Microsoft released the consumer preview of its upcoming, highly-anticipated Windows 8 OS today, giving users a taste of the platform's functionality. Given that a major part of the operating system is the tile-based, touch-friendly Metro UI -- which is essentially layered on top of the traditional desktop, allowing users to switch between the two -- Windows 8 is highly tailored for tablets, at least on paper. So how does it work in practice?
Quite well, it seems, as Microsoft has outdone itself to make sure that when navigating the Metro UI, users have access to a number of different gestures and touchscreen controls. Swiping in from the right bezel, for example, brings up a list of what Microsoft has dubbed "charms," which are essentially shortcuts to important system commands.
These include search, share (which brings up a list of applications that can share the content of the app you're currently running), the well-known Start button, devices (a list of all connected devices), and settings. It is worth noting, however, that the settings listing is not quite as in-depth as what the Control Panel offers. Also, if the Start charm doesn't strike your fancy, all Windows 8 tablets will also come equipped with a physical Start button beneath the display that can open up the full-screen Start menu.
Swiping in from the top and bottom bezels pulls up app-specific commands, like a URL bar on the bottom and browser tabs on the top when using the Metro Internet Explorer. And finally, swiping in from the left bezel allows for multitasking, as it brings up the last app that you used in a small window. You can pull it out further to dock on the left quarter of the screen (or you can drag it to the right side), or you can pull it out all of the way to maximize it. Dragging it out and back pulls up a comprehensive list of all of your recently-used apps, and you can tap any of them to open them back up.
Speaking of apps, Windows 8 will have access to the new Windows Store, an app marketplace, and will also come preloaded with Metro-themed apps for things like mail, contacts, and messaging. Users will also have access to SkyDrive, the Microsoft equivalent of iCloud, which lets users upload files of most types to their cloud accounts and even mark them for public viewing. Apps can be tied directly into SkyDrive as well; for instance, using the Share charm with the Mail app while viewing a photo in SkyDrive will mail a copy of the photo.
The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 is especially well-designed for tablets, in that (as a portable device) tablets don't always offer a huge amount of on-screen real estate. It's an issue that's usually made even worse when browsing on the internet, as elements of the interface like the URL bar take up precious space on the top and bottom of the screen. Not so with Internet Explorer 10 for Metro, as the entire page is displayed and takes up the whole screen, with no UI elements at all until you swipe in from the top or bottom bezels.
Though the consumer preview (of the x86 version, by the way, not the ARM version) was just launched today, the general consensus seems to be that the Windows 8 experience is somewhat fragmented given the way the Metro interface and the desktop interface operate almost entirely independently of one another. This sort of set up apparently creates a bit of a disconnect at times; for instance, the Metro version and the desktop version of Internet Explorer are two completely different programs. Bookmarks, history, passwords, cookies, etc. are not shared between the two and they actually run as two separate entries in the Task Manager.
But as with all early or beta builds, it's probably a safe bet to wait and see how the completely finished product turns out before passing any final judgment. What that final product will be available, however, still remains a mystery, as Microsoft has not provided any more details about a release date.
For more news and information about Windows 8, head over to DesktopReview to check out our W8 for 8 special report.
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