First Impressions of Windows 8

Windows 8A few days ago, I went ahead and installed the Consumer Preview of Windows 8. To say I’m impressed would be understating things a bit. As a Windows Phone 7 user for the last 16 or 17 months, I have become extremely familiar with the metro UI, and am overjoyed to see it coming to the desktop. The whole experience so far has actually inspired me to seriously consider buying a new touch-enabled PC (my current PC is over 5 years old at this point, so it’s probably time to update anyway).

What’s Right About Windows 8?

The new interface is inspired. It’s unique, and it’s easy to use. If you’re a long-time PC user, Windows 8 will require you to entirely rethink how you use your computer; but in a good way. No longer do you have a “Desktop” (well, you do, but it’s an app within Windows 8). Instead, you have a screen full of tiles that you click or tap to open applications. All of your applications (with the exception of apps that have to run inside of the Desktop app) open fullscreen with no chrome around them. Each native app has 3 different formats: Full screen; minimal snapped; and maximum snapped.

When an app is full screen, it takes up the entire screen (duh!). Nothing else appears on the screen at all. You can bring up context menus for various actions by right-clicking (I’m not sure what the multitouch gesture is). You can then “snap” an app to the left or right of your screen. When an app is first “snapped”, it appears in a minimal state. It only takes up about a quarter of your screen’s width, leaving the other three-quarters available for another app. Then, you can open a second app to show up in the larger portion of your screen.

Want to keep an eye on the weather while surfing the Web? Snap your weather app to the left or right, and open IE in the rest of your screen. Want to keep your email visible while you’re playing PinballFX? Snap the Mail app to your screen and open up the game you want to play. If you get an important email while you’re in the middle of your game, you can either handle the email message in it’s minimal state, or you can double click the divider bar to maximize the Mail app (snapping your other active app to the other side of your screen).

It’s a Drag

The Windows 8 interface may not be immediately usable to people that are entrenched in the classic concept of desktop management, but it is extremely simple to pick up once you play with it for a few minutes; and I imagine it is even more simple for people that have never used a computer before.

A few tips can help get you started, though:

  1. Putting your mouse (or finger) in any corner of the screen will bring up some options for you.
    The bottom left corner of the screen reveals the first of two basic app switchers. Whenever you’re inside of an app, clicking the bottom left corner of the screen will take you back to the Start screen. If you’re on the Start screen, clicking the bottom left corner will bring you back to your most recent app.
    The top left corner of the screen will bring up the second of the basic app switchers. Clicking once will take you to the app you were using before your current app. If you don’t move your mouse away, each subsequent click will take you further back in the history of your apps.
    If you place your mouse in either left corner of the screen, then slide your pointer up or down, you’ll reveal the new iteration of the “taskbar”. Each app you currently have open will be represented by a thumbnail showing the current state of that app. Clicking on any of those apps in the taskbar will switch to that app. Right-clicking on any of those apps will bring up three options: Snap Left; Snap Right (both of which will set the app in the minimal snapped position on the appropriate side of the screen); or Close (to terminate the app).
    The top and bottom right corners of the screen bring up your main context menu. That main context menu contains five icons: Settings; Devices; Start; Share; and Search. When you hover over that bar, you’ll also get a floating bar that contains the current time and your WiFi status (I haven’t seen it display any other icons, but it’s entirely possible that it does). Settings will present you with a few settings you can adjust for the current app. Devices brings up a list of the related hardware items you have installed on your computer (mostly printers, as far as I can tell). Start will take you back to the Start screen (or, if you’re on the Start screen, it will take you back to the previous app you were using). Share brings up a list of apps that might allow you to share something in your current app. For instance, if you’re viewing a blog post, and you want to email it to a friend, you would click “Share”, then choose “Mail” and send it off to someone. I would imagine there will eventually be integration with various social networks, as well; but that’s not really there yet.
  2. Dragging apps around can be useful.
    If you place your mouse at the top of an active app, the cursor will turn into a little hand. You can then drag the app to the left or right to “snap” that app in place.
    If you drag the app all the way to the bottom of the screen, that will terminate the app for you.
    If you’re on the start screen, you can drag your tiles around the screen to reposition them.
  3. Right-clicking brings up lots of options.
    Each app has its own separate context menu that appears when you right-click somewhere inside. Even within the apps, if they’re snapped they’ll have different context menus than they will if you right-click while they’re maximized. Then, in most apps, right-clicking on a specific item within the app will bring up another context menu.
    For instance, in IE, if you right-click in a general area, you’ll see thumbnails of your open tabs at the top of the screen, with the option to open a new tab, open a new “In Private” tab or “Clean Up Tabs”. At the bottom of that same screen, you’ll see the address bar with a few extra options. You can click the “Back” or “Forward” button or you can reload the page. You also have an icon that looks like a thumbtack, which allows you to “pin” the current Web page to your Start screen (making it possible to open the Web page as though it’s an app), and you have a wrench icon that currently brings up the options to “Find in Page” or “View on the desktop” (which opens the Desktop version of IE10, allowing you to browse the page in a more traditional manner).
    When you’re in the Mail app while it’s “snapped”, you get a few options: Mark Read (if there are any unread messages selected), Mark Unread (if there are any read messages selected) and Sync (to actively re-sync the current account). If the app is maximized (or at full screen), you get a few more options. You then have the option to move selected messages, view your list of folders, switch to a different email account and more.
    If you right-click on an app tile in the Start screen, you also get a few options. Which options you see depends entirely on which app is selected. Some apps allow you to expand the tile to double-width (or contract it to standard width if it’s already double-width), some allow you to view where the app (or shortcut) is stored on your hard drive, some allow you to uninstall the app, etc. All apps allow you to “unpin” them, so they no longer show on the Start screen. If you right-click on the Start screen itself (without selecting an app), you’ll get the option to view all of your apps (which then lets you pin the apps).

