For this feature we tried using Windows 8 on an Intel tablet - it's important to make the distinction between desktop Windows 8 and Windows RT, the version of Windows designed for ARM-powered tablet devices.
Windows 8 is a big step forwards for Microsoft, which hopes that the new Metro interface will help it carve out a place in the burgeoning world of tablets. If it is to do so, Metro will need to be finger friendly, bright, snappy and functional to compete with market leaders Apple iOS and Google Android, both of which have a considerable head start, and a large fan base. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.)
Anyone who has used Windows Phone will find the tile-based look and feel of Metro instantly recognisable, and that’s no coincidence. It features ‘live tiles’, which show live information such as the most up-to-date weather forecast, birthday notifications and information on the music track to which you are currently listening. Just as you see in Microsoft’s mobile operating system.
But Metro isn’t simply a port of the Windows Phone OS to a larger screen size. It has a range of extra features that help you make best use of tablet-sized screens. And it links in to the more Windows-like desktop-style screen, too. Here we’ll take a look at what Metro has to offer to tablets, and how well Windows 8 functions as a touch-friendly interface. We used an Intel tablet and Windows 8 Consumer Preview as Windows RT was not available at press time.
Windows 8: The Metro interface on a tablet
It’s worth noting at the very outset that the Metro interface isn’t limited to interaction by finger alone. You can control it with a mouse and keyboard too, and there are keyboard shortcuts for lots of tasks. We plugged in a mouse and keyboard via USB, and had no trouble using them.
If you are working with a finger, which is most likely on a tablet, the Metro interface is comfortable to use. On our test machine, a Samsung Series 7 slate PC, it was responsive to finger presses and sweeps, and there are some interesting features. We like the way, for example, you can zoom into the interface so you can see all your shortcuts with a quick pinch in and out.
Viewing all apps is easy, too. A sweep upwards from the bottom reveals a menu bar. What’s actually on offer here can vary depending on what you are doing at the time, but if you’re viewing the Start screen and instead would like to see all your apps, just tap ‘All apps’ and you’ll see a full list.
We’re big fans of how easy it is to pin any app to the Start screen. It’s just a case of sweeping upwards to get that bottom menu to appear, choosing ‘All Apps’, then dragging your chosen app down to the bottom of the screen to reveal the option to pin it to the Start screen.
You can also easily move tiles around the Start screen by dragging them, so that your most frequently used or favourite apps are always the ones you see first when you open the Start screen.
Just as with Windows Phone, the Start screen can display live information. If you are signed in to an email account, the Mail tile will provide alerts. If you allow Bing Weather to use your location it will show you the current weather situation, while the music tile will display information about the track you are currently listening to. It’s all designed to keep you up to date without you needing to keep opening apps all the time.
Windows 8: Installing apps
One of the great plus points of this operating system is the Windows Store. Accessed via the Metro interface, it gives you a direct route to third-party apps, which take advantage of the Metro look and feel to provide a whole host of extra functionality. App stores are nothing new, but this will be the first time we’ve seen one integrated into Windows.
In the Consumer Preview we’ve been looking at, the apps are all free, which certainly won’t be the case later on. Applications are categorised by subject, and you sweep through these to see what’s new or being promoted. The look and feel of the interface is similar to that of the Start screen.
Whenever you choose an app, you’ll be taken to a page that displays a lot more information about it. On the right of the screen you can view images – just sweep one image to cycle through all that are available – app details and reviews, while on the left you are given the option to install it. Updating your apps is easy, indeed the Start screen tile tells you how many updates there are waiting to be installed via a small number in its bottom-right corner.
Windows 8: Charms
New to Windows 8, Charms provide quick and easy access to a wide range of options from both the Start screen and from within apps themselves. To access them using a touchscreen device, or your tablet, simply sweep inwards from the right side of the display. The Charms bar will appear on the right-hand side of the screen, featuring five options: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings.
The first of these lets you look for apps, settings and specific files – you can also use it to search within apps. The Share charm allows you to share content, while the Start icon opens the Metro Start screen and toggles through to the desktop view, too. If you want to access a peripheral that’s attached to your tablet, a monitor for example, then you can do so using the Devices charm. The last of these five options allows you to change the settings within Windows 8.
Finally, a box displaying such information as the date and time, as well as the status of your tablet’s battery and the strength of a wireless signal is located in the bottom-left corner.
Windows 8: Snap multi-tasking
In the Metro view, it’s easy to see two apps at once. If you’ve got two or more programs running, slowly and gently sweep a finger in from the left of the screen and a small window will open showing another app. You can have one large and one small app onscreen, and can change the size of each by dragging the vertical bar that separates the two. It’s a simple system that could be used to let you keep an eye on, say, a Twitter feed in the small window while browsing the web in the larger one.
Windows 8: Keyboard entry
Just because you might be using Windows 8 on a tablet doesn’t mean you won’t need to input text. Microsoft has provided a variety of options for entering text into applications like email, including a very neat split keyboard design. This ought to work well for those times when you are holding your tablet in both hands and want to type with your thumbs. There’s also a more standard Qwerty-style keyboard design, and a ‘keyboard’ area that can cope with handwriting recognition, too. So there should be an option to suit every situation.
Windows 8: Settings
The Metro interface has been designed to give you quick access to a range of settings. Open the Settings charm and you can immediately connect to wireless networks or go into Airplane mode, alter volume and screen brightness, change the system language, toggle notifications on and off and sleep, shutdown or restart. By choosing More PC Settings you can open up a new Settings area.
This settings area isn’t totally comprehensive, but it does cover a range of things you are likely to want to do, and everything is arranged in a finger-friendly way, with many of the settings simply altered via a slider. If you want to do something that isn’t covered here, you can use the Search charm to look through the full gamut of settings.
Windows 8: What’s not to like?
We rather like the Metro interface. The concept is a smart one, and it’s nicely responsive under the finger. The idea of being able to call elements up as needed out of the edges of the screen, such as the Charms that are hidden unless you sweep to bring them up, is neat.
But then again, we think there’s room for improvement. The live tiles concept works well, but unless you pinch and zoom in you can’t see an awful lot of these at once. We’d like to be able to reduced the size of the tiles by half in order to cram more onto a single screen.
Similarly, the ability to view two apps at once is great, but why can’t we specify that both share the same amount of screen space instead of one having to take up a lot more room than the other?
Microsoft has gone for simplicity with Metro in many respects, and we’d actually like to see a little more flexibility and complexity. What Windows 8 really needs, though, is the test of time. Metro is going to need a lot of third-party app support to make it work well and give it a chance of rivalling the likes of Apple’s iOS and Android on tablets. Clearly reaching critical mass will take a while.