Windows 8 Consumer Preview: What works and what doesn’t

windows-8-consumer-preview-start-screen

It’s a dangerous prospect, given how many times it’s already crashed, but I’m typing this on a Windows 8 laptop. Yesterday, Microsoft released the next free public version of its new Windows 8 operating system. Though it’s called a “Consumer Preview,” I can’t help but note how much more like a beta it feels. It’s come a long way since the Developer Preview was released a few months ago. If you have a spare Intel-based laptop or tablet (we installed it on an HP Folio 13 Ultrabook), you can download and install it for free, but we must warn you: It’s still riddled with bugs and incomplete functionality. Then again, can we expect otherwise?

Also, check out our picks for the best Windows phone.

What is Windows 8?

Before I begin my diatribe on what is good and bad in the new pre-release of Windows 8, perhaps I should explain what it is. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to bring the many fantastic and sensible innovations that Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone smartphones have brought to the world of computing. And it’s also an attempt to rework Windows as a “touch-first” operating system, meaning that its interface is simple and designed to be used in touch tablets similar to the iPad. Future laptops and PCs will likely have touchscreens as well. That’s just the direction things are headed. So Microsoft’s goal is to create one platform that can serve a keyboard and mouse just as well as a touchscreen.

It’s a difficult problem to solve and there is no easy solution, but Microsoft has taken a uniquely Microsoft approach. It is hoping to please everybody by including a near-complete version of Windows 7 and a brand-new interface based almost entirely on Windows Phone 7. The new Windows Phone “Metro-style” user interface has all of the best features of smartphones: apps that install (and uninstall) with ease, a more flexible homescreen, an app store, much simpler menus, an email app, a calendar app, other basic apps, and the ability to perform tasks while the computer is ‘sleeping.’ These are just a few benefits, of many. The only downside is that smartphones and tablets have not yet been home to the complex, professional applications and features that PCs are known for. It may be more fun to check your email in one of these interfaces, but when you want to use Photoshop, there’s just no way. This is why the Windows 7-like desktop is also present. Microsoft calls this mishmash “no compromises,” and it may be right, in a way, but it ain’t “no complaints.” Not just yet.

Below are the good and bad points of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

The Good

In a recent article, I laid out five features Microsoft should add to Windows 8 in the Consumer Preview. These included a proper app list, usable multitasking, a cleaner classic desktop, more flexible live tiles, and alternatives to the Windows 8 store. Surprisingly, many of these points were fixed. Perhaps my demands were too reasonable?

windows-8-consumer-preview-apps-list-charms-bar

An Apps List: In the Developer Preview, there was no list of installed apps — something that’s present in Windows Phone. The Consumer Preview fixes this. A full list of apps is now accessible with a right click, and it is glorious. You can uninstall apps, pin them to the Start Screen, and perform a number of other actions from this screen. Easy peasie. Better still, Windows 7 apps and features are also in this list.

Right clicking: Speaking of right clicking, Microsoft has added it in. When you right click (or swipe down from the top or bottom of the screen on a tablet), menus will pop up on the top or bottom filled with app-specific options. This opens up a lot of possibilities for app creators.

Charms bar: Swiping in from the right side of the screen (or moving your mouse to the lower or upper right corners of the screen) brings up the improved charms bar, which has app-specific settings, PC settings like Wi-Fi and volume, a sharing button, and a devices button as well as a link to the Start Screen, if ya need it. The app-specific settings do seem a bit repetitive since the right-click menus should accomplish that, but oh well. The Charms bar actually works.

Start Screen customization: You can’t yet resize pinned Live Tiles, but you can now move them around with ease and create your own groups of apps. If you want to name those groups, just hit the zoom out button on the lower right corner of the screen and right click the group you wish to name. It’s all quite intuitive.

windows-8-consumer-preview-windows-store

Windows 8 App Store: The app store is quite new, but it’s already working out well. Installing apps is a one-click process, as is removing them. The Windows Store will have paid content when W8 launches, but for now, you can download anything. There are about 100 apps — perhaps a few less. Windows 7 applications can also be downloaded and installed in much the same way that they have been installed since Windows 95. You can download Windows 7 applications from the Web, or install them in all the ways that you used to like CD, DVD, USB, or SD. 

Multitasking: There are still problems with multitasking, but you can now grab more than just your previous app by swiping in from the left side of the screen (or moving your mouse to the upper left). A listof the last six or so open apps displays on the left, much like how Android tablets or Windows Phone displays previously used apps. Alt + Tab now works as well, so you can swap between apps that way as well.

Windows 7 is a bit better looking: The Windows 7 theme has been reworked ever-so-slightly to look more square.

Flow: This is an ugly little color-pipe-connection game, but dammit, it’s addictive. I’m on level 31 and I cannot stop playing. I’m a Flow master. Try it out.

The Bad

While many issues were addressed, some fundamental ones remain, as do more than a few big bugs.

windows-8-consumer-preview-multitasking-desktop

Multitasking: While we like the improvements to multitasking, it still doesn’t feel as fast or fluid as it could — not by a long shot. Using the four-corners interface with a mouse is a bit awkward and I can’t stop accidentally performing unintended actions. It’s also hard to drag apps where you need them to go. You can also drag apps off the screen to shut them down, but it’s difficult to do with a mouse.

Reliance on Windows 7 desktop: As Microsoft continues to add features to Windows 8, the role of the classic Windows 7 desktop has diminished, but it’s still far too crucial to the Windows 8 experience. You can’t even open up Task Manager without moving to the Desktop. All file and folder management has been exported to that environment as well. I am beginning to really enjoy using the Metro interface, and it can be quite jarring and annoying when I have to travel back to the old desktop because Microsoft hasn’t finished migrating features over to Metro. I sincerely hope that the plan is to eventually enable almost all features in the Metro interface.

