Windows 8 represents some of the biggest changes to a Windows OS since the release of Windows 95 and we guarantee you it’ll take you a bit of getting used to. Windows 8 tablets are yet to be released and no amount of pleading with some major tablet vendors got us early samples — so TechLife worked with local vendor Pioneer Computers to build an early Windows tablet, a DreamBook L11 HD running the latest Windows 8 Release Preview to take a look at the changes Microsoft has in store. Pioneer Computers’ owner Jeff Li said he expects to be selling this tablet as soon as Windows 8 is officially released by Microsoft.
The first thing you’ll notice when you turn on a Windows 8 tablet is that it doesn’t look like Windows. Instead, you’ll be dropped into the new interface previously called 'Metro'. It starts with a basic lock page before launching you into the tile-based user interface. It’s here you’ll need to learn the three swipes that form the backbone of navigating your way around 'Metro'.
The three swipes
There are three basic swipe actions — left from outside the right edge, up from below the bottom edge and right from outside the left edge of the LCD screen.
Swiping left from outside that right edge on the 'Metro' interface brings up the main system panel known as the ‘Charm Bar’ or ‘Charm Menu’ with access to app and system settings as well as connected devices such as portable drives and printers. It’s 'Metro'’s version of the Start Menu, but it’s considerably more interactive. More on it in a moment.
Swiping up from below the bottom edge brings up the app function bar so, for example, do this on Internet Explorer 10 and you’ll get the web address bar. Do it on the 'Metro' home screen and you’ll get the ‘All Apps’ button, which gives access to all installed apps, a la the Start menu.
Finally, swiping right from outside the left edge is how you cycle through open apps or ‘multitask’ — think of it as the old ‘Alt-Tab’ key-press sequence from your Windows keyboard. There’s also an extra swipe action here — if you swipe right from outside the left edge, then quickly back left without lifting your thumb, you’ll get the open apps panel, which visualises the ‘Alt-Tab’ key sequence, showcasing as many as the last six opened apps.
With these swipes under your belt, you can pretty much find your way around everything in 'Metro'.
'Metro'’s live tiles
What makes 'Metro' different is that traditional icons are replaced with smart tiles that not only launch an app but can update and show live information. For example, the News tile will show you snippets of the latest news stories, the Photos tile will cycle through your photo library, the Travel tile will show you far away places. Most of the bundled 'Metro' apps support the live tile function by default, while other apps can be configured to do so. The trick is striking the right balance between do-nothing icons and information overload.
Thankfully, there’s a way to turn off the live tile feature on individual tiles — flick the tile up and that brings up the tile menu at the bottom of the screen. Tap the ‘turn live tile off’ icon (sorry, charm) and the tile should go back to a static form.
The Charm Bar
No, this isn’t where you get to try out your smoothest moves in a dark, hazy night club; it’s what Microsoft is calling 'Metro'’s Start Menu. One frustrating thing for previous Windows users will be the new jargon invented to go with Windows 8, so get used to hearing about ‘charms’.
The Charm Bar features not icons, but charms and there are five of them (pictured below on the right-hand side bar) — Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. These are designed to work system-wide within any application and within either 'Metro' or the desktop. Here’s a quick guide:
- Search replaces the Search bar in the Start Menu and allows you to go hunting for files or content.
- Share brings up the social networking options available for an app. Windows 8 has nothing here initially but you can add in options for Twitter and Facebook among others.
- Start is really a toggle between the 'Metro' start screen and the last app you had open.
- Devices provides context access to peripherals such as a printer.
- Settings gives you a quick link to not only an app’s settings but also major device settings such as Wi-Fi access, speaker volume, screen brightness, notification settings, power and on-screen keyboard options.
The idea is innovative because it tidies up and synchronises app settings into one common system, but I’ve got to say I’m gagging over the choice of the word ‘charms’…
However, we don’t think it’s going to be all beer and skittles for those migrating from older versions of Windows, especially if you’re looking for the traditional way of doing things. First up, getting to the old desktop requires you to tap the Desktop tile on the 'Metro' home screen.
At this stage, there’s no way of bypassing 'Metro'. And once you get to the Windows 8 desktop, the first thing you’ll notice missing is the Windows Start Orb. Microsoft has decided it’s just no longer necessary. We’ll see. Without a mouse, the traditional Windows desktop is still difficult to drive using the normal tablet touch interface.
And this is the key — Windows 7 is a great desktop/laptop OS, but it was never an OS to run on a touchscreen tablet. 'Metro' overcomes the interface issue for casual tablet users, but you’ll still need to access the traditional Control Panel for more detailed work.
And with Windows tablets expected to have at least 1,366 x 768-pixel screen resolution, the old desktop controls are so far just too small to accurately and quickly operate using touch control.
If you’re planning to use a Windows 8 tablet in the old desktop mode, I reckon a mouse will be a must.
