First Look: Windows 8 Consumer Preview

0 out of 5
Free

For

Clean and easy to use, plenty of new features, some nice touches, fairly stable

Against

Very tablet focused, still only a beta, won't work with everything, probably not there yet to treat as your main machine

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is here, allowing you to have a play with some to the new features before the final version of Windows 8 arrives later in the year.

As with Windows 7, Microsoft has allowed users interested and keen to review the new OS themselves the chance to download a preview of the operating system. But should you bother? We’ve been playing with the new OS to find out, before we bring you our Windows 8 review later in the year.  

Setting up Windows 8

Before you reach for the download button you'll need to make sure of a couple of things. The biggest one to remember is that while Microsoft is calling it a Consumer Preview, what that really means is that it is a beta for you to try and therefore it is likely to crash, have bugs, be unstable and act like it isn't a finished product.

Depending on how you view beta trials - virtually every Google product is still in one - will dictate whether you want to download the Windows 8 Consumer Preview to your main computer. Bear in mind that the phrase, "But sir, Windows 8 ate my homework" probably isn't going to wash in the real world.

That dilemma out of the way, you'll also need to make sure your machine is capable of running the software. The Windows 8 Consumer Preview should run on the same hardware that powers Windows 7 today says Microsoft. In particular the specs you are looking for are:

- 1GHz or faster processor

- 1GB RAM (32-bit) or 2GB RAM (64-bit)

- 16GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20GB (64-bit)

- DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM 1.0 or higher drive

- 1024 x 768 minimum screen resolution

That's all fine and dandy, but if you really want to experience the full power of the new OS you will need a couple of other bits too.

In order to use the Snap feature, you need a PC with a 1366 x 768 resolution or higher and most importantly if you want to use touch, you’ll need a multitouch-capable laptop, tablet, or display.

Oh and of course you'll need the Internet if you want to download it, but seeing as you are reading this we’ll take that as a given. 

Install and personalise

Once you’ve downloaded the 2.5-3.5GB setup file, the install is incredibly simple. The install process asks you a number of questions, lets you add your Microsoft account if you’ve already got one and joins your Wi-Fi network to help you join the dots. 

In our case we’ve got a fair bit of information already stored in the “Microsoft cloud” from our time with Windows Phone 7 and that meant that SkyDrive photos and files, contacts, calendar details and other bits and bobs were installed automatically on our computer for us to get started straight away. Don't worry, adding other cloud-based services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Google is easy. 

Lock screen 

Like Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 now has a lock screen that will protect your computer when not in use, but also relay some information such as key calendar appointments, the time, date, whether you are wirelessly connected, if you have the power cable plugged in and other messages and notifications.

It is more for the Windows 8 tablet user, but is still handy for desktop users too and can be dismissed quickly with a tap of the space bar.  

Start page

The biggest change to Windows 8 centres around the Start button, or lack of it, and the new app home page where everything looks very different to the desktop you are used to. 

Like Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360, Windows 8 is all about the Metro design. Apps are now tiles with live elements to them, all jumping and jostling for your attention. These can be organised, arranged, and managed very simply by dragging them around the screen and assembling them into groups that you can call whatever you like: work, office, play, games, anything you fancy. 

Scrolling left to right reveals more, if there are more, and you can also zoom out to get a bigger overview of your apps and app groups. The best way to think about the whole experience is like gliding from left to right through an iPad or Android tablet. The only real difference is that, instead of a grid of app icons, there is a grid of boxes with names or information streaming through. Unlike Android and iOS you can group the apps in sections that are easy to spot and easy to see, but they aren't hidden in a smaller folder that is hard to see. 

Hot corners

Embracing the Apple trick of Hot Corners and taking it one step further, Windows 8 uses the corners of your screen combined with a mouse and keyboard to engage key tasks in the OS. 

Move your mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen and the start bar that you thought had been ditched appears out of nowhere for you to click on (you can just press the Windows key of course).

Likewise you can move your mouse pointer to the top left corner and that reveals the apps that you currently have open (like pressing alt+tab), allowing you to grab and drag the window on to the screen to access it. Zipping over to the right top or bottom corners reveals something Microsoft is calling the Charm bar where you can quickly share things within apps or access settings, devices you have connected or start a search for something on your computer.  

If you are using a mouse and keyboard (the interface is very touch focused) pushing your pointer off the top of the screen allows you to grab the app you are using (even the desktop) and either close the app by dragging it off the bottom of the screen, or move it into the spilt screen mode. 

Gestures and commands

Because Windows 8 is touch focused for tablet use, there is a plethora of gestures and moves that you can make with your fingers on screen if your computer supports it. 

