Monday, December 3, 2012


Meet the new Windows

Windows 8 on a laptop

Windows 8 on a laptop

Microsoft is betting the farm on its Metro user interface, making appearances on its Zune media player, Windows Phone and Xbox Live platforms.
Now, the interface is making its way to Windows 8, the newest version of Microsoft's long-running PC operating system. With the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 now available, we took the platform for a quick test run.

Preparing for installation
My home laptop isn't exactly a beast of a machine, being equipped with a single-core 1.86GHz Celeron processor, 2.5GBs of RAM and an integrated Intel X3100 graphics card. In other words, it's not powerful at all. It struggles to play the eight-year-old Counter Strike: Source at a stable 30 frames per second, for one. 
My home set-up includes the much-maligned Windows Vista, which runs relatively smoothly, although I took the liberty of disabling the Aero interface to improve performance. Of course, Vista takes its time to get going, as PC operating systems tend to do, taking about a minute or two to get to the home screen.
After downloading the Consumer Preview, I went about burning the .ISO image to DVD, although you can download a setup file if you want.
I then spent 20 minutes deleting and moving files on one partition so I could install the preview on there. What ended up happening was that I "upgraded", erasing my Vista install in the process. The Windows 8 installation process didn't really offer many options, so I kept on clicking "next", hoping to see my desired choice (installing to a partition and dual-booting between Vista and 8).
But in a neat move, all of my media, documents and other files remained, so the only thing I had to do was reinstall my programs. This is where something like comes in handy, installing a variety of programs in one go.

Onto the Windows 8 experience
Upon booting up, you're greeted by a pretty lockscreen, similar to tablets and smartphones. The screen displays the time, date and other notifications, with users simply hitting the spacebar or dragging it upward to proceed to the login screen. It's a pleasant touch, showing that Microsoft is paying attention to the little details.
You'll then be required to log in or sign up for a Windows Live ID, a polarising move on the part of Microsoft.
On the one hand, people making use of existing Microsoft products (Xbox Live, Windows Phone, Hotmail) already have a Windows Live ID already and can reap the benefits.
But on the other hand, you have the scores of people, only using Microsoft products because they didn't care or had no other viable alternative (i.e. Windows).
Nevertheless, after a few minutes tweaking settings, we're greeted by the beautiful Windows 8 start screen.
Resembling the Windows Phone environment, the start screen is filled with large, colourful tiles, embracing the Metro user-interface. The tiles can also display real-time information in a manner akin to a widget, such as the last instant message chat or app notifications.
If anything is clear about Windows 8's start screen, it's that it has been designed with a touch interface in mind. Scrolling left and right through the various tiles is accomplished with the scroll wheel, or using the barely noticeable bar at the bottom of the screen.
It's not exactly the worst way to navigate through the new screens, but it's not ideal either. And this approach extends to the applications themselves.

Using Metro apps
In applications, you'll use your mouse for the most part and that's where legacy Windows users could be a tad puzzled. Gone are the 'minimise', 'full-screen' and 'close' buttons, replaced by mouse gestures or a button press.
So, instead of minimising an app, you can simply hit the Windows button on your keyboard to go to the start screen. Closing an application with a click of 'X' is no more; you'll need to drag the application downward.
Forget about going into windowed mode too, the apps run in full-screen for the most part.
We say "for the most part" because the Metro apps differ from Android and iOS when it comes to multitasking. These apps can be "snapped" together, with up to three applications running side-by-side. It's a great change from the "one app at a time" mentality of other platforms.
Launching a Metro application is a pretty smooth process, accompanied by a slick animation and no hourglass icons, as is the case with legacy programs. However, apps do take some time to load information once open, such as news articles and the like.
The Windows Store has also received prominent placement on the start screen, with users able to download a couple of hundred apps already.
Whether it's Wordpress, AccuWeather or Kindle, these apps are well-designed for the most part. And the Windows Store will be the only place to get Metro apps, although users can download legacy programs too.