Microsoft has had its Store app on show for the last few months within its Consumer Preview and Release Preview trial downloads. It’s here you’ll pick up your Windows 8 apps, free and paid, although the company has said you’ll be able to install apps from sources other than the Windows Store.
The most interesting thing we’ve heard so far is that all Windows 8 apps that run on the Intel or ‘x86’ version of Windows 8 will also run on Windows RT devices, according to Erwin Visser, senior director of Microsoft’s Windows Commercial Business Group in a story on The Inquirer. However, other reports suggest this will ultimately be up to the app developer so we’ll wait until we get hold of a Windows RT device for that one.
Right now, there’s a small list of apps on the Windows 8 Store, ranging from games such as the ever-popular Fruit Ninja to cooking apps like the very tasty Bewise CookBook. You do need a Windows Live ID or Hotmail account to sign in before you can download apps (including free ones). However, sign up with Microsoft’s SkyDrive and you’ll get 25GB of cloud storage you can access from within the 'Metro' interface.
Windows 8 Control Panel
The Intel-based version of Windows 8 comes with those two control panels — the touch-friendly version in the 'Metro' interface, plus the traditional desktop panel. Use one and the settings are updated appropriately in the other. While the 'Metro' one is more limited, you’ll find the desktop version basically the same as the Windows 7 panel. A quick comparison suggests not much has changed but again, you’re going to need a mouse to drive this fuller-featured version.
For everyday settings changes however, there should be enough in the 'Metro' version to keep most users happy, it’ll just be a case of knowing where to look. Rather than go into detail here, the best thing we can suggest will be to simply spend time familiarising yourself with 'Metro' control panel. It will definitely be the better version to use on a touch interface — just don’t expect everything to be where you think it might be first time.
One of the most important features in a tablet OS is the ability to remove all of your files and personal details by performing what’s known as a ‘factory reset’. It really is a must-do function if you’re about to give or sell your tablet to someone else.
Android supports this feature as do iPhones and iPads. It’s not something you could do easily on Windows 7, but it’s a feature inside 'Metro'. Here’s how you do it: left-swipe to bring up the Charm menu, choose ‘Settings’ and then select ‘Change PC settings’. When the 'Metro' PC settings screen appears, choose ‘General’, scroll down on the right-side list until you see the ‘Remove everything and reinstall Windows’ option.
Unfortunately, you have to be signed in as an administrator to run this feature so it’s not as simple as Android or iOS to do but still, the fact that the feature is there at all is important. The fact that you still have or need administrators on a tablet shows a bit of the Microsoft heritage that’s hard to break.
At this stage, we know that Microsoft’s own Surface tablets will feature high-definition video output as well as USB 3.0 ports on the Intel-based business unit and USB 2.0 on the ARM-powered consumer model. In terms of actual peripheral support, we expect the business-focused Surface tablet to have all the same device driver software as the standard desktop version, so peripheral device support here shouldn’t be a problem.
However, it’s the consumer-based tablet where Microsoft is porting Windows for the first time to a new processor type that raises questions about device driver support. Microsoft is calling Windows RT the ‘most compatible’ OS for ARM processors so far released and spruiking the fact that it will have a traditional in-the-box style set of device drivers ready to go. Whether it has as many device drivers as the Intel version of Windows 8 remains to be seen, but given Android and iOS are supplied simply with the basic driver software needed and no more, it’s a good move.
Practically, plugging in devices such as USB hard drives and flash drives won’t be an issue and getting a USB digital TV tuner working on the Intel version of Surface shouldn’t be difficult either. Getting it to work on an ARM processor-based Windows RT tablet, however, might be a different matter. We’ll soon see.
So, does Windows 8 really work?
To use 'Metro' on a tablet, I had to try to temporarily forget that it was a Windows tablet. If you start trying to bring your Windows 7 ideas into it, you’re going to get frustrated, annoyed and want to hoick the thing out the window. Well, at least I did, initially.
If I can get past the word, the Charm Bar/Menu is a good idea — centralising and standardising the basic drive controls of apps into one location should make it easier for new users to figure them out. The question will be whether these offer enough control for more experienced users. Another question is what exactly will this all look like on Windows RT?
At this stage, I’m obviously more at ease with the idea of driving an Intel-based Windows 8 tablet and I wouldn’t buy into a Windows RT tablet sight unseen.
Our test tablet featured only an Intel Atom processor, yet it was, for the most part, very responsive to gestures and swipes and it was only when trying to play back high-definition movie trailers on the 'Metro' movie app across a wireless network that it struggled to keep up the video frame rate. At this stage, we’ll save our benchmark performance and battery testing until we see the final product come October or November.
In the meantime, having played around with 'Metro' on a tablet, I’m nervous for Microsoft. For new users, I can’t help but wonder if 'Metro' is a significant new barrier that will put off a decent number of them.
The loss of the Start button might seem inconsequential to some, but to millions of Windows users around the world who have relied on it for the last 17 years, I wonder if it’s all going to be a bit too much.