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Windows 8 Consumer Preview Review

Introduction

I am declaring 2012 the Year of the OS Update. Apple is on track to deliver Mountain Lion OS X 10.8 to its Mac users late Summer/early Fall of this year; and Microsoft is on track to deliver Windows 8 by the end of the calendar year.

Windows 8 was released at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on 29-Feb-12 in the form of a "consumer preview." Everyone knows that this is just a repackaged way for Microsoft to say that its what everyone would consider a "beta" release. As I understand things, while Microsoft's Technical Testing Team (or those that have specifically been invited by Redmond to be part of their formal, external testing and release cycle) will likely have access to more frequent releases and updates, this will likely be the last release that is made available to the general public before the software is released to manufacturing and made available for purchase at retail. Users of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview should be able to use the software until January 2013.

Tablets; smartphones; mobility. These are the tenets that Microsoft is attempting to address with the latest version of their flagship operating system. With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft is clearly taking aim at Apple and their iPad and Google and (pick a tablet manufacturer). The big question is: have they made the impact that they were hoping for, and will Windows 8 draw people away from iOS and Android and place Microsoft back in the limelight?

Target Devices & Computers

First: Most everyone using Windows 7 will not upgrade to Windows 8. Windows 8 is clearly targeted at tablets and touch-enabled PCs. Windows 8 will be mainly sold on new tablets, new touch-enabled PCs or new conventional laptops or desktop PC’s. Most users won’t rush out and buy an upgrade to Windows 8.

After using Windows 8 for most of the weekend, it became clear how it’s not meant for a traditional desktop or laptop computer. It’s touch-centric — meaning that while you can use a mouse and a keyboard on a computer running Windows 8’s MetroUI, the default interface really wants to be manipulated with a finger and not a mouse pointer or keyboard. I can see users becoming very frustrated with MetroUI on a traditional computer vs. a tablet or touch enabled PC as they try to emulate finger touches, swipes, etc.

Example: the removal of the Start button and Start Panel and replacing it with Windows 8 hot corners, Charms and Live Tiles. Moving your mouse to the lower-left hot corner and clicking, or tapping the Windows key on your keyboard, will bring up the new MetroUI-styled Start Menu and its Live Tiles. This is more easily done with your finger or a stylus/pen than with a mouse, though you can obviously still do this with a mouse. Moving horizontally through the Start Menu and its live tiles is more easily accomplished with a finger slide or flick than with a click and drag of a mouse. The latter isn’t as natural a motion as you might think. Without touch, Windows 8 is functional — but also very frustrating.

Installation via Upgrade

Microsoft has made the download of this new beta-class operating system available in both executable and ISO forms, for those that would like to have the software on a bootable DVD. Those that choose the ISO route will initially need to have an extra 2.5GB of bandwidth available to them.

The download severs have been pretty busy over that last few days, and initially, I had a great deal of trouble grabbing the software. However patience and regular (not mobile) broadband won out, and I was able to successfully download the software by late Thursday night (March 1st, 2012). At that point, most everyone that was looking to get it either had it, or I simply got lucky.

I used the 5MB executable install file and method. After installing the install stub, the complete installation of Windows 8 was downloaded and placed in the root of my C:\ drive in a folder called WindowsESD.

I installed Windows 8 Consumer Preview on an Asus Eee PC T101MT netbook. The interesting thing about this particular netbook is that it’s really a traditional tablet PC with netbook specs.

Display 10.1″ LED Backlight WSVGA (1024×600) Resistive Touch Panel Screen
CPU Intel Atom N450/N570 Processor 1.67 gHz
Memory Min/Max DDR2, 1 x SO-DIMM, 1GB/2GB
Storage 2.5″ SATA 250GB HDD
Wireless Data Network WLAN 802.11 a/b/g/n@2.4GHz
Camera 0.3 M Pixel Camera
Audio Hi-Definition Audio CODEC
  Stereo Speakers
  High Quality Mic
Interface & Expansion 1 x VGA Connector
  3 x USB 2.0
  1 x LAN RJ-45
  2 x Audio Jack (Headphone/Mic-In)
  1 x Card Reader : SD/ SDHC/ SDXC/ MMC
Battery 6.5 hrs, 35Wh Slim and Eco-friendly Li-polymer Battery
Dimensions  
Weight 3.0lbs/1.3 Kgs

Some notes about the device itself:

  1. The netbook came with 1GB of RAM. I upgraded to 2GB using an extra RAM stick I had in the house. I instantly doubled my memory without adding any cost.
  2. RAM is the only easy upgrade available. I intended to upgrade the HDD to a 128GB SSD I also had sitting around the house, but in order to get to the hard drive, you have to, almost literally, disassemble the entire netbook. Its not easy to get apart, and with a smaller device like this, I didn’t want to chance breaking something, so I passed on that.
  3. The netbook’s screen defaults to 1024×600 resolution, but under Windows 7, it would also display at 1024×768.

