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Living with Windows 8 Consumer Preview
I've been waiting to write about the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, wondering if over time, the new user interface would grow on me. Now that I have spent the past couple of weeks trying it on a variety of machines, I still think the Metro UI looks quite good on a tablet. The operating system as a whole, however, is a bit awkward on a laptop and even worse on a desktop.
Microsoft has said that Windows 8 aims to be a "no compromise" operating system, focused on "and" instead of "or"—not a touch screen ora mouse and keyboard, but both together. It sounds great, but as I use it, I'm not quite convinced.
It's certainly improved since the developer preview. You can now use it successfully on a desktop or notebook, but I'm not sure why a typical desktop or notebook user with Windows 7 would upgrade to Windows 8.
Metro UIThe new Metro user interface looks the same as it did on the developer preview and similar to the interface in Windows Phone (or the Zune), but it has undergone some important fixes that make it work better on a machine with a keyboard or mouse.It's still a tile-based interface with "active tiles" on the Start screen that bring up what are essentially full-screen applications. If you have a Metro application open, you can typically slide it over to one side so you can see two Metro applications side by side. One appears on a third of the screen, but it's a tiled interface (as in Windows 1) rather than the overlapping windows we've gotten used to in more recent versions of Windows and the Macintosh.With a touch screen, you press a tile to start the application, swipe down to get back to the Start screen, swipe left to right to switch applications, and swipe in from the right side to see the Windows 8 charms. (The charms include basic functions such as Search and Share that can work within any Metro application.) There are also options to return to the Start screen, see your devices, and edit settings. You can make applications appear next to each other just by sliding them to one side.With a mouse and keyboard, you can click on the tiles to open applications, return to the Start screen by pressing the Windows key or clicking in the lower left-hand corner, and get the Charms menu to appear by moving the point to the upper right-hand corner. It's different, but it certainly works. To get a Metro app to appear on the side of the screen, you need to select the top edge with your mouse, which brings up a little hand, then drag down and move it to the side you want. This is a bit less intuitive, but again, it does work.In either case, one of the tiles brings you to the "desktop," which looks essentially identical to the traditional Windows 7 desktop, except that the Start menu isn't there anymore. Instead, you click on the lower-left hand corner and go to the Metro Start screen.For a mouse and keyboard user, that's a bit jarring; it looks completely different, of course. More importantly, while that's great for moving to Metro apps or other things you have "pinned" to the first page of the start screen, it's hard to see all of your programs.Fortunately, there's a new feature called Semantic Zoom. By pinching the Start menu with a touch screen or by selecting a tiny icon in the lower right-hand corner with your mouse, you can see the whole range of your Start menu, which makes it easier to arrange it or see an application that isn't immediately visible without a lot of scrolling.Perhaps even more useful for most desktop folks is an "all apps" screen that you can get to by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, right-clicking the start screen, or hitting Windows+Z.This gives you a view that's reminiscent of the old Windows Start screen. It lists all your applications, segregated into groups, albeit not with the pop-up, cascading menus. Alternatively, you can think of it as full desktop of icons. It's prettier than the old Start button, but involves more scrolling.From the desktop, but not from a Metro app, you can move the pointer from your mouse to the lower left-hand corner to pull up an icon for the Start menu, and hold it in the upper left-hand corner to see the last opened Metro app. Pulling down on this icon shows you all your running Metro applications, but not your desktop ones.The good news for mouse and keyboard users is that the familiar Alt+Tab combination also shows you all of your running programs—both desktop and Metro apps—and lets you easily cycle among them.All of this works notably better than it did in the desktop preview. So, why am I so skeptical? In general, for a desktop user, everything seems to require an extra step. There are new keyboard combinations to learn, and that means more retraining. I suppose that would be worthwhile if the Metro apps were compelling, but I'm a bit doubtful of that as well, at least for desktop users.Metro AppsIt's hard to judge the state of Metro apps, as most of what are on the consumer preview are also pre-release applications.These include applications for Mail, Photos, Weather, Finance, Maps, People, Calendar, Messaging, Store, Video, and Music, as well as a number of games. In general, these seem fairly basic, but they work. For instance, the Mail app will connect to most Web mail services, as well as to Exchange. Microsoft really wants you to have a Microsoft account for the store, Video, and Music, but again, it works.I've tried a number of third-party Metro apps and while there are few, they are interesting. USA Today, for instance, looks quite good, however I do worry about its habit of text moving off screen, even when there's plenty of space available.This is part of the design of the Metro UI: Applications are made to scroll from left to right, and usually indicate that there's more if you scroll. This scrolling to the right makes some sense on a tablet (although I wonder if there's a way to switch directions for languages that read right to left). On a desktop, though, where you're likely used to scrolling by moving your mouse button up and down, it's a bit awkward.Perhaps the biggest concern I have with the Metro apps I've seen to date is that they all really seem designed for a relatively small screen, like a tablet's. That's ok on a laptop, but on a desktop with a large display, you often get a lot of wasted space. With a multi-monitor setup, at least right now, Metro apps only run on a single screen; a second screen gets the traditional desktop. As long as you're mostly running desktop applications, with the occasional Metro app, that will work, but it seems a bit unfinished.Another issue is the way most of the apps handle the "pinch and zoom" feature we're used to on smartphones and tablets. It works fine with a touch screen, but on a desktop, you use the mouse with the control key and a scroll wheel. On a laptop, the only solution I can find is to use the Windows key and the plus and minus keys; it would be nicer if it supported gestures (like pinch and zoom) on the touchpad itself.It's also not immediately apparent how to close a Metro application, as the system was designed to have such applications simply suspended rather than closed. That's what we've come to expect on smartphones and tablets, but on the desktop, we're used to closing boxes in the corner of the window. Metro apps are full-screen (which can be quite nice), so you don't have the Window outlines or the red "x" option. Bringing up the task-switching panel lets you right-click on an individual application and then choose an option to close it; alternatively the Alt+F4 key combination works, as it has in Windows for years.For desktop users, there are some workarounds. PCMag's Michael Muchmore has a good list of keyboard and mouse shortcuts and ZDNet's Ed Bott has some good ideas for customizing Windows 8 if you're primarily a desktop user. But the need for such guides just proves that desktop users don't seem to be the target here.Perhaps upcoming Metro apps will change my mind, but for now, what I've seen isn't compelling for a desktop user.BrowsingBrowsing on Windows 8 is a rather strange experience because there are actually two browsers, both labeled Internet Explorer 10, but with somewhat different features. Indeed, both Firefox and Chrome are planning Metro versions to complement their desktop browsers.The Metro version of IE 10 is a full screen browser that runs without plug-ins and, as a result, is very fast. However, because it doesn't have plug-ins, certain sites (such as those that use Flash) just don't work and others end up with holes in them for the unsupported data. To see these sites correctly, you'll have to choose a "display in desktop browser" option, which immediately puts you into the desktop version.This aside, both browsers seem to work well, and they seem faster and more responsive than the current version of Internet Explorer.Visit page two to read "New Features, Tablet Features" and more...Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.
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