Microsoft’s Windows 8 Release Preview is now available for download. The Release Preview will likely be the last publicly available pre-release version of the OS before it goes final at the end of the summer. I’ve spent the last 24 hours hammering at the build (8400, if you’re keeping track), which was installed on a loaner laptop provided by Microsoft. While this is undoubtedly not enough time for a comprehensive evaluation, it’s enough time to develop solid first impressions which I’m happy to share with you now.
At first glance, Microsoft seems to be hitting all of the right beats with Windows 8. The latest version of the operating system is faster than ever, its new Metro Start Screen UI looks like something awesome from the not-too-distant future, and the machines I've tested with Windows 8 have been rock solid, even in the earliest public releases. I’m excited about the idea of real multitasking on a tablet with Windows 8, but the behind-the-scenes work Microsoft’s done promises to be even more important. If Microsoft’s plans carry through, Windows 8 should tie all of your online services together using apps as glue.
But once you dig deeper, you realize that the massive changes in Windows 8 may lead to some awkwardness. It's a tweener OS, designed to work equally well with both touchscreens and a traditional mouse and keyboard. The new Start Screen, which supplants the Start Menu, is clearly designed to join the touch revolution, but that revolution doesn't exist yet outside of phones and tablets. For the millions of people who will install Windows 8 on a traditional PC--one with a hardware keyboard and a mouse or trackpad--the initial preview releases were awkward at best.
The Release Preview is a definite improvement on previous versions of Windows 8, but where does it work and where does it fall flat? Is this a version of Windows 8 that’s safe to try on your own PC?
Sent from my Windows 8 PC
Perhaps the most notable new features in Windows 8 Release Preview are the bundled Metro style apps. Microsoft has included more default apps than in previous releases, and these “preview” apps close to being actually usable now. Mail worked well with multiple services--I tested with a couple of Gmail accounts and an Exchange account--and my calendars and contact lists were automatically synced to their respective apps, once I connected my accounts to Gmail. The new design for Mail is cleaner and not just touch-friendly, but clearly tablet-friendly. The majority of the user interface is close to the edges of the screen--in easy reach of your thumbs if you’re holding a tablet in the landscape orientation. For the most part, the simplifications to Mail are good, but I couldn’t find a few key options, like the ability to change or disable email signatures. And while it makes sense to only download mail from the last few weeks on a phone or tablet, defaulting to that option in the default email client on a PC seems crazy to me.
The other Microsoft developed apps provide showcases for Microsoft’s search engine, Bing. News, Finance, and Sports all provide contextual information gathered from the web and Microsoft’s partners in a way that’s easy to access and makes a ton of sense. And of course, you can pin pretty much whatever you want to the Start Screen. For example, I like the San Francisco Giants, so I pinned them from within the Sports app. On the Start Screen, that tile is updated with the Giant’s division standing and latest game score. When I click into the tile I see the latest news, game schedule, and more detailed stats about the team. The News and Finance apps provide similar functions.
Of the other apps Microsoft ships with the Release Preview, the Photos app seems the most indicative of Microsoft’s vision of app and service integration. It allows you to aggregate your pictures from your local drive, Skydrive, Facebook, and Flickr into one Metro-style app. It’s convenient and really sells the promise of easy access to your data, whether you store it on Microsoft service or not.
Multitasking is nothing new for PC or tablet operating systems, but Windows 8 brings the ability to have multiple windows open at the same time to its Metro interface. Along with the full-screen view, every Windows 8 Metro app is required to have a shrunken, 320-pixel wide view designed to dock on the right or left side of the screen. You can pull Metro apps or the Windows Desktop out of the Metro task-switching tray and dock them on either the left or the right side of the screen. The effect is much like the way buddy lists work on many IM applications, but it can apply to any Metro app. I found the 320px view to be particularly useful for a handful of apps--Mail, Music, and Messages--but only when I was using the laptop screen. Docking takes up tons of vertical screen space on larger desktop monitors, and I’m not sure the benefits are worth it.
The Glue That Binds Us
I'm genuinely excited about Microsoft's glue APIs--they call them Contracts. It's really a genius idea--the rare kind of revelation so obvious that you're shocked someone didn't come up with it a decade ago. Contracts provide intermediate interfaces that enable seamless two-way communication between applications. Put simply, they make it possible for apps to access each others’ data.
