The early days of Windows were inauspicious ones. Sitting on top of DOS, it was hardly a revolution in personal computing -- instead it felt like a disjointed platform perched uncomfortably atop a command prompt, ready to come crashing down at any moment. That's what it was, and often that's what it did. The early days of Windows required constant jumps from GUI to shell as users ran a wide assortment of apps, only some of which played nice inside a window.

It was over a decade later, after Windows 95, that the operating system would truly ditch its DOS underpinnings and feel like a totally integrated system. Why are we reminiscing? Because we're reaching that same point again. With the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft is showing off the most complete version of the company's most modern operating system, yet in many ways it feels like 1985 all over again -- like there are two separate systems here struggling to co-exist. How well do they get along? Join us after the break to find out.
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Windows 8 Consumer Preview


The setup


Since you'll surely be wondering, let's run down exactly what we're working with here. This is the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, build 8250 -- for the moment, the latest and greatest version of the latest and (arguably) greatest version of Windows yet.

The hardware isn't so important here, but just the same our build is running on a Samsung developer tablet outfitted with a 1.6GHz Intel Core-i5 processor and 4GB of RAM. Yes, this is an x86 tablet running the non-ARM version of Windows, so it has full backwards compatibility with all the legacy apps Windows users have come to know and love over the years.

We alternated between using the tablet handheld, relying on its 1366 x 768 capacitive touchscreen, and sitting in its dock, where we instead turned on a Bluetooth keyboard and a wireless mouse. So, we had a good mix of general tablet use as well as a more desktop-like experience, and our impressions here will cover both. Also, we'll refrain from giving detailed performance figures, as it's still far too early for that -- though we will say we were quite impressed by the boot time (10 seconds, cold) and the overall responsiveness of things.

The basics


If you're completely unfamiliar with Windows 8, you might want to take a moment to engross yourself into our deliciously comprehensive look at the Developers Preview on a laptop, or our impressions of the same on a tablet. To get you up to speed quickly, Windows 8 marks the biggest change to the OS since the aforementioned 95 flavor (which, shockingly, turns 17 this year). There are a huge number of changes, and these are just a few of the highlights.

With Windows 8 comes the introduction of a Metro-style interface, inspired by the lovely and intuitive presentation found in Windows Phone. In it, apps and functions are pinned to tiles and, to interact with those apps, you simply tap those tiles. The former Start Menu has been replaced by a full-screen view of tiles that you can scroll through horizontally. You can pin applications, shortcuts, documents, webpages and any number of other things, customizing the interface in any way you like -- so long as what you like is rectangular and only extends from left to right. (Perhaps Windows 9 will take a hint from GridOS and extend vertically as well.)

Power users in Windows 8 will be Alt+tabbing far more than ever once Metro apps start taking over the Store.

Additionally, developers can choose to create Metro-specific apps. These can't be run in a traditional, resizeable window as they're intended to be run full-screen, though they can be tacked on to either the left or right of the display, where they'll take up roughly one quarter of available pixel real estate. The lack of windowing greatly simplifies development of these apps, but it also puts a bit of a governor on GUI multi-tasking -- power users here will be Alt+tabbing far more than ever once Metro apps start taking over the Store.

Thankfully, Microsoft has introduced a series of gestures and keyboard shortcuts to help alleviate some of that frustration and give those more intense users the means they'll need to stay in control. Let's take a look at some of them.

The gestures


There are a whole suite of special swipes and taps at your disposal, trying to make up for a general lack of visual indicators. With earlier versions of Windows, everything that needed clicking or attention was usually easy to pick out -- buttons were raised, window edges were highlighted, you get the picture. With Windows 8 a lot of that goes out the window and you're left having to know your way around a bit better. The gestures help to make up for that, though you'll need to learn them. And, yes, each one has a mousy equivalent for those averse to smudges. Here are a few highlights.

Right bezel: charms


Hidden off the right of the screen is a set of so-called charms, which give quick access to a high-level set of system commands. From the top they are:
  • Search - Opens up the searching interface.
  • Share - Brings up a list of applications capable of sharing whatever this app is offering.
  • Start - Takes you back to the Start interface. This is conveniently located right in the middle, where your thumb would presumably be.
  • Devices - Gives you a list of all connected devices.
  • Settings - Brings up a high-level list of settings. This is nowhere near as comprehensive as what you can get through the Control Panel, but it is much easier to get to and to parse.
To load up the list of charms, just swipe a finger in from the right bezel. With the mouse, throw the cursor in the upper- or lower-right corner.

Bottom and top bezels: commands


Hiding just off the top and bottom are app-specific commands. For example, the URL bar in the Metro-flavored Internet Explorer sits off the bottom of the screen and the list of tabs is off the top. Drag a finger in from either side to make them appear, or right-click with the mouse.

