Back in June, Microsoft piqued our interest when it demonstrated a surprisingly polished new interface for the in-progress Windows 8 operating system (OS). The final version isn’t expected to go on-sale until spring next year at the earliest; a commercial launch may even be as much as a year away. Nonetheless, Microsoft seems to be doing a great job of encouraging interest in Windows 8, and held two events this summer to showcase its potential.

The first, Computex, gave strength to rumours that Windows 8 was to be more smartphone-like than desktop-bound. September’s Build Conference sealed the deal, as Microsoft showed off tablet-specific features and allowed attendees a closer look at how the ‘Metro’ interface will perform.

Past Windows OSes have been supplied in several home and professional versions, with important differences in networking and security capabilities. With Windows 8, the split is more about how you interact with your PC – you can use a touchscreen or a keyboard and mouse, or both, but not all legacy programs will work in touch mode.

Windows 8 will almost certainly be the final desktop edition of Microsoft’s OS. Its interface is far less geared to keyboard and mouse input than existing versions of Windows. Instead, touch will be the primary method of getting around the screen and controlling what happens on it.

There will also be a tablet version of Windows 8 – another nod to our changing relationship with PCs.

At the start of the summer, we knew very little about Windows 8; today, a Developer Preview is open to anyone who wishes to try it out. Both 32- and 64bit versions of the Windows 8 code are available to download, and you don’t need to be part of the Microsoft TechNet inner circle to trial it. In fact, you can grab your copy from the Downloads section on our website (head to tinyurl.com/3zqh77t for the 32bit version, and tinyurl.com/6xe4Lo2 for 64bit)*.

We were keen to test drive Windows 8 ourselves. Here, we provide an in-depth look at what the next OS promises, how it performs in both touch and non-touch environments, and whether Microsoft will regret sprinting down the path for finger-friendly input with barely a backwards glance.

With Windows 8, Microsoft likes to say it is “re-imagining” Windows. It’s a hyperbolic term that promises dramatic changes but, for once, the hyperbole fits. Windows 8 could alter the very definition of a Windows PC.

The redefined Windows PC has a keyboard and mouse, a touchscreen or both. It’s a tablet, a laptop or a desktop. It runs an ARM system-on-chip CPU like today’s tablets, or a traditional x86 chip from Intel or AMD. It has a Taskbar, icons and windowed programs, but it also has a Start screen, tiles and fullscreen, immersive applications.

The last time Microsoft made such dramatic changes to the way its OS looks and functions, along with wholesale revisions to the underlying technology, was 16 years ago, with Windows 95. People lined up around the block at midnight to buy it.

We’d be surprised if Microsoft manages to inspire that level of excitement again. Having spent some quality time with the Developer Preview of Windows 8, however, we’re convinced that it’s set to be the most exciting release of Windows in a very long time.

A new way to use your PC

Log into a Windows 8 PC, and you’re greeted with the Start screen. In place of a Taskbar full of applications and a desktop packed with shortcuts, your screen consists of a grid of tiles. As with icons, clicking or tapping a tile launches an application; unlike icons, these tiles display useful data. The weather tile, for instance, displays the current weather and updates itself without your input. If you’ve seen Windows Phone 7, you’ll immediately recognise this ‘Metro’ interface.

In Windows 8, whether you’re using a touchscreen tablet or a powerful desktop PC with a keyboard and mouse, the default interface displays a horizontal grid of tiles that are arranged into customisable groups.

Applications made for Metro work like tablet apps and display well on smaller, finger-driven screens. They display fullscreen, without any of the ‘chrome’ you find around desktop programs – there are no minimise or maximise buttons, scrollbars or drop-down menus.

Swipe a finger from right to left on a tablet or touchscreen PC and you’re presented with the five Windows 8 ‘Charms’: Start, Search, Share, Devices and Settings. Start always returns you to the Start screen, but each of the other Charms brings up a context-sensitive menu relative to the application you’re using.

In a photo-viewing app, the Search button searches through your photos. Share allows you to post a photo on Facebook, Twitter, or any other app that can receive images in this manner. The Devices Charm lets you access a printer to print a photo or a camera to import new ones. Settings displays a list of photo-specific settings, such as brightness and contrast, plus core system-wide settings such as volume, power and networking.

Swipe a finger from the left of the screen and you flip back through your running applications. A swipe from the bottom or top of the screen reveals an ‘app bar’ overlay, which fulfils a similar function to a right-click context menu in Windows 7. In a photo app, you might find commands for cropping, resizing, rotating and fixing red-eye in this bar. An overlay at the top of the screen handles in-app navigation, such as bookmarks or recent documents.

Touch navigation, even at this early stage, is fast and responsive. It’s simple and intuitive, and it has all the niceties you’d expect to make a touchscreen device feel right, including several built-in touch keyboards. These keyboards could use refinement, but they’re already better than what you get in Windows 7, and they have autocorrect and spellcheck enabled.

