Having played with Windows 8 Consumer Preview in VirtualBox for a few hours, I wanted to write down some thoughts on my experience. I’m assuming that anyone reading this text is reasonably up-to-date on what’s new in Win8.
Metro & Interface
- The new home screen replaces the classic start menu. Why, nobody seems to understand, me neither. My first impression is that it is cluttered and harder to find what you are looking for. Things seem more hidden and you need further steps to find what you are looking for. But I will not rule it out completely, since I have not used it enough yet. Since it runs in full screen, there is a potential to display a lot of content simultaneously, which is a strong point when you search among lots of things. But it is cluttered and not as structured as the classical start menu. My biggest gripe, however, is that when you want to open a program on the “start menu” or search for something you will be transported from the desktop to a full screen mode. I think it is distracting that the whole desktop is replaced, compared with a classic start menu that just sits on top of the desktop.
- Metro is an interface designed for relatively small screen and meant to be controlled with your fingers. To “force” to this onto many parts of the system, even if you are sitting in front of a 24’’ screen and use the mouse as input, does not seem ideal. I feel kind of confused by all the large things that fly across the screen all the time.
- On a touch screen it is natural to scroll the screen by swiping your fingers. The traditional desktop way to scroll the screen is to use drag a scroll list using the mouse. In Windows 8 there are both. But scrolling by dragging does not seem to work when using a mouse. You are forced to use the scroll bar at the side or bottom of the screen or use the mouse wheel. Why limit this? I believe it would feel natural to be able to scroll the Metro interface with the mouse just like when using fingers. Interestingly, you use the mouse in just that way to unlock the new lock screen. Consistent design anyone?
- In Metro-mode, the scroll bars mentioned above do not display until you move your mouse over the screen. This means that there is no visual indicator whether or not there is more content available. Several times I missed that there was more to do and see lower down the screen because of this.
- “Metro” can change its color. There are a whopping 8 choices! But who has chosen the nuances? Depressing colors, to say the least …
- “Hot corners” means that if you move the mouse into the corners of the desktop, control objects appear. It’s pretty clever, although it appears to not work properly with multiple screen setups from what I’ve heard. I have doubts about this however, since the implementation appears better suited for touch tablets that for normal desktop environments with mouse and keyboard. One problem I encountered is when your drag the mouse to the left lower corner to bring up a thumbnail of the home screen up. (This is the new “start button”). Instinctively, I then wanted to click on the actual thumbnail, but when I move the mouse a few pixels away from the corner the thumbnail disappears before I can click on it…
- Using “desktop mode” you will recognize yourself. The appearance (“aero”) is much the same as in Windows 7, just with a slightly “flatter” look. It looks ok if you ask me, but I find it pretty dull and I don’t like the low contrast of the scheme. The “basic” theme is still there as well, but this time it is terribly ugly! Previously high contrast schemes used the “classic” theme as base, but these are now based on the basic theme instead. I suspect that basic themes are only there to support the high-contrast schemes, not to be used for anything else, thus the ugliness. It is also worth noting that the classic theme has been removed altogether! This sucks if you ask me, since I really prefer this theme :-(
More on the interface
- Why must everything look flat and boring today? It’s a current trend in interface design, in particular with Google applications and now with the Metro UI. I think it is vague and boring. Already Vista lacked contrast in the color scheme, making it difficult to see for example what was chosen in a menu. I think it is obvious that looks all too often take precedence over usability.
- All of Windows 8 is single colored and flat, so too the icons. Designing an icon is not easy. On a very limited area you want to draw an image that people intuitively understand the meaning of. If you limit the number of colors to 2, the designers loose much of the ability to express themselves. Take for example the save icon. It is usually a blue disk. That particular combination, a box that is blue, is very easy to identify and almost everyone knows what it means. If you remove the color, there is basically only a box left, and it is not nearly as easy to see what the icon means. There are a number of icons in Windows 8 that are not intuitively clear what it symbolizes. Icons are difficult to create, so I will not blame the designer of these icons too much. Definitely though, the plain 2 color scheme did not help them make better icons. Single color icons and interface are hot right now. I hope it will be a short-lived trend.
