The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is here. Released on 29th February 2012 it is available for download for free for ANYONE from the Microsoft website to give a test drive on their machines. The "Consumer Preview" moniker is a friendlier name for what would have been called the Beta version.
So what is all the hype surrounding this new version of Windows? Well, here are some of the key items that I think stand out and differentiate it from previous versions of Windows:
* This is the first version of Windows since Windows 95 to drop the famous taskbar and Start Button. (While the taskbar is still present, it is no longer the primary UI to greet users and the start button/orb is gone. More on this further down).
* This is the first version of Windows that will support the ARM architecture that power virtually all smartphones and tablet devices. And the first time since Windows NT supported multiple architectures. (Previous versions of Windows did support the Intel Itanium architecture, but only on servers/HPC environments).
* Windows 8 introduces the new WinRT (Windows Runtime) environment which powers the new Start Screen and Metro Apps.
What's the big deal?
Basically with this version of Windows, Microsoft has made a major departure from the UI we have all known for the better part of almost 20 years. The original Program Manager from Windows 2.x, 3.x was replaced with the now famous Start button and taskbar we are all so familiar with by shifting to a touch friendly (don't worry, it will still be mouse/keyboard friendly and I suspect soon Kinect for Windows friendly) interface called the Start Screen.
Anyone who currently uses a Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) device will instantly recognise the live tile based UI of Windows 8. The Metro based applications can have live tiles which display application activity. These provide, at a glance, pertinent information without the user having to actually enter the app - unless they want additional/more detailed information.
Like for Windows Phone, Windows 8 will include applications built using the so-called Metro UI paradigm. These new Metro style apps are full-screen only and are designed to be touch friendly and intuitive. They also use the new WinRT (Windows Runtime) environment. Windows 8 will have WinRT and Win32 co-exist alongside eachother and will so for the forseeable future to ensure backwards compatibility with the vast numbers of Win32 apps. Metro apps will store their settings and user info in the cloud, so when you use the PC Refresh/Reset option, the applications will be restored to their last state with their settings intact. This is great because it means in the event you need to re-load your PC, it saves you the time of having to download and reinstall applications again. Anything running in the Win32 environment on the classic desktop will need to reinstall their applications though (Think things like Office, Photoshop and games etc.)
Windows 8 will run on any Windows 7 hardware, and not only run on it, it should run better as Windows 8 actually has lower running requirements than Windows 7. It is also less resource hungry and as a result the entire experience should be significantly improved. There is a misconception that Windows Vista was terrible... while it wasn't as streamlined as Windows 7, it did start the shift to componetize Windows and was the culmination of all of Microsoft's "Trustworthy Computing Initiative" to secure Windows and make it less vulnerable to electronic attacks. One might think of Windows 7 as the Windows 98 SE to Windows Vista's Windows 98. Windows 8 takes this a step further by realising Microsoft's vision of "Windows everywhere". Windows on the PC, the tablet, the laptop, the server and the phone. Even embedded devices.
So Windows 8 will run with the following minimum hardware (as of the Consumer Preview):
Archiectures supported: x86 (32-bit) and x86-64 (64-bit)
Minimum CPU Speed: 1 GHz
RAM: 1 GB on 32-bit and 2 GB on 64-bit
Graphics: DirectX 9 with a WDDM 1.0 or higher capable driver
Hard Disk space required: 16 GB for 32-bit and 20 GB for 64-bit
For Metro apps to run, you need to have a screen resolution capable of at least 1024x768, and to run Metro apps side-by-side, a resolution of no less than 1366x768 is required.
So what's up with this ARM business then?
Basically, Windows will now run on ARM hardware, so expect to see all sorts of tablet devices going on sale when Windows 8 goes RTM. Because of ARM being a significantly more power efficient architecture over x86 based CISC architectures it will offer the kind of battery life on mobile devices x86 simply cannot compete with at present (despite Intel and AMD's best efforts to produce power-sipping CPU's, they are still playing catch-up and may yet for some time to come).
Although, don't expect to be going to your nearest computer store and expecting to buy ARM based CPU's off the shelf to build your own ARM based system. For now, it would appear ARM-based devices will be released into the market much in the same way they are now by giants like Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC and so on. Expect to see traditional PC manufacturers like Dell, HP and the likes join in on the ARM goodness to get a slice of the action with WOA (Windows 8 on ARM).
One major difference everyone needs to understand about WOA is that although it will have the classic style Windows Desktop available, it will not support any applications like Photoshop or any of your existing Windows Games (which will all still work on the x86 and x86-64 versions of Windows 8). The reason for this is simply because those legacy applications were all compiled to run on x86/x86-64 architecture and are architecturally incompatible with ARM based environments. While it is true that vendors could re-compile their code to make it ARM compatible, Microsoft has indicated that they are not going to be allowing the installation of any applications on the WOA Classic Desktop. They will install a set of applications natively, some of which (interestingly) will be the next version of Microsoft Office (Powerpoint, Excel and Word) for ARM and a few other applications. This will enable ARM device users to access (and have full compatibility with) Office based documents. The UI for this version of Office will also be designed to be more touch-friendly.
