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.