Microsoft publicly released the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on February 29th, which for my non-technical friends, is something that Microsoft did very successfully with Windows 7. A Consumer Preview allows the public a free glimpse of their upcoming new operating system, and the ability to offer feedback before its general release. One big reason Microsoft is doing this, is to avoid the debacle of the release of Windows Vista (the one after Windows XP). Windows Vista was Microsoft’s first new OS in almost 7 years when it first came out, and people were unprepared for the changes. The first couple of months after the system was released, many people had problems with the new features that didn’t quite work, and there were many hardware and software incompatibilities with the first computers running it.
Anyway, so I installed the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 on my laptop and have had a week to play with it. The first, and most obvious change is the thing that everyone who has followed the new release already knows about, and that is, the redesign of the Start menu.
Microsoft first released the Start Menu with Windows 95, which came out in…you guessed it, 1995. 1995 might not seem that long ago, but in computer years, that was prehistoric times. Velociraptors used Windows 95, thats how old it is. Over the years, Microsoft has made minor, incremental changes to how the Start Menu works, but essentially, its the same.
With that in mind, I give Microsoft credit for trying something different. Plus, with the huge popularity of Smartphones and Tablets, more and more people are moving away from traditional PCs and laptops towards these portable devices. Microsoft is still one of the biggest technology companies in the world, and Windows simply doesnt run well on a portable device like a tablet or a smartphone. Sure, they’ve tried, but don’t let anyone kid you. Android and Apple’s iOS is WAY more suited to these lower power devices.
So, moving closer to my review, I’ll just say, the new Start menu interface (called “Metro” by Microsoft) sucks…at least on a laptop it does. This menu has huge icons that are clearly designed for smaller, touch enabled screens. The Metro interface has an “app store” (hmmm, so does Android and iOS), and runs widgets (yep, Android and iOS again). Some of the built in widgets actually work OK. The thing is, these widgets or apps or whatever Microsoft wants us to call them, dont offer anything that their full-powered counterparts can do on a real computer. And since I am actually using a real computer, why not just use the real thing? The whole reason apps and widgets work so well on smartphones and tablets, is because they are lower powered devices compared to full power computers and some consessions need to be made for the smaller screens and lesser system resources.
Furthermore, many of the motions needed to navigate through the Metro interface require your mouse cursor to be moved to the extreme edge of the screen. This isn’t just a requirement for navigating it, simple tasks such as shutting down the computer require you to move your cursor to the extreme right side, to bring up an invisible side menu, and then you just need to know to click on an icon that looks like a Gear, to get to where the power settings are. So much more complicated than any other Windows operating system. Heck, even my Android phone shuts down with a single press of a button on the side of the phone! These features simply dont work on a standard computer with a keyboard, mouse, and no touch screen display.
Thankfully, you dont have to stay completely within the confines of the Metro interface. There is a Windows desktop environment. This environment looks very similar to the one in Windows 7. The biggest difference? There is no Start button. The taskbar is there, but nothing in on the far left side. If you move your mouse cursor to the extreme bottom left corner of the screen, an invisible Start Menu button does appear, but it merely takes you back to the Metro interface. It should also be noted, that you can get into the Metro interface by hitting the “Windows” key on your keyboard.
There is some good news though. As with Windows 7, installation was a breeze. I didnt have to download a disk image (ISO) and burn it to a disk before installing. Microsoft has a small download program you put on your Windows 7 computer, run it, and choose your options (I chose New Install), and it wipes your computer, downloads the necessary install files, and completes the installation with little input from you. The whole process took a little under an hour. My laptop is a 3+ year old Dell Studio laptop with an Intel Core2Duo processor and 4GB of RAM. Windows 8 detected all of my drivers and I had no issues with video, sound, wireless, or any other part of the computer.
After installation, it assumed I wanted to link my computer to a Windows Live account. I have no use for Windows Live. In the past, Microsoft successfully bullied me into creating one, so I just succumbed to the Windows 8 installer and gave it my information. Unknowingly, it linked my laptops sign in, to my Windows Live account. While I am sure if I spent some time trying to get around this, it did not make not using Windows Live an obvious choice. Nothing against Windows Live, Im sure for some people, its a fine service, but I am fine without it, and I thought it was kinda shady to assume I want my computer’s operating system to be linked into it. If MIcrosoft expects to force everyone who installs Windows 8 to create a Windows Live account, I predict there will be a lot of resistance. Devil’s advocate here, I guess technically Apple forces you to register with the Apple Store and iTunes, and Google requires Android phones to be tied to a Gmail account. But still, this is my computer, I should be able to choose what I tie it to, and what I dont.
I have done my research on Windows 8 and have learned about many of the new technologies. If you are not tech savvy, this next section wont be of much interest to you, but there is some exciting new technology in how Windows 8 will interact with wireless and mobile networks. The experience with Windows 8 should be much more ‘smartphone-like’ when switching between wi-fi and a 3G/4G network. (Props to Aarthi here). Also, Windows has finally embraced CPU processors made by companies other than Intel and AMD. Previously, Windows operating systems were primarily limited to CPUs with whats called an x86 architecture. This is fine for full sized PCs and servers, however x86 processors date back to the 1970s and have become very powerful and power hungry. They were never designed to be run on mobile devices like smartphones. A very common type of smartphone CPU is called an ARM processor, and finally, Windows 8 will run natively on ARM processors. This will go a long way to bringing a real Windows operating system to tablets and phones.
Theres more techy stuff, but to be honest with you, none of it applied to my 2 week experience on my laptop. For the most part, once I was in the desktop environment, I was able to load my browser of choice, Google Chrome, and it worked fine. I was able to get back to doing everything online as I had done before. I even wrote this blog post in Windows 8. It plays music, it shows my photos, and for the most part it works.
That, in my opinion, is the biggest weakness of WIndows 8. Windows 7 does all these things just as well. Microsoft may have shot themselves in the foot when it comes to convincing people to want to use Windows 8, because Windows 7 is so good.
Granted, its only been 2 weeks, and I realize this is a Consumer Preview, so things could change, but to be honest with you, I see myself eventually going back to Windows 7 on this laptop. For the first time in my life, I will not be excited to upgrade all of my PCs to the latest and greatest OS. I just can’t possibly see how anything Microsoft comes up with for Metro, will wow me enough to want to change.
For smartphones and tablets, yes, I think it will offer something new. But, despite what technology experts want you to believe, smartphones and tablets are NOT PCs. Yes, they can do the same things, but they are not the same and shouldn’t run the same operating system. Comparing a tablet to a PC because it can go online, take phones, play music, and play games, is analogous to saying that a moped is like a car. Yes, both run on gas, both can get you from point a to point b, and they both can carry some luggage, but you wont see mopeds out in the winter snow, moms wont be picking up kids from soccer practice, and you wont take them on a family vacation vacations to Mount Rushmore.
In conclusion, Windows 8 has a new Start Menu called Metro which offers a smartphone/tablet-like experience, but it does not translate well to traditional PCs that don’t have a touchscreen. Windows is relying too heavily on the Windows Live service, and is forcing people to register in order to use some of the features of the new operating system. Hardware and software compatibility is really good (especially considering this is a pre-release operating system), and installation is a breeze. When it comes to the actual Windows desktop environment, things work well, but there simply isn’t enough of a difference between Windows 8 and Windows 7 to really want me to make the change.