Microsoft may have had considerable success with Windows 7, but now the wheels have turned and Windows 8 is nearly upon us.
In keeping with previous OS launches, Microsoft have launched a freely downloadable beta of Windows 8, labelled The Windows 8 Consumer Preview Edition which is intended to allow users to get an early taste for Microsoft's latest operating system, and to report any usability issues and/or bugs back to Microsoft ahead of an official launch.
After a week's use, here's my verdict.
LOOK AND FEEL
Even though my initial impressions was that the Windows 8 user interface had been designed by a five-year-old with 5 minutes to spare and a box of Crayola's, after a week's use, I was hooked. Whilst I had to spend time un-learning the multitude of habits picked up over successive Windows iterations, Windows 8 felt fresh, and above all, zippy.
The Windows 8 home screen consists of a set of blocky coloured tiles that represent applications including email, messaging, web browser, and photos. These tiles are 'live' in that they'll provide an at a glance update for any system or application notifications. Touching (or clicking) a tile opens the application it represents.
If you're the proud owner of a Windows Phone 7 device, Windows 8 should be instantly familiar owing to the Metro interface's smartphone heritage. This said, for those wanting to use existing Windows applications, there is still traditional windows accessible via the home screen which looks very Windows 7-like, but has no Start menu.
Another noticeable difference was that Metro applications have an almost zen-like minimalist feel that fills the entire screen. I found interacting with these a tad confusing, but this was merely due to my inherited windows bias as the controls and menus I'd long been used to were absent, and using 'charms' (Windows 8 speak for context-sensitive menus that pop-up from the bottom of the screen) took some getting used to.
After a week with Windows 8, perhaps the biggest question in my mind is how well will it be received by the chequebook carrying public? Where all previous versions of Windows represented a refinement of the preceding system, Microsoft have embarked on what can only be called a radical re-design. People can be finicky, and more importantly still, resistant to change. Hopefully they'll choose to stay with Windows 8 because doing so will reward persistence.
Like any sceptic, I had to confess to being somewhat cynical. If history has taught me anything about new operating systems, it is this: New screen candy means more processes, and yet more bloat which in turn ties up system resources. In short I wasn't expecting Windows 8 to break any speed records, even though I had installed it on a fairly beefy PC.
Microsoft has talked up Windows 8 as having even better performance than Windows 7, and whilst I was dubious of this, at the end of the day, Windows 8 consumer edition delivered the goods by being both responsive and booting up at a breakneck speed, even though it was a beta and still rough around the edges.
Windows 8 is built from the ground up to be touch friendly and although I was not able to access any of its touch capabilities, it was readily apparent that its touch-based functionality has the potential to shine when run on the right hardware. Gestures such as pinch to zoom or copy and paste exist, and swiping from the right edge of the screen (or in my case pressing Win + C) saw the charms bar materialise, which bought a wealth of other options to bear along similar lines to right clicking under previous iterations of Windows.
Like Windows 7, there are several nifty tricks for apps sharing on screen real estate. Application windows can be docked to the left or right side of the screen, which is a boon for drag and drop file copying and a seriously useful feature should you want to keep an eye on email whilst playing a game or other tasks.
One of the standout features of Windows 8 is The Windows Store which closely resembles the Windows 8 home screen, in that it also has live tiles which correspond to different categories and featured apps. More detailed lists of available apps are available for drilling down to find that particular app. The store felt a little sparse, but as Windows 8 has yet to officially launch, this wasn't a big surprise. The Windows 8 app store also sports a try before you buy feature should you want to check out an app before pulling out a credit card.
With the cloud being the tech buzzword of the moment, it is unsurprisingly a big part of Windows 8. Data from address books, photos and even Windows 8 user preferences, are synced up to the cloud, accessible via a Microsoft Live account. This handily means that data should in theory be available on any Windows 8 powered hardware and even possibly Windows 7.5 smartphones or even the Xbox360 depending on future dashboard upgrades. Windows 8 users can also sync settings from one Windows 8 PC to another, which could see new PC purchases become considerably more pain free in the near future.