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Windows 8 Consumer Preview: A visual tour for IT

Microsoft's latest OS offers two faces and a lot of feature and UI confusion

Start me up

If you have Office 2010 Pro installed on Windows 8 with a big monitor, this is the screen that greets you. By now you're probably inured to the Metro "immersive" UI, but this bears close examination. Windows apps appear inside Metro as small tiles, grouped together, with the tile showing the app name truncated to whatever fits on the tile. Unlike Windows 7's Start menu, all "legacy" apps appear in one blob. In Windows 7, the Start menu has some structure, placing less-frequently-used apps in a submenu. Not so with Metro. Every installed Office app gets a tile, all tiles are the same size, and other than deleting the tile or moving it somewhere less obtrusive, there's little you can do about it.

Semantic zoom

By pinching the Metro screen, or clicking on a small icon in the lower right corner, the Metro interface zooms out to show all of the tiles, in a process called semantic zoom. While zoomed out, you can move entire groups of tiles, and you can give the groups names: right-click on a group (or touch and hold) and choose Name group. In this shot, I've separated out the Office tiles I use every day and given the group a different name from the lot that I rarely use. It isn't as elegant as tucking the lesser-used programs away in a submenu, but it works.

Populating tiles

As you use Metro apps, the tiles fill in - Calendar shows your upcoming appointments; Messaging flips through messages you haven't yet seen; Mail cycles through headers of messages you haven't opened; and so on. It is no surprise that many of the Metro tiles tie directly into Microsoft products. Four of the tiles on the default Start screen go into Xbox Live; three try to sell you things from the Windows Store/Marketplace. The Finance tile takes you to the Bing Finance site, where stock prices are delayed 30 minutes, and plenty of financial information (and advertising) is just a click away, compliments of Morningstar. It wouldn't surprise me if, at some point in the future, the Metro Camera app tried to sell you cameras.

Charms bar

The Charms bar - Metro's primary navigation pane - appears when you flick the right side of the screen, presumably with your thumb, or hover your mouse in the upper or lower right corner of either the Metro or the legacy PC screen. The Charms bar lets you quickly Search, Share, go to the Start screen, bring up a stunted Metro Devices panel that refers to a few common devices, or bring up the also-stunted Metro Settings screen. While Search appears to work in most Metro apps, Share doesn't.

Metro Mail

I found several Metro apps underwhelming. Take Metro Mail. If any of your users rely on Windows Live Mail, or even Outlook Express, for advanced mail features, they're going to be disappointed, if not hostile. In its current incarnation, there's no facility for creating custom folders or organising mail in any manner other than marking messages read/not read. You can follow a convoluted technique to move a message from one folder to another, but drag and drop is out of the question. If Metro Mail supports flags, I couldn't find them. To search your mail, you have to bring up the Charms bar. You can't format text. And so on. In the 32-bit/64-bit version, Outlook is fully functional, and Outlook Web App works as well.

Coping with plug-ins

When Internet Explorer 10, running under Metro, encounters a website that requires Flash, this is the message you see, with three options: Open, Don't show again for this site, and Close. If you click the Open button, Windows 8 flips over to the legacy PC UI, opens Internet Explorer 10, and loads the same web page. (Note: this behaviour applies only to the 32-bit/64-bit version of Windows 8; Microsoft advises that the Windows on ARM version of IE won't support plug-ins of any type, either on the Metro side, or on the locked-down desktop-wannabe side.) I tried repeatedly to force a similar prompt for ActiveX-enabled sites, and didn't get a similar message. The sites simply put up a notification that says "ActiveX is not supported."

All your apps are belong to us

All of the apps for the Start screen/Metro side of Windows 8 have to be downloaded from the Windows Store. The Windows 8 Consumer Preview Product Guide for Developers asserts: "Enterprise developers can create Windows 8 apps that are critical for their business and feel confident that they maintain control over the deployment and access to their apps. Businesses can directly sideload their Windows 8 apps onto their Windows 8 Consumer Preview domain-joined PCs, bypassing the Windows Store." Apps distributed through the Windows Store are also updated through the Windows Store - an approach that should be well understood by iPad users, but represents a new concept for Windows.

The alphabetised apps list

To list all apps - both Metro and "legacy" - right-click an empty part of the Metro Start screen, or slide the bottom pane up with your thumb, and choose All Apps. Windows shows an alphabetised list of Metro apps, then alphabetised lists of apps that appear to be grouped as they would be grouped in the Windows 7 Start menu. For example, you see all 15 Microsoft Office 2010 apps, alphabetised, starting with the ever-popular Digital Certificate for VBA Projects. Begin typing on the keyboard, and Windows lists all the apps that start with the text you've typed. There doesn't appear to be any sequence to the list. To see a diverse set of apps, go to Metro Start and type "m".