Keyboard and touchscreen co-exist

You don’t need to use Windows 8 via touch, nor buy a tablet or touchscreen PC if you prefer working with a keyboard and mouse. While the experience of using Windows 8 via touch and old-school peripherals is distinctly different, Microsoft doesn’t treat you like a second-class citizen if you eschew the Metro interface in favour of the classic approach.

windows 8 start screen

Move your mouse to the lower-left corner and up pop the Charms. The Start screen makes a Start menu obsolete; it’s as if the Start menu is now fullscreen and loaded with useful at-a-glance information. Panning across the grid of tiles works with the mouse’s scrollwheel, but you also get a scrollbar in all scrollable parts of the interface. Simply right-click to bring up the same menus you see when you swipe from the top or bottom of the screen. If you want to search, just start typing, and the search interface is populated with real-time results.

Microsoft isn’t asking you to throw away several years’ worth of accumulated Windows software. Instead, conventional desktop programs (those you run in Windows 7) will launch in a full desktop, complete with a Taskbar, Recycle Bin, System Tray items and desktop shortcut icons. Everything that runs on Windows 7 will also run on Windows 8. This desktop won’t be a secondary mode of operation, though. Rather, it will co-exist with Metro apps.

Programmers will create Metro apps using a new development model that gives them greater flexibility. Developers can make Metro apps with traditional programming languages such as C++, C#, and Visual Basic, but they can also make apps with HTML5, CSS 3 and Java-Script. This should mean faster, easier app creation for a range of developers, and may-be a broader array of high-quality apps.

windows 8 apps

Apps will be downloaded from a Windows Store that should resemble the app stores for Windows Phone 7 and other smartphone platforms. You can still buy and install legacy Windows desktop applications from any source you like, and Microsoft will even list some of them in the Windows Store with links to the developer’s website.

Your PC, everywhere

Our modern lives revolve around multiple devices, with gadget mavens and Luddites alike shuffling between desktops, laptops and smartphones. Our gadgets have evolved, too: massive hard drives, perpetual internet connectivity, HD cameras and stunning multitouch screens have altered the way we work and play, while leaving us with a hefty amount of data tucked away in separate silos. Windows 8 brings all these sources together.

In Microsoft’s dream scenario for the OS, everything starts with your Windows Live account. Log into your device of choice, and your digital wares travel with you. The same content appears across all the devices you own, from the powerful desktop sitting in your home to the tablet you tote on your morning commute. The aim is to serve up a unified experience, with apps, photos and a consistent user interface that accompany you wherever you are and on whatever device you have at the moment.

The Everywhere OS is an idea that’s long overdue. Although the technology we use evolves rapidly, many of us can’t abandon the tools we’ve come to rely on. Desktops rule the roost in cost-effective storage and performance. A tablet is great for reading reports or firing off the occasional email, but you’ll miss a laptop’s physical keyboard when it’s time to get serious work done on the move. You’re free to swap between devices, but sharing information among them can be an ordeal.

With Windows 8, Microsoft hopes to eliminate those long-standing compromises. Whether you’re browsing the web on a svelte ARM tablet or crunching Excel data on a multi-monitor workstation, you’ll have access to the same apps and platform interface that you’ve grown accustomed to.

It’s already clear that Microsoft has gone to some length to create a platform that’s tablet-friendly, while simultaneously addressing the distinct needs of those who prefer to work with a keyboard and mouse. To pull off such a unitary, multi-device platform, the transition needs to be seamless. This is where developers come in.

Windows 8 is designed to make use of all that the internet has to offer, so any apps built for it will need to follow suit. Woven into the fabric of the OS is a slew of tools to help developers unify their software; as a result, they’ll need to write an app only once, and it will run everywhere. Every touch gesture has a mouse- or keyboard-driven equivalent and, if not identical, they are as similar as can be.

Interoperability goes well beyond making sure that tapping on a screen translates correctly on a device not touch-enabled. Search is king, and Microsoft has thoroughly integrated it into the new OS. While on the Start screen, start typing on your keyboard (or swipe from the right and choose the Search Charm) to bring up Windows 8’s search pane. Search, for example, ‘cat’. The search pane will compile a list of any similarly named apps, settings or files.

Microsoft encourages app developers to come along for the ride, searching local and cloud data, pulling any cat-related content from the ether and displaying it on your device. A Twitter app could deliver a list of tweets about cats, while your music app could display all songs by Cat Stevens.