Split screen is too rigid: You can drag two apps onto a Metro-style screen at once, but you can only look at them in two sizes: wide or thin. An option for a split screen view, or more than two apps, will be wanted and needed on more robust computers.

windows-8-consumer-preview-flow-then-bing

windows-8-consumer-preview-bing-then-flow

Mouse woes: The mouse and keyboard experience of Windows 8 has been improved, but it’s still not ideal. Windows 8 menus are built around swiping horizontally between screens (like pages), but the mouse isn’t built for this. It’s good at finding a specific pixel and poking it. The Start Screen now lets you scroll to the right by pushing your mouse to the edge. This solution works decently, but few apps support it. If you happen to have a scroll wheel (meaning you’re using a mouse and not just a touchpad), that is also a great way to move from side to side, but again, many apps do not support it. Microsoft needs to ensure that consistent navigation styles are baked into all apps.

Glitches and crashes: In the last day, Windows 8: CP has crashed, or slowed to a crash, about half a dozen times on our HP Folio 13 Ultrabook. Apps like Cut the Rope don’t work at all and desktop browsers like Chrome and IE 9, which we loved so dearly in Windows 7 are rendered useless in the upgrade to Windows 8, despite the fact that they should work. Most other apps seem rushed and are quite feature incomplete or broken.

I’m hopeful

With the Consumer Preview, Microsoft has shown that it does seem to be on a good trajectory with the interface of Windows 8. It’s hard not to feel like the company bit off more than it could chew, but it’s fun to see Microsoft innovating in big ways again. I am still using my Windows 7 machine more than Windows 8 due to some of the issues present, but if the final version of 8 is as much of a leap as this is from the Developer Preview, Microsoft might have a fighting chance to retain PC dominance and regain some excitement. After that, Steven Sinofsky and his team just need to figure out how to upgrade Windows more than once every 3 or 4 years. Windows releases shouldn’t correlate this closely to presidential elections. People select new electronics every day, not every 3 or 4 years.

[dt-video id=”w3ZzNuMzoHF7507oaJQ8fLp79GoZPByP” autoplay=”0″]

Update 3-02-2012: Clarified text on installing Windows 7 applications. 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Emerging Tech

Stronger than steel, thinner than paper, graphene could be the future of tech

Since its discovery, graphene has set the research world on fire. What exactly is it, though, and what could it mean for the future of tech? Here's everything you need to know about what could be the next supermaterial to take center stage.
Home Theater

What is MHL, exactly, and how does it work with your TV?

There are more ways to mirror your smartphone or tablet to your TV than you might think. Check out our rundown of MHL for everything you need to know about the wired protocol and its myriad uses.
Gaming

What games were nominated for the The Game Awards 2018? Find out here

The Game Awards returns to Los Angeles for its fifth show this December. Here is everything we know about the event, including its location, where you can watch it, and games that were nominated.
Computing

Buying a laptop on Black Friday? Don't make one of these rookie mistakes

Shopping for a laptop on Black Friday can win you some excellent deals, but you should also avoid making common mistakes. Check out what to avoid when buying a laptop for Black Friday and what danger signs to be wary of.
Computing

Microsoft Surface Studio 2: Everything you need to know

Microsoft's Surface Studio 2 comes with a new CPU, new graphics card, and a brighter display -- but is all of that worth the higher cost? Here's everything you need to know about the Surface Studio 2.
Computing

Want to use one drive between a Mac and Windows PC? Partitions are your best bet

Compatibility issues between Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X may have diminished sharply over the years, but that doesn't mean they've completely disappeared. Here's how to make an external drive work between both operating systems.
Computing

Microsoft turns on the lights with a new white theme in Windows 10 update

Microsoft is introducing a new light theme in the upcoming version of Windows 10 and is currently beta testing the change with Windows Insiders. The clean-looking theme brings a much-needed facelift to Windows.
Computing

Four Andromeda-related Microsoft patents hint at new ways to use the device

Andromeda might be getting even more real as four Microsoft patents have surfaced recently, all of which hint at possible new use cases and other new configurations for the device. 
Computing

Here's why 64-bit (not 32-bit) dominates modern computing

Today's computing world isn't the same as it once was. With 64-bit processors and operating systems replacing the older 32-bit designs, we look at what 32-bit vs. 64-bit really means for you.
Computing

A Google patent shows a way to make VR even more immersive

Virtual reality can be a really immersive experience, but it does sometimes it does have boundaries. Google has addressed this problem by patenting shoes with a flexible region on the bottom.
Computing

Converting files from MKV to MP4 is quick and easy. Just follow these steps

MKV files have their place, but if you would rather convert your videos from MKV to MP4, there are two methods we consider the best and most efficient for getting it done. In this guide, we'll walk you through them step by step.
Computing

Heal your wrist aches and pains with one of these top ergonomic mice

If you have a growing ache in your wrist, it might be worth considering changing up your mouse for something ergonomic. But which is the best ergonomic mouse for you? One of these could be the ticket to the right purchase for you.
Computing

Our 10 favorite Chrome themes add some much-needed pizzazz to your boring browser

Sometimes you just want Chrome to show a little personality and ditch the grayscale for something a little more lively. Lucky for you, we've sorted through the Chrome Web Store to find best Chrome themes available.
Deals

All the Best Target Black Friday deals for 2018

The mega-retailer opens its doors to the most competitive shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 22, and signs indicate that the retailer means business this year. We've sifted through all of the deals, from consumer electronics to small…