After spending several days with the Developer Preview of Windows 8 on a PC, it's clear that Microsoft's new operating system -- which offers two separate interfaces, Metro and Desktop -- is a transitional one between traditional computers and mobile devices. All of Microsoft's energy and creativity has been devoted to the new Metro interface; there's very little new of note for the old-fashioned Desktop.
As I tested Windows 8, I found myself wanting to use it on a tablet instead of my PC, because the big-tiled Metro was so much more visually appealing than the traditional Desktop, with a more intriguing feature set. After using Windows 8 for some time, it's clear that Metro is the future of Windows, and the Desktop the past.
An interesting note: You usually expect developer previews and betas to suffer from performance woes because code hasn't yet been optimized, and bugs may slow things down. However, the Windows 8 Developer Preview is surprisingly fast, even on my aging test machine. I installed it on a dual-boot Dell Inspiron E1505 with 1GB of RAM and a single-core Intel T2400 1.83GHz CPU, which is near the very bottom of the hardware requirements for Windows 8. Yet I found it to be extremely fast and responsive. In fact, it feels zippier than Windows 7 running on the same machine.
Clearly, Microsoft has done a great deal of work on optimizing Windows 8. There's good reason for that; if it's going to work on a tablet, it needs to be fine-tuned.
Getting used to Metro
When I first started using Windows 8, I was surprised to see that the Desktop was no longer the command central for the operating system. You boot into Metro; Desktop has been relegated to just another app accessible from the Metro screen.
Metro has been clearly designed for tablets. Like Windows Phone 7, Metro's main interface is made up of large colorful tiles, each of which represents a different app and each of which can exhibit changing information, such as the latest news, social networking updates, weather and stocks.
In addition, Metro has a horizontal design, with tiles stretching off the right edge of the screen. On a tablet, you'll swipe to uncover new tiles; on a PC, you're relegated to dragging the bar at the bottom of the screen or clicking navigational arrows. Even after several days of use, I never got used to dragging or clicking to reveal the extra tiles; I longed for a touch screen so I could swipe instead.
Metro is customizable. You can drag tiles to new locations or customize select parts of the interface via its own Control Panel. You can change the picture on your Lock Screen and your user tile; change user account information; turn wireless on and off; turn on airplane mode and change settings for privacy, search and Windows Update. You can also change your home network settings via HomeGroup (introduced in Windows 7) and your sync settings.
In my initial test of Windows 8, I didn't use Metro that much. But over time I found myself migrating more to Metro when I was actively looking for information. The constantly changing information stream, including news stories, RSS feeds and updates from friends and acquaintances on social networking sites, is quite useful and almost hypnotizing. In Metro, instead of having to seek out information, information comes to you.
Metro apps run full screen like their tablet and Windows Phone 7 counterparts. On a desktop, they take getting used to, because there's no Windows menu -- although after a few days, I became more comfortable using them. You can't change their size or shrink them, though. Switching between them on a PC is kludgy and requires the old Windows standby, Alt-Tab. I eventually discovered another way to do it: Hold the mouse pointer at the far left of the screen until a small icon for the previous app appears and then click to switch to it. All in all, though, Alt-Tab is easier.
Unlike earlier versions of Windows, which had few consumer-level apps built in, Windows 8 offers a plethora. The Metro screen is filled with Microsoft-written games, social networking tools and other apps. They're designed for a tablet or smartphone, although they're usable on a PC as well.
The basic News, Weather and Stock apps are straightforward and simple to use. The News app, for example, offers a list of dozens of RSS news feeds organized by topic, including Business, Design, Entertainment, Lifestyle, Music, Technology and News. Click the ones you want, and they're added to your feed. You can also directly type in the URL of a feed you want to add.
Once you set your apps to grab the data, you'll be able to see constantly changing information in the tiles themselves -- mostly, summaries or headlines -- without having to open the apps. If you see something that interests you, click the tile to be sent straight to that app -- but not necessarily to the specific information you're seeking. For example, when I clicked a headline about the current Republican nomination race on a news tile, I was sent to a page with all the news headlines and had to look for the story. On one occasion, the headline that appeared in the tile wasn't even immediately visible; I had to scroll to find it.
Installing the Windows 8 Developer Preview
To download the Windows 8 Developer Preview, go here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/apps/br229516
To install it on a PC, you download an .ISO file, burn it to DVD, and then install over a PC with Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7. There are two versions of the 64-bit Windows 8 Developer Preview: one with developer tools, and one without the tools. The 32-bit version of the developer preview doesn't include developer tools. The 64-bit version with developer tools can only be installed as a clean install -- accounts, files and settings on the machine on which you're installing will be deleted.
With the 32-bit and 64-bit versions without developer tools, you'll be able to retain accounts, files and settings if installed over Windows 7 or Windows Vista. You'll be able to retain only accounts and files if you install over Windows XP. As with all previews and betas, the usual caveats apply about not installing it on a production machine.
Installation of the preview is straightforward and requires multiple reboots. On my machine, total installation time (aside from downloading and burning a DVD) took 50 minutes, but it may go faster on faster machines.