Windows 8 Release Preview First Look

Over the weekend, I tested Microsoft Windows 8 Release Preview on my family’s HP Compaq 2710p tablet.

I go over the setup and some details about use in this post.

The Setup

The Hardware

The tablet was originally released from 2007, and came pre-installed with Microsoft Windows Vista and came with Windows XP Tablet Edition installation media. We have had the tablet since about 2009.

Here are the key specifications of interest:

  • Intel Core2Duo Dual-core U7600 @ 1.2 GHz
  • 2GB RAM
  • 80GB 4200 rpm hard drive
  • Wacom pen stylus
  • 12.1″ display at 1280×800 resolution

Installation

The ISO image for Windows 8 Release Preview was copied to a USB key using the Windows 7 USB Download Tool. The downloaded file itself was 3 GB in size for the English US 64-bit version.

Installation time was over an hour, and I chose not to preserve any files from the existing Windows 7 installation on the device.

Almost all hardware was detected right away without major issues, except for the built-in SD/MMC card reader. Vista 64-bit drivers were installed and seem to work just fine.

Post installation, Windows 8 has used 40GB of the 75GB available on the hard drive.

Drivers

The boot logo has the wrong aspect ratio before entering Windows GUI, probably at 1024×768. The resolution was also 1024×768 during initial startup, but it resolved itself upon detecting the correct drivers, but this was post-installation. As a result, the pen input was thrown off even though it was properly detected as a pen input device.

The Intel drivers that come with Windows 8 do not allow for 180-degree and 270-degree rotation in ‘Display Options’. Installation of Windows 7 drivers corrected this limitation.

Using Windows 8

Metro Start Screen – Welcome to your Windows 8 Home Screen

Metro is the name of the touch-based interface found in Windows Phone 7+ and now also in Windows 8. It has minimalistic rectangular tiles, which currently can be sized to a 1×1 square or a 2×1 (2 wide) rectangular tile. The tiles are capable of showing live information. Right-clicking on the tiles brings further actions.

To learn more about Metro style apps, see Microsoft’s article here.

The Metro start screen replaces the start menu found in Windows since Windows 95, but it is more than that. It also replaces the traditional legacy Windows desktop as the start screen of any device, interacting with the user once the new ‘lock’ screen is dismissed. It is effectively your home screen and is now the central hub for all your Windows activities. In prior versions of Windows, the desktop was this central hub. This really is like how the iOS or Android home screen works.

A mouse right-click on an empty area brings up the application specific Metro app bar, from the top and/or the bottom of the display. This menu is not available in all applications. This is similar to the Android menu button prior to Android 3.0. There is no way to tell if this exists in an application until you try to bring it up.

One problem with the start screen is that all shortcuts installed to the start menu during application setup now install into the start screen instead. I can foresee this becoming quite a problem with legacy Windows applications.

The Start Menu is replaced by the Charms Bar

The Charms Bar replaces the Start Menu found in previous versions of Windows. When activated, it also shows the date and time.

  • Search: this is like typing a search string when opening the Start Menu
  • Share: you can now get social and share to internet services such as Facebook
  • Start: opens the Metro start screen
  • Devices: Things like your USB drive, and probably your Windows Phone are supposed to go here
  • Settings: Application specific settings are accessed by opening the Charms Bar Settings. The contents of settings varies depending on which application is in the foreground within Metro. From here you also have quick access to various controls such as brightness, volume, WiFi, and a shortcut to Metro’s PC Settings screen (shown below)

Desktop Mode

Desktop mode is now delegated to look like an ‘app’ within the Metro start screen. Microsoft wants to allow users to use Metro without having to navigate into the legacy desktop mode.

The desktop mode returns the user to the legacy interface found in previous versions of Windows, but minus the start button. The notification tray is still in the same location, and applications launched within desktop mode appear in the bar at the bottom and are represented by icons as in Windows 7.

Much of the functionality of Windows is still in the desktop mode of Windows 8, such as the Control Panel and Windows Explorer.

Although you can configure some of your settings from Metro, much of the configuration settings still reside in the desktop mode of Windows 8. If you know your way around Windows 2000, XP, Vista, or 7, you’ll feel right at home in desktop mode. 

Switching Between Applications

There are actually two different application switchers in Windows 8. One for Metro, and the other for Windows. Quite frankly, I really hope Microsoft fixes this before they ship.

The original Windows application switcher works like how it used to, and is still brought up with ‘Alt-tab’ from a keyboard. It shows all open applications. This list is no longer the same as the list of applications shown in the desktop mode dock, because it also shows applications that are not available from desktop mode, as shown below.

The Metro application switcher shows a list of your recently opened Metro applications. I am not sure if this is a bug, but it appears that the list does not actually represent what is currently open. It seems to be a history of what applications have opened instead. Ending a Metro task from the Task Manager does not remove an application from this list. This is now ‘Win-Tab’ from the keyboard, replacing Aero Flip. Right-clicking on the items allows you to remove them.

Navigating Metro with the Mouse – Hot Corners

If you use a mouse input device with Windows 8, you can use the ‘hot corners’ at the corners of the screen to activate the ‘Charms bar’, ‘Start’, and ‘Metro app switcher’.

