Windows 8 on a laptop: first look

15 Sep 2011

All the talk so far has centred around the wonderful new Metro UI, and how it could well be the nicest touch interface yet - but what of the vast majority of PCs and laptops that don't have a touchscreen? Does Windows 8 relegate them to an afterthought, or can you carry on with mouse and keyboard as if touch never existed? To find out, I installed the developer preview on a 15in Core i5 laptop and plugged in a mouse.

The Metro UI

First things first, Metro is your main entry point whatever your hardware - and that's going to annoy a lot of people. It's large, it's almost childlike in its design, and it's so obviously meant for tablets that it feels slightly insulting to anyone who's comfortable with the ins and outs of the Windows environment.

The concept of full-screen-only apps makes little sense for any device above tablet size, as anyone who works with Outlook, Word, Tweetdeck and Chrome permanently open will quickly realise. You can split apps so that one occupies two-thirds of the screen, but that's not particularly helpful on larger screens. The desktop itself is technically an app, so you can have that occupy two-thirds with several traditional windows within it. It's not something I found useful, though.

Metro is a bit iffy to navigate with a mouse. While the live previews in larger tiles are great (giving quick access to tweets, emails and the like - and they can be put on your lock screen too), the icons themselves are big and boxy on a 15in screen, and finding an application to launch manually - even once you've dragged them all into related groups of tiles - means much scrolling left and right.

Of course, that's not the quickest way to launch an application from an idle desktop. In Windows 7 I simply press the Windows key and start typing the name, and the good news is you can still do that here - the difference is no Start menu appears. Or more accurately, the Metro UI is the Start menu, and a press of the Windows key (or a click of the now pretty useless bottom-left Start button) always takes you to that grid. If you're fast you can ping the full-screen Metro interface up, type the app name and be back on the desktop again in a second, which begs the question why it needs to appear at all when the old, less graphically demanding and space-intensive system worked so well.

The closest thing to a traditional Start menu on the desktop arrives if you instead hover over the Start button. There you get a few menu options, along with a different way in to that search function, which here attempts to search within the currently active app. If that's not where you want to search - and it usually won't be - you pretty much have to end up with the full-screen Metro search taking over again. It needs work.

Windows 8: start menu

Changing your ways

As you'll quickly discover, if you want to spend the majority of your time in the traditional desktop, you're going to have to get used to doing things differently. More specifically, you'll want to make extensive use of your desktop and taskbar. As we've seen, any application not pinned to one of those two locations is tough to launch without returning to the Metro UI in some form. Whether you pile your desktop high with shortcuts will largely depend on how annoying you find that big green grid on a daily basis.

Windows 8: search

At every opportunity, Windows 8 reminds you that Metro is its new baby: plugging in a USB stick brings up a green tile over the desktop, and further settings are all laid out in the Metro style. Selecting any of the menu options on that previously mentioned mini Start menu produces a vertical Metro bar to the right of the desktop. (Don't even get us started on why a button in the bottom-left opens a menu on the far right, another design decision made seemingly without the mouse in mind).

All the talk from the launch event has been from people using Windows 8 on tablets, so the quick gestures are getting a lot of love in LA. Back in the real world of PCs and laptops, you can hover over the left edge of the screen to see the last application you had open, and either drag it out to switch to it or right-click to snap it to the right-edge column. It works okay, but other gestures just don't translate: swiping upwards to unlock, for example, is just horrible with a mouse. Thankfully, a press of the keyboard's up cursor does the same job, and as far as I can tell most existing keyboard shortcuts still work.

Improvements

Whatever you think of Metro, there are also several smaller changes that really do make a difference on a PC or laptop.

The new Task Manager is excellent, keeping the existing performance monitoring tools but adding heatmapping (think Excel's conditional formatting) so you can instantly see which processes are using resources, and several graphs, including live wireless throughput. It adds detailed tabs for app history and user activity, and finally brings the Startup options of msconfig into a much more accessible place. Crapware can now easily be prevented from starting up with Windows.

Explorer windows bring back the Up button they've been sorely lacking, and while a lot of people hate the ribbon interface I'm not one of them. The file transfer dialog has been improved, with a dynamic graph now showing the transfer speed second by second, and an estimation of time remaining. It rolls multiple transfer jobs into one window too, which is a vast improvement on having them stacked up.

Finally, boot and resume times are excellent, at least on this test laptop. About a year old, and with nothing fancier than a 320GB mechanical hard disk inside, it boots to the lock screen (if you've set a password) in around 13 seconds, and to a ready-to-go Windows 8 in just under 19 seconds. Strangely, the only way to power the laptop down appears to be to go into the Power option in the Settings menu; presumably, Microsoft is hoping laptop users will simply close the lid and make use of the improved sleep mode.

Windows 8: the tablet OS

The biggest realisation from a couple of days with Windows 8 on a laptop is that if you're not willing to throw yourself into the Metro interface with gusto, you're really not going to see the kind of changes to the OS that everyone else will. Those who just want Windows 7 but better are going to find that, at least behind the fancy new UI, it doesn't feel a whole lot different.

The desktop is still there, your existing applications can still be run, and most of the noticeable upgrades are to background elements of the environment. We've no doubt prettying up the Control Panel and various other tools is long overdue, but what Windows 8 seems most intent on is changing your ways to suit the direction Microsoft is taking. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's certain to split opinion among long-time Windows users.

This is a very early build and I'm well aware that I've not spent nearly enough time with it to make a proper judgement. But it's no surprise that Microsoft installed Windows 8 on a tablet to give to attendees of its Build conference, as that's clearly where it's more at home.

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