between friends and colleagues, a subtle green bar indicates when someone is online. Clear conversation bubbles make it easy to keep track of messages being sent and received from the recipient. You can quickly move between conversations without losing track. Notifications appear at both the Lock Screen and the Desktop, itís a really easy and fun app to use. Of course, you can chat with not only friends on Windows Live, but also your Facebook friends as well.
People Ė would represent contacts in Windows 8, its universal app in the sense that it spans local contact information stored in Windows 8 by integrating with Windows Live, so you will see not only contacts from Windows Live, but also Facebook. I honestly wish this could be filtered; I honestly donít want my Facebook contacts mixed with my regular contacts. Itís kind of a not well thought UI as Messaging, I think it needs to be more compartmentalized for better navigation and ease of use. A simple All, Windows Live, Facebook, Linked In etc. would surely make using it a lot easier.
Skydrive Ė one of the biggest and important additions to Windows 8 line up of Metro apps, built in support for Skydrive not only completes the cloud story for Windows on the desktop but carries the operating system in a direction where local storage might be under threat. Well, not for now of course, because the storage capacity of Skydrive (25 GBs of free online storage) will never compare to anything you can get from an SSD or Mechanical disk, but it does complement it nicely. Microsoft is making the APIís available for third party developers to integrate their applications with the service, I do hope they take advantage of it, but with most third party devs going in the direction of having their own Cloud drives, I do hope Windows 8 plus Skydrive will be an opportunity to provide some sanity. Of course you are able to access all your documents, media easily through Skydrive for Metro just fine, allowing you to easily launch and edit documents such as Microsoft Office files in their web app counterparts, view a photo Gallery right there without using a web browser. Of course, this requires some decent bandwidth. Microsoft has promised to deliver a Windows Desktop App client for Skydrive which I am looking forward to. Although I love the Metro version, I would work best in the Desktop app, so I will prefer an explorer based version which based on early previews promises to provide similar drag and drop functionality and synchronization to Dropbox which I absolutely love. I have been a fan of Dropbox for a while now and it was something I was looking for from Microsoft when they launched Skydrive back in 2007. If the Desktop Skydrive app comes built into Windows, I might leave behind Dropbox, but other factors might count such as performance and compatibility. Microsoft has promised to support Windows Vista and Windows 7, although Dropbox supports Windows XP, itís debatable whether support for an 11 year old OS will make Skydrive successful or not, but there is still a large visible installation of XP out there which I am personally exposed to and manage every day.
Photos Ė Photos focuses on centralizing your pictures from a variety of online repositories, whether you have them in Skydrive, Flickr or Facebook in addition to those stored on your hard disk. Photos is quite limited in regards to manipulation. I assume, if you want more robust tools when working with photos you should use a desktop program. The interface is very simple and elegant in design. When you first launch the app, you are greeted by previews of photos from the variety of sources you may have them stored. Using the app revolves more around consumption, which means, it makes viewing the key part of using Photos. In relation to the Windows Desktop App, by default, when you launch a picture file, it automatically launches Photos. Personally, I donít like this since it takes some time to launch Photos app. I also notice an issue when viewing photos from within Desktop app, there is no thumb nail preview, I need to investigate if there is some corruption in my thumb nail cache. Since a majority of my time is spent in the Desktop app, I prefer preview photos using Photo Viewer. On a Tablet or touch screen device, using Photos will be a natural user experience, it does work fine with a mouse and keyboard too, but I guess I will need to become more adjusted coming from a traditional desktop environment for so many years.
Videos Ė Video and Audio sees some significant changes in Windows 8. In particular, Windows Media Center is now an option, not a built in feature of the operating system. Windows 8 will now require that you purchase Media Center or a third party DVD Play Back program such as Cyberlink in order to play DVDs. Not only is DVD Playback being removed from Windows Media Center, but also from Windows Media Player, this is due to how Microsoft licenses codecs from Dolby Digital labs. In previous versions of Windows such as Windows 7, DVD playback was available only in premium editions such as Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. The changes in regards to Windows 8 seems to be about cutting cost, but also adopting to the changing landscape of Video itself. More users are turning to online services to consume video, whether that be YouTube, NetFlix, HULU and other popular sources. The decline in DVD Movies means this is a strategic move also. So what is a Windows 7 user supposed to do if you want to play DVDs on Windows 8? Personally, itís a decision that boils to what is more important, whizz-bang features or if it ainít broke donít fix it. Another option is to use third party players such as VLC which I personally have been using for a while now. Windows Media Center which has been a part of the Windows family since the introduction of the Windows XP Media Center edition in 2002 provides a way to record TV Shows, play music, dvdís and view photos. With Windows 8 Microsoft is making Media Center optional for users of the Windows 8 Pro edition. If you purchase the introductory edition of Windows 8, you will need to do an Add Feature (now the successor to Windows Anytime) Upgrade to Professional then purchase the Media Center Pack for Professional. A lot of hoops to jump through, personally, I say if Media Center is that important to you, keep Windows 7 and skip the upgrade. It just makes logical sense, why upgrade to something just end up buying something, this will be especially true for customers who are using Media Center boxes that rarely need any additional functionality and are rarely used otherwise except for their intended purpose. As far as Media Center goes in Windows 8, its identical in feature set to what is shipping in Windows 7 today.
