Since the release of Windows 8 Developer Preview, I have been anxiously awaiting the next preview. When Microsoft went on record earlier this year that it would be unveiling the Consumer Preview on the 29th February 2012, I slowly began to count down the days. Based on the amount of downloads Windows 8 Consumer Preview recorded on its very first day after being released to the public, I knew I wasn’t the only one. Despite the world’s hatred of most things Microsoft, Windows 8 Consumer Preview had an astonishing 1 million downloads in just one day, and is now well on course to being the most popular Windows version to date, even in its beta form.
“It’s Windows reimagined and reinvented from a solid core of Windows 7 speed and reliability. It’s an all-new touch interface. It’s a new Windows for new devices. And it’s your chance to be one of the first to try it out.”
Whichever manner you choose to install the new Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you will notice a few changes from the word go. Microsoft has ditched the old multi-coloured Windows logo, as shown in the header image above. Even the boot screen has been revamped, as Microsoft figured an image of a fish during boot up is more appealing than the flickering multi-coloured window. At first start I thought this was an error, as it took a while for the loading pattern to appear beneath the logo. The first boot takes quite a while, as Windows attempts to load all your settings and features, similar to your first boot up on a smartphone. There are no such delays in subsequent boot ups.
Note: For those having issues installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview, be sure to check out the following link: Windows 8 Consumer Preview FAQ. Here you will find important information about the installation process, including the Product Key you will need during the setup.
The biggest change on the desktop is the removal of the Start Menu button we’ve come to love since Windows 95. Microsoft has replaced the button with two hover features. The first is easier to use, simply moving your mouse cursor to the bottom left corner of the screen. The Start Menu screen icon will appear, after which you can simply select it. The second option used requires you to hover over the top right hand corner, this time revealing much more detailed menu, as shown above. The options include Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Search allows you to easily search for your apps, without browsing through the list of installed applications. The Share function allows you to share items and applications from your desktop. The Start button again opens the Start Menu. The Devices option allows you to select any attached devices, including a second screen. The Settings button opens up a list of options, such as the Control Panel, Personalisation, PC Info, Help, Power Off options, and a few others.
From the desktop we meet up with the Fish logo yet again, making it obvious that this is indeed the new Microsoft mascot. I suppose having a fish as a mascot is a touch more elegant than a zebra or vulture. I also suspect that user feedback about the fish is closed to comment.
As with the Windows 8 Developer Preview, the Start Menu from previous versions has been thrown out and replaced by the Metro-styled UI. Although these icons don’t look like much initially, they adapt over time based on your preferences, browsing and updates. For example, the Music icon will change to a track you’ve recently listened to, or the album art for that track. This is pretty much on par with the icon set for Windows Mobile. Most Windows apps within the Start Menu maintain the Metro UI look and feel, as seen in a few of the screens below.
If the Metro UI Start Menu doesn’t suit your preference, you can skip this altogether by using the search function, mentioned earlier, to browse through your apps. You can also use your keyboard to type the name of the app you’re searching for from within the Start Menu to speed up the process.
In the previous build of Windows 8, Developer Preview, the App Store icon was available from the Start Menu, but never actually worked. One of the biggest additions to Windows 8 Consumer Preview is the inclusion of a working App Store. As shown in the image above, Windows sticks to the conventional method of searching for apps, similar to the Android Market and other apps stores. Although there aren’t too many apps to choose from as yet, this is a great addition to your desktop OS, making it easier to buy and install useful apps, without having to drive to your nearest store, only to realise they don’t have what you’re looking. Hopefully in future the App Store will have those apps you require that perform simple functions without having to purchase an entire suite to do the job.
Note: Although the concept of an app store was made popular by Apple with iTunes and then by Google and its Android Market, Linux were the first to offer this idea to its users. I’m sure, then, that this will spark some debate between the communities, as with everything else we see and use today. Although I doubt Linux will make a great deal of fuss around the issue since it is open source and free to all, I won’t put it past Apple to have their lawyers have a shot at Microsoft, since they’ve been hitting the courts quite frequently lately.
There was one cool app I managed to find in the Store, Cut the Rope. In its current state, this app is free to download, although there are only 3 stages to choose from, which only include 25 levels between them. The gameplay and graphics are very good and as easy to play as on your mobile device. Based on the release of this game, Rovio shouldn’t be too far behind with a version of Angry Birds for Windows 8.
As with the Developer Preview release, Explorer offers more functionality than it did in previous Windows versions. In the toolbar above (which is basically the Ribbon functionality from Office) there are a host of tools in which to perform much more tasks. In addition to the standard Windows tools provided, each file type has extra options available, which is unique to each. For example, when selecting an image file, you are presented with the editing options to rotate the image, start a slide show, or set it as your background. For music and video files, you have the option of playing the file, adding it to a playlist and a few others. The Share toolbar allows you to zip the currently selected files, email or even burn them to disk. There are a number of other functions that you can explore for yourself, as the list is just too long to get through everything.
There’s also a new file copy/transfer window. The improvement from the version we saw in the Developer Preview has been nothing short of amazing. Transfers are now much faster, utilising your hard drives full capacity. Similar to software such as Terra Copy, you are able to pause and resume transfers whenever you wish. It doesn’t quite match Terra Copy, as there is no check between the copied file and the original.
