Microsoft is giving developers a peek at their bold Windows 8 redesign, due out in late 2012. It represents a huge change to how people will think about Windows, but in some ways, it feels very similar to Windows 7. That actually makes sense for people who have to get things done, but like a bit of style and finesse in the tools they use to do their work.
Diehard Mac fans won't give Windows 8 and its new Metro interface more than a passing notice, probably. And those with deep-down peeves about the core technology of Windows are not likely to pull a romantic comedy move and suddenly, totally, fall for it. But Windows 8, along with its new looks, does offer a whole bundle of new ideas about how to run, switch, and work inside apps.
These are the best of those ideas from the very early "developer preview," and one or two misfires.
Metro: true full-screen, real focus, instant information
You’ve already seen Metro in some form if you’ve played with one of the newer Windows Phones. Apps don’t have icons, they have tiles, which are simple, pretty, colorful squares and rectangles that can show at-a-glance information in addition to launching apps.
When apps are running, they get true full-screen play—no clock, no battery indicator, not even a single menu button shows until you right-click (or swipe your finger up from the bottom on a touchscreen device). The type is large, the color schemes usually simple, and the transitions and animations smooth. To search out apps, files, or anything, you simply start typing.
The effect is striking, and probably relieving, for those accustomed to having their desktop provide at least 20 possible things to click on at all times. The overall look is crisp and inviting. The system moves very quickly on a four-year-old computer, and even the very basic apps included in a preview version (coded mostly by interns, Microsoft claims) have a uniform look and feel.
When you boot into Metro, the tiles on your home screen can give you lots of handy information without ever opening them. Apps can form "contracts" with one another, so your Twitter client can send out a link from your browser, your preferred email app handles all email addresses, and so on. Dual-monitor and triple-monitor warriors are going to have a lot of fun with this.
Speed, battery, memory
Windows 8’s Metro interface handles multiple apps in much the same way an iPad does. When you switch away from one app to another, the app that’s no longer active is reduced to an all-but-closed state, giving your current app the memory and power it needs. Boot-up times, according to Microsoft, are slated for 10 seconds or less on new systems sold with Windows 8, and battery life was described in one presentation slide as "all-day." These are, of course, the claims of a company looking to sell upgrades, but given how Metro scales down expectations and frees up developers to focus on content, the boasts seem feasible.
Internet Explorer 10
Internet Explorer 10 takes the minimalist aesthetic to a whole new level in Windows 8—it’s not even there. When you load a page, your entire screen is nothing but web, and you bring the controls back in by right-clicking somewhere off the main content. Better still, IE10 won’t have any plug-ins available, including Flash, so developers are finally going to get their ultimatum—make it work on every browser, or soon it won’t work on any.
A non-iPad work tablet you might really like
I’m the author of the Complete Android Guide, and I am more than willing to admit that the iPad is my favorite tablet device. It’s what I recommend to friends looking to buy. HP, BlackBerry maker RIM, and Android all come up short, either by trying to fit in too much (Android) or providing close copies without the crucial details (every other maker).
Windows 8’s Metro interface on a tablet is a different story. It doesn’t try to cram a desktop onto a small screen, or ape the mighty Apple, but it does have a lot of the iPad’s advantages, and a distinct, smart look. Even John Gruber, not one to give Microsoft much leeway on his Daring Fireball blog, writes that Metro "looks like an excellent design for an iPad rival." If you want access to Microsoft-related work materials on your tablet, a Windows 8 tablet could be a viable option.
The not-so-hot: Plain old Windows is still inside
Windows 8, on a standard system, does have Metro installed, but it also has a very, very familiar "Desktop" mode. Your view literally flips one card over another, and suddenly, you’re staring at a very familiar desktop, taskbar, the blue Windows orb, and all the toolbars, window controls, and other reminders of steady, semi-solid, been-there-forever Windows that you thought maybe, just maybe, Microsoft was stepping away from.
But Microsoft just can’t ask all their enterprise customers, everybody with a copy of Office, and every single Windows developer—not to mention people quite comfortable with the way Windows works now—to take a head-first leap into the tablet-like future. You don’t have to switch over to "Desktop" mode, but you’ll often end up there by default, like when you change a deep system setting, or run almost any third-party app, like Google’s Chrome browser.
So Windows 8's standard "Desktop" breaks the feeling of being inside a whole new Metro thing. Still, knowing what that new thing looks like, before it ends up everywhere, is a nice feeling.
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