Windows 8. It has a freaky tiled UI that’s somehow replacing the Windows UI. And that’s all you’re going to hear about – IT looks weird. It has a new BSOD, yuo can use your finger on it… But that’s not all Windows 8 has for you, and right now, nobody wants to tell you that.
A few days ago I downloaded the Windows BUILD developer preview, and since it’s incredibly buggy, I installed it using Virtualbox with the following specs:
- 128mb of Video RAM
- 3D Support enabled
- 2.5 GB of RAM
- 20GB HD
- 1 CPU core
Surprisingly it runs quite smoothly, and I was even able to play some games, video and music, turn on the Aero Glass effect and enjoy all the interesting wibbles and oddments.
This is a very buggy, beta version for developers and to show off the UI. A lot of stuff just isn’t working or not working right because it’s not finished, or simply not there at the moment.
Start me up
The first thing is the start screen. You have the option to set a password, pin number or set a photo and then use your finger to draw and tap a sequence to unlock your machine.
Initially you get a screen (Mine’s set to grey but it supports pictures) with the time and date and up to six other widgets, though none were available at the time – So in principle you can at a glance check your tweets, Google+, mail, and IM straight from the lock screen.
What’s missing is an indication of what you’re supposed to click to proceed.
Clicking around makes the screen slide up though and with a little experimenting you can slip the screen up like a shutter to get to your password/pin/login pic. I have no information on whether this is the final system or if a more streamlined system will be implemented.
By default, your Windows Login is your Live! account username and password which lets Microsoft sync your windows settings to the cloud for use on other Windows 8 computers, as well as hook your Hotmail in nice and smoothly.
You’ll be pleased to know this is optional.
Fear and Loathing in the Start Screen
The big one.
It’s the Start Menu, only it’s full screen, and the icons are boxes and some of them can tell you stuff.
AAAAAAAAAH OH MY GOD THE WORLD IS ENDING.
It’s nothing. It’s exactly like your start menu only better. Why better? Because you can un-install Metro apps by right clicking them and selecting Uninstall.
Also, when you want an app or to find your files or look for something you can go right ahead and just start typing and hey! Look what happens!
It finds your apps, it finds your control panels and settings and it finds your files – But this time instead of trying to cram them in a little box hanging off the start button, you get a decent view of your stuff.
Also you get to pin the last N apps you used to the right hand panel, which seems a little backward until you realise you can pull up the search panel at any time by moving the mouse to where the start button would be (Bottom left) and triggering the hot-corner which pops up five ‘Charms’.
Charms are the five buttons that are always available from the Start button:
The settings menu. Includes a link to Control Panel.
A simple device manager for quickly and easily dealing with the stuff plugged into your computer.
A way to easily share screenshots and files with people via apps. This isn’t just limited to your Homegroup, network or e-mail – if you have an IM app that ties into the API you can share via IM for instance.
The search bar.
The start page with all your widgets and apps.
Die-hards will be happy to know that pinning stuff to the taskbar or leaving an icon on the desktop still works fine.
Talking of the desktop, let’s have a look at the exciting changes that have been made!
First, notice that the mostly pink background and the pink of the UI match. This is not an accident – it’s Windows’ new ‘Auto color’ feature. Enabling it lets WIndows sample your wallpaper, pick a colour from it and then tint the UI to match.
Second, the days of round edges on Windows are apparently over – note the nice crisp sharp corners, with no crappy anti-aliasing.
Apart form this it’s business as usual – though the legacy UI is now gone. no more Windows 95 UI – Though there’s a simplified version still around, which allows for customising the colours to suit your purposes.
Interestingly, the faux 3D look used since windows 3.1 and possibly before, has been dumped in favour of what is a pretty minimalist UI. Possibly this is not the finished UI, or it’s designed to be very easy to read by the visually impaired – it mostly shows up with high contrast themes.
If your graphics aren’t up to Aero you do get Windows Basic by default, a flat blue UI that’s a cross between this and Aero.