Lock It Up

Windows 8 implements a really nice lock screen, very similar to the one Windows Phone. When your display turns itself off and the lock screen activates, you get to see whatever photo you’ve set as your lock screen, along with the current time and a bunch of icons for your notifications. If you have new email messages, you’ll see an indicator telling you how many. If you have upcoming appointments on your calendar, you’ll see those. Within Windows 8 (unlike the current version of Windows Phone), you can easily change which apps show indicator icons on your lock screen.

The lock screen can display notifications from up to 7 different apps. In addition, you can set one app to show “detailed” information on the lock screen (by default, this is your calendar app).

One other major improvement (at least, I’ve not noticed this feature in previous versions of Windows; it’s entirely possible it’s there) is the fact that you can switch between user accounts even when the computer is locked under another account. I have my computer set up now so that my account is tied into my Live account, which requires my Live password in order to unlock the computer. I also have a separate user account set up for my wife, which doesn’t require a password. If I’ve been using the computer and let it lock automatically, she simply has to slide the lock screen up, then click the “Back” button when it asks for my password. She then gets the option to sign into her account or to try signing into my account.

While the computer’s not locked, if you’re on the Start screen, your username appears in the top right corner. You can click on that to logout of your account, or to switch to another account on the computer.

X Marks the Spot

Windows 8 (much like Windows Phone) includes integrated Xbox Live support. There are a handful of Xbox Live games already available (so you can earn achievements in games you play on your desktop), the Xbox Companion app is available, and there is an Xbox app. The Xbox app lets you view your friends’ statuses, view available Xbox games and even purchase downloadable content for your Xbox (Games on Demand, Xbox Arcade, etc.).

The Kitchen Sync

Just about everything in Windows 8 ties into your Windows Live (Hotmail, Zune, Xbox, etc.) account. All of your native settings can be synced with your Live account, allowing you to sync various settings between computers. You can change how items are synced on your computer by moving your pointer to the top or bottom right corner of the screen, clicking “Settings”, then clicking “More PC Settings”. Then, click the “Sync Your Settings” tab and make the changes you want to make.

How Do I…?

