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Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Windows 8: A First Look

We pry open a copy of Microsoft's first public release of Windows 8.

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.

Hover the mouse at bottom left over the Start button and you'll see a Metro-like context menu, as well as some battery and network status information. Select Settings to open a Metro-ized side flyout with some common options. The Devices option lets you send media to attached peripherals -- for instance, video to an external projector. The Share option lets you send files to other computers or share data among applications. Search is a revamped version of the old-style Start menu type to search.

You invoke the Settings side menu by hovering over Start. Options let you control brightness, access wireless networks, set battery controls, select languages and whether you want to show desktop notifications. These are Metro versions of the sorts of options now available on the Windows system tray. The main difference here is all aesthetic. The wireless network chooser, for instance, is much cleaner looking now.

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.

The Search screen now comes up automatically if you start typing in the Start menu. Note how the system segregates searches type, a nice touch that makes resulting screens less cluttered. One major thing that's so far missing here is all the right-click functionality that is available in current Windows versions. On XP, Vista and Windows 7, you right-click on a search result item to display the full contextual menu for that item. With Metro search results, you can't do that yet. So far, anyway, all I could do was click directly on the item to launch it. That's a net loss of functionality. Further irony: it's possible to just hover over a search result to get a little more information about it, but I couldn't actually copy or export any of that information. It's strictly visual. I'm assuming there will be a way to default to the old Search functionality in the release code – I won't be the only person asking for this, I'm sure. The new Search is more visually appealing, but it's way less useful at this stage in the game.

Hover your mouse along the left side of the screen in any Context and you'll see a thumbnail icon representing what you just switched away from. This is most useful if you are toggling quickly between a Metro app and the desktop.

The onscreen keyboard in Windows 8 is a major improvement over the one in Windows 7, which had a bad tendency to block UI elements unless you docked it. The new on-screen keyboard has fewer keys, which allows each key to be larger. Your typing speed is nevertheless going to vary depending on your own dexterity and the responsiveness of your system's touchscreen.

There is an alternate layout for the new onscreen keyboard that is optimized to allow input with the thumbs. Are you a thumber? How effective this is going to depend upon the size of your device's touchscreen and how dexterous you are with your thumbs. I don't have a touch display – my tablet is pen-enabled – so I'm reserving further comment for now.

The system also includes handwriting recognition. It takes some getting used to, but I found it to be remarkably accurate. It recognizes both printing and script.

Explorer's ribbon revamp is Office-like, with special contextual menus when you select different types of files and folders. I definitely like the new ribbon interface in Explorer. I liked it when Office did it and I like it here as well.

Check out the new Control Panel as a Metro application. The original Control Panel view is still available. This version doesn't have such functions as the contextual type-to-search function easily available. The only way I found to do that was to search Settings via the main Search menu. It's a real pain. It's the same kind of pain I experienced in the type-to-search issues I described before. Luckily, one way out is just to invoke the classic Control Panel and search there.

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.

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