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

REVIEW: Microsoft's Windows 8 is colorful and intuitive for those who've used smartphones or tablets before. But it does offer some new quirks for longtime users.

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.