- I tried the new mail client that is found on the home screen, but did not come far since it required me to login with my Microsoft ID. Have I missed something, or did they do a mail client that only works with Hotmail? It resembles the “good old days” when Microsoft tried to create their own Internet instead of following standards like everyone else.
- I downloaded an mp3 file to test to the music player. I expected Windows Media Player to launch, but instead the new “Music” app started in full screen Metro mode. It took me a good while to find WMP, and for a long time I thought that “Music” was the new WMP. The old WMP one is still there if you dig in to it tohugh, and it does not seem to have changed from Windows 7. The question is why any desktop user would want to use the very limited full screen “Music” app instead of the more potent WMP?
- Something that puzzled me is how to quit a Metro application. I haven’t found any way so far…
- When running the legacy desktop environment and normal (“non-metro”) programs, Windows 8 feels almost like Windows 7. The exception is when you have to move into the new Metro UI to launch an application or do a search, which as I already said is quite distracting.
- Windows Explorer has been equipped with the Ribbon interface. In my opinion, Ribbon works quite well in MS Office, but for a simple program like Windows Explorer it feels a bit unnecessary. It is logical laid out and easy to use though. Explorer is otherwise pretty much the same program as in Win7. Sadly, most (in my opinion) degradations introduced in Vista and Windows 7 are still there. But: There is now an “up” button to go one step back in the folder structure. It only took 6 years of complaining for Microsoft to finally pay attention to cries of the users. Hooray!
- When you start Internet Explorer for the first time, you are transported it to MSN. This is not new to Windows 8, but I feel a need to ask how good this really is? Because: what is it you see when you load MSN? Ads. It’s basically all that is visible! The actual content is so far down the screen that it is not visible without scrolling. First impressions are said to be important. What does Microsoft want to tell us with this?
- I tried to download one of my favorite programs using Internet Explorer 10. The first thing that happened was that Windows kindly “warned” me that this program was not downloaded very often, so I should probably not download it either. Thanks, but I have used this program forever and I think I’ll ignore the warning. The program was downloaded and I started the installation. What happened then was that Windows “protected” my PC. This program was not recognized (not signed I guess) so I was not allowed to start it. Accepting this was the only thing I could do apparently, since all I could do was to press an OK button it seemed. But wait, the “more information” text looked like a link, so I tried to click it, and all of a sudden new opportunities showed up, and I was permitted to run the program even though Windows did not recommend it! Does Microsoft protect its users, or are they trying to lead us into their new AppStore where only those who submit to Microsoft’s rules (and give M$ 30% of their income) are accepted?
- I tried to run an old Visual Basic 6 program to see if it still works, and it does! Kudos to Microsoft, who, after all, has always been good at maintaining backwards compatibility, unlike Apple who regularly throws out old technologies in a way that effectively makes it impossible to use slightly older products. Companies that depend on a legacy application or people who want to play old games need not apply to Apple …
- Windows 8 is tightly tied in to Microsoft’s Live services. Although still available, you should no longer create an account in your computer. Instead they want you to sign in on your local computer using your Live account. There may well be a point to this, as settings, files and other items can be automatically synchronized between different computers. But only for those who use Microsoft’s services. For everyone else, and for any third-party developer with its own products and ideas on how things should work, this feels mostly like an ugly way to tie customers to their own ecosystem and thought of mind. (Just like Apple and Google are working hard on, I might add.)
- The fact that various things in the operating system become more and more hidden is not entirely surprising. I know that Microsoft wants us to stop manually looking for items and use the search functions more. And the search feature in Windows 7/8 does indeed work much better than before. However, I wonder how many users really do use the search function in Windows? I suspect it is still kind of a “power user” feature that few people actually know about. People simply want their documents on the desktop where they can easily see and open them.
These is just my first impressions after messing around for a short while with the new operating system. It will be interesting to see how me and others look at it when it’s released and we’ve become accustomed to it. Also exciting is to see how it works on a touch screen, something I haven’t had the opportunity to test yet. However, I am quite a bit reluctant to the idea of combining desktop and touch in a single interface. There is usually a compromise when combining thing like this. Apple, for example, maintains two different operating systems (OSX and iOS), which do what they are best at in different ways, while still having good integration with each other.