A first hands-on look at the just-released Developer Preview of Windows 8 (which became available last night at the Windows Dev Center site) reveals an operating system poised halfway between yesterday's desktop and tomorrow's touch-screen interface. I installed it on a PC, but the OS seems built more for tablets and mobile devices than traditional computers,
Overall, the experience is aesthetically appealing, but when run on a PC, Windows 8 feels to a certain extent like two different operating systems bolted together -- one for mobile and one for traditional computers.
Riding on the Metro
You boot into the main interface, called Metro, which looks remarkably like Windows Phone 7 -- it is composed of big colorful tiles, each of which represents an app. Those tiles practically invite you to tap them, which is somewhat disconcerting on a traditional computer, because you need to click them, not touch them.
It's horizontally oriented, with tiles that stretch off the right edge -- you feel yourself wanting to swipe to see what's there, but on a non-touch desktop, that's not possible. Instead, you use a bar across the bottom of the screen that you can drag with your mouse or whose navigational arrows you can click.
Many of those tiles, as on Windows Phone 7, serve double-duty, functioning both as icons to run apps and as displays for constantly changing information. For example, the Weather tile shows you the current weather and weather forecast, the Stocks tile shows you the current state of the stock market and stocks you've chosen to follow, the News app shows you news you've chosen to follow and so on.
Microsoft has built plenty of apps for its new interface: games, several social networking apps for Twitter and Facebook, a location-based app called NearMe and more. The apps themselves work more like tablet- or phone-based apps than PC-based apps, because they run full screen and without the usual Windows menu. The tiles' size can't be changed, and they can't be shrunk. Switching from one to the other is somewhat kludgy; the only way I could do it was by using the old Windows standby Alt-Tab.
Metro is customizable via the Control Panel tile. You can customize the lock screen, select which apps you want to appear, control app behavior (such as allowing apps to use your location) and more.
Finding the desktop
So where's the desktop in all this? It's just another app on the main screen, and not especially visually noteworthy at that, because its tile doesn't sport a big picture on it as do most of the other Windows 8 apps. It just shows a representation of the desktop wallpaper (a bare blue skyscape) with the word "Desktop" sitting in the lower left corner. Visually, it practically says, "Ignore me please."
Click it and you'll visit familiar ground, the main Windows desktop, which looks and works very much like Windows 7, with the familiar taskbar across the bottom, Notification Panel on the bottom right of the taskbar -- all as usual. At first, it seems to works just like Windows 7, including taskbar thumbnails.
When you probe a little, though, you'll find some changes. The Start button works completely differently than in past versions of Windows. Click it, and rather than being presented with the usual menu of recently run applications -- a search box, navigation to folders, Control Panel and so on -- you instead get sent right back to the main Windows screen, the one that's full of tiles.