For example, in iOS when you want to share a picture between two apps, you usually need to open it in the first app, export it to the Camera Roll, then open the second app and import it from the camera roll into the app. In order to communicate directly with each other, two apps either need to be written in a specific way that enables interaction with each other, and only each other. This is one of the major shortcomings you quickly discover when you try to use iOS for day-to-day work.
Contracts change that. Apps can subscribe to contracts that allow users to access common tasks. For example, the Facebook app knows that it can post photos, so it subscribes to the photo sharing Contract. That gives you, the user, access to every other app on the system that also subscribes to the photo sharing Contract when you are posting photos using the Facebook app. Likewise, Facebook knows it can post your pictures, text, and video to the Internet. So if you're another photo app, such as Flickr or Instagram, and want to share a picture with your friends on Facebook, that is seamless as well. There’s even real benefit to this type of app-to-app sharing on desktop OSes. After all, most of the files that clutter up my Desktop on OS X or Windows are the intermediate leftovers of application to application transfers.
Contracts can apply to everything from in-app search and contact information to music playback to files created in an app. They may not sound sexy, but they solve one of the major problems of other tablet OSes as well as something that's an inconvenience for most PC users. Right now, I have multiple music apps on my phone, and each app has access to different libraries, so it can be tricky to find a specific song, if I don’t know which service has it and which doesn’t. On a Windows 8 device with those three same apps installed, all of the music I have access to through the apps on the phone should also be available in the main Music app. This helps ameliorate the problems of service fragmentation.
Unfortunately, the Windows Store, Microsoft’s app warehouse, was unavailable prior to the main release of the Windows 8 Release Preview, so we couldn’t actually download and install any third-party apps to test more than the basic Contracts included with Microsoft’s Windows 8 apps. Rest assured, we’ll have more to say about Contracts after we’ve had more time to use them with third-party apps.
Mr. Sinofsky, Tear Down This Wall
I can say that Microsoft has spent considerable time fine-tuning the way Metro works with the mouse and keyboard; it's especially evident in Metro apps and the Start Screen. The new mouse gestures to activate Metro-style task switching and open the charm pane are a vital addition, as is horizontal scrolling using the mouse wheel.
After a day with the OS, it still feels unwieldy though. It’s analogous to visiting Canada as an American. Everyone speaks English and your surroundings are familiar, but things are just different enough to disturb your lizard brain. When I’m using Desktop apps, I can go an hour or two without realizing that I’m in Windows 8. However, the moment my workflow takes me back and forth between Metro apps and Desktop, the differences become very apparent.
There's a confusing segregation between Metro apps and programs that live in the Desktop. There are now two places to switch between the apps you’re using--the left side of the screen for Metro apps and the Taskbar for Desktop apps. Since Windows 95, you’ve been able to use the Taskbar to switch between all the apps running on your system, but that isn’t possible anymore. Metro apps aren't visible on the Windows Taskbar, and there’s nothing to indicate which Desktop apps are currently running on the Metro Start Screen--the icons for Desktop apps there are just dumb shortcuts.
This dichotomy also makes switching back and forth between Desktop applications and Metro apps take too long. Switching from Desktop Internet Explorer to Metro Mail requires two clicks (Windows key, Mail tile) and then switching back to IE on the Desktop from Mail takes three clicks (Windows key, Desktop tile, IE icon on the Taskbar). For an application that is running (or pinned to the Taskbar or Dock), these would have been single clicks in Windows or OS X. The only good news is that both Metro and Desktop apps show up in the alt-tab menu.
It’s likely that Windows 8 includes shortcuts to ameliorate this problem that I haven’t discovered yet, but my experience so far leads me to believe that people probably won’t switch between Metro apps and Desktop apps, instead preferring to live in one environment at a time. It’s an odd situation that I’ve never really encountered before in an operating system.
There's also work to be done on the browser experience. Windows 8 ships with two distinct versions of IE--one for Metro and one for the Desktop. The Metro browser, which includes a limited, Microsoft-updated Flash implementation, is totally devoid of window chrome and looks great running full screen. It worked properly with pretty much every site I tested, although a handful of smaller sites treated it as a mobile browser instead of a desktop client.
