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Windows 8 in-depth

We take a detailed look at the next version of the operating system.

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.

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