Like Apple's latest attempt at a desktop OS, Windows 8 borrows largely from its mobile kin, Window Phone 7, bringing its signature live tiles to tablets and PCs, and from what we've seen it does so effortlessly. Before we go ruining a good thing, however, we have to point out that this isn't everything Windows has to offer -- it's still a developers preview (and in turn, an OS under construction), and the device it's running on hasn't been approved as an official Windows 8 slate. Got all that? Good. Read on for our first impressions!
Windows 8 for tablets hands-on previewSee all photos
Metro style UI
You'll hear the words "Metro-style" almost endlessly surrounding the release of Windows 8. Live tiles, hidden menus and controls, large, flashy graphics, bold white type, multi-touch gestures: these are the characteristics that set the OS apart from its predecessor and, to some degree, from its competitors. You won't see any of the old, static Windows here, unless of course you choose to -- the desktop that you've grown used to in Windows 7 is still present, albeit as an app, but more on that later. If you're familiar with Windows Phone 7, the user experience should be pretty familiar, but not entirely so.
Test hardware and performanceWe know you're curious, so here's the deal. Our test mule was none other than Samsung's Series 7 Slate PC -- the same rig that we first spotted merely days ago. The difference, of course, is the OS. This one's rocking Windows 8 (and dubbed a "developer PC"), whereas the preview shown at the tail-end of August was boasting Windows 7. We couldn't share the inner secrets of the test hardware while the opening Build keynote was ongoing, but now that it's wrapped, we're in the clear.
The Series 7 sports a 400 nit, 11.6-inch capacitive panel (1366 x 768 resolution), Intel's 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU with integrated graphics, a 64GB SSD and 4GB of RAM. On the front there's a 2 megapixel camera and a light sensor, and around the back sits a 3 megapixel shooter. Connectivity comes courtesy of 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, plus there's a USB 2.0 port and a micro HDMI socket.
No matter how you slice it, that's a lot of horsepower for a slate. We can't be certain that every Win8 tablet will boast the same level of oomph once these begin hitting the market at some point next year (right, Microsoft?), but we're downright enamored with how well a full-on desktop OS ran with this hardware. All told, it was a remarkably smooth experience, save for a few seconds of lag found when launching more complex applications. But it's important to remember what's going on here; unlike the iPad or insert-your-favorite-Android-slate-here, this is a full operating system, and the fact that it's smooth on any level with this hardware behind it is a feat worthy of laud.
We wouldn't say the entire experience was as smooth and universally responsive as what we've come to expect on the iPad 2, but the iPad can't launch a full copy of Excel (for better or worse). Microsoft has managed to trim the fat surrounding Win8 in order for it to run shockingly well on a tablet, and there's no question that the coders in Redmond have gone to great lengths in order to make it work as beautifully as it does. By the time NVIDIA's Tegra 4 and power-sipping hexacore CPUs hit the tablet market, Windows 8 ought to scream -- in the palm of your hand or otherwise.
CustomizationTwo major components of the Metro UI are touch and personalization, both of which become obvious at login. Users can select a personalized lock screen as well as choosing between three login methods: standard password, PIN, or picture password. The last of which allows you to chose a photo from any of your various photo deposits, including a myriad apps and cloud storage spaces, and then apply three touch gestures to authenticate that you are indeed the master of your machine. We zipped through this process, poking the eyes of a precious pit bull to get to the start screen. This start page is exactly what it sounds like -- it's the starting point for absolutely everything you do, and it's likewise skinned to fit your every whim and fancy.
Live tiles are carried over here from Windows Phone 7, showing you real time updates for various apps of your choosing. Currently those apps are limited to a handful of intern-generated test options, but real deal offerings will be in effect by the time the app store goes live -- whenever that is. Unlike the mobile OS, navigation here is a left-to-right affair, as oppose to up and down, and is indeed as snappy as we've been lead to believe. Though we did have some slow moving launch times in a couple of the heavier apps, navigation was never sluggish.
