Feb. 29, 2012 -- Every day billions of people in the world boot up their computers and are brought into the world of Microsoft Windows. Whether they're using Windows XP or Windows 7, the layout is similar and has become familiar -- a desktop with icons, a Start button in the corner, and lots of windows.
Today, Microsoft is pulling the curtain off of its next version of Windows -- Windows 8 -- and it looks entirely different from what those billions of people are used to seeing every day.
The Seattle-based company has designed Windows 8 not only for laptops and desktops, but also for tablets. It was built from the ground up with your fingers in mind. It is meant as much for a touch screen as for a laptop.
Microsoft will offer a public pre-release or beta version of the operating system, called the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, starting today for all to download and try, but it won't start shipping on tablets, laptops, or desktops you can purchase until later. (Microsoft isn't giving a definitive date yet, but it's been heavily rumored for a launch close to the holiday season.)
For the last week, I have been testing the new operating system on a Samsung tablet I was given by Microsoft, and I've been impressed with the entire experience. It is, however, a very big change.
Is it one you will want to make? Or at least try? Has Microsoft come up with something that can finally compete with the iPad? Below you'll find a guide to the new features and what I like and don't like about some of them.
From the second you turn on the tablet, Windows 8 looks dramatically different from Windows of the past.
The entire experience is centered on the Start screen, which is home to colorful "live tiles" or apps. The tiles themselves are a lot like the ones on Microsoft's Windows Phone; they will refresh with content from within the app. For instance, if you are connected to the Internet, the weather tile will display the current temperature.
While the tiles on the screen may look like firmly grounded stepping stones, they're entirely customizable. You can hold down and drag each tile and group them into different categories. Pinch the entire screen and you get a view of all the tiles and the ability to name a group of them (e.g. news, social apps, games).
You can also change the color of the background. While you can't add a picture, you can replace the picture on the lock screen, which also populates with different notifications, for instance, the number of emails waiting for you.
So, what about the desktop you've known for years and years? While it's not the centerpiece of Windows anymore, you can get to it by tapping the Desktop app on the Start screen.
You can always get back to the Start screen by swiping your finger from the right edge towards the middle of the screen. This reveals what Microsoft calls "charms," which include Search, Share, Devices, Settings, and Start shortcuts.
The Start screen and the charms are some of my favorite parts of the operating system; everything works extremely fluidly, touch or taps register immediately, and organizing apps is very easy.
Microsoft has also added "picture passwords." Instead of typing out a secret password, you can choose an image and draw a pattern on top of it to unlock. I like the idea in theory, but I found that it doesn't always recognize my gestures. I've opted to use a text and number based password.
There are Finally Apps for That
If the Start screen is the heart of Windows 8, the apps are the blood to keep it pumping. Microsoft will be rolling out its store for purchasing apps with the beta version of the operating system, but it wasn't available as I was writing this review. (Update: The Store is now available in the Consumer Preview. Take a look at some of the new apps here.)
The Consumer Preview does come with 19 core Microsoft apps, most of which have been totally reimagined. Mail, Messaging, Bing Maps, People, Photos, Music and Weather are just a few that decorate the Start screen. All the apps have been designed with Microsoft's "Metro UI" design language, which give them a new clean and polished look. Similar to the iPad, the apps take up the full screen.
However, one of the best things about Windows 8 is the fact that you can put apps side by side. When you drag your finger from the left side of the screen you can swipe through open apps and position one alongside another. If you quickly drag an app in and out from the left side, a menu with all your open apps will pop up so you can easily jump to another open app. You can close an app by dragging down from the top of the screen.
These features are not all that obvious, a weakness since everyone will be new to Windows 8. Once you get the hang of it, it is very intuitive, but it seems necessary for Microsoft to educate people about these capabilities. (I wouldn't have known about many of these without help from Microsoft.)
Below are thoughts on some of Microsoft's own apps.
Mail - I love the mail app. Similar to the iPad and Android tablets, you have a two-pane view with your Inbox on the left and messages on the right. You can easily change the font, font color, and insert a large variety of emoticons into your message.
People - Here you can sign into your Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft Live accounts and message your friends and check their statuses. It's not a very versatile, but it is a nice portal for keeping tabs on all your friends.
Music/Video - Microsoft has integrated its music and video stores into the core of Windows 8. The stores weren't up and running while I was testing, but the layout of the apps is very simple to navigate.
Windows 8's success depends heavily on the apps that are created by developers. (Microsoft has been busy providing software makers with the tools to make their own Metro apps.) The iPad has been so successful because of the beautiful tablet apps that you can get for it; Windows has to provide an equal if not better app experience.
You might be wondering about your older apps -- will they run? The answer: they should. They will just run in the traditional Desktop area of the operating system. Most apps I tried, including OpenOffice, Trillian and TweetDeck, worked just fine, but when I tried to install Microsoft Office 2010 I got a compatibility error. Microsoft will be releasing Office 15 to coincide with Windows 8.
Xbox Comes to the Computer
One of the most exciting preloaded apps is Xbox Live Games. While the store wasn't up and running on my tablet, I was able to try a version of Pinball FX2.
The graphics looked beautiful on the 11.6-inch tablet, and it was very responsive to my taps even though I've watched the silver ball roll through the flippers too many times in the last week. (That's a comment on my gaming skills, not the software.) There should be more games to try in the Windows Games Marketplace soon. And yes, there is also a new, redesigned version of Solitaire ready and waiting for all beta testers.
Microsoft has also included an Xbox companion app, which allows you to use the tablet as a controller for games running on a regular Xbox gaming console.
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.
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.