Why Microsoft has done this isn't yet fully understood, but it may be to force developers to go the Metro route and build apps which will reside on the Windows Store and to utilitze the touch-friendly nature of Windows 8 by using these Metro-style apps. I think the idea is to get people to migrate away from the classic desktop. Anyway, typically, users owning an ARM based Windows device won't be power-users. Think about how the iPad and Android tablets are used today... Windows 8 will not only be able to meet this, but it will in many cases easily exceed this. The sky really is the limit because this isn't just a "mobile OS", it's a fully fledged OS designed to run on any platform. I don't really think it will create a significant barrier for people... I certainly can't wait to get my hands on a Windows tablet when they launch!
Windows 8 uses a new notification system which Microsoft refers to as the "Charm bar". This charm bar allows access by swiping from the right side of the screen to bring it up and allows the user to access an application's settings, jump to the Start screen or perform a number of other actions such as: Searching, Sharing and jumping to the Start Screen (note the new style Windows logo), accessing devices and of course Settings.
Bringing up the charm bar in a Metro application and tapping settings will bring up settings specific to that application. This enables you to configure the application based on the options it provides, and these settings are retained across ANY Windows 8 device you login to with your Windows Live ID. That is the kind of integration across platforms Windows 8 is bringing.
And what about the Start button/orb?
It's gone. Dead. However, if you mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen, a "Start Screen" cue pops up that if clicked, instantly returns you to the Start Screen and all the applications you have pinned to it. It is rather awkward to get used to at first, but I'm sure using it regularly it will turn out to become second nature as the Start button/orb once did when we made the leap from Windows 3.x to Windows 95.
There is actually a pop-up menu one can access by right clicking to view a context menu with power-user options. The kind of things one might expect to see if you are a power-user wondering: "Where the hell is that option I could access from the Start orb?". Well, this should provide power-users with most of what they need to get some of the common power-user tasks done.
Really speaking, one might consider that the Start Screen UI is geared towards consumers while the classic desktop for power-users/business users who need to access productivity applications which traditionally ran (and are available for) the Win32 environment. Day-to-day email, social media, games and so on will easily (and very comfortably) be served by the new Metro apps, and (I think) in an attractive, intuitive way.
It will be interesting to see how people adapt to these two UI's co-existing together simultaneously in one system. No other mainstream OS currently works in this manner. Based on what I said before, consumers may end up predominantly using the Start Screen and Metro interfact while power users/business users will spend most of their time on the traditional desktop. How they will adapt without the Start button/orb will be interesting.
I want it! Where can I get it?
The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is available for download from Microsoft's website here:
* Make sure you know what system you are installing on (is it x86 or is it x86-64 capable?)
* Check that it meets the minimum system requirements above.
* Make sure you back-up all your data before attempting an upgrade/install. You don't want to accidentally loose all your personal data.
My general rule of thumb is: If you don't know what you're doing, rather don't do it.
I think Microsoft has a potential winner here. I like the fact they aren't playing safe with this release by simply evolving Windows 7 further, but rather they are making a radical departure from the UI we are all so familiar with that has been with us for the better part of almost 20 years. How 2 UI environments and 2 runtime environments will co-exist together remains to be seen. I think the new Start Screen is a fresh take on how people interact with and use their computing devices. It is very much touch screen friendly first, but very easily (and comfortably) works with a mouse and keyboard.
I also mentioned earlier that I have a sneaky suspicion that Kinect for Windows will be leveraged as a way of interacting with Windows 8's new Start Screen interface and the Metro apps. It's not hard to imagine that if you can use your hands to touch the screen, that simply waving your hands infront of a Kinect sensor can achieve the same thing (and this way, not leaving smudges and fingerprints all over your screen). Technically, the new Kinect will be capable of tracking individual fingers too... so, multi-wave anyone?
Technologically, Windows 8 uses less system resources, is more secure and more reliable than any of it's predecessors. It even includes a whole slew of new safety nets to help users recover their systems from near catastrophe far easier. The PC Refresh and PC Reset options are top of mind here. There is a new Task Manager and a new File Copy dialogue which now allows a user to pause copy operations and resume them later.
I've been using it for little over a week now and am discovering new things about this system every day. It is going to be such a massive shift of mindset from what we know with Windows 7 it's scary but exciting at the same time! I think that the Start Screen and Metro apps will definitely open up doors for people who might have struggled to figure their way around the traditional desktop before... Metro and the Start Screen really are user friendly, and where consumers are concerned... this is great news!
Something else that may take a little getting used to for some people will be the way Windows Explorer has been updated in this release. Microsoft first debuted the "Ribbon" UI for Microsoft Office 2007 a few years ago and this continued into Office 2010 (along with the most recent release of the Windows Live applications). This same Ribbon UI is now in Windows Explorer. It takes some getting used to, but I think most people will adapt pretty quickly. If you're like me, then you use mostly keyboard shortcuts or mouse context menus anyway.
Would I pick it over iOS or Android?
Absolutely yes! There are still some tweaks and the usual spit and polish to come over the months ahead before RTM, and I suspect Microsoft will be evaluating much of the feedback they receive over the course of the Consumer Preview now that it's out in the wild. They have been taking customer feedback very seriously recently and may very well tweak/adjust a few things based on this feedback... but basically as it currently stands, Windows 8 is now feature complete and we can expect to see it very much in the same guise when it releases later in the year. Perhaps with a few small but pleasant surprises (and some of the quirks people report on now resolved). I'm certainly looking forward to it, and so should you! These are exciting times ahead for us all!