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Windows 8, Consumer Preview Review

March 9, 2012

As I have done in the past, when Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 made their respective debuts, I devoted an entire issue to each, in order to provide an overview of the new operating system. A new operating system is a very big deal, in general, and Windows 8 represents a major, MAJOR overhaul of the Windows operating system. The change from XP to Vista or from XP to Win 7 was a biggie. The change from Win 7 to Windows 8 is biggier -- which is, coincidentally, Mr. Modem's New Word of the Day.

I have been using Windows 8 for a little over a week at this point. Based on that vast experience, this week I will provide an overview of some of the most notable new items and features, as well as share my initial impressions of the new operating system.

Please bear in mind that historically, there are always changes incorporated within any operating system between the time of its pre-release version (today) and its final commercial release (later this year).

First, a few new terms:

Windows 8, Consumer Preview Version, released last Wednesday, February 29th, will be referred to as Windows 8 from this point forward, for no other reason than I don't feel like typing “Consumer Preview Version” each time.

Metro Interface or Metro refers to the new touchscreen interface, similar to that which tablet users (iPad, Galaxy, Kindle, etc.) and smartphone users are familiar, that require swiping gestures on the screen's surface and tapping as opposed to clicking. Windows 8 actually has two faces, the touchscreen (Metro) interface and the traditional Windows Desktop interface, so Win 8 will work fine for individuals with touchscreen monitors (tablet computers) as well as those who either have or prefer the traditional mouse-and-keyboard approach.

Charms or Live Tiles are essentially what we used to know as icons. Why Microsoft felt compelled to rename them is anybody's guess, but in Windows 8, these are colorful squares that appear on the Desktop that you tap or click, if you're using a mouse interface. Charms are Windows 8's main system menu icons. With mouse-and-keyboard, you have to move the cursor to the top right corner and then down to access the charms. It probably goes without saying, but charms are more accessible on a touchscreen, requiring only a swipe off the right edge of the screen.

SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud-based storage and syncing service, similar to Apple's iCloud.

Getting Started

Windows 8 can be downloaded and installed on any Windows 7-capable computer. It is available at Microsoft's Windows 8 Consumer Preview page. I installed it on a spare PC I had been using for testing various programs under Windows 7. In addition, I purchased a ViewSonic VX2258WM touchscreen monitor for use with Windows 8.

As far as initial, overall impressions, Windows 8 bears a strong resemblance to Apple's OS X Lion operating system in many respects. I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Initial Configuration

There is a four-step setup process when you run Windows 8 which consists of Personalization, Wireless Setup, Settings and Sign In. It sounds worse than it is. Each step is quite simple and well explained on screen:

One of the first weighty Personalization decisions to be made involves what background color you prefer. Oh, the pressure of it all. This customization is one reason Microsoft decided to go with a new Windows logo that doesn't have fixed colors. It will change depending on your color selection. Since I like to accessorize, this helps me coordinate my Windows logo with my shoes.

To select your background color, tap one of the nine choices presented on a color spectrum bar, and the background will instantly change to reflect your choice. The only other choice on the Personalize page is to enter a name for the device. I've decided to call mine Morty.

The Wireless Setup step is a matter of selecting your Wi-Fi SSID (network) from the typical list showing signal strength bars, with an optional "Connect automatically" check box that is checked by default. You can actually skip this step, but that will limit your Windows 8 experience -- and heaven knows I didn't want that. So after selecting my network from the list presented, I tapped Connect and was then asked for my router's password. It's a 26-digit monster. If I didn't have it tattoo'd on my calf, I would never remember it, though it does result in a lot of questions when I wear shorts. I should have thought that through better.

The Settings page of this initial setup process is a bit complex and wordy -- not unlike this review -- though you can elect to use Express Settings. That choice sets the device to automatically install updates; it turns on malware protection; sends Microsoft usage data; lets apps access your location, name and account picture, allows Microsoft employees to enter your home any hour of the day or night to check for bootlegged software and snacks, enables network sharing; and sets the localization to U.S., and the language to English.

