Windows 8 Consumer Preview: A First Look at Microsoft's New Operating System


Internet Explorer and the Cloud

As you may have guessed, a new version of Windows means a new version of Internet Explorer. However, there are two versions of the web browser in Windows 8, which I find confusing.

If you are on the Start screen you will see a shortcut to a Metro-styled version of the browser, but if you are on the traditional desktop you will get a desktop version. Beyond looking different, the new version doesn't support Flash and was built more for touch input.

The new browser is very easy to use. Swipe down from the top of the screen and you can open new tabs and type in website URLs. You can also swipe backwards and forwards on the page to go back and forth between pages. Websites loaded very quickly and scrolling has been as smooth as it is on the iPad 2. That's no small feat, since many Android tablets suffer from jittery scrolling.

I would like to see the two browsers interact better. If you have pages loaded in one browser they won't show in the other, and while you can send a page to the other browser, it is a setting that is fairly buried.

Microsoft has also brought its SkyDrive Cloud storage over to the operating system, and it's one of the best ways to share your content (photos, files, email, etc.) across devices. With 25GB of free storage, you can store your photos, files, etc. in the app and then access it from any web browser or any other SkyDrive app.

Mouse and Keyboard

Clearly, a lot of Windows 8 was built for touch, but this isn't just a tablet operating system. Pairing Windows 8 with a mouse and keyboard works quite well. As soon as a mouse is plugged in (I used a wireless mouse with the tablet), you get the familiar arrow on the screen. If the mouse has a scroll wheel, you can use it to scroll through the Start screen. While the shortcuts are grounded to the edges with touch, they are in the corners when you use a mouse: you can get to the charms by hovering in the top right corner of the screen and view open apps by placing the mouse on in the top left corner.

While there are two great on-screen keyboards, pairing a physical keyboard with the system is more efficient for those needing to write e-mails or long documents. Keyboard shortcuts also help when navigating. For instance, holding down the Windows key and the Z key will bring up an application's menu. Hitting the Page Up or Page Down buttons will let you scroll through the Start screen without having to touch the mouse.

While a mouse and keyboard provide what Microsoft calls a "no compromise" computing experience, Microsoft's Director of Windows Communications, Christopher Flores told me that he expects "touch to be omnipresent on Windows 8 computers, even on laptops" when the operating system starts shipping on computers. We've already seen interesting hardware form factors for Windows 8; Lenovo showed off a laptop that filps into a tablet earlier this year.

Bottom Line

Overall, I'm extremely impressed with the next version of Windows – the features, the new ways of interacting with a tablet, and the potential of it all. And there are parts of it, like how you can position apps side by side, I like better than my iPad 2. However, Windows 8 isn't ready yet. While the public can download the pre-release software today, there are major parts of the operating system not yet working.

During my testing, I encountered some consistent bugs, including blank screens. Microsoft says, "Quality remains our key priority in determining when the product is ready for release." While the issues I saw weren't enough to frustrate me to the point of not wanting to use the tablet over the last week, they do seriously hamper the experience.

Beyond that, there are some very big questions left about the success of Windows 8, and some those are out of Microsoft's hands. The first of those is dependent on Microsoft's partners (HP, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) and the hardware they create to complement the operating system. For the first time, Microsoft is making Windows compatible with low-power ARM processors, the hardware found in most cell phones today. There are still many questions about how the operating system will work on that hardware.

The second has to do with the application developers. Without a wide variety of beautiful apps, the operating system will be nothing more than a stillborn.

All those issues aside, Windows 8 isn't only a brave leap for Microsoft and from the desktop we are all so familiar with, but an exciting one. We're living in a very exciting time of computing, as both Apple and Microsoft attempt to meld their respective mobile and desktop operating systems.

So, will billions be willing to make the leap to a Windows that looks nothing like the Windows they have known? Microsoft still has to convince us of that when it's final version is ready to roll out, but if you're tech-savvy enough to install the operating system on your own, it's surely worth a try today.

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