Are you a Dummy or an Expert?
Windows 8 is split between being a simple, touch capable UI with lots of very user friendly features, and a powerful, geek oriented system that’s nerd-friendly. And all it takes is a click in the right place:
First, the ‘Dumb’ mode for the 90% of users who didn’t, won’t and can’t learn all the intricate hotkeys and menu locations of explorer.
Note the ribbon and the handy ‘copy to…’ menu which lets you pin frequently used locations to your list of places to copy stuff. There’s also the quick bar in the title which lets you pin frequent actions for one click use. I customised it by adding a delete button. Also note the simple copy dialogue and that it has a pause and cancel button.
At this point a few people are generally muttering about how dumbed down things are getting. now look at the same thing with the ‘Details’ switched.
The Explorer ribbon has been shrunk out of the way and now takes up less space than the previous version of Explorer, while letting users drop down the ribbon using auto-hide and the file copy dialogue is giving a read/write speed histogram – Incidentally showing amber because it’s been paused. When copying it’s a nice healthy green.
Also worth commenting on is that he big info bar at the bottom of Explorer is now moved to being a sidebar on the right of the main window, but it’s been replaced at the bottomwith a pair of icons to flip between detail view and large icon view.
The ribbon is also context sensitive – since I was in the Music folder it had an extra tab for handling music.
Another area where this simple/complex thing is in operation is the Task Manager.
In simple mode it merely shows you the open programs and lets you kill them. Muaha. Muahaha. But Ask for more details and you get this…
There’s a lot going on here. First the task manager has been re-designed to be pretty, but also functional.
You can see that one of the apps is ‘Suspended’ – it’s hibernating . It seems that certain sorts of apps, the Metro style ones can not only be hibernated, but if you need the resources, Windows can shut them down, like a Smartphone OS handling resources.
Secondly that the default metric is a percentage of overall system resources – In this case, only 23% of the memory is being used. I’ll come back to that in a second. Each of the columns can be converted from a percentage to a hard figure such as ‘50mb’ instead of ‘4.7%’, and the amber backgrounds become deeper to highlight any entry that’s active, making it easy to see what’s dormant and what’s being called. You can also expand the number of columns to see useful stuff like the command line that’s being called, and additionally – If a process has a sub process it’s threaded to show that.
Traditionally, Task Manager had a pretty crappy graphing system which looked cool but wasn’t really worth much, and in certain circumstances, such as the network adapter, was almost worthless if you were using 1mb of a 100mmb ethernet port.
The new task manager has some very pretty and nicely laid out graphs that allow you to see what’s going on very easily.
Next up is the app history which gives you a history of the CPU time apps have used, how much bandwidth they’ve used, and so on so you can see which ones are pigging out.
Further information (As if there wasn’t enough on display in Task Manager) can be had form Resource monitor.
How much of a resource pig is Windows 8?
It’s not. It does a lot of resource management, and aggressively hibernates apps that aren’t doing anything but sitting in the background – even apps that are designed to update tiles with live information – it de-hibernates them for their update and then hibernates them again, letting the notification API scroll the information. Consequently, Windows 8 is idling and with 4 apps open (weather, task manager, picture viewer and Explorer), and all the default processes it’s using…
570 Mb with 98 Mb in the swap file.
That might not seem impressive but it is. It shows that not only are Microsoft planning on making this their tablet OS they’ve gotten resource management down to the point where it can run on netbook spec machines, without sacrificing the cool UI toys.
Talk to me!
There’s a lot of new things in Windows 8 but one item caught my eye, or rather my ear. Microsoft Anna. She’s no longer in the OS. After being part of Windows through Vista and Win 7, and indeed, the only choice for Text To Speech synthesis, she’s been axed and not one but three new voices have been added – Microsoft-David, –Hazel and –Zira.
David and Zira are US voices, while Hazel has an English Accent. This is a nice change and shows Microsoft is still thinking of disabled users.
In fact the full suite of accessibility tools is available, and even easier to get to.