Windows 8: the new interface

13 Sep 2011

The new Metro interface for Windows 8 is one of the most significant – and riskiest – decisions in Microsoft’s history. The familiar desktop that has been the cornerstone of the operating system since Windows 95 has been elbowed out of the way in favour of a touch interface. On this there is no compromise: even if you intend to run Windows 8 on a desktop PC with a conventional monitor, the Metro interface remains the default, with the traditional Windows Desktop relegated to mere “app” status.

So how does this new interface work?

The Lock screen

The first screen Windows 8 users will encounter is the Lock Screen. This comprises nothing more than a customisable photo, the time and date and, optionally, notifications from one key app: your next calendar, appointment, for example.

An upwards swish of the finger unlocks the screen, where you’ll either be prompted for a traditional password or asked to enter a “picture password”. This new security feature allows you to pick a photo of your choice, and then create a password based on gestures. You might, say, choose a picture of your kids, and then create a gesture by which you move from the youngest child to the eldest in the photo. Alternatively, you might choose a group of friends and tap on them in alphabetical order. It’s a quirky alternative to entering a text password, which is of course more cumbersome with an onscreen keyboard.

The Start Screen

Once you’ve unlocked the PC, you’re thrown straight into the new Start Screen that Microsoft first unveiled earlier this year. Its Metro interface will be instantly recognisable to anyone with a Windows Phone 7 handset. Instead of a traditional desktop with Start button, taskbar and icons, the Start Screen now comprises a series of interactive tiles.

These tiles don’t only display the name of the app: they display snippets of data from those applications. Your Twitter app, for example, will scroll through the latest tweets from your friends; the Weather app displays the forecast for your current location; Email shows how many unread messages are waiting in your inbox. “The idea is you’re always up to date with what’s going on,” said Jensen Harris, Microsoft’s director of program management. “The app is expressing itself on the Start Screen.”

To scroll through the apps, you simply flick your finger from left to right – or use the scroll wheel on the mouse or the cursor keys if you haven’t got a touchscreen. Even on the early preview build, this feels incredibly slick: there’s no slowdown or waiting for app icons to redraw as you swish from one end of the Start Screen to the other.

Tiles can be resized by clicking on them and dragging down, where you’re presented with the option to make them bigger (rectangular) or smaller (square). Only the larger, rectangular tiles are capable of displaying data. It’s also possible to drag and drop app tiles into a new position by shoving them to the top of the screen with one hand, scrolling the Start screen to the desired position with the other, and then dropping the tile into the desired place. It’s certainly less cumbersome than shifting apps to a new home in either iOS or Android.

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Tiles can also be grouped together – the Windows 8 alternative to folders. All your games can be clustered together, for example, or all of your productivity apps. Zoom right out on the Start Screen using a pinch-to-zoom motion, and you can re-order these Groups however you wish.

Finally, on the far right-hand side of the Start Screen, you can drag out a selection of five buttons which Microsoft rather sickeningly dubs Charms. There are five Charm buttons: Search (which allows you to search for files, apps or even data contained within apps), Share (which allows you to share photos via a social networking app, for example, or send a link to an email contact), Devices (for connecting to printers, digital cameras etc), Settings (to change screen brightness, volume, wireless networks and other controls) and the Start button (which simply throws you back to the Start Screen). The Charms are also available within apps.

Full-screen Metro apps

Windows now has two different types of app. There’s the new Metro Style apps, which are designed primarily for touch, and the old-style desktop apps.

All of the Metro Style apps are run full screen. There’s no Taskbar along the bottom, no minimise or close buttons along the top. The whole of the screen is handed over to the app. To flick from one full-screen app to the next, you flick your finger from the left-hand side of the screen.

In Internet Explorer 10, for example, all you see when you first open the app is the webpage. Only when you flick upwards from the bottom of the screen are you presented with the more familiar page furniture, such as the address bar, browser tabs and the back button.

Unlike other tablet OSes, Windows 8 offers true app multitasking. This means there’s the option to run apps side-by-side. You can, for example, snap your Twitter app open in a narrow strip on the left-hand side of the screen, with a browser window open on the right. You can even have a video playing in the smaller left-hand panel, while you continue to browse on the right – although such demanding multitasking will doubtless wreak havoc with your battery life.

However, these windows aren’t resizable in the traditional Windows fashion. There are only four fixed window configurations: full-screen landscape, split-screen landscape (with the thinner app window on either the left- or right-hand side of the screen) or full-screen portrait. Metro App developers are being encouraged to redesign their apps for each of these configurations. (See more on Apps and the new App Store here).

Old-style desktop apps

So what of the desktop apps that we run today? These can still be used on the old-school Windows Desktop which now – somewhat confusingly – has been demoted to an “app”. When you click on the Windows Desktop tile, you’re thrown back into the familiar Windows 7 desktop, with the Taskbar running along the bottom and the not-so-touch-friendly desktop icons of old.

This is where Microsoft wants you to run applications such as Office and Photoshop: apps that were designed for mouse and keyboard, not touch. Applications can still be pinned to the Taskbar, but infuriatingly the Windows Desktop Start button just throws you back to the touchscreen Start Menu. The Start Menu of old has completely disappeared. This makes it nigh-on impossible to quickly launch an application that isn’t already pinned to your Taskbar, let alone launch items such as the Control Panel.

Needless to say, the Windows 7 Desktop is also a hostile environment for tablet users. No matter what Microsoft claims, the Ribbon interface isn't geared towards touch. We suspect pure tablet users will largely restrict themselves to the new Metro Style applications, while only those using an additional keyboard, mouse or stylus will brave going back into the old Windows desktop.

Initial verdict

For tablet users, the new Metro interface is superb: we'd go as far as to say it's the best tablet interface we've seen yet. It's slick, it's customisable and it contains far more information than the home screen of an iPad or an Android tablet.

For desktop PC or laptop users, however, we're struggling to see the appeal. The entire interface is so geared towards touch, that using a mouse or cursor keys to navigate around the Start screen just feels awkward. We suspect Windows 7 will remain the operating system of choice for conventional PC users.

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