Windows 8 Hands-On: Colorful, Intuitive, With a Few Quirks

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2012-03-05

Windows 8 Hands-On: Colorful, Intuitive, With a Few Quirks

It€™s risky for any company to tinker with a well-established, ubiquitous brand. In the 1980s, for example, Coca-Cola tried rejiggering its classic formula with New Coke, a potentially bold strategy that met with customer derision and market failure.

That€™s probably the most famous example of a company that nearly destroyed its flagship brand while attempting to do something radical with it, but certainly not the only one. It also serves as something of a cautionary tale for Microsoft, which just released the Consumer Preview (or beta) of Windows 8.

Windows 8 represents a seismic shift from previous versions of the operating system. In a bid to capture the tablet market, Microsoft€™s engineers designed a start screen of colorful (and potentially touchable) tiles linked to applications. This screen relies on the same Metro design aesthetic already present in Microsoft products such as Windows Phone and the Xbox dashboard, and includes some mobile-centric features such as an app store. For power users who need access to Windows Explorer, or those who simply feel more comfortable with the €œtraditional€ Windows experience, the desktop is accessible via a single click or tap.

Microsoft is clearly attempting to unify its various products into a single ecosystem visually defined by Metro. In turn, this reorients the company to better compete against both Apple€™s iOS and Google Android, which leverage the cloud to offer synced data and applications across multiple devices. But that sort of adjustment always carries significant risks€”deviate in a way customers don€™t appreciate, and they stop buying your product.

For those who own Microsoft€™s Windows Phone (a relatively small percentage of smartphone users as a whole), the Windows 8 start screen€™s tiles should be instantly familiar. For those who do not, the new interface might come as something of a shock. Fortunately, the format is also intuitive. On a Dell laptop with a Core i3 processor (originally loaded with Windows 7), the interface flows smooth and crisp, with no hitches or lags. 

That being said, some interface features are not immediately apparent or intuitive. For example, a finger or mouse-hover to the lower-right portion of the interface brings up several widgets, including €œSettings,€ €œDevices,€ €œStart,€ €œShare,€ and €œSearch.€ Clicking or tapping in that same area allows the user to see all their tiles in a miniaturized, comprehensive view. Both of these functions take some time to discover.

Those familiar with smartphone or tablet interfaces will have no problem downloading and using apps. Microsoft has indeed worked to make Windows 8 feel like a true mobile OS. Once downloaded, apps appear as a new tile among the collection. Apps are full screen, and designers have worked to make the early ones handsome. SkyDrive gives workers the ability to port their documents around in the cloud, which is especially helpful for those running Windows 8 on a mobile device.  

Desktop Mode


The desktop portion of Windows 8 feels largely unchanged from previous versions, with some notable exceptions. The start button isn€™t present in the Consumer Preview. In Windows Explorer, Microsoft has introduced a version of the ribbon interface already present in other Microsoft products. Those who hate the ribbon€”a significant population, given the comments about it on Microsoft€™s official Building Windows 8 blog€”can perhaps take consolation in how Windows engineers have attempted to streamline it.

Despite those tweaks, the desktop€™s placement behind the new start screen makes it feel like something of an afterthought. For tablet users and those who only want Windows to run select apps, that€™s probably fine. It remains to be seen how power users will react to this variation.

Certainly Microsoft has designed Windows 8 to play well on a wide variety of machines. System recommendations for the Consumer Preview include a device with a 1GHz (or faster) processor, 1GB RAM (32-bit) or 2GB RAM (64-bit), 16GB available hard-disk space (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit), and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 (Windows Display Driver Model 1.0) or higher driver.

During a keynote discussion at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in October 2010, a moderator asked Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about the company€™s riskiest bet. €œThe next release of Windows,€ he replied. Around the same time, now-departed Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie posted a long note on his personal blog in which he described a coming €œinflection point€ that would bring a future dominated by devices connected to the cloud.

Those devices, Ozzie added, would take forms beyond traditional desktops and laptops: €œAt this juncture, given all that has transpired in computing and communications, it€™s important that all of us do precisely what our competitors and customers will ultimately do: close our eyes and form a realistic picture of what a post-PC world might actually look like.€  

Microsoft€™s response to that post-PC world is finally upon us. If the company€™s bets on a more mobile-centric interface pay off, then it could sell hundreds of millions of copies of Windows 8. If not, then it has the tech-world version of New Coke on its hands. 

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