Thumbnails of running apps

Windows 8 still supports the "CoolSwitch" Alt+Tab: press Alt+Tab and Windows 8 brings up a panel in the center of the screen that lets you cycle through thumbnails of running apps. The CoolSwitch works on both the Metro and legacy PC interfaces. A more elegant, but less thorough, option appears along the left side of the Windows 8 screen. Simply drag your thumb or mouse along the left edge of the screen, and you see thumbnails of all running apps, as shown in this screen shot. If you do the left-slide on the Metro UI, you see one tile for all running legacy apps. If you left-slide in the legacy desktop, you only get thumbnails for Metro apps.

Split screen

Much has been made of the Windows 8 split screen, which allows you to run two apps at once. One app occupies a fifth of the screen, on the left or right; the other fills the other four-fifths. There's a dotted bar between the panes. You can slide the dotted bar so the app on the left takes up most of the screen, or to remove a pane completely - but you can't resize the panes. To go into split-screen mode, make sure the app you want to split is running. Then use the technique in the preceding slide to show all running apps. Click (or touch) and drag the app off the left of the screen. Viola. Windows 8 splits.

The missing Start button's context menu

Microsoft got rid of the Start button on the Windows 8 legacy UI. The Consumer Preview even breaks the Registry hacks that brought it back in earlier versions. But Windows 8's designers hid a useful utility menu in its stead. Right-click where the Start button should be, or, with a touch-enabled device, hold your finger in the lower left corner to see this menu. (Note: many have reported problems bringing up this menu, depending on their hardware.) The same menu appears whether you're working in legacy or Metro mode. Many common tools are accessible from this hidden menu. Search takes you to Metro Search. Run brings up a dialogue box similar to Windows XP's Run box. The rest go to Windows applets.

Storage Spaces

Windows 8 Storage Spaces automatically sets up mirror images of your data files. Although its goals are similar to RAID, the technology is different, as it resides inside Windows. In its simplest configuration, Storage Spaces mirroring requires three physical drives: one for booting (solid state, anyone?), and two for data. The drives you put into Storage Spaces are absorbed into the borg: you can't use them for anything else, and their drive letters effectively disappear. If Windows runs out of disk space, it prompts you to install another disk. If one of the data drives dies, the data's still there - all of it. Stick a new drive in the PC and Windows 8 balances it all out.

File History

Microsoft's attempt to duplicate Apple Time Machine, the File History feature stores backup copies of all the files in your libraries, Contacts, IE Favorites, and the contents of the Desktop, in a location you specify - typically a network share or an external drive. It stores multiple versions of files going back as far in time as you like, disk space permitting. You have control over the frequency of backups, their location, and the amount of space reserved. Recovering a file is easy: navigate to the backup folder and click Restore; the files aren't compressed or encrypted. It's an excellent adjunct to NAS storage, in a low security environment.

Run a Hyper-V VM inside Windows 8

Windows 8, right out of the box, has a copy of Hyper-V ready for you to load and run. (You need to have a sufficiently modern processor, and you must be running the 64-bit version of Win8.) Hyper-V used to be restricted to Windows Server, but it's now available on every Windows 8 PC. Some people find it amusing to run Windows 8 Server in a VM under Windows 8. Works like a champ.

Refresh & Reset

The toughest part of the new Refresh and Reset offerings? Remembering which is which. Reset zaps out everything, reloads Windows, and generally leaves your PC completely clean, ready to be sold or given away. Refresh keeps your data files and your personal settings, but switches Windows' settings back to defaults. You can re-download anything you bought from the Windows Store, but make sure you have install disks for any other software. You need to have a Windows 8 installation DVD (or USB) at hand to run a Refresh or Reset. I don't know of any definitive list of precisely what's removed and what's retained during a Refresh. That's bound to be an item for debate, for some time to come.

  • Start me up
  • Semantic zoom
  • Populating tiles
  • Charms bar
  • Metro Mail
  • Coping with plug-ins
  • All your apps are belong to us
  • The alphabetised apps list
  • Thumbnails of running apps
  • Split screen
  • The missing Start button's context menu
  • Storage Spaces
  • File History
  • Run a Hyper-V VM inside Windows 8
  • Refresh & Reset
  • Play
  • Play
  • Backward
  • Forward

Start me up

If you have Office 2010 Pro installed on Windows 8 with a big monitor, this is the screen that greets you. By now you're probably inured to the Metro "immersive" UI, but this bears close examination. Windows apps appear inside Metro as small tiles, grouped together, with the tile showing the app name truncated to whatever fits on the tile. Unlike Windows 7's Start menu, all "legacy" apps appear in one blob. In Windows 7, the Start menu has some structure, placing less-frequently-used apps in a submenu. Not so with Metro. Every installed Office app gets a tile, all tiles are the same size, and other than deleting the tile or moving it somewhere less obtrusive, there's little you can do about it.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview offers an array of interesting nooks and crannies for IT. The new Metro UI sports clean lines, vibrant (if not garish) colours, and an all-over-the-place organisation. The legacy Windows PC component looks much as you would expect, with a handful of strategic lapses - or improvements, depending on your perspective.

All this could change by the time we see Windows 8 RTM. But what you see here is at least a first approximation of what we will get when Windows 8 "for 32-bit and 64-bit" hits, likely this fall.

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