If you choose Customize instead of Express, you are taken through a page for each of these choices. I selected the Customize option and feeling kind of antisocial at the time, disabled just about everything: No to updates, yes to malware protection, no to sending Microsoft usage data -- only to discover that you can't turn this one off. Actually, the more I thought about it, and as offended as I tried to be by this affront, it makes sense. Since this is a free test version of Windows 8, I can understand that Microsoft wants to track usage information. That's a fair trade-off.

I also said no to letting apps access my location, name and account picture, no to enable network sharing (for this test run), and yes to establishing the U.S. and English language as my defaults.

The Sign In step is required in order to download apps from the Windows Store (also something new) and take advantage of the SkyDrive (cloud) service that stores files and photos and syncs your settings with other devices (like Apple's iCloud). For better or worse, you need to sign in with a Windows Live ID. I wasn't thrilled with this, but what are you going to do? You don't HAVE to sign in, and instead can sign in at the local level (on your computer only), but you will miss out on some of the advantages of Windows 8 and apps designed to use these services, if you do. At least that's what Microsoft is telling us.

After you sign in, you are asked to provide a mobile phone number or alternate email address. Microsoft explains, "We'll only use this info to help you recover your password and keep your account more secure." Yeah, right. I did not provide my cell phone number, but instead provided a Gmail address that I use for odds and ends, so if Microsoft sells it or exploits the address, that's fine. I did not give them my primary email address. I trust them...but not that much.

Once you get past this point, if you listen carefully, you may hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background as you behold the radiant splendor of the new Windows 8 Metro start screen. Ta-dummmmm!

After I regained consciousness from all the excitement, the grid-like display of brightly colored squares (the “live tiles” or “charms”) is the location from which you launch any apps, control settings, and enter the more traditional Windows Desktop.

After a restart, a swipe-lock screen appears which will be familiar to any tablet or smartphone user. On this screen you can see the battery charge remaining, Wi-Fi signal strength, and notifications for email and any other apps you have allowed. A new type of notification in Windows 8 reminds me of toast popping out of a toaster. It jumps out from the right side of the screen if, for example, you have an incoming text message. (Okay, so I screamed like a little girl the first time it appeared, but hey, it caught me by surprise.)

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Picture Password

Windows 8 introduces a new way to get past the informative lock screen that involves the use of a picture password. I'm not sure why, but the initial setup process doesn't provide the opportunity to create a picture password. That would be a logical time to do it, but it doesn't happen at that point. Perhaps it will in the commercial release. Overall, the picture password is a nice feature that saves you from having to type on your touchscreen.

Basically, picture passwords allow you to select an image of your choosing, then draw a series of three gestures to help authenticate legitimate users. These gestures can consist of lines, circles and even taps on the picture that are then memorialized by Windows 8. It's a nice feature, but not required. You can still use a traditional type-it-in password.

To create a picture password in this preview release, tap Settings > More PC Settings > Users. At this location you can not only create your picture password, but also switch to a local account, without SkyDrive (cloud storage) benefits, change your regular password, or create a 4-digit PIN that lets you start up quickly.

To create your picture password, the first step is to select your picture or photo. Something with several objects and shapes is best. You then simply draw any combination of three circles, taps, or lines with your mouse or finger. You then repeat the pattern to confirm it. That's all there is to it. Of course, you have to remember the gestures to login in the future, but I found it to be very forgiving if I didn't repeat my gestures exactly as I performed them during setup. For my gesticular password, I'm using a hand-stand, followed by a back-flip onto my desk, then a reverse jackknife into my chair. The only downside is that I now need paramedics standing by whenever I reboot. A few lines and circles would have been a better choice.

Microsoft claims that their research reveals there are in excess of a billion three-gesture combinations, so concerns about anybody imitating your unique gestures is, apparently, not a major concern. At least it appears not to be a major concern to Microsoft.

New Gestures

In order to use touchscreen input, it helps to understand the concept behind it: The sides of the screen are for Windows, while the top and bottom are for the app currently running. Swipe in from the right side to see the Windows 8 charms (icons) that provide access to basic operating system functions, including Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Using a mouse, you can get to the charms by moving the pointer to the upper-right corner of your screen.

Swiping from the left edge of the screen switches you to a previous running app, but also lets you pin a sidebar displaying the app's content, such as an open document or a displayed Web site in a browser. You can easily toggle between large and small views by swiping down from the top and moving the resulting smaller window. Swiping up from the bottom or down from the top opens an app's unique menu, somewhat similar to a right-click.

