Microsoft's next generation operating system presents familiar features in a flashy new way
With Windows 8 hovering on the not-so-distant horizon, there's been plenty of curiosity about Microsoft's newest operating system. After previewing an early version of Windows 8, we've now had a chance to use Microsoft's Consumer Preview and have a few initial impressions to share. The new operating system represents a fairly radical change if you've been using Windows all along, though many of the most striking changes are only skin deep.
How does it stack up?
The big question for most folks considering an upgrade when Windows 8 hits the market is, "How does it compare to the version of Windows I'm used to using for day-to-day functionality?"
That question is best answered in two ways. Right out of the box, it looks confusing and abstract, since the familiar Start button and icons are gone, replaced by tiles and a side-to-side scroll bar. The "Metro" interface is Microsoft's new standard, since it's going to be shared across all of its major consumer platforms — Windows Phone, Windows 8, and even Xbox Live.
Knowing that the new Windows is geared as much towards small sizes and touchscreens, it begins to make sense that your desktop's profusion of dozens of tiny icons has been replaced with this streamlined, simplified interface... but that still doesn't mean it's a snap to get used to. On the desktop, it looks and feels like you're playing with over-sized Duplo blocks when you're used to the intricacies and details of LEGO.
It didn't really click for me until I got my hands on a tablet computer with Windows 8 on it, at which point it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to tap, swipe, and treat it like the biggest, most powerful iThing out there.
make them big and easy to access?
Where the new look really shines, though, is when you get one step under the hood and want to adjust your system settings. The top layer of the control panel (a portion of which is shown above) is vastly cleaner and easier to navigate than even the "Category View" option afforded by Windows 7, and lets you hit the main aspects of customization and functionality in a single screen. Don't worry, though; the full Control Panel suite of icons are still around, and nearly identical in look and feel to the previous version, if you simply scroll to the bottom and click More settings.
Once you've slipped past the Metro interface (by clicking on Windows Explorer or hitting the Start key on your keyboard), the traditional Windows environment is still 100% in evidence, with the familiar folders and icons on a desktop wallpaper of your choice.
Putting it to daily use
Once the novelty of having a humongous smartphone screen for a desktop wore off, Windows 8 did the absolute best thing I could have hoped for: it made me forget I was using it. Admittedly, the pre-release version still has a few holes, and not everything you currently use is necessarily going to be supported right away (especially in a business environment where special applications and custom code are the order of the day), but for home-office use, it's an easy transition, especially if you do a lot of your work online. Internet Explorer 10 continues the improvements IE9 made over its predecessors, so even if you don't immediately head out to download Firefox or Chrome, it's still a much better browsing experience than what was standard fare as recently as Windows Vista.
If you have a touchscreen tablet or full-size computer, Windows 8 was pretty much made with you in mind. If you're more of a keyboard and mouse traditionalist, you'll need to come to grips with swinging your cursor back and forth a bit more, and whacking the Start key a lot more frequently than you're probably used to. Still, other than those minor changes to what you'll do to interact with Windows, it's a quick, slick, and surprisingly elegant revamp of the operating system most of us take for granted.