Windows 8 Preview

It’s time for new content! Lots of screenshots today, mostly found as a gallery at the bottom. Let’s tear apart something from Microsoft!

Standard installation procedures for a non-standard specimen.

Remember when Vista came out? Yeah, I bet you do. It had been friggin’ FOREVER since Windows XP was released, and the Internet burned in fiery hatred for Vista’s release. In my opinion Vista didn’t deserve half the rage it garnered and it was still an essential release; without Vista, there’d be nothing to build Windows 7 from. Windows 7 is simply Vista Reloaded, benefiting from improved driver support once people like nVidia and AMD got their shit together, as well as a better average hardware profile suited to the new operating system. But lots of kids grew up knowing nothing but Windows XP and weren’t around for the 90s and the consistent Windows releases, so they were enraged at being kicked out of the familiar green and blue taskbar. I however was around for the 90s in computing, and I remember the rapid progression from Windows 3 to Windows 95, 98, 98Se, ME, and then on to XP when the NT line got kicked into the desktop consumer environment. And that’s ignoring Windows 2000 and the Windows NT releases. The gap between XP and Vista was UNUSUAL, it was the exception to the rule. But the kids won’t listen.

Windows 8 is on its way, and it’s more like Windows 7+ from what we’re seeing so far. Windows XP to Windows Vista was akin to Windows 98 to Windows XP (or 2000), while Windows Vista to Windows 7 was like Windows 95 to Windows 98… if you can follow that train of thought. Windows 8 looks to be the next step, sort of like Win98 SE. The Developer Preview is out now. It’s mainly aimed at people looking to check out the new Metro interface and what they can do with the new OS when it eventually ships, but if you’re feeling up to it, you can have a go too. I installed it on my Alienware m11x R2, my little gaming netbook which is only ever used in power failures and otherwise gathers dust. It’s running an ultra low voltage i7 at some clock speed I can’t recall, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB HDD. Ordinarily it runs Windows 7 and it’s a slouch to boot up. I needed a test system for Win8, so it got the job. Note that this’ll be a mix of iPhone photography of the screen, as well as proper screenshots. Many apologies from this humble techpriest in advance.

I'd rather just do it myself.

The install is straightforward. There’s no upgrade pathway; if you want to install, you need to replace the current OS. Or so you’re told. My method was to do a Custom install and have it put the old Windows folders into Windows.old, preserving my profile. Not that there’s anything useful on it. The install was… well, exactly as you’d expect a Windows install to look like. All you do is hit “Next”. Then it spends ages “preparing” or doing something else. Then the setup takes a turn for the weird. The old wizard has been replaced with this new one that boldly asks if you’d like to do an Express Setup. Essentially Express Setup just sets Autoupdate to true, enables SmartScreen for IE, and (more disturbingly) enables SmartScreen for applications, meaning that the filter checks files and apps with Microsoft. Checks them HOW, exactly? Not sure. Interestingly your options for Updates are simply autoinstall all, autoinstall recommended, or “ask me later.” There’s no “Do not want” option. The Express setup will also ask you if you want to give Microsoft info to make suggestions for the new Windows Store, if you want to join Spynet to help combat malware, send location data for location-aware apps, and something about Help. Note that the Customer Experience Improvement Program is forced ON in this build. There’s also some crap about error reporting (forced ON for this build) and some other stuff, as well as account creation for login.

I am Soldant.

The interface is very green. I don’t like green so much as I like blue, so I’m not happy. The new login screen is… well, just look at it. It’s huge. It’s a glimpse of things to come with the new Metro language and its associated interface, of which we will now talk about until you get utterly sick of it.

This is the future?

Oh dear. What do we have here? Well, this is the new default UI. Some of my more astute officers (okay, I mean readers, but I think you’ve earned a promotion, right?) will note that this looks an awful lot like the Windows Phone 7 interface, with its big blocks and crap like that. And no doubt some of you are now spitting in extreme rage at this new interface. I kind of share your pain. Look at the size of that interface! It should be said from the outset that this thing is actually designed to work with both a touchscreen and a conventional mouse and keyboard, hence the odd interface. Let’s explore a bit more.

