Microsoft’s grand challenge to the iPad and its great hope for relevance in the age of mobile computing arrives today, as the aging software giant unveils a near-final version of Windows 8.
At least that’s the story that’s been developing since Microsoft announced it would unveil the “consumer preview” of the software at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The dramatic tension is even higher now that Apple is expected to unveil the third version of the iPad next week, on March 7.
But — after using the new software this week at home and the office — I think it’s a little early to start the drum roll. I’d wait until the final version and new hardware arrive later this year.
The new preview version – available here – is lovely, fast and fun to use, as was the preview version released to software developers last September. Its “Metro” interface — one of the top new features — fills the desktop with dynamic tiles that are especially suited to touchscreens and activities such as handling photos, Web browsing and using social networks.
Metro will give all Windows 8 PCs — tablets, desktops and laptops — a modern, elegant feel that mirrors Windows Phones and the Xbox dashboard.
This isn’t new with the consumer preview, though. The overall look and feel of Windows 8 hasn’t changed much at all since last September. Some 3.5 million copies of that early preview version were downloaded.
Since then, Microsoft has made more than 100,000 changes to the code. It added dozens of new features and tweaks, including media applications, new touch gesture controls and more mouse and keyboard shortcuts. The company also has made a few concessions to technical users, giving them ways to quickly bypass the stylish new interface and get into the software’s internal workings.
Among the changes users will notice is the absence of a “start” button in the lower left corner. Instead, a “start preview thumbnail” appears when you hover the cursor over that corner of the screen. Clicking on this thumbnail takes you back to the home screen.
Microsoft basically replaced the familiar “start” menu with “charms,” which are five primary controls that surface on the right side of the screen when you slide a finger inward from the edge of the display, or move the mouse to the upper right corner. I mostly used two of these — “settings” and “search,” for searching the Web, the PC or within an application.
There are new ways to cycle through recently used applications. You can call up a vertical stack of thumbnails, showing the last six apps used, by moving a cursor to the upper left corner of the screen. On touchscreens, you do this by sliding a finger inward from the edge of the display, although I found this tricky on a prototype Samsung tablet.
To call up additional commands while running an application, you can slide a finger up from the bottom of a touchscreen (which sounds a little racy …), or right-click a mouse or press the Windows key plus the letter Z.
If the Metro interface feels too metro, it takes just a tap — or mouse click — to toggle the system back to a traditional Windows desktop, which looks just like a Windows 7 screen.
Geeky users and tech support staff can also bypass the Metro interface with a new feature appearing in the consumer preview. When you bring the cursor down to the lower left corner and right click, a list of old school PC commands appears so you can go directly to 16 items, including task manager, run, command prompt and control panel.
Microsoft also is making its free SkyDrive online storage service available directly through an app in the consumer preview. Additionally, SkyDrive is linked to the system’s photo application, which displays photos stored on the computer and on SkyDrive.
In my testing the photos app still behaved oddly, though. It confusingly showed a list of places where photos could be — such as a documents file with zero photos — instead of just showing the collection of photos I’d loaded onto the PC.
The software has chipper messages here and there that add flair and personality, but they fall flat when you encounter a frustrating point. After loading a bunch of photos onto the PC and then being taken to a documents folder showing zero picture files, I wasn’t in the mood to be told by the software that “It’s lonely in here without photos.”
There weren’t too many of these frustrating moments, but there were enough that I wouldn’t put this beta software on a primary PC just yet.
Microsoft also opened the doors to its new Windows 8 app store today with a relatively small sample of showcase apps. There are free and paid Metro-style apps that take advantage of the software’s new features and design approach.
A Windows 8 PC based on Intel architecture will run apps – or programs – that run on current PCs. They can also be “pinned” to the desktop, but their tiles won’t have much pizzazz or the dynamic characteristics of Metro apps. A list of Windows 8 compatible programs and devices is provided by Microsoft at this page.
So far there are fewer than 100 apps offered on the store, though the count doesn’t mean a lot since the operating system still isn’t complete.
You can run the consumer preview on a virtualized machine, but my contacts said it’s best to run it solo. You’ll also have to re-install the operating system when the final version is released.
Microsoft is planning to release a tool to simplify the upgrade process from a Windows 7 PC. But it will be more complicated to upgrade from older operating systems to Windows 8, similar to the way it was easiest to upgrade to Windows 7 from Windows Vista.
The consumer preview also is available only for PCs with Intel architecture. Microsoft said it will run on hardware that supports Windows 7, and suggests using a PC with at least a 1 gigahertz processor and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9. To run 32-bit versions, it suggests at least 1 gigabyte of RAM and 16 gigabytes of hard-disk space; 64-bit systems should have at least 2 gigs of RAM and 20 gigs of storage available. Metro-style apps require a screen resolution of at least 1024 by 768, and 1366 by 768 to use its “snap” feature.
One of the big advances in Windows 8 is the software’s ability to run on the tiny ARM hardware used in smartphones and tablets such as the iPad. But Microsoft isn’t releasing preview copies of the ARM version of Windows 8.
Windows 8 ARM systems will be a different animal, released fully configured by device manufacturers — just as Apple and Amazon.com build iPads and Kindles in a tailored fashion.
Until those ARM devices arrive later this year – and we know how they look, how much they cost and the apps they’ll run – it’s hard to say how Microsoft will fare in the great tablet war of 2012.
I’m guessing we’ll move past that war during the Windows 8 era. The software will arrive on an array of new computers – including ultrathin laptops, tablets in all sizes and all-in-one touchscreen dekstops. The combination will broaden the notion of what’s a PC. They should feel snappier, fresher, more connected and personal.
If Microsoft and the PC industry don’t fumble things, the question for most consumers will no longer be whether their next computing device will be a web tablet or a PC. They’ll keep buying tablets, but they’ll be wondering which PC to buy next.
A few more shots from my testing include this one of the Xbox Companion app that lets you access the Xbox dashboard from a Windows 8 device:
Odd that I had to load .NET components to connect a Windows 8 machine to my Windows Home Server. On its own, the PC found my wireless printer/scanner when it connected to my home network:
It’s beta software so you’ve got to forgive glitches, but yikes:
The initial set of Metro-style news apps – from the U.S., France, India and the U.K.:
Windows 8 isn’t just for touchscreen devices. Here’s a list of new keyboard commands in the consumer preview: