Windows 8 on a laptop in-depth preview (video)

Less than 24 hours after it went live on Microsoft's site, Steve Ballmer reported a whopping 500,000 downloads of Windows 8 Developer Preview. That's half a million copies, if not eager Windows fans. Well, you can count us among them. Although we were treated to some private hands-on time with a tablet optimized for the OS, we hadn't, until now, had a chance to use it on a laptop -- i.e., the computing environment where we spend most of our time, and the one where we're most used to seeing Windows, in particular.

For the past three days, we've been doing just that: getting acquainted with Windows 8 using the good 'ol mouse-and-keyboard combo. And while that might read like a redundant statement (what recent version of Windows hasn't accommodated a cursor?), Win 8 is a peculiar breed -- It's the first version of the operating system where finger input wasn't an afterthought, but a first-class citizen. It's clear that this time around, Windows is optimized for touch, but we had to wonder if that Windows Phone-inspired UI would present a steep learning curve, if it would get in the way while we tried to go about business as usual. So how's that working out for us? Suffice to say, we're not in Kansas anymore, so find your most comfortable chair and meet us after the break -- we've got oh-so many details to delve into.

Table of Contents

First off, this is not a review. It might look like one, it might even be longer than one, but it's nevertheless not a review. Our goal here is to do a deep dive on what it's like to use Windows 8 on a laptop -- something, obviously, that we've never done, but have been waiting to do for quite some time. And, as much as we have to say on the topic, this won't be the last you'll hear from us. We'll be following Windows 8 as it incubates, and will reserve full judgment until the final version ships -- presumably, a year from now or more.

Secondly, you'll notice we were pretty thorough here. Rest assured, we didn't do this for nitpicking's sake, but out of respect for the fact that Windows 8 is a big deal -- not least because it's a stark departure from the Windows you're used to. When we point out bugs or limited functionality, we don't mean it as a "gotcha!" moment. We never expected the developer preview to have the spit and polish of a final build, and we earnestly believe Microsoft's going to iron out many of these kinks over the next year. We're going into gross detail because we want to do the OS justice and, well, many of you are curious about such things. So without further ado, let's do this.

Whether you download now or wait a year for the final version to drop, you'll enjoy a clean, in-place installation on top of Windows 7. Just know, though, that if you decide to give this early build a whirl, you'll find that after you download the .iso file of your choice (it's available in 32- and 64-bit flavors), you'll need to burn that image onto a DVD or load it onto a bootable flash drive. Even over the relatively speedy network in AOL's New York headquarters, downloading the 3.6GB file (64-bit, no developer tools) took about an hour. If you opt for the 32-bit version, expect a 2.8GB file (the 64-bit version with tools totals 4.8GB). To make things that much easier for ya, hit the source link at the bottom of this preview to survey your options.
For the purposes of this preview, we tossed a 64-bit build onto an HP Pavilion dv6t, a machine configured earlier this year with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 6GB of RAM, a 7,200RPM hard drive and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium. Once we got that hefty download squared away, the installation took 35 minutes, during which time our PC restarted multiple times. Before we hit the install button, we clicked through the requisite EULA, submitted to a quick compatibility check and confirmed that we did, indeed, want to preserve our user accounts and files. Once it was all over, we set up our WiFi network and skipped the part where we could have handed over our Windows Live account credentials (we ended up doing that later). After little more than half an hour, we were up and running, and had to do very little along the way to make that happen.

The first time we caught a glimpse of Windows 8, we were as blown away as any of you by how pretty it was. So many of us had been aching to see something resembling Windows Phone come to life on a larger screen, and here it was, this tablet-friendly OS that might just help Microsoft narrow the tablet gap with the likes of Apple and Google. And yet, we always imagined that when it came to laptops, the traditional desktop -- not the Metro-style UI -- would anchor the experience. That we could shoo away the live tiles when we felt like getting real work done, using the apps we've grown used to.

As it turns out, even on a laptop the user experience is rooted in that Metro-inspired layout, and ignoring it isn't an option. We first realized this when we clicked the Start Menu, wanting to search for some app or file. Instead, clicking Start whisks you straight into Metro-land. We can't overstate how huge this is. We avail ourselves of the search bar in Windows 7 about as often as we Google miscellaneous tidbits. It's something we do unconsciously at this point, and while we did start to master the learning curve after just a few hours of hands-on time, we felt ourselves making a concerted effort to circumvent the problem using keyboard shortcuts.

In fact, this might be a good time to mention that you'll be using shortcuts a lot in Windows 8 -- sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes to compensate for what would otherwise be a tedious ordeal of leaping from the desktop to lives tiles and back. After sampling several shortcuts, we decided our favorite way to search for something is to click the Start button and then, once you're inside the Metro UI, simply start typing. You don't need to start typing inside a search field, mind you, but once you start writing you'll see one appear on the right side of the screen. Other ways to circumvent the search conundrum include pressing Ctrl-F or (a more circuitous option) hitting Ctrl-C to bring up the settings menu on the desktop, where you'll find system search, among other things.

In other scenarios, too, the OS feels shockingly unfamiliar. It's not obvious enough how to shut down the PC or put it to sleep. You can't press the Escape key to exit programs, although you can use it to leave the Start screen and return to the app you were last using. To leave an app, you have to press the Start button -- a process not unlike tapping the home button on a phone to minimize what ever app you have open. Funny how something that's become second nature for us on the mobile side feels so unnatural when we try it on a desktop.

What's more, some of the shortcuts specific to Windows 8 feel limited -- inconsistent, even. For example, you can press Start-Tab to toggle between open apps, but only two. So, as we were composing this preview, we had Paint open on the desktop and used that to paste in screenshots we took on the Metro side. This was a fairly clunky setup in that we had to press Start-Tab every time we were ready to dump a screenshot in Paint on the desktop (if you look at our galleries scattered throughout this preview, you'll see we repeated this process many, many times). But intermittently during all this, we launched the browser to check email and refresh our favorite blogs. Once we did that, Microsoft Paint was no longer one of our two most recently used programs, so if we tried toggling again, we found ourselves bouncing back and forth between Metro tiles and our browser. This meant re-opening Paint, which entailed searching for the program. (Eventually, we did what any experienced Windows 7 user would do and pinned our essential programs to the desktop.)

Thankfully, many classic Windows shortcuts, such as copy and paste, still work. Blessedly, Ctrl-Alt-Delete does, too. But even so, we emerged from this exercise more dependent on keyboard shortcuts than we ever were previously. To be clear, we don't mean this as a one-size-fits-all editorial. We're sure many of you live by shortcuts. But we, at least, have always been more likely to use them for things like word processing and photo editing than navigating the OS itself. Here, it's normal to set aside the mouse and use the keyboard instead. If you're like us, that could take some getting used to.

And yet, as alien as Windows 8 seemed at times, we often felt charmed. There's the inviting lock screen, for one -- customizable to your heart's delight. The log-in page has gotten a face lift, as have the simplified Control Panel, Task Manager, Windows Explorer and even the onscreen volume bar that appears if you press your laptop's volume or mute buttons. In particular, we loved seeing our home screen grow more and more personal as we began to configure Twitter, our RSS feed, Facebook and our preferred weather location. It's precisely this slick UI and personalization that's left so many of us Engadget editors enchanted by Windows Phone, and despite Windows 8's steep learning curve, we're glad these things made a cameo in Windows.

You'll see us return to this theme throughout the preview, but because it's so important and our notes are so lengthy, we'll summarize it here: multitasking in Windows 8 is a pain. Much of that, as we said, has to do with the fact that pressing Start-Tab only allows you to toggle between your two most recent apps. If you're in the Metro-inspired part of Windows, at least, there are no buttons for minimizing, maximizing or restoring windows. You have to press the Start button to return home as you would if you were minimizing apps on a phone, and once you do, there's no dock showing all the apps you have open. And because there are no boxes to close windows, leaving an app isn't the same as quitting it. To do that, we've been using the Task Manager -- a place we're mainly used to visiting when things go awry.

What annoyed us even more is that the Start-Tab command didn't work after we ventured to the Metro UI to search for files. In one instance, we were web browsing on the conventional desktop, and pressed Start-F to find something. That whisked us to the Start screen, and once we found what we were looking for, we pressed Start-Tab, only to find it wouldn't take us back to our most recent app. We had to click the desktop live tile instead. Annoying.

On the conventional desktop side, the experience rings more familiar, but even then, we found ourselves making compromises. Pinning apps is essential -- something we love about Windows 7, but always thought of as more of a convenience than a necessity -- is key here. (There's always desktop shortcuts, too, but we've always preferred to keep this space free of clutter.) As always, pinning the apps makes them that much easier to launch, which you can't do by pressing the Start menu and combing through menus. At least here, you can minimize, resize and close windows, and find minimized apps in an orderly line along the task bar.

You can also slide your mouse over the left side of the screen to see a preview of the apps open on the desktop. Call us set in our ways, but this doesn't feel as complete a solution as opening apps from the system tray. Alt-Tab also works to cycle between apps, and if you hold Tab you'll see thumbnails for each appear on screen, which you can navigate with the arrow keys. (For us, at least, the cursor wouldn't settle on a box when we tried using a mouse.)

Thankfully, you can still snap two windows into place, with each taking up half the desktop. We'll take this over Start-Tab any day.

We won't dwell on keyboard shortcuts any further, so instead we'll say this: we often felt most at home using our mouse / trackpad, but as you explore the OS, you'll see you don't (yet) have that luxury in every app. On the flip side, there were times when using the cursor was our only option, which disappointed us mightily. You see, your multitouch-enabled trackpad won't work here -- at least not now. So pinching and zooming is out, as is scrolling with one or two fingers. We missed these gestures sorely when paging through sites, our Twitter and Facebook feeds and lists of unread news stories.

Then there are the arrow keys. You can use the right-left ones to hop from one tile to another, and up-down to jump directly between home screens, bypassing all those individual tiles along the way. In some apps, the arrow keys don't work at all. We tried using them to scroll through our Twitter timeline, stories in our RSS feed and our list of Facebook contacts. No dice.

This early build comes with a preview of IE10. Though it looks glossier on the Metro side and more like Internet Explorer's old self on the desktop, it's the same version. (However! Only the desktop version will support Flash, Adobe confirmed to us.) In our tests, we found they loaded webpages at a comparable pace.

You could, in theory, have IE open on both the desktop and Metro-inspired side, and each instance of the browser would have its own open tabs. The two don't talk to each other so if you migrated from the desktop to tiles and then opened IE, the blog post you left open on the desktop side wouldn't follow you. What's more, IE looks and feels slightly different on each side, which means the shortcuts aren't identical either. For instance, pressing Start-Z brings up a list of open tabs on the Metro side, but that's obviously not necessary on the desktop, where all of your tabs are already visible. What we're getting at here is that this is another instance where migrating back and forth between two different interfaces can feel disorienting.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but Windows Explorer has taken on the love-it-or-hate-it Ribbon UI, the interface that was born with Office 2007 and later spread to native apps such as Paint. It's almost as if Microsoft realized some people find the trove of exposed icons confusing, and made it so that the ones you can't use simply appear grayed out. For instance, if you click on a file, the icons for moving, copying, deleting and renaming it will light up in color. Take a step back to the Desktop directory, though, and those icons fade into something unusable.

Windows 8 ushers in a made-over Task Manager, which offers a comparable array of information but in an easier-to-digest layout. By default, when you launch Task Manager you'll see a simplified view that merely lists all your open programs (there won't even be a column confirming which ones are running). Click a drop-down menu for more details, though, and you'll see several additional columns outlining CPU, memory, disk and network consumption for each app. In Windows 7, you'd have to click on the performance tab to see these stats, which would be buried underneath those usage graphs you know and love. As for the graphs, they're still there under the performance section, except now they consist of colored lines on a white background, instead of a green-on-black scheme.

New to the Task Manager is a tab from which you can control startup items. We never had any problem running msconfig, but remember that in Windows 8 you can't just click on the start menu and type in that command to pull up the appropriate controls. Though there aren't any checkboxes in this startup manager, you can right click on items to disable them.

To be honest, we didn't expect Windows 8 to have a drastic effect on startup times one way or the other. And yet, after performing a cold boot we were greeted by Windows 8's log-in screen after just 16 seconds. (Loaded with Windows 7 -- and a formidable bloatware load -- it took a painful minute and 32 seconds out of the box, according to our test records.) It's funny, because once you're inside the speeds aren't exceptional. Not bad by any means; just not blazing. Anecdotally, apps sometimes seemed a bit slow to load, though we suspect at least part of that was thanks to the animated transitions. More disturbingly, we repeatedly had trouble waking our dv6t from sleep, something that wasn't a challenge when it ran Windows 7.

We so far haven't spent much time gaming, but we did take Batman: Arkham Asylum for a spin, and held pretty consistent frame rates of 60 fps with the resolution fixed at its maximum settings (a modest 1366 x 768 on this dv6t).

As you'd expect, at this early stage you won't have much luck getting your older peripherals to work on your newly upgraded machines. Just for kicks, we connected the dongle for Microsoft's own Explorer Touch mouse and naturally nothing happened. USB storage works just fine, of course.

As for apps, Microsoft has said that Windows 7 programs will work on the current build -- a claim we'd say is pretty accurate. We were able to install Firefox, FileZilla, Kindle for PC, AIM, Fraps, PCMark Vantage and 3DMark06 -- all without a hitch. You'll find, too, that the setup wizard guiding you through the typical installation hasn't changed either. We did encounter an error message when we first attempted to download Chrome, but got it to work on our second try.

So far, we know that Windows Store will be home to "thousands" of conventional and Metro-style apps, which will be compatible with x86-, x64- and ARM-based devices. As this is specifically a preview of the Window 8 experience on a laptop, we'll focus just on the conventional variety for now. Truth be told, we don't really have any concerns about the forthcoming volume of compatible apps because as it is, we can think of very few programs that aren't Windows-compatible. Truly, we're more curious about the selection of touch-optimized ones, as Microsoft has never developed such a finger-friendly OS. Either way, the store isn't open to developers just yet, so these are all questions we'll have to save for another day.


By default, Windows 8 has a live tile for news updates, much the same way it has built-in stock and weather apps. We'll cut to the chase: it's one of our favorites this early build has to offer. More than anything, we like that you can search for different news sources and add as many as you want before clicking "Done." If building an RSS feed doesn't match your idea of sexy, just consider this -- on what essentially felt like a brand new computer, it was convenient to at least get our news stream up to date in under a minute.


Perhaps the most familiar of Windows 8's native apps is Tweet@rama, a three-pane program listing updates, your own recent posts and a list of the people you're following. There's also a button for uploading photos alongside your status message and the built-in spellchecker even tosses an accent mark over words like "cliché." Between the panes and the black background, anyone with TweetDeck experience should feel at home, though don't expect any functionality in the way of checking and responding to direct messages, searching key words or monitoring mentions. Also, remember we said Windows 8 doesn't play nice with our multitouch trackpad right now? We were actually using this app when we first noticed that -- imagine how annoying it is to have to click on a scroll bar to make your way through two hours' worth of unread tweets.

So, this might be a good time to come out and set some real expectations for these apps: while it's been fun to poke around, these simple programs, so slick yet feature-poor, will probably be better suited to the tablet crowd. There's no reason for us to use this instead of TweetDeck -- except for the fact that the Windows 8 experience isn't grounded in the desktop, but the live tiles.


In addition to a native Twitter app, Microsoft threw in one built around Facebook, the preciously named Socialite. This is another example of how these native apps are really just a curiosity for people who can just as easily use a keyboard and mouse to use more full-featured apps. Although Socialite has a section for photo albums, it's really honed in on status updates -- both yours and your six hundred acquaintances. Through the app, you can see your newsfeed and also update your own status, though even when you're supposedly looking at someone's profile, you won't see info such as birthdays or relationship status. For what it is, though, it's intuitive, clean and pretty to look at.


Also on board is NearMe, an app serving up local outdoorsy activities, bars, restaurants, sightseeing spots, cultural events, family-friendly joints, shops, spas and good places for people watching (in the New York City area, this means the Adidas outlet, apparently). Whatever the genre, you can sort the results by distance and rating. At this early stage, you can dig deeper to view a map or directions, or bookmark a favorite, but you can't view the place's website or read reviews (you can see how many reviews there are, and what the average star rating is).

Sadly, the recommendations seem incomplete right now, and are often irrelevant. NearMe recommends J. Crew to families, for example, while The Gap dominated three out its four top shopping recs.

Given what Microsoft has done with Bing, we see lots of potential here, and wonder why the app wasn't branded that way to begin with. Whatever the reason, we'd be shocked if the final version didn't improve on the functionality we see here while tapping into Bing in a more thorough way.

It's also worth noting that during our testing NearMe was the only app to crash. We knew something was wrong when the sorting drop-down only showed one option. When we tried to click on the drop-down menu again and, subsequently, return to the home screen, the app froze and then closed abruptly.


Moving along, making sure we leave no stone unturned as far as apps go, this early build comes with an alarm clock. Adding them and setting the time / toggling between AM and PM is easy, though it's worth noting that at this time you can't customize how regularly these alarms go off (e.g., every weekday, weekends only).


By default, the stock widget monitors the NASDAQ, but you can, of course, add whatever tickers you want (just press Start-Z to pull up a contextual menu on the bottom of the screen). As far as metrics go, you'll see the stock price, natch, which isn't real-time, but delayed, just as Google and Yahoo Finance's numbers are. You'll also see the last trade, the opening price, the range of prices for the day and past 52 weeks and, finally, the current trading volume. In other words, pretty much the same stats you'd expect to see if you visited Google, Yahoo or Bing Finance.

Scroll to the right in the stocks app and you'll see headlines pertinent to the stock or index you're currently viewing. We were pleased to see these stories came from myriad sources, as opposed to just a single wire, although you'll also find your share of dry, jargon-laced press releases.


The weather app has animated backgrounds reflecting the climate in your neck of the woods -- a touch that reminds us of HTC's Sense overlay. As you'd expect, it recognizes major cities such as New York and Mumbai, but its database also includes scads of smaller towns and cities, such as Morristown, New Jersey. If your town's on Microsoft's radar, it'll autocomplete in the search field as you start typing. Even if it doesn't, though, you can press enter and the weather app will serve up local stats. That's so long as it's real city, of course. We were able to get the weather for tiny Sherman, CT, but not fictional Dana Bella City, NY.

When you add your first city, you'll have the option of allowing Microsoft to change its weather info as your location changes. Either way, if you've got multiple cities programmed, you can scroll from left to right to view different forecasts and -- best of all -- watch the animated scenery change as you go. Whatever the city, you can view the weather as a short, one-box summary view, a five-day forecast or as an hourly report. If you like, you pin a location to the Start screen.


BitBox is a basic synthesizer that lets you cull different electronic sounds and then see them visualized onscreen. Mildly hypnotic, might annoy people around you.


As you'd expect, it's a native notetaker. Oddly enough, it includes all the elements of a good notepad app -- font and text color controls, the ability to capture and add photos and sound and the ability to transform texts into lists. The problem is, the interface doesn't make much sense, even with the help of instructions.

Ink Pad


Picstream uses Flickr's APIs to stream a full-screen slideshow of random photos. Equally odd, you can sort by tags, but you can't actually search for specific key words that interest you. Rather, there's one option -- popular tags -- which shows three options ("Canon," "birthday" and "beach," as of this writing). This app would be much more compelling if you could access your own Flickr stream, or at least search users and tags.


Memories is a digital photobook, with pages and blurbs for captions. We'd like to make a suggestion for the UI, which is that we think people should be able to click on a caption to edit it. As it is, you have to press Start-Z for the settings, click "Edit" and then change the text in a pop-up box. We'd also like the option of changing the color and font for the copy. Some themes could be helpful, too. On the flip side, having to go into the settings to add and reorder pages feels intuitive.


Moped allows you to subscribe to audio programs -- podcasts, yes, but also language learning series. As with the RSS feed and other native apps we've told you about, it's tile-based, and in this case you can't navigate them using the arrow keys. As of this writing, the selection is skimpy (we counted 20-some-odd offerings), with established public radio programs such as This American Life accounting for the only ones we recognized. Given that Mango will support podcasts (presumably many more than this), we hope Windows 8 will, too, by the time it ships.


It is what it sounds like, kids. A drawing app -- a perfunctory one, at that -- which lets you doodle in a rainbow of colors. Though you can choose from six kinds of writing implements, six brush sizes and six transparency settings ( as well as undo any unwanted marks), there's no eraser tool, and you can't save any of your creations.


One of the more esoteric apps you'll find here, Measure-It! calculates the measurement of lines and spaces you designate in photos (even ones you've taken with your computer's webcam).


What you have here is an onscreen keyboard on which you can play chopsticks to your heart's content, but there are also a handful of bundled classics (think "The Entertainer") that you can play along to in a kind of instrumental karaoke. You can also record and save whatever tunes you've made up. In the case of those pre-installed songs, specific keys will glow blue when you're supposed to hit them but, as you can imagine, this is tedious and un-fun if all you've got at your disposal is a mouse. As with Paintplay, we imagine this would make for a better time-waster on a tablet.

Tile Space

In Tile Space, your goal is to rearrange a jumbled mosaic of tiles, each of which contains a piece of a larger photograph. The default level of difficulty is a 4 x 4 grid, though you can also opt for 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 5 x 5 and 6 x 6 boards. By default, the photograph you're trying to reassemble depicts a snow-capped mountain, though if that starts to bore you can select a new puzzle entirely. What we like best, though, is that you can build a puzzle out of your own photos, slideshows or videos (even snapshots taken with webcams).


Up next is 5 -- essentially, Tic-Tac-Toe with black-and-white balls instead of Xs and Os. As the title would suggest, the goal is to head the computer off as it attempts to line up five balls in a row. There aren't actually any instructions that go with the game, though we only had to lose to the computer once to understand what was going on.


Another game too self-explanatory to merit instructions, Labyrinth involves guiding a ball through a series of increasingly challenging mazes. It's timed and though the game keeps track of the best scores, that record is always one that you've set. If you're playing this on a laptop, you'll need to use the arrow keys, as the game doesn't accept mouse input.

Zero Gravity

Starring an astronaut fit to take to an ice cream social (Microsoft's words, not ours), this kid's game involves using finger gestures (or, in this case, the arrow keys) to send 2nd Lieutenant Bennett flying through space, landing on floating pieces of pipe and other objects as he goes. Unlike 5, this game comes with instructions, though a bug thwarted our attempts to cut a game short and return to the home screen.

Treehouse Stampede

Yeah, we're addicted to a kids' game. What? In Treehouse, you've got this string of pink, muppet-like beings inching their way toward a treehouse, and you need to form words out of a string of on-screen letters before they reach the creatures destination. There's usually three letters, and they're always consonants, which means you'll have to get creative and build a longer word, instead of rearranging the letters to form one. In truth, the reason we like the game so much is probably that the computer seems so impressed when we turn "LSN" into "loosen" and rack up lots of points.

We did notice that the game freezes if you lose -- a bug we expect Microsoft will fix soon enough.

Check M8

It's chess, folks, replete with timed turns. It's worth noting that this game is easy to play with a mouse.

Tube Rider

Tube Rider asks you to take different pieces of tubing and build out a tunnel for Johnny the Surfer before he reaches the finish line. Of all the games, this was our least favorite -- not because it doesn't have the potential to be amusing, but because playing with a mouse dampens the fun.