This main screen is a bit of a pain in the arse, to be honest. It’s the default screen that pops up straight after logging in. You can see a few apps (shown as ’tiles’) visible here, and these little boxes can update with what the app is currently doing. For example, the News application there will flick through your RSS feeds. Socialite is for Facebook, and I’m not about to set it up. The Weather applet will display weather information. There are a few important things to note here. First is Internet Explorer… we’ll get into that in just a second. Next is the Store; ditto for that one. Windows Explorer and Control Panel make an appearance too, as does an option to go back to the Desktop. Let’s start there, shall we?

So the desktop has changed slightly, thanks to this mouse-over popup.

Hitting the Windows key or clicking the Desktop button sends you back to the good old Desktop that we’ve been using since Windows 95. It’s functionally identical to the old one… except for the Start button. Clicking that thing just dumps you back to the “Start screen”. There’s no Start menu. See that big interface with all the tiles? If this interface is the new standard (and it’s early days yet so don’t get too mad) then we’d better get used to it. Mousing at the extreme bottom left of the screen brings up a little menu that gives you access to Search, Share, Devices, and Settings screens. They all slide out from the right side of the screen. The only one worth worrying about is the Settings option, because it gives you access to some useful settings like brightness, volume controls, oh and the Power control. Yeah, power! It took me ages to find where they were hiding this thing now. Never before have I had so much trouble trying to find a menu option for turning off the system. I guess they expect the physical power button to dictate when we want to do something. That usually means putting the system to sleep, which is a bitch because something on my desktop keeps waking it up every 10 minutes. Not happy!

Nothing is safe from the revisionist's brush.

Apart from that it’s worth mentioning the new Explorer interface, which makes use of the Ribbon interface from Office. Plenty of people hate this thing but personally I don’t mind it. You can however hide it. What I wonder about is why they thought it needed to be there in the first place. I mean half of the options are done by shortcuts or a right-click menu. It just seems… pointless. Fortunately they also added a much-demanded button to move up one place in the directory tree. Otherwise it’s functionally identical to the Windows 7 version. And that’s pretty much all there is to say about that, because that’s all you can really touch from the Desktop screen. The rest of the apps and settings are entirely from the new Start Screen, so I guess we’ll tackle that and look at a few apps.

Tiles, sir! They're everywhere!

Before we go anywhere, I want you to answer me this question: how do you access Notepad from this screen? If you suggested “Scroll to the right” you are wrong. If you suggested “Right click” you are wrong. If you suggested “Press the Windows key” you are also wrong and in trouble because I specifically outlined the function of this key previously, and you obviously weren’t paying attention, and should consider yourself demoted. The correct answer is “Type ‘notepad'”. Literally, just that. Type it in. This will start searching for your string, by default checking the installed applications list. That’s how you launch Notepad. It doesn’t appear in any of the tiles although you can pin it to the screen by right-clicking and selecting the Pin option.

Notepad, my stalwart companion.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, I almost NEVER go browsing through the Start menu these days. If something isn’t pinned to the task bar or isn’t on my desktop, I type it into the Search box. This is easily the greatest feature Microsoft ever came up with. So in one way this is simply an evolution of that, cutting out the Start menu that we’ve been using since 95 because… well, we’re not using it. But on the other hand I wasn’t even sure Notepad was installed when I first booted up the system, and I only discovered how to find apps by complete accident when I tried to press a key combination and ended up searching instead. How was I supposed to know this? Of course this is an early developer build and NOT intended for end users, especially those who aren’t going to monkey around with something until they figure out how it works (like all of us do). I’m not sold on this idea yet. Also, notice that the Search screen has an option for files. This currently does nothing, or if it does I can’t figure out what it does, because I’ve got files in the Documents library but they never, ever show up here. To view all of your applications, just try to search and then remove your search string. I presume there’s an easier way to do this but I don’t know what it is.

It's like a new, disorganised Start menu!

