Microsoft took a bold step at its recent BUILD conference for Windows developers by releasing a public preview of Windows 8. It makes perfect sense to give developers advance access to the new software, so they have plenty of time to write the juicy apps that will help drive the new platform forward.
The unusual part of Microsoft’s plan is that they also allowed regular members of the public to get their sticky mitts on the software. Officially described as ‘Windows 8 Developer Preview’, this software is far from complete. We expect Windows 8 to be released in Q3 2012 – in time for next Christmas – which means the new Operating System will probably be finished by mid-2012.
Go get it
At present, the software has reached the Alpha or Pre-Beta stage, which means that Windows 8 is still work in progress. Nonetheless it is worth following this link to the site where you’ll find a choice of three versions of Windows 8 for download.
The 32-bit version comes in at a 2.8GB download, the 64-bit version is 3.6GB and the 64-bit version with developer tools is a hefty 4.8GB. We selected the basic 64-bit version, downloaded the ISO file and burnt it to DVD. The only snag we encountered was that the DVD wasn’t bootable, so we bunged a fresh installation of Windows 7 on a test PC and then ran the Windows 8 installer on the machine.
The installation was quick and simple – but in fairness to Microsoft, the company had already got this down to a fine art with Windows 7.
Windows 8′s Metro interface resembles that of the mobile-specific Windows Phone 7.
So what’s it like?
With Windows 8 installed, we were immediately faced with a request to sign in to a Windows Live profile, which is meant to assist with the process of synching your PC to your Tablet or Windows Phone.
Once that was out of the way, we were able to take a good look at the Metro user interface (UI) – at which point it becomes clear that Windows 8 is a radical departure from Windows 7. The desktop has been renamed the Start screen, with icons for the various widgets and pieces of software – or, if you prefer, apps.
Windows 8 comes with a lock screen that resembles those of smartphones and tablets.
The resemblance of the UI to that of a smartphone or tablet is unmistakable, and it’s clear that Microsoft sees Windows 8 as the operating system that will bridge the gulf between mobile devices and desktop computers.This is because Microsoft has chosen to adorn the Windows 8 Developer Preview with the Metro UI to make it more suitable for touchscreen devices. Devices, in fact, like the high-end Samsung Core i5 Tablets that Microsoft gave as a gift to the thousands of attendees at BUILD.
Tasks such as browsing files become much more geared towards touchscreen functionality
Anyone installing Windows 8 on a PC or laptop, on which they’ll have to navigate their way around using a mouse and keyboard, will be grateful for one handy tip: on the Metro screen there is a tile/app labelled Desktop that transforms the all-new Windows 8 interface into a much more familiar, but slightly slicker, successor to Windows 7. Apps, too, like Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer, get a new look under Windows 8.
Old favourites get a new look, too: Internet Explorer 10 under Windows 8
Comparison to Apple and Google operating systems
At first glance, Windows 8 is an operating system that makes your PC look like a giant smartphone. But its unique selling point is that it can be used in Metro mode for touchscreen devices, or in Desktop mode for PCs and laptops.
This is a significant step forward from Apple’s offerings, where there is a distinct separation between the desktop PC operating system Mac OS X, and the mobile device operating system, iOS. Google, too, has the mobile market covered with Android, although its desktop Chrome OS has received a lukewarm reception to date.
Microsoft’s other trick has been to make Windows 8 able to run on both x86 processors, and on mobile systems based around low-power ARM processors. This means that a single, unified operating system can be installed on a wide variety of computers and devices – enabling them to to “merge content” over the cloud, as the buzzwords at BUILD suggested, across phones, tablets, laptops and PCs .
So what’s missing?
Windows 8 is clearly unfinished, but despite that it ran remarkably well on our Core i5 test PC. One yawning chasm in the software, though, is the lack of the Windows Store announced at BUILD – which is where the developers themselves come into the equation. Given the headstart they now have with this developer preview, though, we fully expect a decent range of apps to give Windows 8 some momentum by the time it launches.
We also noticed that email, calendar and contact apps are currently missing from Windows 8 – but neither was there any sign of Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony and messaging software Skype, which was recently bought by Microsoft. Currently you can install a working version of Skype on Windows 8, but somehow we expected to see some tighter integration.
- Unified software for PC, laptop, phone and tablet.
- The Windows Store is currently empty. Also, we wonder how much it will cost OEMs to install Windows 8 on mobile devices?
With a year to go until the launch of Windows 8, our initial impressions of this Pre-Beta software are favourable. Only time will tell whether Windows 8 phones and Tablets can compete with iPhones, iPads and Android phones - but on the desktop, Windows 8 looks like a winner.