The display issue was crucial. Windows 8 will function at resolutions below 1024×768, but Metro apps require a minimum 1024×768 screen resolution to run.

I knew that my T101MT would display 1024×768. It did it in Windows 7 without issue, so when it couldn’t in Windows 8 I thought it was a driver related problem and went back to the device’s download page, pulled down the Windows 7 drivers and reinstalled them in Windows 8. No luck.

Turns out BYTE’s Todd Ogasawara had a similar problem and wrote an informative article relating the solution to a similar issue he was having with his Asus Eee PC T91MT, an earlier version of the same Asus netbook. Unfortunately, that didn’t work for me, either.

Finally, in a fit of frustrated, insane, brilliance, I decided to search on “forcing 1024×768 resolution on a netbook”. I bumped into an article for Windows 7 that was said to have some success with Windows 8. Thankfully, the registry mods that were described in the article worked for me, with one caveat – that’s the only resolution available (the resolution dropdown in the Display Control Panel applet is unselectable), contrary to what the article describes. Getting all this to work right took most of a day.

Windows 8 Setup

I chose to upgrade the PC to Windows 8, installing it over Windows 7. I kept all of my software and settings, and though Windows 8 did correctly tell me that I had to uninstall Microsoft Security Essentials (the new version of Windows 8 Defender replaces it), it found no other required actions for me to take before taking the plunge. However, as soon as it finished, things took a turn for the worse.

As soon as Windows 8 finished setting up, it displayed a dialog box (which came back no matter how many times I dismissed it) indicating that it couldn’t load the Asus ACPI driver. I thought this was related to the display driver issue I had, but it stemmed instead from the Asus Hot Keys application included with the machine in Windows 7. I had to run through the legacy software still left on the system, uninstalling each app one by one until the dialog disappeared. Once I found the offending app, I then had to restore the system to factory settings, reinstall Windows 8, then make the display-based registry mods and uninstall the bad ACPI app.

Most users won’t have to deal with this level of grief. For one, Microsoft and Asus ought to get feedback from users and insure their products play well together. Also, again, most Windows 8 installations will be on new devices; most computer users won’t upgrade to it.

Analysis

The moment I first saw Windows 8’s new Start Page and Live Tiles in the Developer Preview, I immediately hated it. The thought of leaving behind my non-touch, conventional desktop experience turned my stomach — after all, it’s what most of the computing world is used to as well, right?

Consequently, anyone using Windows 8 on a traditional desktop/laptop system should stick with Windows 7. The learning curve for non-power users is going to be huge — I’d say three to six months before the way Windows 8 works becomes second nature. Those who remember the frustration of moving from XP to Vista, or from Office 2003 to 2007 (when the ribbon interface was first introduced), will feel just as pained. People had a hard time getting work done because Microsoft had “moved their cheese.”

That said, those on touch-centric devices are in for a treat. Live Tiles provide a cool way to get information and make it easy to get to the applications you use the most. For everything else, there’s a searchable program menu that makes it easy to get to installed apps. The most frustrating thing about Live Tiles is that the OS wants to make every app appear in the start screen with one, even if its not intuitive for the app to be there. It’s great for apps like Mail, Weather or Stocks, or example, where the data changes frequently. It doesn’t make sense for, say, Word to have a tile. One, it’s going to be static; two, scrolling horizontally to the right trying to find that one static tile gets old quickly.

However, the implementation of touch into the OS is really rather elegant and intuitive (of course, provided you have the hardware to back up the experience and use paradigm). The OS in and of itself, for a beta, feels very polished. I haven’t seen a beta offering from Microsoft that was this solid since Windows 2000.

