Sept. 17, 2011ANAHEIM, Calif. -- You won't typically read about a product in this column many months ahead of its presumed launch. But when that product, however early, is the next version of Windows — and so radically different from the familiar operating system software used by a billion people each day — it's never too soon to take an inside look.
Microsoft unveiled the developer preview version of Windows 8, the code name for its latest operating system, this week at its Build conference here. Though it is way too premature for Microsoft to announce specifics on pricing or availability for Windows 8, I was provided a Samsung test tablet computer loaded with Windows 8, and the touch-friendly software got me jazzed. Even as a fan of Windows 7, I can't remember ever saying that I was jazzed by a Microsoft operating system.
Indeed, my first impressions are so favorable that even Apple should be on alert. But the rosy outlook for Windows 8 comes with all sorts of caveats. First, this isn't a review so much as an early look. There's a lot that has to happen between now and when consumers finally get their hands on Windows 8, probably sometime in 2012. And Microsoft by no means revealed everything. I haven't been able to load any of my own software on the test machine or try it with a printer. None of the legacy programs, such as Microsoft Office, were loaded on the computer, though Microsoft insists that all the programs that work on Windows 7 will work even better on Windows 8.
You start to notice the dramatic turn in Windows from the very start — even before you get to the newly designed Start screen. At your option, you can log in with a picture password, instead of the standard typed password, by "drawing" a chosen image with your finger on the touch-screen in a predetermined pattern.
Once in, you will want to explore your surroundings because Windows 8, at least from most views, doesn't look at all like its venerable predecessors. At the heart of the new operating system is an attractive customizable user layout called Metro, which uses colorful, live, touchable tiles of different sizes on the Start screen rather than standard icons to display information. From this screen, you can see what the stock market is doing or get the weather. It reminds you of what is already on Windows Phones. The way Microsoft explains it, icons are yesterday's way of representing apps, tiles are the modern way.
Dragging your finger from the right edge of the screen toward the middle reveals five hidden icons or what are called "charms" that represent search, share, devices, settings and a button to return you to Start. Touching each summons different options.
Dragging from the left edge of the screen takes you back to the previous screen.
You can still get all the benefits of Windows 8, Microsoft says, with a standard mouse and keyboard (or a digitized pen in some cases). But, clearly, the mouse and keyboard, at least in terms of early emphasis, seem to have been relegated to second-string status.
If you get the sense that Windows 8 is designed to compete on traditional PCs as well as slate-type tablets, you'd be right. Windows 8 will support standard personal computers and laptops, as well as tablets that run on ARM processors.
My test machine has two touch keyboards, a full-size version with larger buttons and a thumb keyboard that splits the onscreen keyboard into two (and, after my limited tests, takes getting used to). Microsoft lent me a wireless physical Bluetooth keyboard, which I used when the slate was connected to a dock that Microsoft also supplied as part of my tests.
I used the digitized pen to jot handwritten notes in an Ink Pad app, one of several preloaded Metro apps. Among the others: a piano app, paint program, student flash cards, and Twitter program, all produced, incidentally, by Microsoft interns.
A Metro-style version of the Internet Explorer browser was also preloaded. On this IE 10 version, a navigation bar appears only when you need it. You can "pin" favorite websites to the Windows Start screen — and IE 10 will inform you if the site has an associated Metro app.
Such Metro apps take up the full screen (reminding you of the iPad and OS X Lion), and they're lovely to look at.
There's another thing in Windows 8 that will remind you of Apple: a built-in Windows Store, sporting apps Microsoft says will be prescreened for viruses. Microsoft offered a glimpse, but it wasn't available on my test tablet.
Microsoft is promising even more: secure, always-connected machines that sync with one another through the Internet cloud. They can turn on in seconds and, in theory anyway, run all day on a single charge. There's stuff for power users, too, including a revamped Task Manager that gives you a handle on any programs hogging system resources. In Control Panel, you can refresh your PC if it's not running well, without losing your photos, music or other files.
If Windows 8 lives up to its early promise, computer users — on tablets or more traditional PCs — ought to be delighted. Stay tuned for a lot more concerning Windows 8 in the days and months ahead.