Windows 8 is just around the corner – Microsoft has announced that it will arrive on the 26th of October. I had the opportunity to sit with Rajeev Nagar, one of the engineers behind Windows 8, to better understand the design and thought process with the new Windows 8 features.. Rajeev specialises in file systems and storage, but he quickly showed me around Windows 8, including some of its lesser known features that might appeal to power users.
When going through the features it quickly comes apparent that Microsoft really did put a lot of thought into its UI design – it is not simply using Metro because it looks funky. The basic premise behind the new UI is a greater focus on content, and presenting that content to the user with the least amount of distractions.
Interface: Fast and Fluid
The interface is very fast and fluid, and it is clear that whatever hardware is used, the machine always gives priority to the interface, and in that way always gives the user the feeling of absolute control. Even on low end hardware, the interface is smooth and never freezes (I am typing this on a Windows 8 virtual machine which has 1 processor core and 1GB of RAM assigned to it, and it shows no delays).
This lack of distraction is immediately noticeable even on the login screen. You load up an background image which takes up the background, and only the time shows, with a few icons which can be set to quickly show you things like unread mail or calendar invites. You tap or sweep the screen, and then you can actually use your own image to “unlock” the device by tapping or using saved gestures on said image.
Windows 8 is very tightly integrated with the cloud. In fact, on first install the user is asked to enter their Windows Live account, which will synchronise all their personalised settings across their Windows computers and devices. I watched how a theme gets changed on one device, and then watch the theme change across all other Live ID connected devices. The good news is that this Live integration will work in enterprise domain setups as well – the user’s Active Directory account will be linked with their relevant Windows Live account. This is perfect for the new Bring Your Own IT craze.
Microsoft also punts its own cloud storage service, SkyDrive, pretty hard. Immediately on install you will have your Skydrive ready, in fact, saving a document will by default first show you your SkyDrive folder. Luckily Microsoft will give users 25GB of free storage, so provided you stick with documents and photos, this ought to be more than enough for most people.
Start Menu No More
The big news with Windows 8 is that the Start Menu as we all know it is gone. Whereas the Start Menu was always essentially a nested shortcut screen, Windows 8 is elevating the Start Menu to a full screen area which will contain tiles. These tiles can act as shortcuts to apps, but the tiles will can also present information you might need to be aware of. For example – instead of a Weather shortcut, the tile will actually show the current weather conditions for Cape Town. You can also have multiple tiles which convey different feeds of data, even if they are from the same app. For example, you can have a few tiles for different cities in the world’s weather. These tiles can be dragged and moved easily, and can also be grouped as needed. These groups can also quickly be renamed.
The other big news is that the Start button is gone – something which has been part of Windows since Windows 95. Instead this time the user will use gestures on touch based devices, or use hot corners in more traditional mouse based devices. For example, you drag your mouse to the bottom left and click, and then your start menu appears.
Gestures and Hot Corners
You might have seen the videos on the web of people trying to figure out Windows 8, even if they were an old hand at previous Windows version. True, it does take some getting used to, but once the concept of gestures or hot corners become apparent, it is easy sailing from there. If I am Microsoft, I will include a decent tutorial app on first launch to explain this users.
One aspect I did appreciate is how the interface adapts to whatever input is used. For example – the scroll bar is not dragged when in touch mode (you sweep across the screen), so it appears quite thin and small. However, when you connect a mouse to the tablet, the scroll bar increases in size to accommodate for the mouse which will be used to drag the scroll bar. The interface also changes based on orientation, but it is quite clear Windows 8 is focussed on landscape use.
Metro and Desktop
Apps can run in one of two ways, and needs to be coded accordingly.They can either run in a fullscreen “metro” style right from the Start Menu, or your more traditional apps will run in Desktop mode, which is basically Windows as we know it from the past. Metro apps are clearly meant to be run in fullscreen mode, but can also be swept into “snap” mode which makes two apps run side by side – one taking up one third of the screen.
For example – Email app takes up 60% of the screen, but you want to watch the financial markets on the left of the screen. Desktop mode runs “older” windowed apps as we know it – I have not had any issues so far with any of the apps I am used to on Windows 7. In fact, I found many apps to run slightly faster for some reason.
The good news is that all this fancy new interfaces do not require extra processing power. In every single use case I found the operating system to be faster – booting up the machine is definately faster due to a brilliant new hibernation type boot process, and launching apps was fast as well. The overall interface is plenty smooth, even on integrated graphics. The good news is that whatever you are running Windows 7 on now, Windows 8 runs faster. Pretty simple really.
Smart Bandwidth Usage
There are a few cool features that Microsoft has not really advertised much, but I think will be very handy for some users. The new task manager is a lot more powerful, and has a lot more information for more technical users. For example – you can easily see how much data a certain app uses, so you can which app is the culprit for eating up your bandwidth cap (yes, still a valid South African issue).
Another feature which is handy in our bandwidth constrained part of the world is that certain networks can be set as “metered” networks, meaning they are special environments which cost you per megabyte. Apps can then use this network status and change their network behaviour accordingly. For example, an app that is running a streaming HD video might switch to a special low bandwidth stream when necessary.
Windows 8 will also use a Store, just like the Windows Phone 8 devices (and most new platforms). The store is still pretty empty right now, but Microsoft is making it very attractive for developers. 70% of Store sales revenue goes to the developers, but if they make more than $25,000, they will get 80% of everything above 80%. Right now all apps in the store is free, but at launch users will also be able to buy apps. All paid for apps will also be available in trial versions, and developers can set the trial period.
The Store is connected to your Windows Live ID, and App licensing is connected to the user, not the device. This means any user can have up to 5 registered devices, and all your app purchases from the store will be available on your registered devices. I could not get any answers on whether Office 2013 will work with these new rules as well…
The Windows Store is aiming to create a “trusted” environment in which users can feel at ease about anything they download from the store. Installing and uninstalling apps cannot be easier – no more messing around with convoluted install files and using the Add / Remove programs nonsense. App reviews within the store is also pretty well thought out – no anonymous reviews, and user reviews can be rated as helpful or not, and then that reviewer will carry more or less weight within the store.
Microsoft is making a pretty bold move for the first time with Windows – they are dropping the price signifcantly. Whereas previous versions of Windows easily ran into hundreds of dollars, Microsoft probably took a page from Apple’s book and made the new upgrade version a lot more affordable at $40. This will probably stimulate sales a lot, and will make people take the jump to Metro a lot easier.
Is it worth it? Sure. There is plenty to gain from running Windows 8 – and while the new Metro interface might make a few veteran users uneasy, you do get used to it pretty quickly. And no, this is not the next Vista – Windows 8 is faster than Windows 7, and it shares a very similar kernel to Windows 7, so compatibility issues are at a minimum.
Disclosure: Screenshots and impressions are based on the Release Preview, which will be very similiar to the final release, but Microsoft might still change a few small things. For example – themes for the Metro screen pattern seems to have been expanded in the final release.