RANDOM REACTION: Windows 8 Developer Preview

Just when I was growing to love Windows 7, Microsoft has to come up with something new. Windows 8 is expected to drop in late 2012, but that’s a wild guess from people that get paid to make wild guesses.  For now, though, there is the Developer Preview, which was introduced on September 13th at Microsoft’s BUILD developer conference.  In a pretty smart move, Microsoft made it available to the public, which only makes sense because everyone was going to share it anyway, and it gave Microsoft something to brag about: 8 was download half a million times within its first 12 hours of release.

Like any good geek, I wanted to poke at the latest thingamabobber from the depths of Redmond.  I started my download, went to bed, and burned a Windows 8 install DVD before going to work the next morning.  I figured I could install it while I was at work and poke at it during the day.  I started the installer, and about an hour or so later, after using my Windows Live ID for maximum effect, I had a nice purdy Windows 8 screen thingie looking back at me.  FYI, this screenshot was taken after I’d set up the Socialite (Facebook) and Weather apps, so it isn’t quite the default:

Windows 8 Start Screen
Its Hip to be Square!

Windows 8 eschews the Start Menu (almost) completely and give you a Start Screen.  The Start Screen uses the “Metro” interface found on Windows Phone.  This is a good thing and a bad thing.  Its good because it places lots of information and apps in front of you but its bad because well, most of the information presented wasn’t too important. The Facebook tile seemed to display just random images of friends, and the Tweet@rama (Twitter) tile was set to one of Microsoft’s feeds.  While I’m sure that the UI and tiles will be more customizable the closer we get to release, right now the constant stream of data just feels like overkill on a desktop.

One thing that became rapidly apparent was that the Windows 8 user interface was clearly designed with touch screens in mind; the Start Screen’s big chunky tiles appear to be more suited for finger tapping than mouse clicking.  Since I was using a mouse, I had to make do with horizontal scroll bars that constantly appeared at the bottom of the screen which got more than a little bit annoying.

Luckily, for those of us dinosaurs that still want to work with the Desktop, clicking the “Desktop” tile pulls up a Windows 7 desktop that looks like the one we’ve grown to love over the past two years or so.  Programs can be stuck onto the taskbar just like in Windows 7 but getting to them isn’t quite as simple as it used to be:

Windows 8 Apps list
Get'cher apps and programs here!

In order to get to your list of programs and apps you have to click “Search” which pops up in a menu that appears when you move your mouse to the lower right hand corner of the screen.  You can then type in a search term or scroll through the list until you find what you want.

The Start Menu?  Gone.  Kaputski.  No Mas.  Frankly, I think that is a horrible decision on Microsoft’s part.  Here’s why:

Windows 8 Start Screen after Office install
I only needed Word, doggone it!

That is my Start Screen after installing Word in Microsoft Office 2003.  Most of the programs on the right hand side of that screen I am never, ever going to use.  Normally, they stay tucked away in the Start Menu unless, by some miracle of fate, I actually need one of them.  When I install Word, I take the Word icon and drop it onto my taskbar because that’s all I need.  Now all those extra icons are all over my Start Screen, cluttering it up unless I take the time to go in and delete each individual one.  This sucks.

Yes, it may be used less often these days, but when you aren’t using it, the Start Menu stays out of the way.  If Microsoft insists on keeping backwards-compatibility with earlier Windows versions, it needs to keep the Start Menu lest they risk pissing off their userbase, because I guarantee you that the first thing everyone is going to look for after starting up their shiny new Windows 8 machine is look for the Start Menu.

That quibble aside, Windows  8 is a pleasure to get around, the teeny-tiny Notification area that used to be on the right side of the Start Menu has been moved over to the Settings area, which is accessed using the lower-left corner menu:

Windows 8 Settings Sub-screen
Very niiiice!

As you can tell, the Settings area is easy to view and read, and is definitely an improvement.  Apps written for the Windows 8 Metro interface also have a different look to them, such as Internet Explorer which you can see below.  The screenshot shows the pop-up menus that appear when  you right-click.

Internet Explorer 9 in Windows 8
Shiny!

While older programs run within the Desktop, apps run in full-screen mode.  Right clicking the mouse brings up menus that are different from the usual “File, Edit…” ones we’ve used to using all these years.  I think this is a definite improvement and should make Windows much easier for people to use, assuming, of course, that the interfaces are done right.  That may become an issue when we’re talking about more complicated software packages like Excel and Visual Studio, but the Desktop is available as a fallback.

As far as performance goes, Windows 8 seemed to run okay on my Toshiba Satellite T115D-S1125 laptop with 4GB of RAM.  All of my hardware appeared to work and the Frowny Blue Screen of Death was nowhere to be seen.  It did chug a little bit at times, but as this is a pre-beta, so that is forgivable and it did work well enough to be usable during the time that I had it installed.  Older Windows software such as Office 2003, WinAmp 2.9 and Microsoft Money 2000 also worked just fine.

Windows 8 is looking like a pretty nice update so far.  The Metro interface is very different from the old Desktop we’ve been using all these years and should make using Windows a much easier experience for less-technically savvy people.  Unfortunately, 8 also has to work with software written for previous versions of Windows, and the lack of a Start Menu is going to make the Start Screen pretty unusable for folks that are going to be installing a bunch of legacy programs onto it.  Microsoft may have been testing the waters by leaving out the Start Menu, but it is a bad move unless they decide to rip out backwards compatibility altogether, which I severely doubt is going to happen.

My other big beef with Windows 8 is its tablet-centricness.  This is not necessarily a Bad Thing, but I felt as if I was not able to make full use of it because I was using a mouse and keyboard.  In fact, a few of the programs were all but unusable because I did not have multi-touch, so I couldn’t pinch or widen two fingers onto the screen.  I would love to see this running on a tablet, but on a desktop, it feels a bit clunky right now.

In my opinion, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction and a long-needed shift for operating systems in general.  Metro is clean, sharp and very user friendly.  I look forward to seeing 8 evolve as the devs hammer at it and hopefully take user feedback (like this!) into account.  I just hope that Microsoft does not leave us old fogey mouse-and-keyboard users out in the cold in favor of the cool kids with their tablets and touchscreens.

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