Not just a new look...
The next new feature is the task manager on the left-hand side of the screen.
Simply mousing over the left-hand corners brings up a panel featuring active apps, letting you switch between them on-the-fly.
This task manager works in both Metro and legacy Windows modes, and makes for a pretty useful addition, letting you close programs by right-clicking on them too.
Hovering over the right-hand corners of the screen brings up the Charms Bar, featuring "search", "share", "start", "devices" and "settings".
Clicking "search" brings up a universal search option, letting you sift through applications, photos, videos and files. For instance, searching for "Nokia" brought up my photos taken with Nokia phones.
"Search" is a cool concept, but we wish the functionality would drill down to app data and contacts as well. Granted, you could just open up the relevant program too, but it would be useful to search for a podcast and have it appear without opening the podcast app.
The "share" feature is another baked-in concept, bringing a simple way to share items. Unfortunately, it didn't seem ready for prime-time, only letting you share via email, if it let you share at all.
The "start" option is pretty self-explanatory, taking you back to the Start screen no matter where you are.
The "devices" feature is pretty useful too, showing you what's connected to your computer and giving you options for a second monitor.
The one problem I had was that my Omnia 7 Windows Phone wasn't natively picked up via the "devices" option, having to use the Zune software instead. It's slightly disappointing, especially with Microsoft trying to build an ecosystem across devices. But with Windows Phone 8 set to feature tighter integration, we'd love to see what happens next.
The "settings" feature is another self-explanatory one, letting you tinker about with things such as WiFi connectivity, notifications, brightness and language.
You'll also need to visit "settings" to turn off or restart your computer – a longer route than simply clicking "start". Despite this downside, it's a quicker way to tinker with your important settings than hitting the control panel in desktop mode.
The Metro screen also includes a number of preinstalled applications, such as an Xbox Live app, Xbox Companion for controlling your machine, a clean-looking Bing Maps tool and a sleek PDF reader (called... "Reader").
However, there are a few other preinstalled apps too, such as the SkyDrive cloud storage service, "Messaging" for IM chats as well as "Mail" for Hotmail, Gmail and Exchange.
They all work well enough, but are a tad anaemic when it comes to options really. For instance, there's no visible way to add my Webmail email service or other IM protocols. Despite these weak points, the apps do a good job anyway.

The traditional Windows desktop
The Metro environment might not be to everyone's tastes, especially when using a keyboard and mouse. So, Microsoft saw it fit to let the traditional Windows 7 desktop into the fray.
The legacy desktop looks all too familiar, but there are a few areas Microsoft has changed, with the Charms Bar and multitasking manager available from here too.
The most radical change though, is the removal of the ubiquitous Start button, a move sure to draw the ire of many a user.  This means that you'll need to rely on pinning your programs to either the taskbar or create a desktop shortcut. Clicking in the old Start button space now takes you to the Metro start screen instead.
Personally, it would've been preferable to have a dropdown menu on the legacy desktop to go through all installed programs, instead of navigating to program files or creating shortcuts.
The Windows Explorer interface has seen a few tweaks too, still playing host to the likes of "file", "manage" and "view" - but with an additional "Ribbon" panel too. The panel features context-sensitive buttons for the most part, letting you copy items to different folders, burn files to disc and change your folder view pretty quickly.
There are also some smaller changes and tweaks too, such as the revised task manager. The new utility shows you a detailed breakdown of CPU, network and memory usage. Additionally, you can also disable and enable programs that you'd like to start automatically upon booting – no complicated menus needed.
The biggest improvement is under the hood – Windows 8's legacy mode runs at an impressive speed. From the above-mentioned boot-up times to general navigation, Windows 8 is much friendlier to older computers than previous iterations. Users only need a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM if they're running a 32-bit system, and 2GBs of RAM for 64-bit rigs.
Even if you fall below the system requirements, chances are that your machine can handle Windows 8. Kudos to Microsoft for resurrecting old hardware then.
Besides that, the traditional Windows desktop is still the same system you know and love (or loathe!). Older applications run without a hitch and connected gadgets work and charge just fine.

It's clear that Windows 8 is designed with touch input in mind, with large tiles and stylised fonts making for a finger-friendly experience in the Metro environment.
Despite this, using the new interface on a laptop is a pretty pleasant experience, occasionally dipping into slightly annoying territory.
Microsoft still has a few months to chop and change settings ahead of the speculated October launch, so here's to them ironing out those kinks. Regardless, there's a lot to like about Windows 8 and we can't wait to play with it on a tablet.

Review: Windows 8 on a tablet

Review: Windows 8 on a tablet
Microsoft's latest operating system represents a gargantuan departure for the company, reflecting the sweeping changes that have hit the industry at large.
Simply put, Windows 8 is the company's attempt to bridge the gap between their traditional computer audience and the touch-computing world. So just how successful was the company in meeting this goal?
We took delivery of a Samsung Series 7 slate, loaded with Windows 8, to play with the operating system on a touch interface.
We also gave Windows 8 Consumer Preview a go on a laptop, so check it out here.