We don't need to explain this one, right?

Word Hunt

This is essentially Boggle, with timed and un-timed modes. It's simple enough to use with a mouse, though we bet dragging your finger over adjacent letters would be more fun.


Copper's a game whose plot centers on a robot dragging boxes.

Flash Cards

As its name would suggest, what we have here are flash cards for kids, with topics including numbers, colors, shapes, the alphabet, fruits and veggies, the solar system, animals, landmarks and state flags (?!). There are also interactive quizzes in addition, landmarks, subtraction, the solar system and flags of the world and pesky state variety.

Air Craft

Air Craft, so far as we can tell, involves painting paper airplanes. We don't get it either.

Microsoft has said that anything you've stored in SkyDrive will sync across your Windows 8 machines -- so long as your user account is tied to your Windows Live ID. You'll have the option of adding your ID when you first boot up the machine, but you can easily add it in the Control Panel. (At that point, too, your Windows Live ID password will be what you use to unlock the PC.)

Once we added our Windows Live ID credentials, we easily used the desktop app Windows Live Mesh to sync our shared folder with the copy stored in SkyDrive. If you've ever used SkyDrive before, you know that as you're uploading shared files you'll have access to them as they land in SkyDrive -- you don't have to wait for the entire folder to sync before peeking. We also had no problem downloading Word documents from SkyDrive and opening them in Windows 8 using WordPad. This is one facet of Windows 8 where you can expect a smooth experience, even at this early stage

So far, Microsoft's included several options designed to assist vision- and hearing-impaired users, as well as people with limited motor skills. Users can flip a switch to enable high contrast, enlarge onscreen objects and enable the ability to tap through web pages. In each of these cases, it's an either / or option. In other words, you can't, say, adjust how big things appear using a sliding scale.

Other options include the ability to press Windows + Volume Up to enable a magnifier, narrator or on-screen keyboard. You can also adjust the thickness of the cursor, selecting one of 20 gradients (the default is 1, the thinnest). Lastly, users who find notifications helpful can tweak how long they last, with the options ranging from five seconds to five minutes.

This early build of Windows 8 doesn't include Windows Media Center, so for now, native playback options are limited to Media Player, which handled a mix of .WMV and .MP4 files without incident. So it's unclear at the moment if Microsoft will take a one-size-fits-all approach -- will it be a staple on Windows 8, as it has been on most versions of Windows 7, or would that just make for bloated tablets? And what to do about the interface? Media Center has always had a look that's distinct from the rest of the Windows operating system, and we wonder how much, if at all, Redmond will rock the boat. As it is, mind you, we're bouncing between two UIs: Windows and Windows-meets-Windows-Phone. Can the OS handle Media Center's classic aesthetic -- essentially, a third UI for Windows 8 users to juggle?

After a few days with Windows 8, we're left with even more questions than we had when we started. Now that we know the learning curve is steeper than we imagined, and that those glossy live tiles anchor the user experience in a way the desktop used to, we're intensely curious about how Microsoft will tweak the OS between now and its ship date. And yet, we hope Ballmer & Co. can eke out a few concessions on the PC side, making it easier to hang around the desktop, if we so choose. We'd expect that over the next year or so, the engineers in Redmond will fine-tune the keyboard shortcuts, making them more intuitive and consistent. Ultimately, what we really want is for this to feel like a fluid, bilingual experience, for the transition between the desktop and mobile-inspired UI to be a smooth one. Not that that's what Microsoft necessarily has in mind, of course, but it's not a huge stretch to think that Windows 8 is the middleman operating system between what we've known over the past decade and the touch-inspired future that seemingly awaits. On all counts, we'll just have to stay tuned, but for now we remain intrigued, hopeful and cautiously optimistic. Windows 8 opens up all sorts of new form factor possibilities (dual screen machines with a purpose, anyone?), and we're downright thrilled to see what stops are pulled out in the next dozen months.