Speaking of installed apps, there’s a boatload of them. About 70% are from Windows 7, but the rest are designed to showcase the special tiles and Start Screen setup that Microsoft have got going on. I won’t go into all of them, so here are two screenshots: the Weather and RSS feed reader apps. The Weather application does two interesting things. Firstly, it displays everything in farenheit, which is bullshit because I’m in Australia and we use the sensible Celsius unit. To change it, you need to go to the bottom left corner and hit Settings in the popup. That’s a bit ridiculous, especially when Right-click brings up a menu down the bottom which should contain the Settings button. Secondly, it’ll automatically find your location for you using locating settings, should you have this option enabled. The RSS feed app… well, does exactly what it says on the tin.

One thing worth noting is that should you choose to press ALT+TAB, you’ll notice them running in the background. When I first did this, I immediately set myself to work trying to find how to close them. Hint: you can’t. They auto-suspend after a while, and eventually just stop showing up. I don’t know the criteria for this, but it works.

We're in the future.

The only other one I really wanted to comment on for the moment is the Internet Explorer option. This build ships with Internet Explorer 10. Contrary to popular opinion, IE9 actually isn’t all that bad and if it had a decent adblocker I’d class it above Firefox, which has become a slow piece of shit in my experience. Of course the biggest problem with IE9 is that Chrome is better. IE10 doesn’t seem remarkably different, but when launched from its tile on the Start Screen it has a different behaviour to launching it from the desktop. It opens up in fullscreen mode, with a bar down the bottom for searching/entering URLs and stuff, and a bar up the top for accessing tabs. The UI elements eventually vanish, leaving the webpage to take up the entire screen. I like it. The interface is just better integrated than fullscreen mode on something like Chrome.

Actually, this is an improvement.

Let’s check out the new Task Manager. In general the Task Manager hasn’t changed since Windows XP. It’s always done its job without much dicking around, for which I’m eternally in its debt. Microsoft have swapped it around. By default it tells you jack shit except for what apps are running and their status. “Suspended” apps aren’t in active use and aren’t chewing CPU time, but they are chewing memory, as hitting the More Details button will show. This one gives you a nice overview of all the currently running processes. It’s my understanding that “suspended” apps should close on their own after a while… or at least they disappear and I have no idea where they go.

Behold: statistics! Also, Paint!

The next useful tab is the Performance tab, which shows you current CPU, memory, disk and network activity. It’s more useful than the Windows 7 version (which has been around since XP) providing a much nicer graph and more statistics. The Details and Services tabs are functionally the same as the old Task Manager, with the Details tab being the new name for the Processes tab under the old Task Manager.

The Windows Store… doesn’t work in this preview, for obvious reasons, so don’t ask me about it.

Splitscreen play for multiple players?

The only other thing I want to note is how you can drag tiles and apps to display side by side. I had to get an iPhone shot of this because trying to take a screenshot only captures the active part of the screen, not the entire thing. I’m not sold on how useful this is. For anything except tiles built for the purpose, it’s useless. Having a web-page docked on the side for example is worthless because it renders it too small to be of any practical use. The Weather app, meanwhile, has a nice compact mode that it goes into when it has the smaller amount of screen space, which means it’s still useful.

Talking in terms of performance, I’d give it the thumbs up so far. It hasn’t crashed on me yet, and performance seems to be incredibly snappy. All the tiles load up very quickly and all the applications are very responsible. I did ironically have trouble getting it to turn off! Something managed to cause it to freeze during shutdown, so I had to force it to sleep and then wake it up to get it to shut down. What a nightmare. Apart from that though it was quite good with performance, but I don’t know whether that’s because it’s a particularly good OS or if it’s simply because it’s a clean install. I wouldn’t like to guess.

There are a few things I haven’t played with here or really touched on. Firstly, I didn’t install any new applications. I can tell you from the outset that doing so would mean the app would look identical to how it does on Windows 7. The new tile interface only benefits apps coded specifically for it (presumably using Metro), anything else just has the standard Desktop look. Notepad and Paint just look the same as on Windows 7. Secondly, I didn’t play with most of the apps. A lot of them are simple demonstration apps designed mostly for a tablet PC. I didn’t want to spend ages saying “This app is called Piano, and it’s a piano.” If you want to know what they’re like, just imagine an iPad app running on Windows. That’s pretty much it.

