On February 29th, Microsoft released the Windows 8 Consumer Preview to the wild, and it quickly scored over a million downloads. I downloaded it and installed it on a separate partition on my laptop. I did this a while back with the Developer Preview, but it was so buggy and didn't really offer me too much at the time that I killed the partition and kept on keepin' on with Windows 7. This time, I've decided to give it more of my time and form some real opinions about it, and — since we live in an age where any idiot with a blog can publish their opinions — I decided to publish this idiot's opinions.
Every day I use the operating system, I have the same thought: this would work great on a tablet. The machine boots up in a fraction of the time as my Windows 7 partition. The new start screen is so much like my Windows Phone, I want to reach out and touch the screen and swipe the tiles around with my fingertips. This would, of course, be futile, since my laptop does not have a touch screen, so there is more than a little awkwardness in using my mouse or touchpad to control the UI. The mouse I use is a Notebook Optical Mouse, which includes a scroll wheel. Using the wheel to pan the Start screen is easy enough, even if it is disconcerting at first to scroll the vertical wheel to move the screen horizontally. As an experiment, I tried disconnecting my mouse and using the laptop's integrated touchpad. The touchpad is multi-touch, so I found I was easily able to scroll the Start screen using two fingers instead of moving the pointer with one.
This does bring me to my first complaint, however: there is really no visual cue or instruction telling me how to get around. While touching the screen to swipe tiles around seems intuitive enough, using the mouse wheel or using two fingers on the touchpad isn't so much. I had to just experiment to see what worked.
This lack of visual cues is a perpetual problem with the OS. For instance, if you install a program, the main program appears on your Start screen. However, it is often the case that a program will, on installation, create a Start Menu folder that contains several shortcuts. It may be true that the most common user story is they will click on the program to run it, but there are often shortcuts to the program's other tools or modes that may be essential at some point (if not an everyday use of the program). Where do those go? It turns out, if you right-click on the Start screen (not on any tile, though; it has to be an empty location on the screen), it brings up a button at the bottom of the screen marked "all programs", and that can be used to see the entire program group. The only way I found this, though, was by random experimentation. If I was looking for these options, there is nothing on the screen that would help me find it except by randomly clicking. This is not efficient task-solving design.
The Start menu itself is also hidden. Once you get off of the Start screen, it's not obvious how to get back to it. You could use the Windows key, but that key no longer looks like the button on the screen it would activate (because that button doesn't exist). You can also throw your mouse into the lower left corner of the screen, where the Start button used to be; but there's nothing on the screen that suggests this is where you need to go to get there.
Another example is the Metro version of Internet Explorer. Its full-screen mode means you don't see so much as an address bar, and although it does support opening multiple web pages in "tabs", these, too, are hidden from view. Bringing these up requires right-clicking on the web page (but not on any real element of the page, otherwise the right-click will bring up an action menu specific to whatever happened to be under your mouse at the time), at which point you can see the URL and all the tabs you have open. Even the Windows Phone version of Internet Explorer doesn't force you to guess this badly; not only is the URL always on-screen (in portrait mode), but there is an ever-present ellipsis button in the lower right that, when tapped, shows you all of your possible actions, including viewing currently-opened tabs. There's really no reason why a laptop can't sacrifice a few pixels of screen real estate for these visual elements when a phone an eighth the size can do it.
One more thing is the side-by-side method of running apps. I know it exists, because I've seen the videos showing it off, but such videos are almost exclusively demonstrated using a touch interface. I do not remember how this is done, let alone how to do it with a mouse and keyboard, and there's nothing on the screen that even hints at what I need to do to activate it. (With these full-screen apps without chrome, there's no title bar to grab and drag to the side like there was with Windows 7.) When I went to find a link to use in this blog post, I had to use the old-fashioned alt-tab combination to switch to a new window and find it, then copy and paste it back here.
Why all this fuss about visual cues? I try to think about the non-computer-literate, specifically my mother and my mother-in-law, and how they would deal with this. Without seeing something on the screen, how would they know what to do? Going to the lower-left to access programs may seem like a second-nature gesture to most of us, but how would anyone expect them to see a blank screen and just know they need to go to this lower corner? How will they know they need to swipe in from the right to see the "charms" (the list of quick actions available to every app)? Even with a computer-literate son or daughter nearby to explain it to them, I would not expect them to have the actions memorized in any reasonable time frame, when computer activity is so little of their day. I have a hard enough time picking up a videogame I haven't played in a couple days and trying to remember all the controls specific to that game, and that's something I do nearly every day.
The whole idea of Metro-style apps on the computer is something I thought at first to be too restrictive. As I've worked with it more, though, I'm finding there aren't nearly as many drawbacks as I originally thought. I'm often only working on one thing at a time, or comparing data between two apps. Having the one full-screen helps me to focus on that window without being distracted by other windows or widgets. Being able to dock two apps side-by-side (if I could figure out how to do it) would probably take care of 95% of my use cases.
However, there are, indeed, drawbacks. I definitely miss not having a clock ever-present in the lower right, or a status tray of icons that I can see, at a glance, what's up with my PC. It's also not immediately apparent what is running on the system — there's a Metro-style Messaging program, which will pop up a notification when a message comes in, but it's not clear to me when it's running or how to start it to make sure those notifications come in. (Contrast that to Skype, which runs as a standard Desktop app, and which, when I'm on the Desktop, I know immediately that it is running.
It's still a little disconcerting having Metro apps and Desktop apps, and a Start screen that doesn't distinguish between the two. When I click on something, I don't know what will happen — will this just open full-screen, or will it take me to the Desktop and add a window there? Why is there a difference? Why do I have to open an app full-screen, or why are there some apps where I can't? It's almost like dual-booting, except there's really no planning ahead and no way to tell which UI is going to handle it.
I do think this would be a great tablet OS, and I would love to have a tablet myself capable of running it. Actually, it would be more correct to say I would love it if my laptop could be used as a tablet (much like the old tablet PCs that failed to take hold of the market a few years ago, pre-iPad). As far as installing the latest and greatest OS on my current machine, I just can't say I'm all that excited about it yet.