Windows 8 – First Impression

I.Doubt.It - installing untried, unstable software so that you don't have to. Not that you ever had to.

It’s like being a year into the future – probably more, the way these things tend to go. I’m writing this on a computer running Windows 8, the OS that is meant to get Microsoft back to the forefront of personal computing. On Windows 8, the complex and resource-hungry operating system of the past will be pushed into the back seat. The front end of your PC is going to be more like a… well, more like an iPad. More like a phone, or other lightweight browsing device. The main “Metro” interface is attractively tiled with little apps to do the little things you probably spend the larger part of your time doing. A basic browser, games, Twitter client, news feed reader, Facebook app, that sort of thing.

I have to preface my remarks with a caveat: It is not a fair test by any means. This is what Microsoft calls a Developer Preview, and it’s being released now, long before its ready even for beta testing, to give programmers a better idea of the forthcoming look and feel. Nonetheless I can start with unreservedly good news. This really does seem to be the lightest that Windows has been for some time. The spec of this computer is dated (1.2 GHz single core processor and 1.5 GB of memory), merely adequate for XP, yet XP’s great-granddaughter seems to run as well if not better. In the past I’ve used this or fairly similar hardware to test the betas of both Vista and Windows 7, but this pre-beta is more immediately impressive than either.

There aren’t a lot of other obvious changes from 7; perhaps the most notable is that the “ribbon” from Office is now in Windows Explorer. Version 10 of IE on the other hand is refreshingly clean and simple – and frighteningly fast. But of course we’re mainly here to get to grips with that weird new interface. Microsoft says it requires a multi-touch screen, but I’ve been getting by with pen input or just a mouse – Metro provides a scrollbar when needed. Presumably there are multi-touch gestures I’m missing out on. Indeed my first impression was that some such two-fingered salute must be a vital part of the interface, because for the life of me I could find no way to get those cool little apps to shut once I’d opened them.

That was when l discovered perhaps the strangest aspect of the future Windows: These apps are not meant to close. They stay suspended in the background, ready to spring back to life from wherever you left off. Which means of course that they use memory while they’re suspended, and I wonder how much they will be allowed to squander before something is done about it. Presumably the oldest will eventually be shoved onto the hard disk. If you’re desperate for memory right now you can kill them from a new-look Task Manager, but that seems a bit ad hoc.

To use the new “Metro” interface, you need to discover a couple of gesture controls that might not be immediately obvious: A stroke from either the top or bottom (with the mouse, a right-click) brings up a sort of context menu / taskbar in any app. A stroke inwards from the left edge (or touching the edge with the mouse) swaps between the two most recently-used apps – one of which can be the desktop – and most important of all, a stroke from the right (or bringing the mouse to the bottom left corner) opens the replacement for the old Start Menu. This though could hardly be more different. It holds just five icons, the main one returning you to the tiled Metro interface – which of course is the real replacement for much of the Start Menu’s functionality. Here you will find shortcuts to “traditional” application programs as well as the new apps.

Weirdly though, I found the lightweight Metro interface a little sluggish and unresponsive compared to Windows 8 proper. Pen input, smooth as silk otherwise (I’m writing this using the handwriting recognition and it works astonishingly well) is jerky in apps. Perhaps it makes too much demand on my Centrino-era graphics hardware. But if it’s still a little rough, it’s also surprisingly usable and interestingly different. Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you how to start using Windows 8 yourself.

5 thoughts on “Windows 8 – First Impression

  1. Cool write-up. As for not closing apps. I think OS’s are finally evolving something they ought to have in principle: memory management being something that’s not something the user should bother with, but something the OS deals with on it own.

    Think about it: When running multiple applications, do you apportion CPU time? Nope, the scheduler does that, as it damn well should. Same should go for memory.

    Windows 8 is heading the same direction as OS X Lion is, and they’re both aiming to land where iOS basically already is: There is (almost) no difference between starting an application and task-switching to a running application. And thinking about it, philosophically: why should there be?

    Basically: A user shouldn’t worry about the state of an application. Is it a running process? Do processes still need to be started up? How about threads? Why should I care? I just want it to be there when I click on the icon and it frankly shouldn’t matter whether it’s just resuming a suspended process or starting up a brand new one.

  2. Cool write-up. As for not closing apps. I think OS’s are finally evolving something they ought to have in principle: memory management being something that’s not something the user should bother with, but something the OS deals with on it own.

    Think about it: When running multiple applications, do you apportion CPU time? Nope, the scheduler does that, as it damn well should. Same should go for memory.

    Windows 8 is heading the same direction as OS X Lion is, and they’re both aiming to land where iOS basically already is: There is (almost) no difference between starting an application and task-switching to a running application. And thinking about it, philosophically: why should there be?

    Basically: A user shouldn’t worry about the state of an application. Is it a running process? Do processes still need to be started up? How about threads? Why should I care? I just want it to be there when I click on the icon and it frankly shouldn’t matter whether it’s just resuming a suspended process or starting up a brand new one.

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