Friday, March 2, 2012

Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Article first published as A Review: Windows 8 Consumer Preview on Technorati

In case you don't already know another preview of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system landed this week.  Windows 8 consumer preview is the next iteration of windows and unlike the early developer preview released last year, this version promises to be closer to the final product rumored to ship in the third quarter of 2012.

The system requirements have stayed the same since the last release allowing even the most minimal of hardware platforms to run the OS.  Official requirements from Microsoft:
Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster
RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device or higher
To use touch, you need a tablet or monitor that supports multitouch
To access Windows Store and to download and run apps, you need an active Internet connection and a screen resolution of at least 1024 x 768
To snap apps, you need a screen resolution of at least 1366 x 768

Being an IT guy and an avid gamer I have the benefit of evaluating this latest windows release from two perspectives.  As the IT guy I'm looking at the user interface, program compatibility and networking functionality.  As a gamer I'm concerned with the 3D performance of the graphics subsystem and of course if my games will work.

I've been working with Windows 8 consumer preview over the last 24 hours and initial impressions are good.  Unlike the Developer preview this version has more polish.  The Metro interface remains and you are still required to have or create a Live account credential  (a Hotmail account will do) to log in. 

Once you've logged in and set up some basic settings like your screen colors and time zone you'll be presented with the Metro tile interface.  There are fewer applets than the developer preview but the basics are there including messaging, weather, finance and Internet Explorer 10.

If you have multiple displays the first will contain the metro tiles with succeeding interfaces containing a familiar Windows Desktop sans start button.  The primary display will flip between metro and desktop views as you use applications.  Currently there are few metro apps although new program installations on the desktop can generate a tile on the metro UI.    When a desktop application tile is clicked (or touched) the app launches to a desktop instead of directly from Metro making the metro tiles essentially an oversized start menu for desktop apps.

As I've worked with the interface I've noticed that the touch controls aren't as intrusive as they were in the developer preview.  Standard windows 7 key combinations such as Windows+R to open a run dialog or Windows+E to open explorer still work.  In the Developer preview I found myself frequently fumbling through the interface launching applets I didn't intend to or  having issues launching applets that I did.   I had far fewer issues with this latest release.

One primary difference between the windows 8 beta and the Windows 7 Beta is that it appears that instead of giving you what amounted to the "Ultimate" version with all features available this iteration of Windows 8 is equivalent to a "Home Premium" which makes it unsuitable for corporate testing outside of remote access. 

The initial logon credentials are tied to your Live account which may be beneficial when using Windows 8 across multiple devices if settings and metro apps follow the login.  This could be compared to a roaming profile in a Windows domain environment.  In fact on completion of install you'll receive an email informing you that you've added a trusted computer to your Live account.
Of course this is a beta release and as such I've managed to crash explorer twice.  Interestingly enough explorer controls the metro UI as well as the desktop UI.  An explorer crash leaves you with a black desktop only recoverable by  using the familiar sequence of CTRL-ALT-DEL, Taskmg and then running the explorer command. 

I've also noticed periodic freezing of the desktop with metro apps running in the background.  Speaking of metro apps, I'm still getting used to not being able to close a metro app without using ALT-F4.  This is obviously a carryover from Windows phone where apps stay running in the background once launched.  It may be less of a problem for current computers with copious amounts of memory and hard drive space but it seems wrong to the conservative IT guy in me.  It's easy to end up with multiple browser windows and redundant apps running without realizing it.
Hardware support is good and even my old TV tuner card got installed without any intervention from me.  Unfortunately Windows Media Center which seems to have been carried forward from 2006's Windows Vista still has an issue with it.   I can't fault Microsoft for that, however, as their responsibility ends where the consumer software begins and this card never made the Windows HCL for anything but XP.

Gaming performance was very good and my experiences with STEAM and Origin based games was uneventful.  I played 3 steam titles: Orcs must Die, Star Trek Online and BLUR as well as Battlefield 3 on Origin.  Aside from some artifacting in Star Trek Online and a Black border around my Battlefield 3 playfield  caused by the default ATI video driver (later updated with a release candidate) I experienced no issues. 

Microsoft has confirmed that a Pro or Corporate version will be available as well as the tablet versions to include ARM platforms.  Professional versions will support domains but retain the Metro Interface.  Metro is central to the unified look and feel that Microsoft is attempting to spread across varying windows devices.  There is even strong rumor that the next version of Windows Server will utilize it as well. 

Some say this may be the last major operating system that Microsoft releases.  The opinions of why that may be differ, however.  There are those that believe this move to Metro is a desperate attempt to return Microsoft to relevance outside of the office.  Others see the new design as the first step to answer the demands of a consumer no longer satisfied with just a mouse and keyboard.  It's more likely a bit of both as Windows 8 retains compatibility with most Windows 7 hardware and applications but moves the platform to a multitude of devices with a more consumer oriented interface.

* I need to corect an assertion in the article,  It apparently is possible to join win 8 consumer preview to a domain as the properties of the "computer" icon still offers the "computer name" bab where you the option to join a domain is present.  It's not immediately obvious from install and the option for it doesn't show up as an option in the networking applets either.  While I haven't tested it the domain functionality appears to be a carryover from Win 7.

One other minor correction, There is a way to close metro apps other than ALT-F4 but it involves bringing up the tablet interface bars which isn't immediately apparent nor intuitive.  A touch sensitive screen would have made this option more apparent which to me says a tweak needs to be made.*
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