Microsoft, masters of the Metro interface are bringing tiles and gestures to the desktop. The latest sneak peak at the new OS is now available for download, the Windows 8 Release Preview. Remember this is pre-release software, we recommend testing it on a spare machine. To return to Windows 7 you will need to format your machine, time to find your recovery or install disk.
After a remarkably painless setup process the Highpants sacrificial lamb of a laptop, a dual core ASUS 15.6, had sprung back to life with Microsoft’s best looking login / lock screen ever.
Metro has been with us on the Smartphone for a few years now, living in the shadows of iOS and Android, it has kept a relatively low profile. This is about to change.
Microsoft have gone back to the drawing board, studied monkeys in action, looked at the feedback and drawn some unusual conclusions. Take the address bar in IE10 Metro for example, moving to the bottom of the screen contradicts tradition but according to user acceptance testing is far more efficient and useable. We shall see if the monkey studies were correct.
If you’re the adventurous type download the preview and see for yourself Metro is here and is going to be huge. The full release is set for October, for those willing to wait. Bringing more human controls to Windows Microsoft is about to release a revolution on to the PC desktop.
The Metro Upgrade For Windows 7
The Metro Upgrade of Windows 7 goes much further than the window dressing upgrades of the past. Metro has been applied to every aspect of the users interaction with the operating system, interface and input devices have both to receive a major overhaul. Under the hood Windows 8 has also received a major upgrade; including native USB 3 support, IPv6 and device driver upgrades.
Have your Windows Live ID at the ready, Microsoft may have finally found a purpose for that Windows Live account sitting dormant. While Messenger may not be making a come-back Microsoft is embracing the cloud. Using your LiveID on multiple machines allows your settings to synchronize across all of your log-ins. Complete profile migration across many machines combined with integrated cloud storage via SkyDrive, Windows 8 signals a new generation of machine synchronizing.
This raises the interesting possibility of having multiple PC’s and tablets synced together along with your smartphone. With the full version of Office 15 coming to Android and iOS, continuity may finally become a reality.
New Log-in / Lock Screen
After installing Windows 8 the major changes are instantly obvious, the initial log-in / lock screen is by far the best looking log-in screen in history. Adopting many aspects of the Windows 7 Phone lock screen, with apps to display various bits of information and slick background graphics.
Picture log-in has been included, allowing the user to swipe a predefined pattern, the pattern is overlayed on top of your choice of picture, allowing the points to be key points on the photo.
The Start Screen, The Full Metro
After log-in the Start Screen with its tiles and real-time information is presented to the new user.
While it is easy to think of the tiles as icons they are actually more complex than that. The tiles are the application window, shrunk down and snapped together to form a colourful representation of your electronic life. Folding the start menu and application bar into a live display.
The tiled interface, the colourful squares of the Start Screen, provides a quick and extremely touch compatible way of working. This is the full Metro interface based part of Windows 8, with applications requiring optimization to be able to run in this new environment.
Full screen applications are a necessity on smartphones and tablets, with limited screen space the windowed environment never worked well. For the desktop full screen isn’t as essential, there is often room enough to run a few applications on screen at once, hence the genius of windows. While Windows 8 does emphasize full screen modes more than any previous Windows Metro hasn’t abandoned windows this completely, creating a new mode called Snapped Mode. Snapping apps allows multiple applications to share full screen mode with minor apps such as Messenger being snapped into a small one third sized tile in the corner of the main app running in full screen. This is an improvement on the Windows 7 function that allowed applications to be dragged to borders causing automatic split screen, apps side by side.
Social media integration is a major selling point for Windows 8, combining this singles stream of information with the real time display of the Start Screen makes social media far less work. All of your social media log-ins can be entered allowing Windows 8 to combine all of streams into one.
Semantic Zoom is a new feature for Windows 8 that allows the user to zoom out on the Start Screen so that all tiles fit on the display at once. Fully zoomed out the tiles are tiny allowing for an easy way to organize your Start Screen.
Multi-monitor setups are put to work with Windows 8,the Start Screen can be displayed on one monitor while the traditional desktop is displayed on the other monitor. This has already been put to incredible use by the double sided display laptop at Computex this week. With the Metro interface on the outer display and the desktop available when the laptop is open. A very eye catching laptop concept and great example of the Windows 8 in action.