Internet Explorer 10 seeís some small improvements, mostly under the hood. You can now have Internet Explorer set to update automatically to newer versions. This can be done through the About Dialog. You can now set hyperlinks to open automatically in the desktop or Metro version of IE. I am thankful for this change since I find Metro version of IE very limiting and was beginning to get annoyed with the opening of links directly in it. As noted, the built in spell checker is no longer buggy, I had no ends of problem with it in the Dev Preview, so I am glad to see that working. There are some minor issues none worth complaining about, a few pages will occasionally crash, overall, the performance is good and it has kept me from using alternatives for the most part, which probably is a good sign since for the past few years I have been using Mozilla Firefox most of the time.
Microsoftís digital store for purchasing applications for Windows 8 is now open. Featuring a decent starting collection of evaluation applications and games from third party developers, the Windows Store is exclusively Metro, you wonít find any desktop applications here. Microsoft is carrying the platform in a new direction, if you want classic applications you can continue to acquire those through the Microsoft Store or third party developer and merchant websites or brick and mortar stores. What I like about the Windows Store is the deep integration with Windows 8 from a Start Screen perspective, applications are tightly integrated, whether it is searching the store or installing an application. Navigating comes across too basic because of Microsoftís mandatory horizontal right scrolling philosophy. It would have been nice to have a vertical category list for quick access to popular categories. I assume the fluidity of Metro on Tablets will change this perception. Itís just that itís a different story when using with a mouse and keyboard on a traditional laptop or desktop PC. The acquisition process for applications is a piece of cake, the store contains a combination of commercial and free apps, with a variety of categories including the following:
When you find an application you want, just click on it to learn about the app, which includes a page description and accompanying screenshots. When you are ready to download, click Install and your new app will be pinned to the Start screen while it downloads. Applications are relatively small; I tried out the new Evernote app for Windows 8. While it downloaded I went off to do something else in the mean time. Windows 8 graciously notified me the app was downloaded and clicked on it to start using it, really nice and simple process that does not cause any frustration. Finding apps on the store was not immediately obvious; I accidentally discovered this through the Search Start Screen interface which offered an option to search Metro apps, including the Windows Store.
One of the things I sense about Windows Store and generally across all Metro applications is itís really designed to be a Touch Centric app. Yes, keyboard and mouse are supported, but the feel of the interface makes it come across more geared towards using on a Tablet. Donít get me wrong, you can get by just fine with a keyboard and mouse, but when you think about things like the category view and horizontal scrolling, I think a little accommodation for mouse and keyboard users with a frozen vertical category view pane would have been nice. We are looking at the future of application acquisition on Windows and believe Microsoft has done a good job so far. The dynamics that the new Metro Language and itís under the hood tools offers is an opportunity to improve the store as the need arises. Speaking of updates, the Windows Store takes care of updating all your built in Metro and third party Metro apps bought through the Windows Store. This is very convenient and itís something I would have loved to see for desktop apps, but Microsoft notes the complexity and diversity of third party desktop apps make this difficult. The Windows Store is more managed; third party developers have to adhere to certain standards before they can be approved for the store. So, things like security and maintenance are all taken care of. Another benefit is, when you reset or refresh your Windows 8 PC, your apps are automatically preserved. In addition to that, you can use your store bought apps on up to 5 Windows 8 devices which is really nice.
Windows 8 presents a new paradigm in software development and software distribution. The future is headed in a direction of web only for procuring software. Windows 8 embraces this new way of acquiring software with its new Windows Store and the experience so far is quite good. My only drawback is traditional desktop apps are not supported like the App Store on the Mac. Easier access to categories would be nice instead of using the horizontal scroll through method.