I’ve seen a lot of people ask questions about how to perform seemingly simple tasks. Here are the answers to the questions I’ve seen:

  1. How do I shut down or restart the computer?
    Place your cursor in the top or bottom right corner and click the “Settings” icon. One of the options in that Settings menu is “Power”. Clicking the “Power” option will let you put your computer to “Sleep”, Shut Down your computer or Restart your computer.
  2. How do I close an app?
    While a lot of people will never find it necessary to close an app, sometimes you just want to clean things up (or, maybe, especially while it’s still in preview mode, you’ll get an app that misbehaves and you need to close it out and try to start it again). There are two ways to close an app. One option is to place your cursor in the top or bottom left corner of the screen and slide your pointer up or down the side of the screen. Right-click on the app you want to close and choose “Close” from the context menu. Your other option is to place your cursor at the top of the app while it’s active, then click and drag it all the way down to the bottom of your screen. When you push it off the bottom of your screen, that will close the app.
  3. How do I get rid of the Start screen and go back to a classic Windows interface?
    Uninstall Windows 8 and install Windows 7 instead. Seriously, though, I’ve seen articles that claim there was a registry hack you could make to do this; but I have no idea why you would want to. If you want the classic Windows interface, stick with a classic version of Windows. If you want to use Windows 8, use Windows 8. In Windows 8, the classic Windows interface is simply an app inside of the operating system.

If It Works on Windows 7, It Works on Windows 8

The Desktop app within Windows 8 is basically Windows 7. All of the programs you have installed on Windows 7 should work just fine in Windows 8. As a test, I started by installing Office 2010 and Adobe CS4. Both suites installed just fine and work the same as they do on Windows 7.

What’s Missing From Windows 8?

As much as I would love to move to Windows 8 as my primary operating system right now, there are still a few apps and features missing that are keeping me from doing so. Some of these may be incidental to many people, but their absence is frustrating enough to me to stop me from switching.

  1. No Twitter
    There’s no Twitter integration, yet. There is no Twitter app (official or unofficial). With the way the Windows 8 interface is designed, and with as much as I rely on Twitter, I will need a Twitter app that’s capable of popping up some sort of notifications (or at least one that can be snapped properly).
  2. No Zune Support
    At the moment, the Music and Videos apps don’t support any DRM’d content, including content you purchased through the Zune marketplace. If this wasn’t bad enough, there is also no support built into Windows 8 to sync your Zune device or your Windows Phone. As far as I can tell, the only way to do this, so far, is to install the Zune client within the Desktop app.
  3. My VPN Doesn’t Work
    I have no idea where the issue is with this, but the Cisco AnyConnect VPN client doesn’t work for me on Windows 8. It’s entirely possible that this is a result of incorrect settings on my computer, but with Windows 8 still being so new, it’s tough to find support for the issue. I can’t access my servers at work without being on VPN, so this one is absolutely necessary for me to get working.

Other Frustrations

There are a handful of other issues that bother me about Windows 8, but I’d most likely switch over even if these weren’t fixed right away.

  1. The Mail app doesn’t support custom IMAP/POP configurations. You can only set up Google, Hotmail or Exchange accounts.
  2. The Mail app doesn’t have a conversation view (this was a really nice feature that was added to the Mango version of the Mail app on Windows Phone).
  3. Many apps require a Live ID. My wife has no need for a Live account, so she’s never gotten one. Unfortunately, that means she can’t use the native Mail app, the native Calendar app, the native People app, or a host of other apps.
  4. Games could potentially start crowding the Start screen really easily. On Windows Phone 7, all games are housed within the Xbox Live app, keeping them from crowding your list of general apps. Unfortunately, on Windows 8, each game gets its own tile on your Start screen. Sure, I could unpin the games, but then I’d probably never play them. I’d like to see them all organized together like they are on Windows Phone.
  5. The Music app is virtually unusable for people with large collections. Right now, there are three different views in the Music app: Albums (a list of all of the albums you have on your computer), Artists (a list of each artist you have in your music collection) and Songs (a list of all of the songs you have in your collection). Ideally, I would click on the Artists tab, then select an artist to see a list of that artist’s albums. However, the way the Music app works now, when you click on an artist, you simply see a list of the 10 most recent songs you’ve played by that artist. In order to view a list of that artist’s albums, you have to click on the artist’s name, then click “Artist Details”, then scroll to the right to see the albums in your collection. If you scroll too far to the right, you’ll see a list of the albums that are available in the Marketplace from that artist.
    The Music app also seems to be extremely slow; almost as though it’s downloading all of the information about my collection from the Internet, instead of loading it from some local location. Sometimes it can take minutes to load the list of the music in my collection.