Like the difference between data and information, Windows is going through the same paradigm shift. Simply switching between the Start Screen and Desktop mode shows this shift in action. While the Start Screen shows data grouped and displayed in meaningful ways, turning data into information, the Desktop on the other hand is all about applications for working with data.
Gestures and Input Devices
Gestures have finally arrived in Windows. Windows 8 is bringing the brave new world of gestures to the Windows platform, taking it further than either Android or iOS ever have.
Microsoft have obviously been testing Windows 8 on large touch screens such as their Surface, the gestures are logical and almost appear to be a new kind of sign language. Different gestures combining to form complex actions, families of gestures that start the same and vary on the ending to create slight variations. Switching which app is in full screen starts the same but ends at the app selected, Slide an app to the bottom of the screen to close it.
The only obvious downside to the gestures is the requirement for touch input. The adaptation of gestures to the laptop touchpad allows Windows 8 to adapt surprisingly well to everyday laptops. Microsoft haven’t left the humble PC desktop high and dry either, in a mouse and keyboard environment edge zones become mouse pointer aware, sliding into sight when the mouse approaches. The corners of the screen become the main points of action for mouse users, gesturers will spend most of their time on the edges.
An important advancement for laptops without touch screens, the gestures can be executed on the touch pad, pinch to zoom, two finger scroll and most importantly edge swiping to access system and app commands. Swiping gestures from the left edge to control your active app or right for the system. Apps can be dragged and dropped to the bottom of the screen for a fast exit.
Much is being made of the reliance of Windows 8 on touch and the hardware requirements this brings with it. A problem solved by including a USB touchpad with each copy of Windows Pro. Microsoft also has a mouse and touchpad all in one, the 580, a very sleek solution with a touch surface on the front of the mouse where the buttons would normally be.
The new interface works surprisingly well with a keyboard and mouse only environment, the secret for mouse users is to simply do the gestures with the mouse, a slight learning curve for a traditional mouse users potentially. Keyboard users will be glad to have the windows 7 keyboard shortcuts at hand, the Start Screen is also very keyboard friendly.
The adaption of a touch input device such as the previously mentioned touch pad, of which Logitech has an excellent example, brings the interface to life and completely changes the way you work with your computer. Desktop PC users who want to get the most out of Windows 8 on a Desktop PC would be wise to invest in a touchpad of some description.
While touch and gestures get all the headlines Windows 8 has seen a major overhaul of the input device drivers and how they work with windows. Required to make Windows gesture aware the improvements extend to other input devices as well. The humble Stylus may see a return with the full Metro touch system available via stylus.
Looking at Windows 8 from an input device perspective, if mouse is your primary device, life is a little clumsier, keyboard, touchpad, stylus and touch screen users are big winners.
When it comes to computers, applications are the cornerstone of everything we do. Windows 8 will be no different. While Windows 7 and 8 are quite similar from a code standpoint but the immense changes in the interface necessitate rewriting applications, the existing Windows 7 application library will need to be upgraded one app at a time. Backwards compatibility is offered through the Windows 8 Desktop but for apps to run in Metro mode a re-write will be required.
There are many upgrade options for programmers starting to work with Windows 8. Apps can be kept desktop and window based, with only a basic Metro upgrade or they can be fully Metro upgraded to run from the Start Screen. It will be interesting to see how far developers take the Metro interface.
The Windows 8 Start Screen allows almost any kind of program code to be considered an application. Everything from Powershell DOS scripts to stand alone Java can be handled by the tiles. Even content that has traditionally been considered a web page on the PC can now be an application, and it may turn out to be a very good thing. All of the usual suspects are expected to quickly appear, Facebook, Twitter even Steam has been highly requested. Freeing all of our favourite social media apps from the clutches of Chrome and Firefox.
Another Smartphone inspired evolution is occurring within Windows 8 apps, the app store. This branch in the evolutionary tree is about to completely change how we think about and download apps, and hopefully how much we pay. The app store was definitely one of the most important contributions to our computing lives by the humble smartphones.
The traditional integrated apps are a little thin on the ground at the moment, even the classics like Paint are missing in action. The desktop classics aren’t expected to appear until the final release, all are being re-written to fully take advantage of Metro. The default apps that are present include Maps, People, Sport, News and Weather. The Weather app is possibly one of the best looking Weather apps on the market. Most of these default apps are part of the new generation of info apps, Bing apps that bringing together information on your favourite team, or weather in your location, web integrated with highly polished look and feel.