The media story in Windows 8 was missing with the Developer Preview, Windows 8 Consumer Preview makes up for it by including a strong set of media apps in the system. What I keep experiencing is Microsoftís idea of forcing users to embrace metro, for instance, launching photos or video files takes you to the Metro media apps such as Videos and Photos. These apps, while simple, do what they are intended to do, tightly integrate with Microsoftís own online services, Photos and Videos allows you to view your media in an elegant full screen interface. A new Music app takes over the role of media player, although Windows Media Player still exist, there is nothing new to discuss, itís pretty much what you are seeing now in Windows 7. Music app along with apps such as Video and Photos crawls your Personal Folders and populates their repositories with your media. The applications work quite differently from desktop programs and are obviously geared towards touch. The thing about Metro is, you have to really adjust to big, bold and simple idea behind the user experience. There are some side effects from this though, for instance Metro apps such as Music, Videos all use a Splash screen, which is kinda weird, because you notice how slow these apps are. My understanding of Splash is to hide something you donít want the user to see or to keep the user occupied until the code is loaded. This is very disappointing though, because in contrast, when I launch the same audio file through Windows Media Player, instantly I am listening to that song. Some of the attributes of the app though is how it works, utilizing the metro style horizontal screen with some influences from Media Center. The Home Screen displays thumb nails of your music collection. If you want to start listening to music on the fly, just click one of the album thumbnails and music starts playing. If you want more control and the ability to browse your library, click Show more. This will display your entire music collection organized by albums, artist and song. Clicking on an album thumbnail will display the albums playlist, click a song and click Play, which will take you to a full screen page for the album. Personally, I would have liked if it remained in the album view with playlist instead of taking to me a completely different screen. Also, the extra step required to click Play after clicking on the song name is a bit much. Another thing is I donít understand how playing songs work, because if I am playing a song from a playlist of the album when I click on one of the songs from the album, it simply jumps into another album playlist from the related artist. My thinking is, it would continue playing songs from the same album.
As noted, Music app is very simple, things like a volume control is missing and the app in a way feels like it has a mind of its own. For instance, browsing is limited; I canít look through a playlist while a song is playing. If I click an album from the home screen, it starts playing that song, which I didnít want; I just wanted to browse the playlist for the album.
Reader Ė Finally, a built in PDF reader is included with Windows. For me personally, this means no more Adobe Reader, which has become a security risk, although Adobe has made improvements with the release of Adobe Reader X. Having one less app to install and maintain is always a good thing. Reader not only support PDF files, you can also view Microsoftís own proprietary XPS documents in it. Reader is an exquisite application to use; it is clean in design and lives up to the name reader. Readers have the option of reading continuously, in a book layout (two pages) or one page at a time. All are great ways to enjoy a long PDF file. Reader also includes options for rotating documents, so if you are looking at a Blue Print, you can easily rotate it to view from a different angle, this should be especially fun on a touch screen device. Reader also supports searching a PDF file. All the basic functionality you would need is already in Reader and I would not be surprised to see persons stop using Adobe Reader over it. Some other nice tools you will find in Reader include the ability to copy text, add notes and highlight text. One thing I have been unable to do though is print, I canít seem to find that function, I wanted to print a PDF file one day at work and ended up having to install Adobe Reader. Either it is intentional, hidden or a major gap.
Overall, the Metro app story looks promising in Windows 8 and I am sure as more third party developers bring Metro optimized versions of their programs and services to the platform the Windows Desktop might not be so hard to leave behind. One thing I should note, these apps are still quite basic and their current iterations cannot fulfill all the needs of desktop versions, instead they complement. Itís just that, when working on a Tablet device, you will likely use them and enjoy doing it too. I do hope Microsoft and major third party developers such as Adobe and AutoDesk are working to bring not full replacements, but complimentary versions of some of their flag apps in Metro. Examples would include Adobeís Photoshop Express and AutoDesk AutoCAD viewer app. So, Microsoft really needs to use its influence and power to really get the important devs on the platform if they want to make Windows 8 have a serious play in the Enterprise with Windows 8. Not to mention, you need to get classics like Twitter and Facebook on board, you have persons who make buying decisions based on just those two Social Networks. It would even be nice if Microsoft could get Facebook and Twitter ready before the final product is launched. Microsoft already has one strong app in its collection and thatís Skype. The company has shown they are committed, look at Windows Phone 7x, which now has over 80,000 plus apps available to it. I see an even brighter future with Metro.
Not much to see here, Windows 8 builds upon Windows 7, so features like Home Groups, Direct Access and other core networking features are built into it and work just like they would in its predecessor. Windows 8 does add some improvements when using mobile broadband which I was unable to test. For persons who are under a contract with a carrier using a Windows 8 device with built in broadband mobile chip such as 4G or 3G, Windows 8ís new Metered Internet will conveniently help you to manage your band width allotment. The ability to be notified of usage over a period of time is really something I am sure a lot of users will appreciate especially mobile warriors. Windows 8 works intelligently with Metered Internet, for instance, drivers from Windows Update (which tend to be large) are not downloaded when you are using it. Microsoft is working closely with carriers to integrate with the Windows 8 Metro experience to deliver notifications that help users to manage their band width allotments effectively. So, the great thing about this is, you wonít get any surprises when that 5 GB bandwidth cap runs out before the end of the month, easy access to notifications are available through the Network bar when you click on the Notification icon.
One of the additions to new Metro apps I didnít get to discuss is the new Metro based Remote Desktop Client. I heard about some initial issues with it, so I didnít bother to try it out in the Dev preview. Because I remotely connect to systems at work and since I was using the Windows 8 CP as my default OS on my PC at work, I decided to try it out and see whatís new and different about it from the traditional desktop version we have been using since Windows XP. Well, surprise, its metro based, but most of all, it looks nothing like the classic app. Featuring the requisite full screen interface known of Metro apps, Remote App is simple in design, but accomplishes task just as easy. The full screen interface makes managing multiple remote connections easy. You can easily switch between more than one RDP session by right clicking in the UI and switch to another session uninterrupted.
Performance and Reliability
Windows 8 Consumer Preview features better performance compared to the Dev Preview. Thatís a good thing of course, you can run it for weeks without it slowing down or feeling groggy. The fluidity of the Metro interface is also a delight, moving throughout it feels fast and instant, when you bring up Charm bar or switch between the Start Screen and the Windows Desktop App, there is no delay. One area I do remain disappointed in is the performance of Metro applications. The need for a Start Screen for every app not to mention the time it takes to open one is something that needs to be worked on. I assume this is a result of the Metro apps not running in the background when not in use. I do believe though, areas of the system such as PC Settings and key apps especially Mail, Music, Videos, Messaging and other bundled apps, needs to have some priority and always be ready for you. Reliability is another issue, these Metro apps are beautiful, but my goodness they are unreliable. I know these are App Previews, but they are rather buggy. For instance, I have to launch Mail at least 4 times sometimes just to get it to open up, the same can be said for Messaging, Photos, Videos and other key media apps. Probably the only ones I notice will open reliably are Reader and Skydrive. There are some highlights though; the spellchecker issue has been resolved. If you have been using the Windows 8 Dev Preview, you will notice that Windows now includes system wide spell checking. I had problems with it when typing text on sites such as Facebook. It would just slow to a crawl and sometimes crash throwing up an error, no more of that. I did do some unscientific test with Windows 8 versus its predecessors. Where I work, we still have a large installation of Windows XP. These are some optiplexes that were installed a few years ago (760 series). I loaded up Windows 8 about a month ago and made the jump on it as my daily OS.
The experience so far has been revealing, now this is totally understandable, these are not top of the line configurations, but it does give a good idea that these systems will either remain with Windows XP or possibly Windows 7. Then again, considering both Windows 8 and 7 use the same system requirements, I donít think they will be upgraded to that either. The systems are used for very basic task, web browsing, office productivity (word processing, spreadsheets, database management) and other basic task like viewing PDFs
System: Dell Optiplex: 760: Intel Pentium Core Duo Ė 2.0 GHz, 1 GB of RAM, 74 GB hard disk
Microsoft has revealed some additional features power users will definitely appreciate in Windows 8. One in particular is Storage Spaces, a new way of simplifying and adding large amounts of storage to your Windows 8 PC without the complexity of understanding and maintaining RAID configurations. (To clarify Storage Spaces is not a RAID solution simplified, it is a homegrown solution from Microsoft). Over the past 5 years, hard drive manufacturers have been introducing even larger capacities. Windows 8 handles this efficiently by being able to add an external hard disk to a storage pool on the fly, this will simply increase the size of the available space on demand. Windows will recognize this as one single storage device, when you add or take away storage, Windows 8 will dynamically update the storage pool to reflect the changes. The Windows Team used this as opportunity to also make major changes to Windows in regards to file system. Windows 8 introduces a new file system called ReFS (or Resilient File System). One trade off of both Storage Pools and ReFS, neither are not backward compatible with previous versions of Windows, so connecting a external hard disk that was used in a Windows 8 Storage Pool to a Windows 7 PC will not work. ReFS does not replace ReFS, it is not bootable either, it takes the best of NTFS and adds capabilities that were just not possible with NTFS such as:
In addition to these improvements, Windows 8 features enhancements to its boot code that support larger storage devices. If you purchase a new PC or an off the shelf mechanical hard disk that is 3 TBís or larger, Windows 8 will immediately recognize it when booting and during installation. Other enhancements users will appreciate include:
The Start Screen in Windows 8 features some nice improvements, but I still donít believe they will get me to be a full time user just yet, but for casual usage scenarios, I will be more appreciative. The ability to customize the interface is a plus. I can quickly create groups and name them for my Metro applications. The Start screen features a new technology called Semantic Zoom which makes it easier to get a birdís eye view of your library of Metro apps. You can also right click in the Start Screen interface and view all apps, which will display not only your Metro apps but all system settings and desktop apps. It would have been nice to have an always on screen toggle button for these views. The Screen features some form of multi-tasking which extends to the Windows Desktop. A new sidebar feature (called the App Bar History) makes it easy to move between your metro and desktop applications. You can also right click Apps from it and click Close. One feature I have not got working is Snaps. This worked great in the Windows 8 Developer Preview, but I believe changes in requirement since that release now means you need to have a monitor with a resolution of 1366 x 768 for it to work. Snap allows you to seamlessly integrate apps either with the Start Screen or Windows Desktop App, you can easily Snap your Calendar app to the left or right side of the screen and have it available on screen always.
