Windows 8 preview

We take a look at Microsoft's forthcoming OS
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The Windows 8 debate floodgates are open. Microsoft demonstrated its new operating system last month, giving the trade a taste of what’s to come next year, when Windows 8 is likely to be released. Expectations are always high when a big player comes out with a new OS – though often tinged with pessimism since Windows Vista. Let’s have a look at what Microsoft has revealed.

Start

The start screen will be a mosaic of tiles, each one representing an application. Unlike iPhone app icons, which have a static image, Windows 8 tiles change to reflect what’s going on within the app – for example a weather tile can show that day’s forecast.

It’s been designed from the ground up for touch. Simple gestures can open tiles or scroll across them to see more, and users will be able to ‘snap’ apps together to show two working at once.

Existing applications can still be used alongside the new ones designed specifically for Windows 8 and users will be able to ‘snap’ these too. Windows 8 retains a file system, and new applications will be able to access it to browse pictures, videos, documents and more.

Interestingly, Microsoft appears to be standardising the look of its interfaces – Windows Phone, Windows 8 and now the new Xbox dashboard all look strikingly similar.

A technical demonstration at Computex also highlighted the new operating system’s ability to work across both x86 and ARM-based architectures, with a number of prototypes on show.

Ultimately, PC users just want an operating system that’s easy to use, which works hard behind the scenes. It’ll be interesting to see what we get.

Input

We live in touching times. According to Microsoft, anyway, which is keen to emphasise that Windows 8has a ‘touch-centric’ UI. On top of being able to swipe around the Start screen, and snap apps together, there’s a touchscreen keyboard. It can be used at full size, or as a ‘thumbs’ layout – useful for those with tablets or phones.

But what of those people who don’t have touchscreen products? Microsoft claims Windows 8 will work just as well with keyboard and mouse. How true this is remains to be seen. But Microsoft is working on a device called the Touch Mouse which features gesture control.

Currently being promoted for Windows 7, we suspect it’ll be pushed for Windows 8 too.

Play

It looks like Xbox Live will have a significant part to play in the future of Windows 8 and there are rumours that Xbox’s motion-interface device Kinect might make an appearance too.

Mike Delman, Microsoft vice president of global marketing, has said that Xbox Live will be built into PCs through Windows 8, and suggested that Xbox Live will be the service that’s used to deliver different types of media across all its devices. It has already been integrated into Windows Phone.

Furthermore, at games conference E3 Xbox Live’s new dashboard was announced –it’s being updated to have a Windows-8style appearance Stephen McGill, director–Xbox & Entertainment, Microsoft UK, told PCR’s sister magazine MCV that familiarity with user interfaces is increasingly important to Microsoft:

“As an industry we face big challenges in finding ways round user interface barriers and navigating through a personal directory of hundreds of thousands of pieces of content.

“In a world where you surf through millions of bits of content, and start doing that through the TV, having a consistent way of navigating is important, across Windows 8, Windows Phoneand Xbox.”

Less is known about Kinect’s role, but its gesture controls would make a good fit with the new OS and rumours suggest Windows 8 might feature webcam sensors that would use Kinect-style facial recognition to log users on. Watch this space.

First impressions and comments

Craig Hume, Utopia Computers: “Everything I have seen so far has been very positive, especially things like the ergonomic on-screen keyboard. It’s great to see Microsoft leading the way with innovative ideas and not just rehashing other companies’ existing concepts.

“I like the idea that it will work on a variety of devices – a shrewd move by Microsoft as I’m sure there are plenty of consumers who’d want their tablet and phone to have the same interface as their PC. This could be a way to get people to move away from Apple.

“However, I’m not sure how having only one version of the OS will work in a real world scenario across massively different specifications of devices.

“Finally, a new OS from Microsoft is always a good thing –even Vista boosted sales for a while! As for what I’d like to see in the future: easier to understand error codes. For example, I’ve never understood why, when trying to update Windows and the time or date is wrong, you receive a message that says ‘error code 0x80073712’. Why not just say ‘check your date and time’? But if these errors were easier to understand, perhaps I would not be so busy.”

Stephen McGill, Microsoft: “As an industry we face big challenges in finding ways round user interface barriers. Having a consistent way of navigating is important, across Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox.”

Peter Wright, Hive Support: “From what I saw, Windows 8 looked very much like Windows Phone 7, which is appalling in my opinion – it too uses tiles, and for some reason Microsoft has made it so that the interface doesn't fit on the screen; there are bits of text running off the edge for example, which while making the interface bigger as such, is really annoying.

“The tiles idea is indeed striking, and may work as a basic tablet interface, like the iPad or on a large phone, but for a full desktop operating system it could not work.

This is not what I would call progress. Users want a desktop, they don't want ‘slick and intuitive’, they just want what they are used to, and for it to work like they expect.

The only way this could work is if that interface is additional to a standard desktop, like Media Centre (and who uses that?). The way Microsoft keeps changing things is working against it; it’s sad to think X Pis still seen as its high point.

I’d like to see a a return to basic, easily navigated file systems, and a return to a simple desktop like XP.”

Anwar Ahmed, Arbico:
“Windows 8 is a going to be a great addition to the Windows family. The market has always been there for touchscreen PCs, but Windows 8 will now bring that to the mainstream audience.

“With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to play to the younger tech savvy audience who like their apps and gadgets. It is very app friendly and will be able to run on the smallest processors, so we will see it being applied very successfully to mobile, tablets and smart TVs.

I think we will see more and more Microsoft devices appearing in the market in the not too distant future, and it will become a major contender as the OS of choice in the mobile arena.

“It’s not a direct progression from Windows 7in that it has a clearly different product concept. Windows 7 was all about making up for the failure of Windows Vista and becoming a worthy successor to Windows XP.

“In my opinion Windows 7 will keep going for a long time in the same way as Windows XP did. People are just about done switching to Windows 7 now and I don't think that the leap from the traditional operating system to the touchscreen format of Windows 8 would appeal to most at present.”

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