I'm writing this article on a Windows 8 tablet. Thankfully, I've got a wireless keyboard and mouse as well as a dock to help the Samsung developer tablet act more like a regular PC. Microsoft made the Windows 8 Consumer Preview available this morning to everyone who wants to check it out. It was also kind enough to give Mashable a sneak peek.
What exactly is a consumer preview? I can tell you this: It definitely means it's not ready for general release. It's been a challenge trying to separate issues that are due to the inherent bugginess of a pre-release, changes that I'm just not used to, and things that are real problems. But here goes.
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First, a little background: Windows 8 is a complete re-imagining of Windows. And it's also the same. Its schizophrenic nature is due to its two modes: the familiar (yet subtly different) desktop that we're all used to, and the Metro interface. Metro, borrowed from the Windows Phone platform, takes a hard right turn from traditional Windows: Instead of files and folders, there are touchable tiles that fire up your apps, and those apps take up the whole screen.
That's really just scratching the surface of Metro, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. For this look at Windows 8, I'm going to focus mainly on the bigger-picture features and what's new since the initial developer release from last fall. Microsoft says that where the developer build was about emphasizing touch, with the consumer preview (Build 8250 for those scoring at home) it focused on showing how the mouse and keyboard is just as friendly to Metro.
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My first impression: Almost, but not quite.
Metro With a Mouse & Keyboard
Microsoft has a vision, a dream even. It wants to have the same operating system running across all its devices. It's a laudable goal, with many advantages for both Microsoft and its customers. The thing is people use different gadgets differently -- you don't do all the same things on a tablet that you do on a PC, and when you do, the experience is different.
Microsoft knows this, so Windows 8 is highly adaptable. It responds differently to touch than it does to a mouse. For example, to bring up your Settings menu with your finger, just slide in from the edge; if you have a mouse, you aim for the corner.
Making the corners the key points when operating Windows 8 with a mouse is a good choice -- they're pretty unmissable and you don't need to be precise. However, some of the subtleties in the interface appear to be poorly thought out.
For starters, the icons don't follow standard web "mouseover" rules. Take one example: When you point toward the lower left corner, Windows 8 (either Metro or desktop) calls up the Start screen. Or rather, it calls up an icon for the Start screen, but if you hover your mouse over it, it disappears. This goes against what websites have trained people to do for a decade: call up menus by holding your mouse over icons, then navigating through the menu by staying on top of it.
It sounds like a minor point, but it's actually not, and the same problem bubbles up time and again from Windows 8: unintuitiveness. Metro is a beautiful and powerful interface, but it's hard to get used to, sometimes needlessly so. Another example: the Start screen allows you to scroll left and right simply by pushing your mouse icon right up against the edges of the screen. Yet several apps (like Photos) incomprehensibly don't do this, instead forcing you to use a scrollbar. Again, it sounds minor, but it's everything.
Also, Metro is all about scrolling left and right. Apps like Finance look beautiful, with amazing layouts and great landscape pictures. So why have the top and bottom edges do nothing at all when you mouse against them? We're all used to calling up docks or menus when pressing against the edge, and Metro even lets you do this via touch. It would have been helpful to keep some of that functionality when using the mouse.
Working with a keyboard was better, with intuitive navigation via arrow keys. There are some nice keyboard shortcuts (like screengrab) that you can't replicate via touch, so it definitely opens up the experience. There was occasionally a little lag with the wireless keyboard Microsoft supplied us with, but it was something I could live with.
Sharing -- from any app -- is built directly in to Windows 8. It's like having that suite of sharing icons (like the ones you see on every news website, including Mashable) at the ready at all times. "Share" is ever-present in your options menu, no matter what app you're in. Sharing in Windows 8 is an incredibly powerful feature, making Apple's OS X Twitter integration look like a pathetic baby step.
At least that's the theory. Sharing is app-based and so far there are no apps that work with it. When you hit Share in an app, all that's on the list is a lonely Mail icon. In fairness, this is the consumer preview, and the Windows Store -- where all those Metro sharing apps will be available -- hasn't even launched yet.
It's important to note that sharing in Windows 8 is based on what are called contracts. Contracts are little pieces of software that an app uses to tell Windows that something in the app is shareable. Then Windows knows to call up the apps that have the ability to share when the time comes. Contracts makes it super easy for a developer to create an app that can share stuff.
So why, then, is the ability absent from so many apps? I understand the Finance app not being able to share, but People? I might want to email a contact to someone -- you're going to make me copy-and-paste, Windows? And you can forget about sharing anything from the classic desktop.
Quibbles aside, sharing in Windows 8 could be its best feature, but we'll have to wait for the apps to come that integrate the feature. Contracts support a lot more than sharing -- they also determine whether the content in an app is searchable and enable apps to interact with other apps. A contract could, for example, allow Facebook to take stories from a news reader. There's lots of potential here, but it's up to developers to unleash it.
Cruising in Metro
Metro is a very pretty interface. The tiles beg to be clicked and touched, and many of the apps are extremely pleasing to look at and interact with. Finance, as I mentioned, makes great use of the horizontal scroll. The Xbox Live app looks amazing, too, which is expected since the Xbox 360 is already moving toward Metro. Bing Maps is flat-out hot.
Some apps need work, however. People, which appears to be a social hub that integrates your feeds from places like Facebook and Twitter is about as far from Flipboard as you can imagine. It's not even MotoBLUR.
The Photos app did a good job importing my pics from Facebook and Microsoft's own cloud service, SkyDrive, but Flickr failed to load, despite many attempts (likely a bug). Mail is a bit clunky: although it easily lets you sync multiple accounts, I shouldn't need to click twice to go back to the accounts page.
The Metro Start screen is very customizable... again, in theory. In practice, rearranging tiles in any precise way is virtually impossible. Once you move one, it moves others in unpredictable ways, making the whole exercise more like solving a Rubik's Cube than decorating your desktop. You can make tiles out of websites, but you can't change the size of those tiles like you can with apps.
You might think from my many yellow and red flags that I'm rooting against Windows 8. (Disclosure: I've used a Mac as my primary computer for more than a decade.) I'm not. I'm pulling for Microsoft with its bid to reinvent its core software for the mobile era. I think Windows is ripe for a revamp, the market needs more innovation, and Metro has already proven to be an excellent phone interface.
Still, after using Metro as mouse-and-keyboard inteface, I'm more wary. As beautiful as Metro is, I think some of the decisions Microsoft has made in how it works on a traditional (that is, a non-touchscreen) PC are questionable. There's still plenty of time for Microsoft to tweak it before the general release this fall, though I'm starting to wonder if the approach of one OS for all devices -- desktop, laptop, tablet, touch screen and non -- is fundamentally flawed.
It makes sense that, If you're going to use the same device as a tablet and a traditional PC, it would react differently to your different tools. But in practice, it flies in the face of intuition. Your gadget "muscle memory" gets confused if your mouse pointer solicits a different menu from what your finger gets via the same movement.
In the end, Microsoft isn't just asking you to get used to a different interface for Windows. It's asking you to get used to multiple interfaces within the same OS. I'm not sure how many people have the patience for that. Still, Windows 8 can only get more stable and easier to use while it slowly advances toward a general release, and Metro is gorgeous enough to keep me looking forward to Windows 8's final act.
This story originally published on Mashable here.