Microsoft last week released its Windows Developer Preview – code-named Windows 8. It's pre-beta (read: late alpha) and targeted at developers.
But ala Google+, Microsoft is making it freely available for anyone to download here.
Typically, BYTE wouldn't review prerelease software, but if Microsoft makes this major OS release freely and widely available, that changes the rules. I downloaded it onto two systems and took a deep look.
It's a beefy system so far. Minus the developer tools, the ISO download is 3.6GB. With them, it's 4.83GB, too big for a standard DVD. Optimized for touch devices and sporting an entirely new interface – the tiled Metro-style user interface -- Windows 8 is a major upgrade from Windows 7. Microsoft hasn't made this radical a change to its Windows line since Windows 95.
The Metro name probably sounds familiar to you. It's the same user interface Microsoft uses in Windows Phone 7. I find its design to be clean and spacious, distinguishing it from Apple's iOS and Google's Android UIs. Let's start at the beginning of what I found after downloading the Windows Developer Preview, code-named Windows 8.
When you boot the ISO -- either after burning it to a DVD, copying it to a flash drive or by accessing it directly via a virtual machine – you install it just like Windows 7. The process really is almost identical.
The only visible difference is the name of the operating system during setup. I found the installation process to be smooth – it proceeded without a hitch on both my systems, a 1GB Oracle VM VirtualBox virtual machine and a 4GB Toshiba Portege M400 notebook.
The new Start menu, built as a Metro application, fills the entire screen. On a touchscreen, you simply swipe left or right to browse the menu.
With a mouse, you just click on the scrollbar at bottom or use the arrows to move around. This is pre-beta software – it's possible Microsoft will change the exact implementation of the Start menu over time. But it's obvious Microsoft is trying to make accessing apps easier. You won't hunt as much for your most frequently used apps. Note the tiles here – these feature weather, Twitter feeds or stock quotes – and they're updated live.
Click the "Desktop" tile in the Start menu and you're back at the old familiar Windows desktop. There are just a few changes here.
Notice the borders of windows are a little more squared-off than before. Also, Explorer now sports the Office 2007 ribbon interface. Otherwise, it's pretty much Windows as you know it. I like the ribbon interface. I've been using it in Office for years now so the change is no big deal. It's also easy to tuck out of the way. Just double-click on it to collapse it to an unobtrusive size.
The Devices side menu typically looks like this, at left. It will vary depending on the hardware you have installed. Click Display and you see what's on the right, a list of choices for how Windows 8 should handle a second display. I tried to hook up a second monitor to see if I could run both Metro and the legacy Windows UI. It didn't behave as I expected. Once you connect them up, I tried letting one display run the legacy desktop and the other run Metro apps. You swap them by clicking Start – if two displays are on, the Start button turns into a Swap Displays button. But when I did it, I found the hover menu no longer would appear. That means anything you normally would invoke through hover has to be available through other means.
Also, when I tried to invoke legacy apps by, for instance, launching something from the Launchbar, the Metro Start menu vanished. An extended version of the desktop replaced it. So far, anyway, I couldn't easily lock the Metro view on one display and have the legacy view on another.
The Share menu lets you do just that. If you're running a conventional Windows application, you only have the choice to share a screenshot of the app. The same goes for Metro apps that don't have sharing functions, as shown here. There is a great incentive to have Metro-native apps, though.
That's touch integration and the ability to view apps full-screen – in so-called "lean-back" mode. A version of Microsoft Office for Metro is reportedly on the way.
One of the many sample Metro applications included with Windows Developer Preview is a Sudoku game. The command strip along the bottom is invisible unless you right-click on it. It looks as if the few native Metro apps included in the build are designed to run in the background persistently. You can't use the usual [ALT][F4] key combo to stop running applications. Switch away from them by pressing the Windows key – or by using [ALT][TAB] combo.
The file chooser mechanism for a Metro application. It, too, is missing the type-to-search function I'm longing for. I'm hoping Microsoft will remedy this in future builds, since it amounts to a heavy net loss of functionality. This is my biggest single gripe about the system. I know I won't be alone in this.
On the plus side, the file-copying dialog in Windows is greatly improved. Dealing with great reams of files is now less ornery. It's even possible to suspend and resume a long-running copy process. I found this to be a surprisingly nice touch.
The new Task Manager displays both conventional and new Metro apps. Those marked as "suspended" are Metro apps that are currently not in focus – that is, inactive and/or off screen.
Well, it pre-release software after all. I expected instability. It was interesting, too, to get a look at the Metro-style crash menu. I hope to see less and less of this over time.