The Settings Menu provides a few new features. The ability to sign-in to Windows has changed the Users profile somewhat. Although the ability to log into Windows without an account to log into is still available, the benefit of having an account makes more sense. You can now receive notification messages linked to your profile, in the form of emails or actual text messages. Using the sign-in feature also allows you to sync your current setup to other Windows 8 enabled devices. Similar to the way your Android device works using your Gmail login, your settings, installed apps, messaging, etc. will all be available from another device once you have signed in.
One of the examples I chose to show you for the Metro UI apps was the new Music app, which is basically Windows Media Player in Metro form. As it is integrated with the default WMP, you can now have a fancier manner in which to listen to your music, or even watch movies via the Video app. Although it app offers quite a lot less functionality that WMP, it does look a whole lot better, raising the question about why aren’t they combined to make one application, with functionality and looks from both? If you want functionality and settings, use the default WMP found in the desktop shortcuts folder. You can then cross over to the Music app to get the cool view, along with the integrated options you setup in WMP. Other Metro-styled apps include Internet Explorer 10, Video, Calendar, Mail, Maps, Photos, Calendar, SkyDrive, and a few others, although not all of them are integrated with other default Windows applications we know and love (or hate).
Windows also offers a few more apps which are associated with a number of file formats, such as a PDF reader, Word, Excel and PowerPoint viewers, all of which are packaged with Windows 8.
Because this version of Windows is optimised to be run on multiple platforms, there are a number of added capabilities to choose from, such as the on-screen keyboard shown above. If you know all the shortcut keys there’s very little use for a mouse in current versions of Windows. Although Windows have also included an on-screen keyboard in current versions, everything just seems a little bit easier, allowing you to do away with the mouse and keyboard completely. If you have a touchscreen device, you shouldn’t have any difficulty in using standard Windows functions.
As with Windows Mobile, apps can be closed by swiping the screen from top to bottom. You can even multi-task in a new way with Windows 8. Simply drag the current screen either to the left or to the right to place it in standby. You can then select another app from the Start Menu, while keeping track of the other opened windows on the side, as shown in the image above. Since most of the apps don’t have the old minimise and close buttons any longer, the above techniques to close and minimise apps are essential. This does take a bit of getting used to, something I still haven’t completely mastered as yet.
If you don’t choose to close any running applications after you use them, you can simply have them placed in memory by switching between apps using Windows Key + Tab, or going back to the Start Menu using the Windows Key. You will notice that these running apps will still be available after you have shutdown Windows. This is because Windows 8 doesn’t truly shutdown, unless you select the option implicitly in the Power Options. When you shutdown Windows it will store the current setup and memory onto your hard drive, making it load faster upon start up. This is similar to the Hibernate feature seen before, but is more of a half hibernate, half shutdown state to be accurate.
One of the more poked at, and dreaded, issues regarding Windows is the Blue-Screen-of-Death. Most of us cringe at the thought of experiencing this failure, made even worse by the arbitrary comment leaving you with little, if any, information about the resultant Windows crash. The good news with Windows 8 is that Microsoft have taken some time to change a few things with regard to the Blue-Screen-of-Death, most noticeably adding the frownie face (see above). Microsoft have also attempted to provide additional information about any crash that could be of use to advanced users, and also attempt to resolve the issue at the next restart. Although I didn’t run into any such crashes during the review process, it makes for a welcome change to the long standing blue screen we’ve become accustomed to.
There have been many UI changes with Windows 8, none more so than the Start Menu, something most users will have to spend some time with before becoming accustomed to the Metro-styled menu. The biggest improvement, in my opinion, is the added functionality included by default with this new version. Features such as the App Store, settings menu, messaging, console integration, and its optimisation to run on desktops, laptops and even tablets, make this an extremely well rounded product. Having upgraded directly from Windows 7, the new version kept all but one of my previously installed applications, making the upgrade process supremely easy. The initial setup took less than 5 minutes and less than 10 clicks to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, one of the installed applications wouldn’t work with Windows 8 Consumer Preview, but I’m more than happy with the end result, especially since we’re only in the beta phase.
I can’t see how much more work will be done in terms of new features and the UI, but I can assure you that the development team is still hard at work on optimisation and running improvements. The Consumer Preview is good enough for everyday use. With this in mind, I would definitely recommend anyone to upgrade as soon as they can. And since this is only a beta, you don’t have to worry about taking your friend’s copy of the ISO for you to install (for those who are unable to download the 2.5GB+ installation files); just be sure to read all the terms and conditions first.
For those of you out there who are based solely on the Windows 8 platform, you have a lot to look forward to. The release of the commercial version of Windows 8 is expected to hit the shelves sometime during the month of October. If, however, you dab a little with other Operating Systems, you should be happy to hear that Ubuntu will also be releasing an upgrade soon, packed full of new features. Already having overhauled its UI in the previous version, there are also plans to optimise the OS for mobile devices, mostly integrated with Android smartphones as a dual boot option, enabled when running from a docking station. If the new Ubuntu dual boot from a smartphone is as good as the standard desktop OS, we’ll soon be moving away from the purchase of desktops, running everything from a single device. It’s a scary and exciting thought.