Swiping: Microsoft vs Apple

I have a number of Apple products (iMac, phone, pad, pod), so I'm familiar with the Apple style of swiping. Windows 8 offers something a bit different: On an Apple, you have to switch out of one app to take a look at another.

Under Windows 8 with a touchscreen, swipe a finger in from the left edge of the screen and then back in a kind of Zorro-like motion. This will display a vertical stack of thumbnails of all your running apps. Tap one of these thumbnails to switch to the app it represents. Very cool.

Semantic Zoom

This refers to a pinching motion of the thumb and forefinger to zoom in or zoom out on an on-screen object. Using this motion on the Windows 8 Metro Start screen allows you to see all your app tiles, charms, or whatever we're supposed to call them. Using a pinching gesture on the screen, the tiles will not just shrink by zooming in or out, but they will resize to the available space. You can rename and move groups of app tiles using this gesture for ease of organization.

Entering Text via Touchscreen

The Windows 8 on-screen keyboard pops up from the bottom of the screen whenever you touch a text-entry field, just as it does in the iPhone, iPad and most other tablets and smartphones. One noticeable difference is that you can either use a full keyboard, a split keyboard suited to thumb text entry, or a stylus using the formal-sounding Handwriting Recognition Mode.

Resizable Thumb Keyboard.

One Windows 8 touchscreen input innovation is the thumb keyboard, which puts all the letters of the on-screen virtual keyboard near the left and right edges of the screen for easy thumb typing. This is the activity you frequently see mutant teenagers with overly developed thumbs engaged in, usually while driving and simultaneously attempting to kill those of us who are actually paying attention to the road. You can choose small, medium, and large thumb key layouts, depending on the size of your thumbs. How thoughtful.

Another input method supported by Windows 8 is pen input. I haven't tried this yet. (Hey, it's only been a week!) Using a stylus makes sense particularly if you have long fingernails, sausage-like fingers, or if you need to use the Desktop interface without a keyboard and mouse.

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New Keyboard and Mouse Functions

The corners of the screen are an important focus for mouse interaction with Windows 8. In previous versions of Windows, the Start button was located in the lower-left corner, the X to close an app or a window was in the top right-hand corner, the File menu item was at the top left, and the Aero Peek button in Windows 7 was in the lower-right corner.

One new gesture lets touchscreen users close a running app by holding a finger on its window and dragging it down to the bottom of the screen. As I mentioned last week, this works fine, but it's a little ragged and will probably be improved by the time of the commercial release later this year.

Using Windows 8 with a keyboard, you can now scroll the Metro Start screen's “live tiles” (charms or icons) simply by nudging the mouse cursor against the right side of the screen. You can still scroll the Start tiles with the mouse wheel. There is some small measure of comfort gleaned from knowing that not everything has changed.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keystroke combinations abound in Windows 8, many of which take advantage of the Windows Logo Key. Tapping this key by itself at any time takes you back to the Metro Start screen, and tapping it again returns you to your running app.

Our old friend the Alt + F4 keystroke combo continues to close any Window, as does slowly swiping to the bottom of the screen. CTRL + SHIFT + ESC opens the Task Manager.

Once I become more familiar with all the keyboard shortcuts, I will profile them in a future newsletter.

Default (Pre-Installed) Apps

Several new apps arrive with Windows 8. There are actually far fewer included apps with this version of Windows which is a good thing. Default apps include Mail, Photos, Weather, Finance, Maps, People (for hideous social-media activities), Calendar, Video, Messaging, SkyDrive and Music. You also receive a couple of games, including the old standby Solitaire, and a pinball game. The pinball game is connected to Xbox Live, for which you are encouraged to create an account in order to sync your gaming on different devices. (No thank you.)

All of the installed apps present very well and are not cluttered or difficult to navigate. The Mail app made it easy to configure several of my Gmail and Yahoo! Mail accounts and I was sending and receiving messages, with and without attachments, within minutes.

The Messaging app will let you connect through Facebook and Windows Live Messenger, but it is not a true SMS (text message) replacement like Apple's iMessage. There is no video chat.