VERDICT: Mixed.
On the one hand, I can appreciate what Microsoft are trying to do. The Start Screen is, in some ways, pretty elegant and does a nice job. I like the idea of having those little tiles display newsfeeds. I like how I can rearrange the tiles, give them less screen space, and pin my own stuff there. I’d be interested to see what people could come up with to put there. It reminds me a little of the Sidebar that Longhorn originally had. I might even be able to get used to the new system for launching applications. I mean when it comes down to it I never browse the start menu, I always just type what I want and that’s it. I guess the Start Menu’s days were numbered when we all started using that Search bar. Although the new interface was clearly designed to be tablet-friendly, it’s still very easy to use with a mouse. Initially I was violently opposed to it, but I could learn to love it. And the Desktop is just a key-press away, and minus the Start button it’s functionally identical to Windows 7.

Most of the new interface is an addition to the base Windows interface. The old Control Panel is still kicking around. The old Desktop is still there (and it isn’t going away any time soon). You’d be tempted to just dismiss it as a pointless front-end but the functionality of the tiles goes against that notion. Yes, it does remind me a lot of the Home screen in iOS (or Launchpad in OS X Lion, which I laughed at until I cried) and fullscreen modal apps kind of go against the idea of multi-tasking in my opinion, but it is done in a pretty slick way.

But I do have concerns. Firstly, I know computing power is approaching abundance these days, but I’m not sold on having all these little applets running in the background. I’m not sold on the “suspended” state of some of the apps, which seem to persist past the point where I’d stopped using them. I’m wondering how that’d affect gaming. It wouldn’t matter on my desktop (with its 6GB of RAM) but on lower-end machines I’d hope they’d be terminated to allow a game to take over. Likewise with RAM-intense applications like Photoshop or a 3D modelling app, or anything else you can think of.

Secondly, I’m concerned about the whole Windows Store and sending information stuff. Nine times out of ten I just don’t care, because I don’t believe in the Big Conspiracy that people (mostly 14 year old kids babbling about IP addresses and Windows Genuine Advantage) seem to think Microsoft is a part of. But I can also see this as some sort of attempt at draconian DRM being introduced, a weird attempt at making a new walled garden which could see the likes of Steam or other digital-distro platforms threatened. I don’t know why Microsoft want to take this walled garden path. Apple can get away with it because they rule their land with an iron fist of tyranny. Microsoft hasn’t got a hope in hell of doing the same with the PC, we’re far too dynamic and diverse to have such controls placed on us. Of course my fears could be completely unfounded and the bottom line is we simply don’t have the information yet to condemn the Windows Store concept, but it’s concerning nonetheless.

In terms of what it means for us as gamers… I’m guessing that it doesn’t really mean much. This is clearly aimed at giving Windows a better front-end that is also touch-friendly, which I can appreciate. Microsoft’s attempts to unify the desktop and mobile market could pay off. A desktop OS has never been suited to a tablet PC, which is why iOS/Android are so successful. But if Microsoft actually manage to unify the two markets by including a full desktop OS that’s easy to control on a tablet… they might end up being a major force in the tablet PC sector.

It’s still very early days but so far I’m sort of sitting on the fence. Part of the problem with Windows 8 can be summed up with “It’s different.” And different isn’t necessarily bad. Without spending a lot of time with the OS it’s going to be hard to determine whether it’s different-good, different-tolerable, or different-bad. In spite of having some reservations about the system and having to re-learn a few things due to UI changes, I haven’t actually seen anything that flatout makes me hate Windows 8 or dread its release. I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll work out, and I might end up getting rid of my iPad and laptop and having a decent Windows-powered tablet PC which doesn’t take ages to boot up and slow to a crawl.

Should you install it? I’d advise caution and remind you that unless you’re installing it to a second HDD or a separate partition it’s going to replace your current Windows install. It doesn’t seem inherently unstable but I didn’t test it fully and I have no idea how well it plays with other applications. It’s worth a look, for sure, but play it safe as always.

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