Microsoft’s reimagining of Windows is nearly done. The Windows 8Release Preview, now available for download, is the last test version before the final build which will go to Microsoft’s hardware partners, on a date expected in “about 2 months”, according to Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.
This is a remarkable release, and represents Microsoft’s effort to escape the prison it has created for itself in 27 years of Windows (Windows 1.0 appeared in November 1985). Windows is the world’s most popular operating system on PCs and laptops, but the buzz in today’s computing landscape is elsewhere, in mobile and in tablets – mainly Apple’s iPad – which offer users a better experience.
The core operating system is locked down and therefore more secure; apps install with a tap from a download store, rather than with complex setup routines; the battery lasts all day; the device itself is lightweight, portable and shareable, in contrast to bulky laptops with flaps for screens.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s answer. The company has taken its existing Windows operating system, with all its strengths and all its problems, and parked it in a box it now calls Desktop. Next, it has created a new touch-friendly, mobile, secure, operating system complete with its own app store.
Microsoft has carefully avoided giving this a name, preferring that we should just think of it a Windows, but the new platform is called the Windows Runtime and the design style Metro.
Metro is not, on the whole, something which Microsoft’s existing customers want. Windows 7 succeeded because it was unequivocally better than Windows Vista: faster, more reliable, and with useful innovations like its improved taskbar from which you can launch applications.
Metro by contrast is new and unfamiliar, and delivers little obvious benefit when installed on a desktop or laptop with keyboard and mouse but no touch capability. Put Windows 8 on a slate though, and it starts to make sense and come to life.
Even on a legacy PC, Windows 8 improves markedly once you learn the basics of navigation. Leaving aside Metro, Windows 8 benefits from three years of engineering improvements since Windows 7 in 2009, resulting in a faster, smoother experience.
Nevertheless, the bifurcation of Windows comes at a cost. Desktops apps generally have no knowledge of Metro apps and vice versa. This is confusing, particularly with Internet Explorer 10 (IE10), which exists in both Metro and Desktop versions.
The two versions do not share bookmarks (favourites) or cookies, so you can sign into a site such as Amazon on the Metro side, then open it on the Desktop side and find you are not signed in. It is also easy to lose a web page, or to open it twice by mistake.
Windows 8 in detail
The Windows 8 experience starts with the installer, where Microsoft has done an excellent job, judging by our experience on a slate, a desktop clean install, a laptop upgrade from Windows 7, and on a virtual machine. All went smoothly. Be warned though: if you install the Release Preview, you cannot uninstall it, nor upgrade it to the final release.
Choose a colour scheme and you are in, presented with the blocky Windows 8 Start menu, which runs full screen and cannot be reverted to the Windows 7 pop-up style Start menu.
This moment is tough for new users. They click a Metro app and cannot see how to quit it. They find the desktop, but wonder where the Start button is. “I’m not quite sure what’s happening,” said one victim.
Microsoft knows there is a problem, and has as-yet unspecified plans to assist users. “We will be sharing more about specific steps the company is taking to make sure customers start off on the right foot with their Windows 8 PCs. We have confidence that people will quickly find the new paradigms to be second-nature,” a spokesman told the Guardian.
That said, there are only a few basics to learn. On a desktop or laptop, you mouse to the bottom left corner for the Start screen, or the bottom right corner for the Charms bar, a vertical bar which gives access to settings (including those for the current Metro app), Start screen, Search, Sharing and Devices. Mouse to top left brings up a thumbnail preview of running Metro apps. Touch users swipe from the right for Charms, or from the left to switch apps.