Setting up...
Getting things up and running is a simple matter, with users being able to use a local account or Microsoft account. If you don't have an email address or Microsoft account, you can register for one seamlessly too.
Once you've entered your details, that's it, you're good to go. However, for the more security conscious, you have a few options at your disposal.
For one, there's the ability to set your standard password on the device, much like any other Windows computer. If you're even more security conscious, there's also the option to create a four-digit PIN.
But the most innovative solution is the picture password, which lets you draw three gestures to unlock the device. And it's pretty easy to make use of this feature.
For example, you can choose a photo of a sunset, tap a cloud, draw a circle around the setting sun and draw a line for the horizon. So when you need to unlock your device you do those gestures in that order, and your tablet is ready to use.
I thought the feature would be a nightmare to use when I first heard about it, but it's a relief as you don't need to be 100 percent accurate. In saying that, it's possible to switch to the standard password option if you can't remember what your gestures are.

Much like Windows Phone, Windows 8 features some great social integration, with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all baked in. All you need to do is add the credentials to the device.
What this means is that you get notifications from networks, news feeds and the ability to write posts.
All of this is accessible from the People Hub, a beefed up contacts menu which pools all of your social network friends together. Clicking on one of your contacts will bring up some cool information, such as their latest updates, a map to their work or home (if they've entered their address), their email address and the ability to shoot off a Facebook message or tweet. 
It's a really fantastic way of handling contacts and one that still seems to be ahead of the curve when compared to iOS and Android.
There are a few areas where the social integration could do with some work however, with private/direct messages still not supported. Some features, such as groups, also require users to log into Facebook on the browser. But in a great touch, it'll open up in your default browser, no matter if it's Firefox, Chrome or IE10. Windows RT users will be stuck with IE10 only for now.
Along with your social network contacts, Windows 8 will also pull your Facebook calendar - so that means birthdays and events are all featured.
The tile experience
Once you've booted up the tablet proper, you'll be greeted by the new Start Screen, featuring Microsoft's much-vaunted Live Tiles.
It really does stand out from other platforms, with a variety of colours on show.
However, these tiles aren't static at all (at least for the new apps), displaying constantly updated information. For instance, the email application displays new email headlines, while the photos app displays your snaps.
Our only qualm was that legacy applications can't take advantage of this functionality even if they wanted to. This is of course due to Microsoft's restriction that only apps submitted to the Windows Store can take advantage of the Live Tiles.

Taking advantage of touch
Windows 8 is made from the ground up with touch-input in mind, and it excels wonderfully, it has to be said.
The user-interface is pretty simple and easy on the eyes, with scrolling on the Start Screen being buttery smooth, for one.
However, general usage differs greatly from other tablet platforms, with Windows 8 seemingly taking its cues from the BlackBerry PlayBook.
So that means swiping downwards to close an application, while swiping upwards gives you additional options specific to the opened app.
Multitasking is also handled pretty well in Windows 8, with users swiping down halfway and then laterally to window an app on the left or right side of the screen.
And the great thing is that developers can customise how their app behaves when windowed. For instance, Skype will display your contacts when windowed, while a music player will display the playlist, allowing you to edit it in the process. It's great to see the app's UI dynamically shift to accomodate the narrower window and we hope that more developers take advantage of this.
It does take some getting used to though, as the multitasking window doesn't always stay open, such as when you go back to the Start Screen.
The multitasking system works well with the legacy desktop too, as long as the desktop is the main window being used. Flinging it to the left or right results in a tiny window being displayed, unfortunately.
If the window-based multitasking system is too complicated for you, it's also possible to bring up a background app by flicking in from the left or hitting the Windows key.
Flicking in from the right-hand side brings up a new pane too, featuring options for 'search', 'share', 'start', 'devices' and 'settings'. Additionally, it displays your battery life and time as well.
The 'search' functionality is seemingly inspired by iOS, allowing users to conduct a universal search, ranging from contacts, installed apps, apps available on Windows Store, media and more. One of the more impressive gems is the ability to search third-party apps too, for instance, searching MetroTwit (a Twitter client) for "Android" will bring up mentions of it on Twitter.
The sharing service is another useful feature, letting you well... share content via email, social networks and more, depending on what you've installed on your device. The one downside is that there's no way to share via the legacy desktop - an understandable omission but one nonetheless.
The 'start' option is pretty self-explanatory, taking you back to the Start Screen, while the 'devices' feature displays options for your connected gadgets, such as mobile phones and second screens.
The final option is 'settings', which, as the name implies, shows your settings and the like. From here, you can add new user accounts, change your wallpaper, adjust sound levels and more.
The other cool feature is that whenever you bring up settings, it displays quick toggles for WiFI, audio, your keyboard and more.