Flash installation aside, the Metro version of the browser is incredibly stripped down. It doesn’t even include a way to bookmark sites, other than pinning them to the Start Screen. It also seems to be tuned more for touch than mouse or touchpad. For example, to access the location bar and tab list, you have to either use a gesture on your trackpad or right-click in an inactive area of the browser. Making the appropriate gesture is no problem on a touch device or a laptop with a trackpad, but I did encounter some sites that effectively prevented me from accessing the context menu with a mouse. Right clicking brought up a context menu that let you copy a link or save an image instead of the browser chrome. These are undoubtedly bugs that will be fixed before release, but if the browser shipped as it is today, it would be difficult to use.
My biggest gripe with the dual browser situation is that IE on Metro and IE on the Desktop don't really communicate. They don’t seem to share cookies, saved passwords, or open tabs. Hell, the Metro browser doesn’t even include bookmarks! You can send a page from the Metro version of IE to the desktop one, but bringing a page back to the Metro browser doesn’t save the state of the page. The good news is that if you change the default browser to something that isn’t IE, Windows honors that choice in both the traditional desktop and Metro.
Mouse + Keyboard + Monitor
The laptop Microsoft loaned us uses a beta trackpad with new software, designed specifically for Windows 8. All Windows 8 certified laptops will be required to have trackpads that support multi-finger gestures and edge-based swiping, simulating the gestures that you would perform on a tablet’s touchscreen. Microsoft’s intent is clearly to deliver a more Mac-like experience with trackpad control, complete with gestures for common tasks and easy clicking. Unfortunately, the beta hardware and software is, as we were warned it might be, buggy. As a result, all I can say is that it was nice to have multi-touch gestures in Windows, when the pad was working properly. We’ll have more on Microsoft’s six new gestures when we have had time to test them on more reliable hardware.
The good news is that we were able to spend more time evaluating Windows 8 using a keyboard and mouse on a big monitor. I spent most of my time in Desktop mode, where the experience was virtually identical to Windows 7. The keyboard and mouse experience in Metro apps is dramatically improved as well--now you can scroll the mouse wheel or just move the cursor to the side of the screen to slide slide through long Metro apps quickly. There are still some weird spots--the IE problem is just one--but overall I’d call it a big improvement.
I profoundly dislike the fact that the Metro Start Screen rearranges my tiles when I change resolutions or plug in an external monitor. Because the tiles don’t have static imagery on them, I find myself remembering where they are spatially instead of looking for the right icon to click in the grid. When I plug in an external monitor, tiles rearrange dynamically and the labels aren’t always visible which means I have to hunt for an app. This is the opposite of convenient.
It’s 67 Degrees Out and the Giants are Beating the Dodgers
Windows 8 Release Preview is just that, a preview. Because of that, I’m reserving judgement until we see final code later this summer. I remain excited about a lot of the technology coming with this release--Contracts’ seamless sharing between web services, ambient information coming to Windows, incredibly fast booting, and the promise of PCs that can seamlessly transition from tablets to desktops and back again. As it is today though, Metro and the traditional Desktop are more separated than I’m comfortable with. I can’t imagine switching back and forth between Metro apps and the traditional Desktop.
If you want to try Windows 8 for yourself and are comfortable reinstalling Windows and restoring from backups, there’s no reason not to install it. It’s running reasonably well on the Microsoft-provided laptop, with a few minor crashes, but nothing unexpected from a beta OS. I wasn’t able to try it with a high-end desktop, so I don’t know how the videocard drivers are or how well games run. Nvidia and AMD have been releasing drivers for the Consumer Preview since March, so you may have some minor problems, but I’d expect high-profile games to run fine. I’ll investigate more over this weekend and report back next week. Other software that doesn’t access the OS at a low level--apps like Dropbox, Chrome, and Pidgin, also worked exactly as they do in Windows 7. If you’re OK with that, and want to give it a try, back up your system and download the preview here.
Two final things to note. You can upgrade your current Windows 7 install to Windows 8 Release Preview, but you can’t upgrade from the Consumer Preview to Release Preview. You also won’t be able to upgrade the Release Preview to Windows 8 final. You’ll have to do a clean install later this year. And second, if you use any kind of specialty hardware, or require software that uses a dongle, it probably won’t work. As always, it’s a bad idea to use a beta OS in any kind of production environment.
We’ll discuss Windows 8 in more detail on this week’s episode of This is Only a Test, and have more Windows 8 coverage on Tested as we spend more time with the OS.