At an event in Barcelona, to coincide with Mobile World Congress 2012, an ever-so-slightly-manic Steven Sinofsky has announced the immediate availability of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview; the public beta of the most important operating system Microsoft has ever developed. It is free to download, easy to whack on a USB stick or DVD, and well worth installing. Initial reports suggest that the Consumer Preview is slightly buggier than the Developer Preview, but given the huge number of new features and changes — some 100,000, according to Sinofsky — that isn’t a huge surprise.
Microsoft will now spend three months polishing the product to create a Release Candidate, with the final retail version appearing sometime before Christmas. Read on for our hands-on impressions and video review.
Updated: If you want to install Windows 8, but don’t want to multi-boot your system, check out ourguide for virtualizing Windows 8 Consumer Preview under VirtualBox.
From the outset, one very important aspect is clear: Microsoft has primarily spent the last five months reducing the jarring friction between the Desktop and Metro Start Screen experiences. Where the Developer Preview felt like the Metro interface had been simply tacked on the front of Windows 7, the Consumer Preview feels like one, smooth, contiguous operating system, the Desktop and Start Screen working in delightful harmony. There are still a few remaining issues, but we’ll tackle those later.
If you remember my original list of five deal-breaking flaws in Windows 8, they have all been expertly dealt with in the Consumer Preview. Instead of having to flip through Metro apps to find the one you want, there’s now a multitasking tray that looks a lot like the one in Android Ice Cream Sandwich. Likewise, you can now kill Metro apps with Alt-F4. While the Start button hasn’t made a miraculous reappearance, the button that replaces it — a thumbnail of the Start Screen or currently-running Metro app (much like superbar thumbnails in Windows Vista/7) — is really quite good. You can also right click this thumbnail to access standard Desktop-oriented features, such as Run, Explorer, and Control Panel. Unfortunately there’s still no easy way to power down or restart, but we’ll discuss that later.
Most importantly, though, the Start Screen has received a few tweaks that make it much more usable for mouse-and-keyboard users. In the Developer Preview, the horizontal-scrolling Start Screen was truly atrocious. In the Consumer Preview, semantic zoom now works on the Start Screen (and is a joy to use with the mouse scroll wheel); you can pan the Start Screen by moving the mouse to the left or right edge of the screen; and the All Apps view (which replaces the old Start menu) has been refined to the point that it’s now rather fun to use.
First and foremost a consumer-oriented OS
Microsoft goes well beyond these much-needed fixes, however. With the Windows 8 Consumer Preview it feels like Microsoft has built an operating system that, for the first time, rivals iOS and Mac OS X in terms of straight-up consumer-oriented exaltation. Instead of continually getting in the way with pop-up nag screens (“You really should restart now”), Internet Explorer first-run pages, multi-step installers, and cluttered interfaces, Windows 8 gets out of the way. From the moment that you boot up for the first time and sign in with your Microsoft Account (née Windows Live) — a process that takes a couple of minutes at most — you are free to surf, free to download apps, and free to roam between your Windows and Windows Phone devices.
There is unprecedented integration between Windows 8 and internet-based services. At its most basic, your free 25GB SkyDrive account follows you everywhere — you can access it from the “file open” and “save” dialog in every Windows 8 app — but there’s also deep Facebook, LinkdedIn, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, and Flickr connectivity too. In the People app, which is much like app of the same name on WP7 and Android ICS, you can message any of your social network or email contacts, or see their latest status updates. In the Mail app, you can add multiple email accounts: Gmail, Exchange, Hotmail, ISP — anything goes. The Messaging app is a full-blown IM client that lets you message friends on Facebook, MSN Windows Live, and many other networks.
Then there are the Metro-style Start Screen “live tiles” that singlehandedly represent the biggest paradigm shift in computer interfaces since Xerox PARC/Apple brought WIMP to market. For three decades, the Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer interface has adorned every successful consumer computer ever made. Even iOS and OS X, the most critically acclaimed operating systems of the last 10 years, are glorified WIMP interfaces. Android, too, is WIMP; and so is Ubuntu. With Windows 8 (and Windows Phone 7 and 8), live tiles replace icons — and boy are they awesome.
Icons stem from the same 8-bit era as Mario, where artists had to communicate the purpose or brand of a program with just a handful of pixels and colors. Over the last 30 years, the resolution and color palette have improved, but that’s it. That all changes with live tiles, which are big blocks — generally at least 128 pixels across, but can be much larger (see right) — that dynamically update. In the case of Windows 8, almost anything can be pinned to the Start Screen as a live tile. You could pin your favorite RSS feed, and see it update in real time from the Start Screen without having to drill down into the app itself. You could pin your favorite Twitter contact and take e-stalking to whole new levels. You could pin MSN and Facebook Chat contacts, and open a new IM window directly from your Start Screen. Live tiles will show you the number of unread emails, your calendar appointments for the day, and so on and on.
Lest you forget, everything that you see or do in the Metro interface is synchronized with your cloud-based Microsoft Account. The credentials for Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and every other third-party services are stored in your Microsoft Account. Your settings are regularly pushed to your Microsoft Account. Any new photos or videos or music are automatically synchronized with your SkyDrive.
Never in Microsoft’s history has it produced an operating system that is so humble. It’s almost as if Microsoft has built the graphical, consumer-oriented equivalent of Linux; a blank slate where otherservices and applications can really shine. With Windows 8, Microsoft has built a kernel around which rich software and hardware ecosystems should flourish.
Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to escape the fact that Desktop users (which Microsoft ironically calls “power users”) will be forced to regularly switch between the Start Screen and Desktop. It is this same power user rationale that keeps the shut down/restart icon hidden behind the right-hand-side Charms menu. To Microsoft’s credit, the transition between the two disparate interfaces is now a lot smoother (the new Start button thumbnail, and the switching animation has changed), but there’s still no mention of a setting that completely disables the Metro interface and restores the classic Windows 7 Start menu. We still hold out hope that you’ll be able to power down from the Start Screen thumbnail right-click menu, too.
That Windows 8 succeeds is of critical importance to Microsoft. Never in the history of Windows has Microsoft faced such stiff competition; Android, iOS, and OS X are all gaining on Microsoft, and Windows 8′s success on tablets is vital if it wants to stay afloat in a mobile computing slugfest that’s still to reach its crescendo. I am now convinced that Windows 8 will be a hit with consumers — users who have historically opted for “it just works” devices — but I’m not so sure about power users and IT admins. Ultimately, though, if consumers love Windows 8 — if they buy into the ecosystem and have a Windows 8 tablet, a Windows 8 desktop at home, and a WP8 smartphone — then power users won’t really have a choice in the matter. Viva la Windows!