Windows 8-Ball Consumer Preview

There aren't many experiences in life more disconcerting than waking up and not knowing where you are or how you got there. I was privy to this uncomfortable experience once during college, following a late night of studying for my History of American Beverages exam. I'm feeling some serious déjà vu right about now, only this time I've awoken to the Windows 8 Metro interface instead of an unkempt farm field and curious geese.

This past Wednesday, Microsoft opened the flood gates on its Windows 8 Consumer Preview. I've been very interested to see how Microsoft would merge its desktop and mobile paradigms ever since I got my grubby mitts on a Windows Phone 7 device and discovered that, hey, this isn't half bad. Having carried a Windows handset for the past few months, I've come to appreciate the quickness and ease of use provided by the Metro interface. I was pretty psyched to see how it would blend into the PC experience, so I downloaded the 64-bit Win8 image from Microsoft's website.

Without any fancy touch-based hardware lying around, I ventured into the parts closet and dusted off an unused Core 2 Duo tower. After installing a spare hard drive, I flipped the power switch, slapped in the Windows 8 install disc, and beheld... a fish? I'm still not sure what that was all about. Perhaps it was a metaphor, foreshadowing the feelings of aquatic extrication to come.

The setup routine was pretty straightforward and intuitive. Unlike prior versions, Windows 8 asks you to cough up an awful lot of personal information to obtain a precious Live ID. The routine stops short of asking for credit cards and first-born children, but it still feels invasive. My email address was requested early on—with the promise to not send me spam. However, later in the install process, I had to uncheck a box that would automatically sign me up to receive MSN's "special offers."

After a couple reboots and a trip to the coffee maker to refill my mug, the monitor went black. I could hear the hard drive grinding away, frantically seeking for the last few bits of information needed to launch my first Windows 8 experience. I took a long sip of my coffee. As the mug dropped out of view and the screen came back into focus, I found myself in a spartan blue field surrounded by curious colored tiles.

Coming directly from Windows 7, I honestly didn't know what to do beyond clicking tiles to launch the corresponding applications. Right-clicking the background only brings up an option for "All Apps," which displays several cluttered columns of icons for your installed applications. Right-clicking live tiles doesn't do much, either. You get a menu bar across the bottom of the screen with a scant few options to pin and unpin things. As a power user, Metro's lack of immediately available options makes me see red. When options do present themselves, an inordinate amount of mousing is required to accomplish simple tasks.

Things get a little more promising as the mouse pointer finds its way to the lower left corner of the screen. Upon entering this hot-zone, an obnoxious "Start" graphic pops up, then promptly disappears if you try to center the mouse pointer on the image. This behavior feels extremely unnatural. I'm used to pop-up graphics persisting as long as the pointer remains over some part of the image. To actually click the start graphic, the cursor must remain in the bottom corner's tiny hit zone.

Once you've managed to click on the Start icon, Metro fades away and reveals the familiar (albeit more angular) Windows Aero desktop with one glaring omission. Over the past 17 years, Microsoft has taught millions upon millions of people that clicking the Start button is an essential entry point to any computing activity. Surprise! It's gone. There isn't even an option to bring back the old girl. The registry hacks enabling a Win7-style Start menu have been even removed from this release. Instead, we're left with an empty space on the taskbar and a usability puzzle to solve.

When I arrived at the desktop for the first time, with no desktop icons and nothing yet pinned to my taskbar, I was unsure how to proceed. Out of habit, I moused to the empty lower left corner anyway. Lo and behold, that same out-of-place Start graphic popped up and promptly disappeared the instant I left its minuscule hit zone. Clicking the graphic brought me right back to the blue, tiled, dumbed-down Metro UI. Arghh! It's extremely disorienting and distracting to be thrust into a completely different interface every time you need to launch an application that isn't pinned to the taskbar or desktop.

Hot spots in the corners are something of a theme in both the Metro and desktop modes. Mousing to the upper left corner will show you a small preview of the last active Metro app that was running. Holding the cursor against the screen's edge and moving downward will eventually reveal all of one's running Metro apps.  From here, one can left-click an app to call it up or right-click to close it.  Frustratingly, there is no option to close a Metro app when you're actually using it.

Holding the cursor in the upper right corner of the screen reveals the "Charms bar". This bar is a list of consistent buttons, akin to what you'd find adorning the bottom of an Android device. There are dedicated buttons for Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. It's nice to have a persistent Settings button that changes context depending on the running application, but that's a Metro-specific function. The Settings context doesn't change in desktop mode, and the Charms bar tends to be invoked inadvertently when closing maximized windows.

In its current form, I feel Windows 8 is woefully inadequate for desktop power users. At best, the Metro tiles can be organized into groups and used like a restrictive version of Stardock's Fences. For touch-enabled devices, however, Windows 8 will truly be able to shine. Swiping from the edges of the screen to access menus is more natural and intuitive than having to drive your mouse pointer all over creation to call up and click on options that seemingly never pop up near the cursor's present position.

After playing with the OS, it's painfully obvious Windows 8 should be marketed purely for touch devices. The fact that it can run regular desktop applications may suggest otherwise, but even in desktop mode, everything tries to get you back to the Metro interface as soon as possible. In fact, desktop mode feels a lot like a virtual machine, existing for those rare moments when you need to dock your tablet to a keyboard and get some meaningful work done. Admittedly, I could happily put up with the annoyances of the desktop interface if I were only using it in such short bursts.

For devices without touch capabilities, things will get a little dicey. It would be unfortunate if Microsoft decided to force this touch-optimized interface on its corporate customer base. Windows 8 feels positively schizophrenic when used with the keyboard-and-mouse combo common among business users. Unless Microsoft has plans in place to simultaneously support and promote Windows 7 as its desktop-oriented OS, a "Professional" version of Windows 8 with the ability to turn off the Metro enhancements and reinstate the Start menu would be a smart move. At this point, I wouldn't even consider purchasing the OS for a desktop or laptop I needed to be productive using. It's simply the wrong tool for the job.

On the plus side, even this early release appears to be extremely stable and well polished. If hardware makers build Windows 8 devices that can play to the strengths of the operating system, you might find me changing my tune regarding usability. I think it would be universally awesome to have an Atrix-style smartphone or a dockable tablet capable of running full-blown Windows programs in a pinch. There's still much work to be done before we can all carry our computers in our pockets, but this appears to be the path Windows 8 is taking.

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