Touch GesturesOne thing becomes abundantly clear when you're zipping through those customizable live tiles: Microsoft is banking on touch screens. The outfit's execs weren't shy on that point at yesterday's press preview, going so far as to say that "a monitor without touch feels dead," but the proof is in the pudding. Fortunately, most of the touch gestures are perfectly responsive; simple swipes left and right allowed for quick scrolling, a swipe from the right edge of the screen pulled up the appropriate navigation menu, and a gentle tap and pull on any given tile selected it for customization, but there was one gesture we never managed to master. Live tiles are supposed to be easily reorganized, and they are, but so are their selected groupings. A simple pinch-to-zoom technique should bring up a simplified overview of the entire start page, allowing you to rename and customize groupings. However, no amount of pinching or prodding could get our prototype to fall in line, thus our tile teams went unnamed.
KeyboardsBecause not every PC has a touch screen quite yet, we've been told you can use the conventional keyboard and mouse to make your way through the new UI. While we weren't able to get our hands on a compatible mouse in time for this write up, we did give the Series 7's keyboard a spin, and, much as we experienced in our first hands-on with the device, it got the job done. But Windows 8 is clearly a touchy-feely OS, and its various ways of getting text on the page are a testament to that. There are three different methods for text input: two touch keyboards and handwriting. We were amazed that throwing down our signature chicken scratch actually proved fruitful, but handwriting on any computer still seems counterintuitive. The other two keyboards were responsive, and the layout was as good as any we'd seen.
Like we said before, swiping from the left side on any screen pulls up a navigation menu that serves the same general purpose as the more traditional start menu. Along that right edge reside a series of five "charms," as they've been unfortunately named: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. We won't to go into detail on all of these, but there are a couple of things worth pointing out here. First, these charms are always hiding along that edge, no matter where you are in your experience, be it scrolling through your RSS feed for the latest on Beyonce's baby bump or scribbling naughty what-nots on your Ink Pad. Second, the search function not only allows you to search the contents of your computer, but also select apps. Finally, if you're in an app that has it activated, you can use the share charm to Tweet your latest Facebook update, or Facebook your favorite recipe. It's another point at which it becomes apparent that this is a desktop OS with a mobile mind.
Full-screen appsAt the center of this new, more design-friendly OS are full screen apps, part of a more humble user interface, according to Microsoft, but more likely part of a greater trend. We've already seen Apple give you the option in Lion, but Windows 8 takes the dedication a step further, ensuring that all Metro UI apps get maximum real estate. As on the start page, swiping from any of the four edges pulls up menus and options. If you swipe from the left, you can navigate through other open apps, even snapping them in place for a split-screen view. The right side contains the hidden charms, while the bottom and top are reserved for app-specific controls.
Metro Style Internet Explorer 10
That full-screen experience is carried over into the browser, which also gets the Metro treatment, giving you unencumbered viewing of whatever it is you look at on the internet. Frankly, we've never been put out by scroll bars, tabs, or URLs, but it seems nothing is untouched by Windows 8's new Metro wand. And, truth be told, after doing without for a while, we're not entirely sure we miss all the added distractions.
DesktopAs far as Microsoft has come with its latest OS, there's no denying its roots, and, honestly, we can't imagine that "Metro" will catch on with the enterprise sect -- at least not soon. Redmond's made it clear that "everything that runs on Windows 7 runs on Windows 8," which is true, but we can't help but feel like it's gone just a little too far with all of this Metro business. The normal desktop view, which will play host to your more serious applications like Excel and Photoshop, is treated just like your Twitter client and RSS feed. It's an app like any other on the Start page, but in reality it's an entirely different user interface. Yes, touch and stylus controls are the same, and there are a few style cues carried over from the Metro UI, but tap on that desktop icon and you're served with a healthy helping of OS déjà vu.
With the introduction of OS X Lion, Apple gave us a glimpse at what a post-PC operating system might look like, and now Microsoft's gone and pushed that idea to the limit. If Cupertino's latest was a tease, than Windows 8 is full frontal. And we have to admit, we like what we see. Sure this may not be the final build, or anywhere near it, but for whatever flaws it may have, the UI being offered in this developer preview is really something special. Time will tell if the "one ecosystem to rule them all" approach will catch on, but for now it's time to give props where props are due -- at least until we can get our hands on a final build.
Update: See our Windows 8 preview on a laptop right here!