Left bezel: multitasking

This is the place you'll be reaching for quite often if you're a heavy multitasker. Drag in from the left and your last used app will appear in a small window. Drag it all the way over and it pops to take up the full screen. Drag it only part of the way, though, and it docks onto the left quarter of the display. (You can also drag it over and have it take up the right side of the screen.) Drag out and back and you'll get a list of your most recent apps, and you can select any of them with a tap.

With the mouse it's a little different, but start in the upper-left and you'll see the most recent app. Drag down from there and the list of other apps appears. From here you can just click the one you want, or drag it around if you'd rather.

Start button


With this version of Windows Microsoft has killed off the Start button, and there's no way to get it back.

Okay, so pressing a hardware button isn't exactly a gesture, but if you have a Windows 8 tablet it will have a physical Start button beneath the display. Pressing this brings up the full-screen Start menu. For the mouse you might be thinking the equivalent would be to just click the on-screen Start button that has resided in the lower-left since Windows 95 -- but you'd be wrong. With this version of Windows Microsoft has killed off that button, and there's no way to get it back. Instead, you need to drag down to the lower-left corner of the screen, where that button used to live, and click.

This is probably the most befuddling change in this version of Windows. Even when you get down to the raw Windows desktop there's no graphical Start button to be found on the screen, just the hidden hot-spot waiting for your hovering cursor. You can of course use the Start key on the keyboard (officially called the "Windows logo key"), but we can imagine some novice users on a laptop or desktop dropping down to the desktop view to run some app or another and having absolutely no idea how to get back.

The keyboard shortcuts


Don't worry, mouse-hating power users: Microsoft hasn't forgotten about you.

Don't worry, mouse-hating power users: Microsoft hasn't forgotten about you. Windows 8 features a suite of keyboard shortcuts -- some familiar, others that make the Windows logo key a little more powerful than before. There are hundreds of the things, but here are a few notable highlights.
  • Windows + arrow keys - This combination, with the left and right arrow keys, moves Metro-style apps into their left or right docked positions. For Windows desktop apps, they do what they do in Windows 7 -- popping over to the left or right half of the screen. Up maximizes, down minimizes.
  • Windows + C - This brings up the charms bar. You can also replace C with I, K or H to pop straight to the Settings, Connect or Share charms.
  • Windows + Tab - This toggles between applications, and in this case the Windows desktop is counted as an application. This differs between the classic Alt + Tab, which still works here, tabbing between each individual window on the desktop and the Metro-style apps.
  • Windows + PrtScn - This captures a PNG of the current screen and saves it in your Pictures directory. As you can imagine, we used this one quite a bit.

Xbox integration

Xbox Live is one of the most prominent pins in the new Start menu.

The Xbox 360 has been an undeniable slam dunk success for Microsoft, so it's natural that we'd see it making an appearance in the company's latest OS. Indeed, Xbox Live is one of the most prominent pins in the new Start menu, and once tapped you'll be prompted to sign in to your account.

After a few moments of pondering, the machine will display all your gaming habits in a presentation that's not too dissimilar to the one found on the console. Even your avatar will strut his (or her) smug little self across your screen, dressed as you remember them, and you can indeed make costume changes here -- they'll show up back on your console momentarily.

But that's just fluff. The real interesting bit comes when you start navigating through your recently played games and accessed Xbox apps. You can launch those titles directly from your Windows 8 device and, once they're up, even control them -- though there are naturally a number of restrictions.


To begin with, your controls are limited to up / down / left / right and you only have access to the four face buttons, so you can really only navigate through menus and make selections. That's just fine for cruising through the Netflix app -- less so for a round of MW3. You also are naturally limited to launching games that are downloaded to the console or are printed on a disc that's sitting in the console's tray. Sadly, Windows 8 will not get off the couch and put in a new game for you.

The interface here is a bit clunky and sluggish; we'd definitely prefer reaching for a controller or a Harmony remote or the like, but the potential is quite intriguing. We'd love to see the Netflix integration taken a step further, for example, where you choose your movie on the tablet and it plays on the console. And we can't help dreaming of Wii U-like console / tablet harmony as well, with games played on both the slate and the screen, but perhaps that's just a bit optimistic.

The apps
Windows 8 naturally includes a suite of apps to make it more than the foundation of an operating system. This is no different than previous versions of Windows, but these provided apps are, by and large, Metro-themed and well-integrated to the new Start menu. In other words, they help encourage that feeling of excitement about our tiled future-- or of dread if you're the sort who is going to be dragged kicking and screaming away from your desktop.