Microsoft has improved the Check Disk utility which part of Microsoftís NTFS diagnostic technologies. Check Disk which is used to diagnose, fix bad sectors on a hard disk and check its integrity. Enhancements include the ability to do check disk while the operating system is in use, unlike prior versions of Windows which required a reboot to initiate it. Windows 8 allows you to run it while doing something in the background and fix the error that might exist on the disk. When complete, Windows 8 will prompt you to reboot to confirm the necessary changes. Another improvement is the performance of CKHDSK when run on start up, because the process is dependent on the amount of files on disk and the size of the disk itself, it can often take a long period of time under Windows 7. Windows 8 eliminates this process and your system will skip past the check disk process familiar to users on boot up when invoked. The process is definitely a lot more graceful and convenient.
This is the first dramatic release to Help and Support I have seen in Windows in years. Help remains a key component of really familiarizing yourself with a new product. Microsoft realizes the Internet has become a wealth of resource that is always available and ongoing. Built in help will never be enough to meet the myriad of problems that exist among PCís. The solution to this is to utilize tools and resources available to Windows users through its Microsoft Answers Online Support site. When you do a search for a problem or seek assistance with a topic, Help will not only provide results from its own built in library, but also from Microsoft Answers. This is something I asked for in the Developer Preview and I am pleased to see it show up in the Consumer Preview. Not only can you get recommendations from Microsoft but also real world answers from users like yourself, or from persons who participate in Microsoft Answers everyday such as Microsoft MVPís and Microsoft Support Personnel. No need to worry either, you wonít have to sift through looking for answers, since results coming from Microsoft Answers are those that have been marked as correct. This is a big move and I applaud the Windows Team for really trusting in this service which helps millions every day. It would be great if Microsoft could add support for TechNet since those support forums also contains a wealth of resources for more advanced Windows users, especially in scenarios such as Networking, Deployment and Management.
Windows 8 is certainly proving itself to be a dramatic upgrade and the Consumer Preview cements the concept of reimagining Windows. Itís a lot to take in and I wish for Microsoft to really invest a lot in resources that help users realize the benefits and less on marketing the Windows 8 brand as being something really new. This is a risky, make or break it release, if properly communicated I believe users will understand and definitely embrace this new direction. What influence has Windows 8 made on my upgrade decision? Itís a tough one, but I have personally decided I will not be upgrading all my existing systems to Windows 8 initially, but rather purchase the OS preinstalled on a new device later this year. Itís not that I donít want or donít like Windows 8; itís just that I have been contented with Windows 7. It works very well on my existing PCís and does what I need it to do on them. Plus, Windows 7 has a lot of years left in it. Windows 8 is for a new breed of devices, devices that are especially touch enabled. Although the operating system supports Mouse and Keyboard, I believe they are secondary to what this new platform is all about. It is a brave move on Microsoftís part and it proves the company is willing to out innovate and be unique when put up to the challenge. I believe Windows 8 will be successful in the market place because of the value it offers in regards to compatibility, simplicity and flexibility of moving between two worlds without losing much. It will be millions of userís first experience of using a touch based device and I believe that is a hallmark of the Windows ecosystem which is to democratize and make technology easy to use and accessible to a wide audience with strong support.