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Windows 8: No touch, no fun

The plan was to install Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a touchscreen device and see how easy it is to use fingers to navigate the Metro user interface, but that's not how it worked out.

Due to a driver issue, the touchscreen didn't work, so the only option for getting around was mouse and keyboard, which was certainly doable, but revealed that touch is really the way to go with this radically different Microsoft platform.

TEST YOURSELF: The Windows 8 Quiz

While it is designed to also support mouse and keyboard, Windows 8 is built for touchscreen and is often clunky without it. It remains to be seen whether there will be a professional version of the operating system and how it will differ from the consumer preview, but if mouse and keyboard remain unwieldy that will make it unpopular in businesses. End users learning new ways of performing tasks will present hurdles, as will finding out that some of these new ways take longer than the old ways.

Here are some experiences with Windows 8 Consumer Preview that point up a few of these shortcomings.

For the purposes of trying it out, Windows 8 was downloaded to an HP TouchSmart 520-1070 desktop. The software wouldn't install directly over Windows 7, although it is designed to do so. So it was installed to a disk partition via an ISO image burned to a DVD. That left the partition without the touchscreen driver, which, when downloaded from HP, wouldn't support Windows 8.

That precluded trying to use the touch interface. That issue aside, Windows 8 booted up just fine to a screen that allows a choice between Windows 7 and Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and selecting the latter leads to a screen of a tree in fall foliage against a blue sky and the date and time in large lettering.

Typing Windows Key-C leads to a login screen, then the famous Windows 8 Start screen with 22 live tiles on it. Clicking on the Store tile leads to the Windows Store, a screen that shows a cluster of tiles labeled Spotlight and half a cluster labeled Games.

With touch, swiping from right to left would bring into view more tiles. Without touch, dragging a slide across the bottom of the screen from left to right reveals other clusters: Social, Entertainment, Photos, Music & videos, Books & reference, News & weather, Food & dining, Shopping, Travel, Finance, Productivity, Tools and Security.

Clearly, this would be much smoother with touch. Without, it's not a big change, except the content is arranged horizontally rather than vertically as it would have been in a traditional Windows layout.

(Attempts to download DocStoc Premium failed. It is a business application with templates of common documents such as job performance reviews, nondisclosure agreements and lease agreements. After the failure, the app icon had a link marked: "Why didn't this app install?" Clicking on it yielded this: "Something happened and this app couldn't be installed. Please try again.")

While waiting for that download, returning to the Start screen for more options required running the cursor into the bottom left corner where a mini Start screen pops up. Clicking on it brings up the actual Start screen, and getting to another application requires clicking on it.

Alternatively, clicking in the upper left corner brings up a mini image of the last app the user engaged. Dropping the cursor below that image reveals mini images of all the applications that are running in the background. Clicking on them brings up their full screens.

With a traditional desktop, switching from application to application would have required clicking the appropriate icon on the task bar. So even after learning how Windows 8 works, this operation is still slower than the Windows 7 method because it requires more clicks to navigate from application to application.

For repeated switching back and forth between two particular apps, it's possible to snap one to the right or left side of the screen. To do so, run the cursor to the top of the screen until the hand appears, click and draw it down. The app will shrink and can be slid with the mouse to the right or left side. When it enters the last inch or two before the edge, it morphs to fill the screen from top to bottom but remains just an inch or two wide.

Another app can be called up to fill the rest of the screen. To switch back to the app crammed to the side, drag the vertical bar separating the active and waiting apps and tug it toward the center of the screen. The squeezed app will snap to be the active one and dominate the screen, while the other will snap into a narrow column on the other side.

Moving on to email, sending messages proved just as easy as with a traditional desktop. Clicking on the Start page Mail tile brought up a Gmail account previously registered, and clicking on a plus sign opened up a clean, full screen form. A To box appeared in the upper left for an email address with a cc: box below it. The reset of the screen was a field for writing the text. At the top of the text space was an area for a subject line. Clicking on an envelope icon in the upper right sent the message.

Right-clicking on the text area brings up a toolbar across the bottom of the screen with font choices and styles as well as a pop-up box to set priority, an attachment button and an emoticon button.

The downside is that it wasn't apparent how to get to other folders such as Sent, Draft and Starred. Perhaps this has to do with the beta nature of Windows 8's mail application and its integration with Gmail.

There's a set of tools called charms that pop out of the right side of the screen if the cursor is run to the bottom right corner. They are live buttons marked Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings.

Search yields icons for the same set of options that appear on the Start screen. Share gives options for sharing content in the active application. Devices yielded options for a second screen and Settings calls up options for Accounts, Permissions and Rate and Review and others, depending on the active application. Settings also includes icons for Network, sound, notifications and language choice.

This is also where the power button is, so it's important to remember how to get to it. It's far from intuitive, and would no doubt be the source of a lot of help-desk calls in a work environment.

All of these could have been reached in Windows 7 via the Start button in some cases with fewer clicks.

The Metro Style Internet Explorer that comes with Windows 8 has a very clean look with no bars across the top and the address bar across the bottom. Once that becomes clear to the user, it's actually a better option visually than having it across the top where it acts as a frame for to the page being viewed. The address bar is black and white with just four icons, back, forward, refresh, pin-to-start and tools. The fact that it's dark helps it remain unobtrusive. The scroll wheel still works on the mouse to move the page up and down.

The big drawback of Metro Style Internet Explorer 10 is that it doesn't support plug-ins, so an attempt to use YouTube resulted in a message that the browser doesn't support any of the formats that YouTube offers. IE 10 does support HTML5, but YouTube doesn't. The most convenient thing to do is go to the traditional Windows desktop that is an alternative to Windows 8's Metro look by clicking on the Desktop tile on the Start screen and launching a more traditional version of the browser that does accept plug-ins.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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