Microsoft is releasing the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 today, a highly anticipated software release from the company that marks the introduction of a full touch interface for Windows. The software giant has attempted to bring touch functionality to Windows over a number of years, but Windows 8 goes a huge step further by introducing a separate environment for new applications, designed with touch and Metro style in mind, to the masses of Windows users.
UI changes and Start Button removal
The new Metro experience starts instantly with Windows 8. As we saw in the Developer Preview, a lock screen introduces Windows 8 users to the live tiles and touch friendly world of the new Start Screen. Microsoft has made a number of tweaks to this screen for the Consumer Preview, including the introduction of a Semantic Zoom interface that allows tablet and touch users to organize and group their Windows Store applications.
Perhaps the biggest change in the Consumer Preview, at least visually, is the removal of the Start button orb in the desktop mode. Microsoft's bold move means the typical Start button interaction point for Windows users has been moved to the Charms bar for Windows 8. Touch users can swipe from the edges of a screen to activate the charms that include the new Windows 8 logo; the logo animates with a subtle flash of light and what we would describe as a pulse, adding life to the charms bar. It also picks up accent colors from the theme used across Windows 8. These themes, updated in the Consumer Preview, include the option to add a selection of shape-based wallpapers to the Start Screen and pick from a number of predefined colors. The selection is clearly limited but sufficient, and Microsoft has made a choice here to ensure live tiles on the Start Screen look and feel consistent regardless of theme colors.
The orb's replacement is a lot more fitting for the company's new operating system. A number of new gestures, for touch and keyboard / mouse, will activate various controls in Windows 8, but one of the new features is a preview-like task switcher. Activated from the lower left or top left of the screen, it allows Windows 8 users to switch through recently opened applications.
The Start button still exists and is available in the charms bar on the right hand side, providing access to the Start Screen. The button animates as it comes into view with what appears to be a flash of light over the Metro style logo. Although there is no Start button orb in the lower left on desktop mode, the functionality is fairly redundant thanks to the new Start Screen interface. It is a big break from Windows 95 though — an operating system that first introduced the Start menu and button — and one that signifies just how much change Windows 8 brings.
Gestures rule the Windows 8 interface
Microsoft has overhauled its gestures in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. A lot of work has been focused on ensuring the relevant mouse and keyboard equivalent of touch gestures work better than the company’s Developer Preview build. There are seven key gestures in the new OS:
System commands and previously used apps: Swiping from the right of the screen using touch will reveal the charms bar with access to system commands. A swipe to the left will bring up the previously used applications. The mouse equivalent is activated by pointing to the lower-right corner of the screen, and keyboard users can use Windows logo + C to open the charms bar.
App commands and swipe to close: swiping from the bottom edge of a screen towards the top will reveal the app bar for Metro style apps, and swiping from the top down allows you to close the app. Mouse users can right click to access app commands and drag apps to the lower edge to close them. Keyboard users can use Windows logo + Z to open the app bar.
Press and hold to learn: Microsoft is surfacing detailed information in Metro apps by using a press and hold gesture. In some cases this will bring up a menu, but the majority of times it will let Windows 8 users surface information without committing to an action. Mouse users can point to an item to see more options, and keyboard users can use the context menu key.
Tap to perform an action: as you would expect, tapping a live tile or an element will launch an action. Mouse users can simply click and keyboard users will be able to use the enter key.
Slide to drag: this gesture is used to scroll through lists and pages, but it can also be used to move an object or for drawing and writing. Mouse users simply point to the bottom of an app and use the scroll bar and keyboard users can dock an active window to the left or right half of the screen using keyboard shortcuts and navigate using the Windows logo + left / right arrow.
Pinch or stretch to zoom: zooming can be used to jump from the beginning, end, or a specific location within a list. You can start zooming by pinching or stretching two fingers on the screen. Mouse users can press the control key while moving the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, and keyboard users can use Windows logo + Minus / Plus keys to zoom in and out.
Rotate to turn: rotating two or more fingers turns an object. You can turn the whole screen by 90 degrees by rotating a physical device. Mouse and keyboard users can rotate objects in a variety of ways depending on how and whether an app supports it.
Another big feature of Windows 8 Consumer Preview is Microsoft's Windows Store. The Store is hardly overflowing with apps on launch - we're not seeing much in the way of Twitter clients - but you'll still find a nice selection including apps like MSNBC, Vimeo, Photobucket, Evernote, Cut the Rope, and more. Kindle and Wordpress apps, among others, are on the way. How's Microsoft's newest store hold up?
Windows Store basics
Users of the Windows Phone Marketplace will feel right at home here. On launching the Windows Store, you'll see a curated Spotlight section, currently showing off the winners of Microsoft's First Apps Contest and the option to dig down into the top paid and free apps. Swiping left reveals apps organized by type, with the usual app store mix of everything from games and social to productivity and shopping. At launch, only some sections let you view the top paid/free views; we assume all sections will gain this view as the Windows Store fills out with more apps.