This functionality isn’t restricted to indulging your feline pursuits, of course. Apps will be able to access your personal data just as readily (if you let them). Say you want to post a photo to Twitter: the Twitter app will pull images from your local drive, Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive or other registered services. Data will be accessible across all your Windows 8 devices. Add pictures to your desktop PC, for example, and they’ll sync to your laptop and tablet. Network passwords, changes to the spellcheck dictionary and Start screen tile layouts all sync instantly across your Windows 8 systems.

windows 8 developers

Improvements for everyone

Windows 8 is more than just a pretty interface. It promises to be full of features to benefit everyone, even if you’re using a standard PC with no touchscreen and plan to spend most of your time in the traditional desktop environment. Thanks to a new memory manager and serious optimisation efforts, this build uses fewer resources than Windows 7. We’ve seen pre-beta Windows 8 PCs with boot times so fast that we could hardly believe they were running Windows.

If you’re tired of managing printer drivers, you’ll appreciate another addition. The OS introduces a ‘class driver’ for printers, such as those used today for keyboards, mice and USB devices. Just plug in your printer and it should work; most printers that support Windows 7 work with the class driver.

USB 3.0 also gets native support, while app developers can look forward to standardised interfaces to deal with touchscreens. Such screens are far more responsive in Windows 8 than Windows 7. We’ll also see a wealth of sensors – accelerometers, gyroscopes, electronic compasses and so on.

The new Restart and Refresh features should prove popular. Restart returns your computer to its out-of-the-box condition in 10 or 15 minutes, wiping all user data – this is handy if you plan to sell or donate a computer you’re replacing. Refresh keeps all your user profiles, data and Metro-style apps from the Windows Store, while returning everything else to a clean slate. It’s like reinstalling Windows and copying back all your data, but it will be one-click easy and considerably faster.

Power users will love the new Task Manager. It’s received a facelift that displays useful data about your running processes, gives better at-a-glance information on system performance, and incorporates the Startup configuration capabilities of Msconfig. Multi-monitor users will have more control over how the Taskbar operates, and can easily choose which display the Start screen appears on.

For businesses and IT managers, Microsoft throws in a host of new tools, including built-in Hyper-V virtualisation on the client, enhanced remote-desktop capabilities, and the ability to run Windows 8, complete with applications and data, from a USB device. Explorer has a new layout and Ribbon interface to make more common commands easier to access. You’ll also be able to directly mount VHD and ISO files without needing any extra software.

Microsoft has yet to reveal all the tricks in the Windows 8 goody bag. Even so, it’s easy to be positive about the bold direction that the company is taking. And although such dramatic changes are sure to alienate some users, they’re needed if Windows is to remain relevant as an OS for the next several years.

The computing world is changing. Rather than resist this surging tide, Microsoft swims with it with Windows 8.

Windows 8 security tweaks

Speaking at the Build developer conference, Steven Sinofsky, president of Microsoft’s Windows division, said that Windows 8 will ship with several small but important security tweaks. Microsoft hopes this will make it a harder target for the viruses, worms and Trojans that are able to subvert older versions of the OS.

Most security features that appeared in Vista and Windows 7 and have gradually been added through updates. These include Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR), which will be used more extensively in Windows 8, as will a new feature that protects the core of the OS from ‘kernel-mode NULL dereference vulnerability’ (a way for an attacker to elevate privileges once on the system).

Windows 8 will also make extensive use of memory heap randomisation, another technique tried on Windows 7 that makes it difficult for malware programmers to ‘overrun’ the space given to an application for malicious purposes.

Probably the biggest security addition is Windows 8’s support for UEFI 2.3.1 secured boot technology (which requires Bios support). This prevents early booting malware from interfering with antivirus products before they load into memory.

None of these changes is particularly radical, but they continue the design policy of restricting as far as possible what applications can do on the platform without upsetting the OS. Of course, in the Web 2.0 world, what an application can do is increasingly governed by software interfaces other than those looked after by the OS.

Sinofsky did, however, remind developers of the importance of the company’s Security Development Lifecycle (SDL). This is the coding, testing and design system Microsoft came up with to avoid the security oversight that caused so many problems for Windows XP a decade ago.

windows 8 task manager

“Some malware is as complex as commercial applications,” said Sinofsky.

Microsoft has also spotted an interesting clue as to why a sizable minority of PCs seem to lack adequate antivirus protection – people use free antivirus that comes with a new PC, but then fail to re-subscribe after trial periods expire.

“Shortly after Windows 7 general availability in October 2009, our telemetry data showed nearly all Windows 7 PCs had up-to-date antimalware software,” said Sinofsky. “A year later, at least 24 percent of Windows 7 PCs did not have current antimalware protection. Our data also shows that PCs that become unprotected tend to stay in this unprotected state for long periods of time.”

Microsoft’s biggest security challenge with Windows 8 remains the same one the company had with Windows 7 – a core of stubborn users refuses to upgrade from older OSes, especially XP. This, critics might point out, is largely Microsoft’s fault for shipping five versions of the OS since the year 2000, a marketing approach that left some users unsure as to the value of paying for a new version.