  • Top left corner click – opens last app (a preview is shown of last app opened)
  • Move to top or bottom left corner and drag to opposite vertical corner – opens Metro app switcher
  • Bottom left corner click – opens Metro start screen
  • Move to top or bottom right corner and drag to opposite vertical corner – opens Charms bar

Navigating Metro with the Stylus and Touch – Edges

Mouse and pen/touch Metro navigation is different on Windows 8. This is not the case for pen-input devices.

Your basic navigation gestures for touch and pen based devices in Windows 8 are as follows:

  • Drag top edge down to bottom – close app
  • Flick top or bottom edge – bring up in Metro application specific app bar
  • Flick right edge – bring up Charms bar
  • Flick left edge – switch to last app
  • Flick left edge, and flick back towards the edge in one motion – bring up Metro app switcher

For pen-input devices, you must use edge activation just like you would for touch-based input devices. This took me a bit of time to figure out, because Microsoft hasn’t gotten around to writing a tutorial for Metro UI yet. Conceptually, touch and mouse input devices have different user interactions defined in Windows 8, and you just have to wrap your mind around this. Fortunately, this makes a lot more sense as you start to use the operating system.

With Wacom drivers, it is possible to configure the side button to allow for stylus panning. This may be a better option than the default Windows configuration of ‘right-click’ for some, but I found that it didn’t work everywhere.

Stylus Calibration

Pen calibration is a must in Windows 8 in order to trigger the edge actions, as the actions are only triggered within a couple of pixels of the edge of the screen. It took me a few tries to get the calibration to work just right with the Wacom stylus, which do have a tenancy to be difficult to calibrate for the edges of the screen in my experience with stylus tablet PCs. I was not asked to calibrate my stylus during first boot from Metro, but maybe Microsoft will get around to doing this by the time RTM is around.

If you have used Windows Vista or 7 before, the Tablet PC Settings contains the stylus calibration, which is located in the Control Panel from desktop mode. If you are starting Windows 8 and have no edge activation, it renders the pen very difficult to use for much of anything.

One gripe I have with the pen in Windows 8 so far is that it remains in ‘pointer’ mode rather than ‘touch’ mode, and as a result, I cannot pan-and-scroll using the pen. While Windows 8 did not get rid of the scroll-bars even in Metro style applications, the scroll-bars are thin and difficult to grab with a stylus, and impossible to use if your stylus has not been calibrated.

Touch and Stylus Input in Metro


This area has seen an enormous improvement since Windows 7. The excellent handwriting recognition from prior versions of Windows is still there, but the new snap-to-bottom keyboard has is larger, more easy to use, and features multiple layouts (split keyboard, full keyboard, and minimal keyboard styles). Multi-language input support (tested for Chinese) works great as well.

The only gripe I had with inputting text with the pen on Windows 8 is that the keyboard will refuse to hide itself at times, so I have moved the bottom dock bar to top of the screen to access to ‘Touch Keyboard’ button manually.

Metro Applications

I found performance on Windows 8 Release Preview to be as good as if not better than Windows 8 for legacy Windows applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Google Chrome. The animations were smooth throughout the system, despite the very old Intel graphics on the device. The start screen comes up instantly when pressing the Windows key, and all both hot spot and edge activation respond well.

However, Metro UI applications are slow and take a while to launch on my PC, but this may be attributed to the slow hard drive. On my network with a standard 6-Mbit DSL connection, content does take a while to load as Metro applications rely more on a fast internet connection.

As of this writing, the number of Metro UI applications in the Microsoft Store are quite lacking. You will need to have a Microsoft Live account to access the app store of Microsoft. There are some promising applications right now, and Microsoft has created a few of their own such as Maps and Skydrive, but hopefully the selection becomes significantly better by the time Windows 8 is actually launched. The design of Metro makes apps a real pleasure to look at.

Things I Haven’t Discussed

  • Metro notifications
  • Microsoft service integration
  • A lot of other new features Microsoft added to Windows 8

First Look Ending Thoughts

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s answer to the threat of new smart devices in Android and iOS based touch devices. It is an amalgamation of the legacy Windows desktop interface and the new touch based Metro UI optimized for touch devices.

While it will throw off a lot of users who upgrade from previous versions of Windows, it is a necessary evolutionary step for Microsoft in order to modernize its operating system. In doing so, it is taking a huge risk in making the legacy desktop interface secondary to the Metro UI touch interface. By focusing on Metro, the desktop experience on Windows feels disjointed and broken.

I’m not entirely sure if consumers will appreciate what Microsoft is forcing upon them, as much as I like Metro so far. Windows 8 feels very much like an unfinished product. I believe that it is a stepping stone version of Windows rather than one which will succeed, as the hardware is simply not there to optimize the touch experience necessary for Windows 8 to be successful. This was partially why Windows Vista failed to appeal to consumers when the hardware wasn’t up-to-par in performance.

I plan to purchase at least one copy of Windows 8 because of the low $40 cost to upgrade announced by Microsoft, but I find little reason to update for the majority of users out there. Metro UI does not offer much for users who don’t have touch or pen input support.

To take full advantage of Windows 8, I would recommend the following minimal hardware specifications:

  • Dual-core CPU 1 GHz or more (Core2Duo equivalent)
  • 2GB of RAM
  • Minimum of 64GB SSD (if no files are to be stored on the device), 80GB recommended, 128GB optimally
  • 1024×768 resolution or better display (since Metro UI does not support lower resolutions)
  • Touch-screen
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse based input device

This is probably my last write-up on Windows 8 for a while. I’m sure many others will cover Windows 8 in greater detail as it launches later this year.

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