Zooming in and out and shifting from app to app by grabbing them from the side of the screen is all possible. You can see influences from Apple’s iOS and OS X operating systems as well as Android and the BlackBerry PlayBook 2.0 operating system.

Using Windows 8 feels like you’ve seen lots of it before, just on different devices, and if the desktop element wasn’t there, this really would be just a tablet operating system. 

Those who like their keyboard shortcuts will be pleased to see they are still here. Windows+Z brings up the options menu within an app, while Windows+C reveals the Charm menu. Windows+Tab lets you quickly scroll through the apps you have open. Other commands and options are opened via a right click on your mouse. 

Windows Store and Apps

Just like your phone, Windows 8 is going to be about apps and lots of them. That’s not to say you can’t just run software on the desktop as you always have done. But even more so than Apple’s OS X Lion and soon to be released OS X Mountain Lion operating system, apps take centre stage on Windows 8. 

Windows 8 comes pre-loaded with stacks of new apps. Some we were able to test and others we weren’t because of lack of availability in the UK and then you can get more from Microsoft’s Windows Store. 

In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview there are plenty of Windows 8 apps to try and Microsoft has said that for the duration of the preview the apps will all be free, so you can check out what’s available and get used to downloading and using them without worry. Like the numerous app stores you’ve probably already used, just find the one you want, click on the download button and moments later a tile appears for you to access and rearrange. 

The Windows Store is easy to navigate with the ability to view apps via new releases, top paid (even though they are all free at the moment), and top free. It isn't obvious, but you can search the store. It is a hidden feature accessed by loading up the Charms menu and using the search button. The Store is also where you will manage your updates.

Apps 

Like Apple and it’s OS, Microsoft is moving towards including more and more apps to get you started. That ensures you’ve got plenty of new apps that fit in with the user interface and lots to try out. 

In the case of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview there is Mail, Finance, Weather, Messaging, Reader, Maps, People, Music, and Video, as well as many others. 

These are accessible in the usual way via shortcuts from the desktop, or you can also quickly find any app by simply typing its name when you are in the Windows 8 start page. A right-hand panel then appears and delivers the details.

Mail

All the apps are incredibly clean looking, if not slightly over-simplifed. The Mail app is a good example of this. It is cleaner than the iPad email app for example and, working full screen, a bit in-your-face if you are using a 27-inch monitor on your desk. That said we like it a lot.

The app is broken down into panels with your accounts in one column, your received mail in a second and the email itself in a third. If you have only the one account you can minimise that column completely, or switch it out to be a folders column. 

Getting emails into the Mail app is also really easy. To set up a Google account all we needed was our email and password. Our hotmail account was already added following the "personalised" setup at the very start.

IE10

Faster, quicker and easy to use, Internet Explorer 10 adds several new features including full screen browsing with minimal extras. In a strange move the URL bar moves to the bottom of the screen while tabs appear at the top only revealed when you ask. 

People

The People app works like the People Hub on Windows Phone 7 and is really your contacts book, pulling in data from your LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Exchange and Google accounts. 

Like WP7 there is a Me page that lets you know all the latest that is going on in relation to you - Likes on Facebook, mentions on Twitter, as well as pulling in photos of yourself where you’ve uploaded them or tagged them. 

What’s new tracks all the people you are following. The design doesn’t really work in our mind in landscape view, but is perfect for the split app view feature.

Finance

Other apps are just as easy to set-up. Weather merely needs to ask you if you mind giving it your location based on where your Wi-Fi network is, and the Finance app streams in pre-chosen stock market figures to get you started. 

Messaging

Messaging allows you to chat with friends via MSN Messenger or Facebook. Again it is like the Messaging app on WP7 and Messages on OS X Mountain Lion, but full screen. Here you can quickly jump between friends, having different chats with them, and we suspect Skype will be added to the mix as well before final release. 

Maps

The Bing maps app is a similar experience to the website, or one that you would get on your phone, but an app in its own right on Windows 8. Finding things will never be so easy and we can see this is going to be really handy when you need to find the directions for something or just check traffic in your area before you go home. Zooming in and out is a case of just scrolling with your mouse wheel. 

Weather

The weather app is beautiful and again simplistic. You get a big pretty picture of the weather in your area, hourly breakdowns of what the weather will be like over the next 18 hours as well as giving you a 10-day forecast. Scrolling to the right gives you even more data, such as access to maps and historical weather reports. Intense. 

SkyDrive

SkyDrive is a big focus for Microsoft and that’s why it features heavily in Windows 8. Here you get access to all your mobile uploads, your documents, and everything else you’ve put up into the cloud - all accessible at a click of a mouse button. 

