Windows 8 Consumer Preview: One Step Closer to the PC’s Future

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Harry McCracken /

Last September, Microsoft showed off Windows 8 in public for the first time. One glance at the operating-system upgrade–heavily influenced by the company’s inventive Windows Phone–was enough to tell you that it was the most radically new version of Windows since Windows 1.0.

Back then, one glance was all that most people got. Microsoft released a rough draft of the software, but it distributed it only to developers, not to everyday folks who wanted to see the future of Windows looked like for themselves.

Today, the company is back with a further-along draft of Windows 8 that it’s calling the Consumer Preview–and this time, everybody’s invited. If you’re interested enough in operating systems to install one that’s still a work in progress, you can download this version for free and install it on any computer that’s capable of running Windows 7.

Even if you’re just as happy to wait until Windows 8 is officially finished, the arrival of the Consumer Preview is a meaningful milestone. It’s tangible proof that Microsoft is sticking to its schedule for finishing the operating system and shipping it to paying customers. If the company continues at the same pace that it did with Windows 7, it’s possible that the first Windows 8 machines could be on store shelves in time for the back-to-school season.

Last week, Microsoft briefed me on the Consumer Preview and loaned me a Samsung slate PC–the same chunky tablet it gave to developers who attended its Build conference last August–with the Consumer Preview preinstalled. Though closer to completion, Windows 8 remained glitchy and incomplete; only the most daring of souls should even consider installing it on a PC they depend on to do real work.

Spending a few days with the Consumer Preview helped me see how far Windows 8 had progressed since the Developer Preview of last August. But I didn’t get to try the most important new feature by far: The Windows Store, the built-in software market that will be stocked with thousands of third-party programs, all of which will be free during Windows 8’s pre-release phase. All in all, it was a little like getting a pre-opening tour of a swanky new restaurant–but not getting to taste any food.

I also didn’t get to test intriguing new features that let you log into any Windows 8 PC with a Microsoft Account and get instant access to your settings, applications and files, all of which are stored in the cloud–a Microsoftian counterpart to Google’s Chrome OS, and potentially more practical, since you don’t have to stay connected to the Internet to get access to your stuff.

The Consumer Preview is more fully fleshed-out than the Developer Preview, but the most striking thing about it remains the touch-friendly Metro interface. It dumps all the decades-old details of Windows–windows and all–in favor of a new look closely modeled on the interface used by Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. It’s an interface that’s girding itself to compete with the iPad as much as the Mac, even though it’s not an iPad knockoff.

With its colorful tiles and polished animations, Metro is fluid and fun. But slathering a smartphone-style interface on top of a venerable, well-developed platform like Windows raises as many questions as it answers. Unlike Apple, which built the iPad for fingers-only use but says it has no desire to put a touchscreen on the Mac, Microsoft is trying to build a single operating system that will be pleasing in at least three scenarios:

  • On conventional PCs, where you’ll control it with a physical keyboard and a mouse or a touchpad;
  • On iPad-esque tablets, with on-screen keyboards and your fingertip as the only pointing device;
  • On new types of devices that split the difference between PC and tablet, which may have a touchscreen, a keyboard and a mouse or touchpad.

It’s no small task, especially since Metro isn’t Windows 8’s only interface. Microsoft also has to support conventional Windows programs, which are now cordoned off in a section called Desktop.

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In the Consumer Preview, Microsoft has focused on making Metro more mouse-and-keyboard friendly. New gestures let you accomplish the tasks that you can also perform with your finger: For instance, putting the mouse in the lower right-hand corner of the screen pulls up the same strip of system controls that you can also reach by swiping your finger in from the right edge. With either a finger or a mouse, it’s easy to drag around the tiles that represent apps, grouping them to your liking.

While Microsoft hadn’t switched on the Windows Store during my time with the Consumer Preview, I did get to use a bunch of the company’s own Metro applications. There’s a Metro-ized version of Internet Explorer, an e-mail program, a photo viewer, a music service, a Bing Maps app and a feature called People that weaves together information about your friends and associates from sources such as Facebook and Twitter. Microsoft has also integrated SkyDrive, its Dropbox-like cloud storage service that lets you keep files on its servers so they’re available from all your devices.

These apps are all highly reminiscent of features in Windows Phone, and they’re fine as far as they go, but mostly shallow. They’re labeled as previews themselves, and could get richer before Windows 8 ships.

The Consumer Preview’s version of Metro shows considerable refinement from the earlier Developer Preview, but the Desktop hasn’t changed much. It’s still a lightly-refreshed, self-contained update to Windows 7, and it’s still essential, since it’s where you’ll run every Windows app that wasn’t written for Metro. (On PCs with Intel chips, anyhow: Windows 8 will also be available in a version for systems that use ARM processors, the same power-efficient chips used in most smartphones and tablets, but these machines won’t be compatible with pre-Windows 8 software.)

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As before, the Desktop works with a touchscreen–but it doesn’t work very well. I often had to jab at icons and menus repeatedly before my input registered, and the onscreen keyboard is no substitute for physical QWERTY in productivity apps such as Word and Excel. The more time you spend trying to use standard Windows apps with your fingers, the more obvious it is why Microsoft decided that it couldn’t prep Windows for the iPad era solely with nips and tucks.

The most notable change to the Desktop in the Consumer Preview is a subtraction, not an addition: Microsoft has eliminated Windows’ single most iconic feature, its Start Button. Without it, the Taskbar looks oddly incomplete. But if you hover your mouse pointer where it used to be, you get a thumbnail image that takes you to the Metro-ized Start Screen, which is meant to replace the Start Button in the hearts and minds of Windows users everywhere.

At first blush, the forced retirement of the comfy old Start Button and mandatory use of the Smart Screen feel like pigheaded moves on Microsoft’s part. They might also be self-defeating. Millions of PC users still cling to Windows XP and see no reason to adopt a new operating system, period; they might be more inclined to give Windows 8 a chance if wasn’t quite so aggressively unfamiliar.

Then again, if Microsoft is serious about Metro it makes sense to put it front and center. Hopscotching between new Metro programs and old Desktop ones–which is what most Windows 8 users will do at first–is going to be an inherently disjointed, unsatisfying stopgap. Windows 8 will only be a landmark operating system if consumers embrace Metro. And they’ll only do that if developers write outstanding Metro programs, and if PC manufacturers create machines that are truly designed with Metro in mind.

That’s a lot of ifs. Most of them will be tackled by other hardware and software makers, not Microsoft. And even once Windows 8 has been released, it will take years, not months, before it’s clear how well they’ve addressed them.

Which is okay. Microsoft is intent on getting this operating system out the door in time for this year’s holiday PCs, but Windows 8 isn’t primarily about moving boxes in 2012. What it’s trying to build is a foundation for a Windows that stands a chance of being relevant a decade or two from now. The Consumer Preview is just a baby step in the right direction–and it’s going to be fascinating to see if Windows users are as open to dramatic change as Microsoft is showing itself to be.

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