Microsoft’s “re-imagining” of Windows 8 is focused very heavily on a new, Metro-style touch-based interface. However, they make a big deal of saying that it’s just as usable with a mouse and keyboard — and no matter what device you’re on, you can switch between the simple Metro interface and the traditional Windows desktop to fit whatever your needs are at that given moment.
One of the issues that’s been on our minds since they previewed this new interface was whether this will keep bogging Windows down with more running processes, and whether running a full Windows desktop on a low-powered tablet was really a good idea (after all, we’ve seen Windows run on netbooks).
Performance was the first thing they addressed today: Windows 8 actually has better performance than Windows 7, even with this metro interface running on top of a desktop. Tablet users and netbook users should notice a fairly significant performance increase with Windows 8. What it really “feels” like in real-world usage remains to be seen, but you can see a comparison between a task manager running on both operating systems to the right — which makes us pretty hopeful. Furthermore, any of your tablet-based apps will suspend themselves when you jump into the traditional desktop, so they don’t take up any of your resources.
The Lock Screen
Windows 8’s lock screen is pretty much what you’d expect: it’s got a beautiful picture along with a few little widgets full of information, like the time, how many emails you have, and so on. However, after swiping to unlock, Windows 8 shows off some pretty neat touch-based features, particularly a “picture password” feature. Instead of using a PIN or a lock pattern to get into your system, you swipe invisible gestures using a picture to orient yourself (in the example they showed, the password was to tap on a persons nose and swipe left across their arm). Android modders might find this similar to CyanogenMod’s lock screen gestures.
The Home Screen
The home screen is very familiar to anyone who’s used Windows Phone 7. You’ve got a set of tiles, each of which represents an application, and many of which show information and notifications that correspond to the app. For example, your email tile will tell you how many unread emails you have (and who they’re from), your calendar tile will show upcoming events, your music tile will show you what’s playing, and so on. You can also create tiles for games, contacts, and even traditional Windows apps that will pull you into the Windows desktop. The tablet-optimised apps are all full screen and “immersive”, though, and you can rearrange their icons on the home screen easily (just as you would on any other tablet platform).
Running a basic app works as you expect — you tap on its home screen icon and it goes full screen. The browser has lots of touch-based controls, like pinch to zoom and copy and paste, and apps can also share information one another easily. To do so, you just need to select text in the browser or choose a photo in their cloud-based photo app and hit the “Share” button — you’ll then be able to pick an app to which you want to send that text or picture, and work with it from there. For example, you can share photos to Facebook, send text from a web page in an email, and so on.
None of this is brand new to touch-based platforms, but what is new is the ability to not only multitask, but run these apps side by side. Say you want to watch a video and keep an eye on your newsfeed at the same time. Just like in Windows 7 for the desktop, you can dock an app to one side of the screen while docking another app at the opposite side, which is a seriously cool feature. Imagine being able to IM and play a game at the same time, or browse the web while writing an email. It’s a fantastic way to fix one of the big shortcomings of mobile OSes, thus allowing you to ignore the full desktop interface more often and stay in the touch-friendly, tablet view.
The App Store
The Windows App Store looks much like the home screen, with tiles that correspond to different categories and featured apps. From there, you can look at a more detailed list of the available apps in a given section. And, the store contains not only touch-based apps for the tablet interface, but some of the more traditional desktop Windows apps you’re used to, so you have one portal to discover all your Windows apps no matter what interface you’re using.
Windows Live’s Cloud Syncing
Windows Live is taking centre stage as the backend for all of Windows 8’s cloud syncing abilities. Your address book, photos, SkyDrive data, and even data within third-party apps can sync up to the cloud with Windows Live. The address book also syncs with other services like Facebook and Twitter as well. You can even sync all of your settings from one Windows 8 PC to another. Just sign onto your Windows 8 with a Windows Live ID and you’ll get all your themes, languages, app settings, taskbar, and other preferences will show right up. It’s a pretty neat feature if you have multiple Windows 8 PCs and don’t want to set them all up separately — just a few taps and you’ve got all your preferences ready to go.
A New Task Manager
Microsoft’s finally redesigned the task manager, and it looks pretty great. You have a very simple task manager for basic task killing, but if you’re a more advanced user, you can bring up the detailed task manager filled with information on CPU and RAM usage, Metro app history, and even startup tweaking — so you can get rid of apps that launch on startup without going all the way into
They didn’t show us a super in-depth look at the new Windows Explorer, but we did get a little peek. Most of it isn’t new information: we’ll have native ISO mounting in Windows Explorer, a new Office-style ribbon, and a one folder up button like the old days of XP (thank God). It also has a really cool “quick access” toolbar in the left-hand corner of the title bar, that gives you super quick access to your favorite buttons from the ribbon.
Along with these cool features, Windows 8 also comes with other features we’ve come to know and love in our mobile OSes. It’s got system-wide spellchecking, so you don’t have to rely on a specific app to keep your writing top-notch, as well as a system-wide search feature, that lets you search anything from your music library to your contacts to the web itself. It also has a really cool feature for desktop users that lets your run the Metro UI on one monitor while running the traditional desktop on the other.
It also has a really cool feature called “refresh your PC”, where you can do a clean install with the tap of a button. Whether you’re selling your machine or just want a cleaner, faster installation of Windows, you can do it all in one click. You can even set refresh points, similar to restore points, so you can refresh your PC to the way it was at a certain point in time.
This is still just a small preview of Windows 8; we know there’s a lot more coming, but this is what they showed us today. Got a feature you think is really neat? Share your thoughts about the upcoming OS in the comments.