While it's not immediately apparent, you can search the Windows Store by swiping in from the right side of the screen, and tap the search icon. Search results will appear in the main pane, where you can further tweak your search results by category, price, and sort order.
Apps and Installation
Whether you've found an app via search or are tapping through from the Store's main screen, each app has its own profile with a full overview (including screenshots), details, and user reviews. The left rail shows permissions required by the app (e.g. whether it will access your webcam, photos, etc...), and offers one tap star ratings. The right rail shows a full description and the latest features, and you can tap through additional details like supported processors and languages, and read and sort user reviews. It's what we've come to expect from modern app marketplaces, and the Metro UI makes it an especially clean and easy-to-use interface for both new users and pros.
On your first app installation, the Store prompts you with your password; subsequent free downloads will start immediately on pressing 'install. Note: we're not seeing any paid apps yet. After tapping 'install,' you'll be taken back to the Store's main screen after starting the install process, where you can continue other tasks. Once your download is complete, you'll receive a notification in the top right of your screen that, when tapped, loads the app. Additionally, the app can be accessed in a tile on the far right of your Start screen.
We've been able to play with some Metro style applications and are impressed with their potential on touch screen devices. Microsoft has preinstalled a variety of its "Windows Communications" apps, including Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, and Photos. The mail application acts as a fully functional email client with access to Exchange, Google, and Hotmail accounts. Windows 8 Consumer Preview users can simply add an account in without any setup, and get access to the powerful functionality of Exchange accounts without the need for Outlook - a big move for Microsoft in what is essentially a core free Mail product. The Messaging application shows no signs of rumored SMS integration but it does provide a simple way to message Facebook and Windows Live Messenger contacts. Similar to Windows Phone, there is also a way to switch accounts in the interface to chat between the different services. Contacts are populated from the People app of Windows 8 for use in Messaging.
One of the new Consumer Preview apps that we haven't seen before is Bing Maps. The app offers traffic, location, and directions to allow Windows 8 users to navigate using their laptop or tablet on the move. Coupled with some of the new built-in mobile network functionality, you can see where Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 as a truly mobile friendly operating system. The company has also added in a Camera app to snap pictures on the move, supporting both front and rear cameras on devices. Photos get stored into the built-in Photos application, where Windows 8 also offers access to Facebook and SkyDrive photos.
Entertainment and Xbox
We already broke the news that Microsoft is moving away from both Zune and Windows Live branding in Windows 8, and the evidence is clear in the Consumer Preview. Microsoft’s Xbox team has created Music and Video applications that are very similar to the entertainment experience on Xbox 360. They act as the main point in Windows 8 to access audio or video in the operating system’s Metro interface. Windows Live functionality has also been largely replaced by the preinstalled Windows Communications applications, and Consumer Preview users will be asked to link a local account to a "Microsoft Account" in Windows 8.
The Xbox Live hub in Windows 8 Consumer Preview allows users to get access to their friends list, recently played games, and avatar settings. Some of the preinstalled games in the Consumer Preview also include Xbox Live integration and you can also access these achievements in the main Xbox Live app.
The most interesting part of Microsoft's Xbox work on Windows 8 is undoubtedly its Xbox Live Companion application. The companion lets you launch Xbox 360 console games from a Windows 8 PC and also includes a feature that can stream video to an Xbox 360. There doesn't appear to be a way to stream audio just yet, but Microsoft is clearly starting to position Windows 8 and Xbox as a way to compete against Apple's AirPlay feature.
Music and Videos are the default applications for audio and videos within Windows 8. If you are in the desktop mode on Consumer Preview and attempt to launch an audio or video file then the Metro versions of the players handle playback. The applications are built by Microsoft's Xbox team, and include a similar interface to that of the Xbox Live app. Snapping to the side allows you to continue playing a video while you work in another Metro or desktop application. Like Microsoft's communications apps, these are basic Metro equivalents of the Windows Media Player and we expect to see greater integration with Microsoft's Zune pass service by launch later this year.
Overall Windows 8 Consumer Preview feels like a much more finished product that its Developer Preview equivalent. Microsoft has clearly taken steps to address some criticism over its Metro fullscreen approach for PC users, and its various gestures make it easy to navigate the operating system regardless of touch. The Windows Store will provide the best look at Windows 8 and its app offerings and will be the key component to Microsoft’s success or failure with its "Windows reimagined" approach. The simplification throughout its app strategy, and Microsoft’s message to developers is fresh, and the Metro approach across three screens (Xbox, Windows Phone, Windows) is starting to become a reality rather than a promise. Microsoft now needs the full backing of its Windows developer community to bring Windows 8 to market. If what we have seen in the Consumer Preview is anything to go by then Microsoft’s Metro apps have a chance to redefine Windows as a whole. Microsoft has laid down its work and tools, and as Ballmer would say, it’s over to developers, developers, developers now.