The People app will aggregate your Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts, but personally, I'd rather jab pencils into my eyes. Well, not quite, but you get the idea. Actually, I did take a fast peek at the People app using two anonymous Facebook and Twitter accounts that I keep for such testing or exploratory purposes. While it did work, Tweets consumed the full screen, so it could have been better designed in that regard. There might be some ability to adjust that, but if so, I didn't find it -- though for purposes of full disclosure, I didn't look very hard, either. These types of little glitches, hiccups and shortcomings are typically addressed by Microsoft before the commercial release, so I wouldn't be concerned about them.

The Windows Store

This is Microsoft's answer to Apple's App Store. At this time the store only offers free software -- though we now call them “apps.” You need a Microsoft ID such as a Hotmail or Windows Live Messenger account to acquire Metro-style (touchscreen) apps in the store.

Apps are categorized into groups such as Social, Entertainment, Photos, Music & Videos, Books and reference, News, Food, Shopping, and so on. It is easy to swipe back and forth through them. There's also a Spotlight section, along with the ability to filter by Top Paid, Top Free, New releases, and All Stars.

Each App's page shows its user star rating, icon, price (all free for now), screenshots, text summary, and Install button. Once you tap the Install button, the activity dots animate across the screen. A pop-in notification in the upper-right then appears to advise you that the app was installed. The new app's tile (charm) will then appear on your Start screen. Oh, I forgot to mention that buttons are now called muffins. (Okay, okay, I'm just kidding.)

The New Desktop(s)

The Start Button: Where Did it Go? At first blush it appears that the Start button is gone. Actually, it still resides in the lower left-hand corner, but it just doesn't consume any screen real estate until you move the mouse to that location. When you do, you will see a thumbnail view of the Metro Start page. Clicking it reveals the Start screen. You can still start typing to search for an app or document as you could with previous Windows Start buttons. Right-clicking brings up a list of options including Disk Management, Event Viewer, and Command Prompt.

Desktop Transitions. If you decide to switch from the traditional Windows Desktop to the Metro user interface (touchscreen), there is a simple fade-to-black transition between the two. One interface fades to black, the other emerges from the darkness. Very dramatic.

The Desktop workspace is intended for what Microsoft calls "power users," even though it's what every Windows user has been using for the past 20 years. I have no idea what that's all about. Maybe Microsoft wants us all to feel good by considering ourselves all power users. Do we have self-esteem issues that perhaps Microsoft knows about and about which we are unaware? OMG! What if I'm not a power user? What if I have been living a lie? Suddenly I'm feeling a lot of anxiety about Windows 8. It knows things about me. How does it know? This is not good. Very troubling...very troubling, indeed.

Windows Explorer's new File Management tool has the familiar Ribbon interface which you can hide (as you can in Office 2010), and there are a number of new file moving and copying capabilities.

The Cloud Connection

SkyDrive is Microsoft's online storage service that provides all users 25GB of free storage. SkyDrive's storage and syncing service is available to any Windows 8 app that wants to use it and that you enable to use it.

There is also a Web interface for SkyDrive. The system integrates messaging and sharing throughout, using whatever communication services you have enabled. As with Google's Chrome operating system, when you sign into any Web-based interface, regardless of the computer or device you happen to be using at the time, you will have all your personalization, settings, and even Metro (touchscreen) apps, exactly as you configured them, without having to configure them again.


The Devices charm (icon), is accessible by swiping in from the right on a touchscreen or moving the mouse cursor to the upper-right corner. This is where you can configure a multi-monitor setup, and if you go to the Devices section of Settings, you can check for new hardware and connect Bluetooth mice, speakers, keyboards, and the like. It also lets you prevent device software from being downloaded when you're using a mobile connection to avoid incurring unexpected and typically unpleasant charges.

Don't miss the lovely assortment of informative and entertaining Mr. Modem eBooks that are waiting for you, just a mouse-click away!

Internet Explorer 10

IE10 is plays a more integral role in Windows 8, and is offered in two iterations: A full-screen Metro view and the more traditional Desktop version. The Metro follows all the Metro app behaviors meaning instead of tabs, you drag down from the top of the screen (or up from the bottom) to reveal your open browser pages in thumbnails along the top. Use the same gesture along the bottom and you will see the standard browser Address bar and icons for page reloading and pinning, which adds a given Web page to your Start screen.