Mail, People and Messenger

The Mail and People apps quickly tie to your chosen email and social networks, pulling in contacts and updates and letting you push your own out there. There's also the Messaging app, which connects to Microsoft's own Messenger service and Facebook as well.

SkyDrive and sharing


SkyDrive is effectively Microsoft's version of iCloud, and while it's a little more manual it's also potentially more powerful.

SkyDrive makes uploading and downloading files from one machine to another very easy. First launched in 2007, this is effectively Microsoft's version of iCloud, and while it's a little more manual it's also potentially more powerful. You can push files of nearly any type up to your cloud account, even marking them as public for sharing. That said, you'll need to explicitly select which files are uploaded and where they go.

Microsoft is exposing SkyDrive to developers so that future apps can tie directly in to it. In fact, in true MS fashion, the best parts of the operating system are completely open to interaction by developers. For example, there's the Share charm on the right, which enables the quick and easy sharing of content from one app to another.

You can, for example, share a photo with the Mail app, which emails it as an attachment. Share a page from IE, though, and it includes it as a link. That, of course, is just the beginning, with Microsoft exposing hooks so that third-party apps can not only share their content, but also accept the shared content of other apps. This is a stark contrast to OS X Mountain Lion, where Apple is tightly controlling which apps will be doing the sharing -- and the receiving.

Internet Explorer 10 and Internet Explorer 10

The Metro-styled Internet Explorer 10 is a huge part of the OS, where "every pixel of the page" is presented for viewing. In other words, there's no chrome, no UI at all until you swipe in from the top or bottom bezel to reveal some controls. It is, then, much like other tablet browsers.

You have two wholly independent versions of IE 10 sitting here, a situation that is endemic to this version of Windows 8 as a whole.

There is, however, another version of Internet Explorer 10 waiting for you on the Desktop. This one looks like versions of IE of yore and is wholly disconnected from the Metro version. Bookmarks are not shared, cookies and passwords are not shared, nothing is shared -- sign in to Twitter on one and you'll have to do it again on the second one. Run them both and they'll show as separate entries in the new Task Manager. You have two wholly independent versions of IE 10 installed here, a situation that is endemic to this version of Windows 8 as a whole.

The overall experience

Disjointed is the key word that comes to mind after you spend some time with Windows 8. As a tablet OS, if you can keep in Metro land, things feel good. Very good. The gestures are a bit more complex and less intuitive than we've seen on other tablet operating systems, but more savvy users will appreciate that. That said, Windows is still primarily a desktop operating system, and once you get to that level the cracks in the foundation start to show.

Jumping back-and-forth between Metro and desktop is hugely disorienting and, at least in the early days of Windows 8, you'll be doing a lot of that. The simple task of switching between apps using the mouse has become painful. In Windows 7 it's just a matter of clicking in the task bar on the icon of the one you want. Now, if it's a Metro app you want back it's a matter of going to the upper-left corner, then dragging down and trying to figure out which of the little pop-up windows is the one you want. Meanwhile, desktop-style apps are listed along the task bar on the bottom as before.

It feels like Windows 8 wants you to run everything maximized, and that is going to be a problem for heavy multi-taskers who are used to a traditional windowed environment.

You can of course dock those Metro apps to the left or the right side of the screen, and multiple monitors are very much supported as you'd expect, but it feels like Windows 8 wants you to run everything maximized. That is going to be a problem for heavy multi-taskers who are used to a traditional windowed environment. The idea is to stack and arrange windows exactly how you want them, then click quickly between them with the mouse. You simply can't do that here, and that feels like a step backwards.

Take Winamp, for example. It's an old-school app but an enormously popular one nonetheless, and something you'll often see hanging out at the top of people's screens -- shrunk down so it only takes a few pixels of vertical space, but always on top of every other window so you can see what is currently playing. You can set that up here, too, but once you hop into a Metro app Winamp -- and everything else running on the desktop -- disappears.


Wrap-up


We really liked Windows 7 when it launched. It felt like a big step forward in the short time that had passed since Vista. Now, as we creep closer to a likely release near the end of this year, we can't shake a sense of doubt. Windows 8 still feels like two very different operating systems trying to be one. The potential is hugely alluring -- a single OS to rule both the tablet and the desktop -- and with each subsequent version we keep hoping this will be the one that ties it all together. Sadly, as of the Consumer Preview, we're still seeing a lot of loose threads.

As it stands, Windows 8 is a considerably better tablet operating system than any previous version has managed to be. However, it's still a clumsier desktop OS than Windows 7. That's a problem Microsoft must fix before release.

Update: We've clarified the reference regarding iCloud and SkyDrive that made it sound as if SkyDrive was a response. SkyDrive, of course, predates iCloud by quite a few years.

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