Metro Apps

Windows 8’s Metro Apps are very flat and have a very non-traditional, un-desktop-Windows feeling. They cannot be windowed. They run full screen only and were developed and targeted to be run on a tablet (and not necessarily a touch-enabled PC). From a multi-tasking point of view, it’s a huge step backwards: no putting two windows side by side with Metro, for instance. The automatic memory management of Metro apps might also raise eyebrows.

A side note about Windows Live Essentials – Many pundits will tell you that Windows 8 Metro Apps are really the Windows 8 version of Windows Live Essentials 2011. The apps included in WLE 2011 are all of the Metro apps that Microsoft included, with the exception of Windows Live Writer, at least. If you want WLW in Windows 8, unless and until Microsoft comes out with a new version of their blogging client, you may be out of luck as Windows Live Essentials 2011 will not install under Windows 8. (I know — I’ve tried.) I use WLW every day, and it’s my blogging client of choice, regardless of platform, but I had to install WLE 2011 under Windows 7 before I upgraded to Windows 8 in order to ensure that it was there.

MetroUI

Other industry pundits argue that multi-tasking is a myth — that the vast majority of users either lose track of all the windows they have open and the apps they have running. There’s something to this: most people run multiple apps so they copy data from one to the other, and task switching makes more sense from a system perspective (use of CPU and memory, etc.). But getting the general public to fully embrace the full-screen Metro paradigm after 25 years of not doing that is going to take a bit of doing.

From a UI and interface perspective on a traditional PC, MetroUI is a huge let-down. The apps are flat and two-dimensional. They have little visual appeal and they contain a great deal of white space, which many may see as wasted screen real estate. They’re also still a little glitchy. To wit: I have 230 unread messages in my inbox. The Mail tile tells me I only have four unread messages instead of 230. If it’s only synching the last 3 days of mail to my inbox, it should show a count of 6 notes, not 4.

Dual Mode UI – MetroUI vs. Windows 8 Desktop

When you look at Windows 8, you see two totally different interfaces: the Windows 8 Desktop and MetroUI. There’s a definite line in the sand that’s drawn between the two interfaces and there are two camps here – The Traditional Computer User and the Tablet Computer User.

The big concern I have with this UI dichotomy is: does it make sense? Microsoft is definitely trying to write the “one OS to rule them all” with Windows 8. While Metro works well with Windows Phone and on a true tablet system, swapping back and forth between Metro apps and, say, Office 2010 or any other legacy Windows app, can be a bit jarring. The two interfaces are so drastically different and require users to work with their hardware in completely different ways.

Also, how will software developers approach Windows 8 development? Will they develop UIs for both, or just stick to Metro? If apps are redesigned entirely for Metro, will users shy away from it and stick to versions they already own? All important questions; and all without complete answers as of this writing.

Since Microsoft is, like Apple, moving to a digital delivery model for future software delivery and sales, the impact to existing software delivery models is not completely known or understood. Apple’s App Store doesn’t provide for demos or for shareware. It’s clear that Apple will at some point require that all Mac software be delivered via the App Store. How Microsoft will approach third-party software delivery, especially considering Windows’ large shareware and third party software markets, is unknown at this time; and will have far-reaching consequences, to say the least.

Conclusion

I’ve been using Windows 8 for a week now. It’s not on my main computer, and it isn’t my OS of choice (I’ve switched to a Mac), and probably won’t be. I’m torn over the dual UI.  Transitioning between the two is jarring and unnerving, yet each by themselves isn’t bad. Veteran Windows users will be most comfortable with the old-school desktop and traditional apps on non-tablet based computers. Those working with touch enabled computing devices will appreciate Windows 8’s improved operating performance and standardized, built-in support for touch, which is miles better than WIndows 7’s support for it.

Metro Apps fit a tablet paradigm and are great on one; but on a PC they’re going to be met with total rejection. On a tablet, they make sense; but their flat, one dimensional appearance and poor use of screen real estate are still disappointing. Metro as a whole is going to take a while to get used to; and its total acceptance and adoption may take more than one release of a tablet-oriented-Windows, to secure.

Bottom line – Unless you’re going to be interacting with your computing device via touch, there’s no compelling reason for using or switching to Windows 8. The touch paradigm doesn’t convert well to keyboard and mouse equivalents. If you’re using Windows Vista or earlier and are considering an upgrade, pick Windows 7 as opposed to Windows 8.

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