Metro Mail integrates Calendar and allows for multiple accounts but it most definitely not Outlook. SkyDrive integration is cleverly put to use, allowing large files to be sent via SkyDrive’s cloud storage instead of as an attachment through your webserver.
Metro Internet Explorer 10 integrates Flash directly, in a similar way to Chrome, built in not plugged in. The address bar has shifted to the bottom of the screen and the interface is now pure Metro. The People app is the centralized contact database with social media connections. Specific people can be pinned to your start screen allowing all of their social media feeds to appear in the one real time stream. The Xbox Game and Companion apps connect the desktop to you console life, pulling Xbox content onto the desktop for a little X-Box gaming on your PC desktop. The music app provides player and store front functions, the store is still quite simple but useable.
It is very early days for Windows 8 applications, one of the biggest unknown factors for Windows 8 and one of the keys to its success are the applications. Developers are said to be beavering away behind closed doors preparing applications.
The Tradition Desktop Hasn’t Gone Untouched.
Microsoft is including an upgraded desktop within Windows 8. Thee desktop is now Metro aware and responds to the various new input styles like the were a natural fit. Edge swipes and task switching gestures operating the same on the desktop as they do on the Start Screen. The Windows 7 start button is essentially gone, with the corners being the hotspots for mice and the edges for touch devices.
The desktop as it appears in the Windows 8 Preview is the least completed section of the new OS. Much of the gloss that Microsoft has in store for the desktop has been held back from the preview and won’t be seen until the final product is released. This is only a glimpse of what is to come. The Metro upgrades to the desktop are in place, allowing the Desktop to work with touch, tablets especially. Even the Windows 8 desktop is now touch friendly.
Ironically it was the fact that traditional windows was so terrible at touch, that led Microsoft to create Metro and Windows 7 Phone edition, the first Metro. Which now appears to have healed the rift between the desktop and touch. The long way round for sure but it seems to work well, now the only question is did they fix it one day too late, is the desktop still relevant?
In a purely keyboard and mouse driven environment Metro still maintains the gesture functionality, with the essential edge regions of the screens activated by mouse hovers. All of windows 7’s keyboard shortcut keys are present. Windows 8 may be the best keyboard OS since DOS. The live tile environment takes only a few key strokes to navigate from end to end, Fast page up and downs combined with arrow keys makes skipping the tiles a breeze.
Cross platform and Versions
Two platforms will be catered for initially by Windows 8, Windows 8 Desktop for Intel and AMD (x86), the smartphone and tablet version (ARM) will be designated Windows RT (Real-Time). This is one of Microsoft’s aces, a completely identical interface across platforms. This combined with the cloud based synchronizing makes a compelling case for Windows. Even Apple dreams of this level of integration.
Four versions of Windows 8 Desktop have been officially announced, Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro for retail sale, Windows 8 Enterprise available to the commercial world of the corporate desktops and Windows 8 RT (Real-Time) for ARM Smartphones and Tablets.
The Preview edition of Windows has a complete lack of tutorials and mostly incomplete help files so there may be a tough learning curve for the unprepared, have the web handy at all times when experimenting. Hopefully Microsoft will include plenty of tutorials in the final Windows 8 build, fully learning to use gestures may be a bit of a steep learning curve for many.
Touch and gestures may be taking over the world but here at Highpants we don’t think the keyboard is going anywhere but the mouse should be worried. If USB Touchpads become a common sight sitting next to Desktop PCs the mouse may well be an endangered species.
Expected to be released October 2012 Microsoft still has a few months to continue to fine tune their desktop revolution. While there are still a few stability issues with the Preview it is fast and very slick even on basic laptop hardware.
Windows 8 is far more than Metro window dressing over the top of Windows 7. Metro changes the whole analogy. Representing the first real new way of working with a computer since Xerox invented the desktop and mouse some 40 years ago. This is the first real Minority Report style interface that actually works in the real world.
Windows 8 will see Microsoft complete it’s Metro revolution, a long road has been traveled, the best has been saved for last and Microsoft can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Rest assured Windows 8 is going to be huge, just as Smartphones have taken over the mobile phone world Metro will rule on the desktop.
Related Article: Watching Elephants Learn To Dance, An Introduction To Metro.
Reference: Windows 8 Desktop Preview Download
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