The momentum which has been generated by Microsoft in the past few months is, by far, unquestionable. While many saw the demise of the company, or “old dinosaur” as nicknamed by a few tech pundits, there might still be some hope remaining for their foray into recent consumer trends.
It has been to date, around a year since my work with Windows 8 began. While back during that time it wasn’t from a legal premise, I truly felt that it was important to get as much word out as I could to my community and the public on what is being planned with the next version of Windows. This is exactly how I felt when testing early Longhorn/Vista builds such as 5048 or 5270. Windows 8, I knew from the start, was going to be big. In my mind, there could be nothing larger — not even OS X Lion — Which could break the impact, whether positive or negative, Windows “next” could have on the computing era. I wanted to walk the tight rope, not because I felt Naive, but really wanted to show the world that blindness wasn’t going to stop limiting me, and that there is always something to look forward to in the tech world. Just as with Vista, I did not want people to not prepare for the next Windows release. I wanted them to embrace it.
A few months later, we got our official taste of Windows 8 at several press conferences. Over the summer and beyond, more and more was being slowly lifted off the veil Microsoft held for so long. Prior, I ran builds, such as 7850, 7927, 7955, and later, 7989. By the time build 7989 leaked, it was clear that not only was the entire Windows 8 interface being changed, but also the way my assistive technology interacted with these new additions. I used a screen reader, called JAWS, but radically had to shift away and use NVDA. Around this time, I wrote my review called “The Changing Landscape”, which gave much detail on what was to come with the new OS.
Little did I know, then, that even I was in for a shock. Microsoft had a way of “locking down” the new metro interface. This meant that up until recently, nobody but employees could get access to the actual new “look” of windows. We could only see some of the new settings and features present in the desktop interface. These included the new System Refresh and reset options, pattern and touch logon, Windows Explorer ribbons, and some smaller metro features.
The developer preview, released late November, came with challenges of it’s own. The new start screen, which aims to replace the start menu, was the default way of interacting with the system. This worked well, though unfortunately at the time, items on the start screen were read, shall we say, very verbosely. There was no way for people to use standard mouse and keyboard navigation well across the new interface. In short, Microsoft’s new focus on touch alone made Windows 8 a bit clunky on non-touch devices. In addition, screen readers could not read metro applications at all. There was no access to them. Put simply, to me, Windows 8 was equal to blindly navigating a hallway, without much direction.
For this very reason, I actually switched back my Windows 8 experience through a registry hack to that of Windows 7. I honestly felt that it was so unusable and inefficient, there was no real point in actually keeping the new interface as my main one. I enjoyed running it, and continued to do so until Mid-January, after which I reinstalled Windows 7 completely.
The consumer preview, build 8250, was released yesterday to the general public, and has already, as of writing, received over a million downloads. It is intended for everyone in the world, people such as you my dear reader, to help in discovering for yourself what Windows 8 has to bring. Many are afraid to jump into something new, and to enjoy what it has in store. Windows 8 is such a radical departure from what we know, that for a lot of consumers, it will come with fears and hurtles. Most in our world aren’t geeks or tech enthusiast. To them, change often comes with learning curves. In general, computing was a lot more friendly back in the early 90s and late 80s, when talking about graphical interfaces. Windows 3.11, for example, featured a program manager, which presented a grid of icons and groups through which one could move among. Windows 95 and 98 introduced the start button, along with the taskbar, which layered upon that simple design. More layering came with XP, with such new concepts as grouped buttons on the taskbar and the “all programs” start menu. This trend only increased. The same could be said for the world of Apple. With Mac OS, the finder and spotlight features also gave more layers to what it was in system 7 and 8. This was, in deed, a regular technology trend.
Back to Windows 3.1?
Consider me ridiculous, but Windows 8, in more ways than one, brings back the time of Windows 3.1. The start menu and taskbar are all gone, come to be replaced by a new start screen which presents your programs in a Windows Phone style grid. Applications are more simple and uniform, and very beautiful to look at. This simplifies usability, with sometimes toolbars and menus being taken away. Everything runs in full-screen, allowing you to get the work done you want to proficiently, without compromises.
Speaking of compromises. Microsoft’s goal is to deliver an Operating System which does not take much away from both desktop and touch users. I believe that with the consumer preview, they are finally coming closer to this goal, but are not all the way there just yet. Still, it’s important to make the experiences users have unified and the same, regardless of platforms. We are embracing a new world which is no longer carved out for the the techies, so to speak. Grandparents have to use Windows and the connected world, too. At the same time, becoming highly mobile means that every company in the market is desiring to strive in creating the same experience across their platforms. Apple began embracing their iPad with OS X 10.7. Microsoft, curiously, also started around that same time, with Windows 8 development planning happening just after Windows 7’s release. The big question, which I leave up for you to answer, is will Windows 8 be another Vista, or another Windows 3.1 or 95? Back in the day, both of those Operating Systems were successful, bringing in the momentum the company needed. This will be largely up to you to decide the fate of. If you choose to embrace and accept Windows 8, it might even be more wild of a roller coaster ride for everyone than Windows 7’s innovations were. In short, while Microsoft might have developed Windows 8, it’s you who sets the trends in every way. With this series of reviews, then, my goal is to allow you to do just that. I recommend you grab the consumer preview and use it, even if for only a few hours. While I don’t believe many should be as crazy as I and run it on their primary machines, if you do have the guts to put up with workarounds sometimes, and can troubleshoot for yourself, why not? Still, my general recommendation is that you run it on a spare machine or in a VM. I would do the same but… This is my passion. 🙂
Installation and Download: The Simplified experience
Downloading the Consumer Preview is simple. Head on over to
the ISO download page
and grab the 32-bit or 64-bit ISO you wish to use. I chose 32-bit for compatibility, but if you have more than 4 gigabytes of ram, 64-bit is the way to go. Be sure to write down the product key provided on that page, you will need it. Once your download is complete, burn the ISO file to a dvd. You can use the ISO burning tool in Windows 7, or if running XP, Nero or Roxio will work too. If you would rather have Windows 8 on a flash drive or SD card, you can use the Windows 7 USB image creation tool, downloadable on that site.
After you are set, you can boot from the DVD provided you don’t need a screen reader. Unfortunately, Narrator still does not work upon the initial boot screen of Windows Setup, and this is something I have been pushing Microsoft to implement for a long time. You will need to install Windows 8 from within Windows 7.
Installation couldn’t be simpler. In many ways, perhaps it’s too simple. You are presented with 3 options, once you accept the license and enter the product key. You can keep Personal files, apps, and Settings, keep Personal files only, or “keep nothing”. The difference is that the second option erases all program files and data, only keeping your documents, downloads, music, and pictures. In short, it’s not an upgrade, but at least it lets you keep all the important information you have. I chose this option. If you want to dual-boot Windows 8 and 7, you can still run the “old-style” setup file. It is sort of hidden within your DVD or Flash drive, under the sources folder, with the program name of setup.exe. Once you run this, you will have the more “advanced” installer. Hopefully this will be a more obvious choice, as although most probably won’t dual boot, there must be ways for the more advanced crowd to install without compromises.
There has been one major change made when it comes to the Windows 8 installer’s extraction process. No longer are there 2 restarts after setup is rolling. There now only is one. In basic terms, the setup file will actually extract a running Windows 8 copy totaling about 8 GB to your disk, making the process faster. For Narrator or magnifier users, this means that you can now run any Ease of Access utility right after that first restart. I do not recommend this quite yet, as it appears as though once hardware is detected, your speech will shut off completely. Still, it’s nice to see this simplification of Setup across the board. Once all setup activity stops, you are presented with the option to either do an express setup or a more custom one. Express setup will log you right back into Windows 8, with your user data. Custom lets you enter your name, associate a Windows Live ID (more on this later), and change your background.
A glance at the Changes from the developer preview:
Much is now different with Windows 8, especially since I last used it. Since I need Narrator to install some of my basic apps, I first noticed that there were now more commands added to the interface. These include cursor routing options (narrator cursor to mouse cursor and vise versa), continuous reading, and a better handling of webpages. Narrator will now actually read out loud Internet sites, making it, for the first time, a less than painful experience to work with. Although it’s responsiveness has still not improved much if at all, it’s safe to say that what they have here is maturing fast. Microsoft only intends Narrator to be a screen reader for metro apps. This means that since desktop apps are developed differently depending on the programmer, there is no way for Microsoft to ensure Narrator’s compatibility. However, any app you get from the Windows Store should at least have some degree of user friendly design towards accessibility, since there are guidelines instated on the ways they should be developed.
The Start screen, too, has received a massive cleanup. This can be said based on the amount of icons present by default, along with the less verbose output. Similar to an iOS device, the only information now read are the name of the actual apps. No more “.png” filenames. The apps which were present during the Developer Preview are now gone, replaced with more mature and productive ones such as Music, Photos, Calendar, Messaging, Maps, Skydrive, and Xbox Live gaming tools. This is finally looking like a serious release, and these apps will probably be the ones which will make it into the shipping version of the OS.
For mouse users, Microsoft has made it easier to find things naturally on your screen. Not only has scrolling improved, but also the way screen corners are designated. For instance, the bottom left corner of your screen will allow you to navigate back to your start screen, where as the right side contains the charm bar. The charm bar is always the same: It will contain options to share, go to settings, search, return to the start screen, and send your work to a device. Applications are aware of what you wish to share or send — Although the options remain the same, the information which they might present could be radically different.
The accessibility of Metro apps has also drastically improved. Even visually, there now is a cleaner and more elegant look to what you see on screen. In part 2 of this review, I will be going through every app provided in the consumer preview, helping you make the transition to them a lot easier. Suffice to say, the Windows Store is now open, which means that you can actually download new applications and try them out. This is great news, and I believe that as more metro-style programs become available, one will not have to switch between the classic desktop and the new interface.
For many, this prospect of having two operating system designs side by side could be a shocking experience. Microsoft has worked on making this a bit more seamless in this release, even when it comes to animating the disappearance of the start screen and the desktop. It is clear that although Metro is the primary Windows 8 experience, the desktop is here to stay, for now, as a tribute to those who do enjoy using regular programs. Until tools such as Office or Photoshop become available in the simpler metro design, we probably won’t see the desktop go. This might also make it easier on many to move away slowly from what they are familiar with, to the newer, simpler designs of the future.