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Windows 8 Hands-on: A Mobile OS that Still Has Love for the Desktop

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I had a lot of reservations about Windows 8 since i started seeing leaked PowerPoint slides detailing it ages ago.  From those leaks, it looked like it was going to be nothing more than some sort of mobile OS designed to compete with Google’s Chrome OS, and wouldn’t really be very useful for desktop users.  Old screenshots of the Metro interface made me think that it was just a larger size version of the Windows Phone, without a lot of additional functionality behind it.  

windows 8 metro interface

As of Microsoft’s BUILD conference keynote just this past Tuesday, I’m glad to say I was wrong.  Microsoft released the Windows Developer Preview (I’m going to just call this WDP from here on out) Tuesday night, and after a number of tries just downloading the image, I finally got it dual booted with my Windows 7 on my laptop.  Now granted, running the preview on a laptop isn’t going to give me the complete mobile experience that I see this being great for, but it’s at least given me a taste.

windows 8 desktopOne of the phrases that gets tossed around the web so much to describe the current state of computer technology is “post-PC era.”  With all due respect to proponents of this philosophy, what the hell is the matter with you and your technological world view? 

I’m not saying mobile is worthless; on the contrary I think mobile is an extremely important component in today’s era of computing.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to confine my gaming to casual games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja while running out to replace all my users’ machines with tablets and spend insane money on peripherals. Let’s face it, most high-powered gaming and traditional applications used by gamers and business users is still going to be run on traditional desktop PC’s.  As it would appear, Microsoft agrees with me, and Windows 8 still provides what I affectionately refer to as le olde school, namely Windows Explorer.  

Outside of the new Metro interface, a very familiar setting awaits those of us that primarily compute mouse-and-keyboard style.  Users still have full access to a familiar Windows desktop, where they can peruse files through Windows Explorer, add desktop shortcuts, gadgets and pin applications to the taskbar.  Working with multiple monitors has also become a little bit easier, with the frustration of being unable to stretch the taskbar across multiple screens is now gone.  Exploring files includes common window and file commands on an optional menu in-window, pulled from their Office 2007 and 2010 ribbons.  

Want to go virtual?  The preview has a built-in hypervisor for Hyper-V, which currently is only available as part of a server OS package.  And as far as compatibility, nothing is going to change for users used to running a Windows 7 environment.  I ran a guildie through Stratholme in World of Warcraft from it last night with no problems whatsoever.  The one thing that may take some getting used to is the lack of a start button similar to what we’ve seen in most Windows iterations.

windows 8 metro weather appNow for the other side of the OS.  There’s the new mobile half of it using Microsoft’s Metro interface.   I like it, and can definitely see how this would be a very intuitive and easy interface to use on a tablet.  Right now i’m scrolling left and right with my mouse, but on touchscreen enabled devices movement would be swipes from side to side.  

The Metro interface works almost like a layer on top of a Windows 7-ish OS.  In that sense it has a very similar feel to Android device manufacturers’ custom UI’s that lay on top of the operating system like Motorola’s MotoBlur and HTC’s Sense, where users have tiles for shortcuts and instant information.  The preview includes a bunch of tiled apps that come pre-loaded that make it very easy to access basic information like weather and stock reports and social media apps for facebook and twitter.  It includes “touch” versions of your control panel and the new Internet Explorer 10, which I have to say, runs pretty nice.  Also, on the touch front, they demoed 5-finger multi-touch during Tuesday’s BUILD keynote.

While there is a lot I like about it, it does have its drawbacks – little things like no way to just shut down.  If I want to turn off the machine I have to switch to desktop mode and then go through the Alt-F4 menu to get there.  Then there’s the whole tiled app thing – tiled apps mean that whatever you run in Metro (social, weather, games) will always be running in the background.  Android devices work exactly the same way, and it’s the reason why apps like Advanced Task Killer are extremely popular downloads. 

The Preview does have a way around it, by dropping individual background processes to use 0% CPU when not in use, but there is still memory usage there.  On my laptop I have the power to Alt-F4 an app to kill it, but that might not be so easy on tablet and mobile devices employing the OS with a virtual keyboard (also means Alt-Tabbing through everything that’s open).  And call me a traditionalist, but I still favor the full-function start button of Windows past.  But I’m going to cut Microsoft a lot of slack here – this is a develop preview, which means beta and release candidates still yet to come.  So they have a lot of time to make tweaks.

So in the end Microsoft has made a good start in making a single OS which bridges the gap between a desktop and a mobile solution for part of their single ecosystem, even though functionality still leans in favor of mobile.  As it stands now I wouldn’t buy Windows 8 to replace Windows 7 on my laptop or desktop without a little additional power on the desktop side – even though it has native tools I would normally download 3rd party software for (I don’t need Alcohol 52% anymore for mounting ISO’s) I would at best I’d have it in a dual-boot setup.  BUT, I think slates or tablets running Windows 8 could be real winners.  The OS really seems like it would shine for casual users with its simplicity, which is one of the reasons iPads running iOS are so popular.  We’ll see how they fare late next year.

I’m looking forward to what’s next.  I’d like to see how they’ll handle Xbox Live integration, since Games for Windows will be scrapped and lumped into the XBL environment.  I’m also looking forward to developers making some apps for this so we can see how the marketplace is going to flesh out.  And since this OS is targeted for both desktop and mobile, my biggest question arises:  What’s pricing and licensing going to look like?

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