The Apps story
Microsoft announced at launch that over 5000 dedicated Windows 8 applications were already available in the Windows Store. It's not a bad number at all, but it's clear that the company still has some way to go.
For one, there are still no official apps for many social networks, with third-party clients available however. While Twitter is well represented with Rowi and MetroTwit, Facebook users will need to use the lacklustre MINE for Facebook app.
Games are another area where the Windows Store lags in comparison to its competition, with few exclusives and a lack of multiplatform titles.
Still, it's early days yet, so we're holding thumbs that the experience improves over the next year.

A connected experience
There are quite a few benefits to using a Microsoft account, such as 7GBs of free cloud storage on SkyDrive and access to applications from the Windows Store.
Additionally, those with Microsoft accounts also bring across their Hotmail accounts, Xbox Live profile and more.
Xbox Live functionality is about the same as we've seen on Windows Phone, letting users send messages to their online friends, customise their avatar and earn achievements for playing mobile games.
We were slightly disappointed that SmartGlass, which lets you control your Xbox and delivers a second-screen experience, wasn't natively integrated into the Xbox Live service. But it's available from the Windows Store and works as well as we expected it to.
SkyDrive is another welcome application on Windows 8, allowing you to store your documents, photos and videos online. And it's a pretty well-designed app, letting you delete media, save them for offline viewing and add them to your lockscreen or as a traditional wallpaper.
The Bing integration is pretty well-realised too, with dedicated apps for Bing Search, Bing Travel, Bing Trending and Bing Sports. I didn't find myself using them too often, but they're relatively easy on the eyes anyway.

While Windows 8's Metro Modern environment is made with touch devices in mind, the legacy desktop isn't. So our expectations were that it would be a finicky experience.
However, we were pleasantly surprised by how the legacy desktop performs, with smartphone-style scrolling and a long press for right-click. We were pretty impressed with the accuracy of it all, with smaller icons not representing a huge challenge for the user.
Nevertheless, it's still abundantly clear that this environment is meant for a mouse and keyboard, as you'll need to have pixel precision to click icons in the taskbar or a legacy program's elements.
Still, some apps work pretty well with touch, such as Firefox, which features large icons and elements, while others, such as VLC Media Player and modern PC games, aren't suited for it at all.
The virtual keyboard also has to be manually brought up every time you'd like to enter text in the old environment. Sure, you can keep the keyboard open, but it's a rather huge annoyance anyway, and an issue we'd like to see resolved.
Ultimately, for general computer usage, a touch-driven dive into the old environment is a pleasant experience, but you 'll want a keyboard and mouse for anything more, such as word processing, Photoshop and the like.

A versatile, growing platform
Microsoft's platform has always been about productivity and versatility, and the company has proved that with Windows 8.
The layout formerly known as Metro is a really fun way to use a tablet, with the Live Tiles looking as gorgeous as ever. Additionally, the flexibility offered by the legacy desktop means that any old program will work just fine, even the latest videogames.
The fact that the platform boasts USB connectivity also means that anything you can do with a normal PC applies too, from charging your phone to connecting a printer.
Additionally, the ability to use any USB keyboard or Bluetooth keyboard makes it the productivity tool of choice for word processing and general writing.
In saying that, a barren Windows Store and a shifty touch experience in the old environment are a few of the bigger black marks against it.
Windows 8 is a radical change for the company, and while it hasn't quite managed to find a coherent way to weave old and new (namely Modern style menus and legacy desktop respectively), it's well on the way to doing so.
Consequentially, you should upgrade to Windows 8 if you're running an old PC (Windows 8 has less stringent system requirements than 7), have a touchscreen or would like deep social integration on your computer.
If Windows 7 is speedy enough and you strongly prefer a traditional keyboard-and-mouse-driven environment, then unfortunately, Windows 8 isn't for you.