You can also pinch and unpinch (Semantic Zoom) to zoom in or zoom out, and swiping a finger left or right moves you forward or backward in your browsing history. It's really no different than swiping through pages on a Kindle, iPad, Nook or other device. A double tap will also zoom in on any page.

Like the iPad's Safari browser, the Metro version of IE10 doesn't support Flash (or other plug-ins, for that matter), but should you encounter a page that uses those technologies, you can simply switch to the Desktop version of IE. A little wrench icon lets you search within a page or switch to the Desktop browser mode, which is virtually identical to IE9. I didn't notice any difference between the two. All these options also appear if you right-click with your mouse. This won't always be the case, however. HTML5 is a work-in-progress and will be a replacement for Flash at some point in the future.

I'm not a big IE enthusiast, but IE10 does represent a step in the right direction for Microsoft as it continues to play catch-up to Firefox and Google's Chrome browser.

IE10 also features a helpful Clean Up Tabs option which closes all tabs except the one you are currently viewing, to help prevent against accidentally closing all tabs and finding yourself out in the cold muttering, “What just happened?”


I like Windows 8's split personality, the fact that it can function with a touchscreen interface or traditional mouse and keyboard.

With so many mobile devices in use today, and for people requiring on-the-go Web browsing, Facebooking, emailing, and even gaming, it's nice to have a touchscreen tablet-type interface. You will ultimately be able to plug the same tablet into a docking station and convert it into a full-blown desktop computer, with keyboard, mouse, and even a large external monitor. As far as the Windows apps I've been using for years, at least thus far they seem to work fine with Windows 8's traditional mouse-and-keyboard interface. Touchscreen versions and updates will be forthcoming for most popular software. It just takes time for software developers to catch up.

Microsoft is clearly rolling the dice big time with this one-size-fits-all tablet and desktop operating system interface and only time will tell whether it's a strategy that resonates with users. Will it grab hold in the manner that the Apple iPad has? I doubt it, but not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with Windows 8; rather that the iPad is simply true phenomenon, as is the Kindle, when it comes to number of units sold.

While Microsoft is combining both interface options (touchscreen and mouse/keyboard) within one operating system, Apple (with its OS-X Lion) is keeping its Desktop and mobile operating systems separate, while increasing feature overlap between the two platforms.

The $64,000 question (does that date me or what?) then becomes whether users of XP, Vista and Win 7 are ready to transition to something as radically different -- despite being good -- as Windows 8? I wrote last week of “technology fatigue” that many long-time computer users are feeling. This phenomenon is best demonstrated by the number of people still using Windows XP. It's understandable. XP is an excellent operating system, it does what people want it to do, so why change? Heck, I have a toaster that's about 25 years old. It's a technological anachronism, a relic from another era, but it still makes toast. What's not to like about it? (Besides, I'm convinced that Harvest Gold is going to make a comeback.)

I wouldn't count Microsoft out, though, and with its Windows user base numbering in the hundreds of millions, anything is possible. My gut tells me that the migration to Windows 8 will be a slow one, at best, and that it is not going to come roaring out of the commercial chute like the iPad or Kindle. Instead, it will be available for those purchasing a new computer or those who are simply interested in seeing what Microsoft's latest and greatest offering is.

Based on what I have seen and experienced thus far with Windows 8, I would not recommend installing the Consumer Preview version unless you have a separate system you can install it on, and then just do it for the fun and adventure of it. Keep in mind that there is no tech support, so you are on your own, but it is interesting nonetheless.

When the commercial release occurs, supposedly later this year, I would urge the same restraint as I have in the past: Even if you're interested in Windows 8, give it a few months after its commercial release. There will be lots of updates and lots of bug fixes and glitch resolutions that occur in the first few months, so unless you enjoy living on the bleeding edge of technology, I would suggest holding off both now and after its commercial release. In the meantime, I will continue to dabble with it and will be providing periodic updates to my newsletter subscribers.

Copyright © 2012 Get-the-Net, Inc. World rights reserved.

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