Calendar

Windows 8 automatically loads in your calendar from Hotmail to start with, but also allows you to view it quickly in day, week, and month views, adding appointments when needed. Like everything else in Metro, it is clean and easy to view. 

More...

As you can imagine, there are loads of apps available - either in the Windows Store or ones that you’ve already got on your computer. Installing those apps adds a quick shortcut icon to your Windows 8 start page, and we are sure that as more and more take advantage of the Live Tile functionality your desktop will become jam packed with details and information. That’s going to be great to serve you with a quick glance of what is going on, but will be something you will have to bear in mind if you are on a data package. 

Notifications

Yep, like Mountain Lion or Growl for the Mac, Windows 8 brings with it notifications so you know what is going on elsewhere on your computer.

These notifications can be localised to certain apps and can be controlled as to how in-your-face they really are. 

Spilt screen app tiling

One of Windows 7's best features is the snap tile feature on the desktop when you want to work on two apps or windows at the same time. Windows 8 takes this a step further with the abilty to run two apps while in full screen mode at the same time. If you are scratching your head thinking that you can already do that and more in Windows 7 or OS X, stop and hear us out. 

The idea is that you can have your People app, or messages, or your email inbox running in a thin panel down the side of the screen - completely independent of what's running in the main area of the screen. 

It sounds simple, but it is very clever and one feature we really like, and because Windows 8 treats the Desktop as an app you can have your email neatly opened to the right or left of the screen with the Desktop left alone to run other windows knowing the two will never overlap. 

Xbox and entertainment

Xbox games, movies, music: it is all here in a very Xbox 360 experience with movies, TV shows, and music ready to be downloaded at the click of a mouse. The marketplace is filled with Microsoft's ever expanding catalogue of content, while for gamers you can access your achievements, see your leaderboards, and check out what comes with the latest Xbox games. 

Sadly for us we couldn’t get the Xbox 360 avatar and account details to work, because Microsoft hasn’t turned the feature on in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview in the UK at time of writing. 

What is rather cool is that Microsoft has included the Xbox Companion app found on Windows Phone 7 here for users to control their Xbox via their PC. 

Touch vs keyboard

Microsoft has done its best to create an environment that works with both a mouse and keyboard, as well as a touch interface for tablets. We’ve been using Windows 8 on a couple of different devices and it is clear that the touch approach is the one Microsoft wants you to use when it comes to the Windows 8 Start page. 

However the Windows 8 team has done its best to make sure that desktop users aren’t left out. It is certainly something to get used to and it will no doubt flummox Windows 7 users who try it for the first time.  We felt we had a headstart, having used Hot Corners on OS X for the last couple of years, but still struggled to begin with, and traditional Windows users won’t have had that joy. 

Picture password 

Taking password protection to the next level, Windows 8 will allow you to opt to unlock your computer by doing a series of actions on a photo that only you know, instead of typing a password. The setup is really simple. Find a picture, make three gestures on it, repeat, then save. Whether that's drawing a face on your face, or drawing a line, all is possible. There isn't any way others are going to guess it.

Refresh and reset

Another borrow from the smartphone world is the ability to refresh or reset your PC when you want to move on. 

In the settings panel Microsoft details "Refresh your PC" as a way of refreshing it without losing your photos, music, videos, and other personal files. Or if you are selling or recycling your PC you can Reset it and start over with the option giving you a completely clean slate. Nice. 

Verdict

It is very early days for Windows 8, but so far we like what we see. This is a very tablet-focused experience and one that makes the desktop take a back seat. Microsoft has managed to break away from the desktop in a way that Apple wants to, but has so far failed to manage in such a successful way as seen here. That might be too much for some users, but there is almost a sigh when the app you’ve loaded doesn’t fit the rest of the Metro design, and that isn’t something we expected to feel. 

Likewise, as admittedly a fan of Windows Phone 7, we love the Live Tile experience on the Windows 8 Start page. For the moment it is fun and looks good - far better than Mission Control on OS X - but it will be interesting to see whether it gets over cluttered over time. 

What Microsoft has achieved with Windows 8 is a very fresh look at how we are supposed to work at our computers. Gone are the Windows, and replacing it is a very full-screen experience that is bright and clean. Microsoft would be better to call this Tiles instead of Windows. At times those tiles are a little too bright and a little too clean, but compared to previous operating system outings from the Redmond company this is refreshing stuff. 

If you’ve got an Xbox 360, this is very much the work version of the interface you’ve already started using. For some, the old guard perhaps, the change will be too much. The way Microsoft has created Windows 8 you won’t be able to just hide in the desktop environment avoiding Metro all together. But for those willing to embrace change and embrace a new, more interactive, way of computing, this is very much the future.