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Preview of the new Microsoft Windows 8

Can this operating system challenge Google's Android and Apple's iOS?

Published: March 2012
The Metro Start page lets you rearrange tiles and remove them entirely.

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Microsoft publicly released its "Consumer Preview" of Windows 8, the next generation of its flagship operating system, on March 1. I didn't call it a "desktop" operating system, since Microsoft is seriously intending to get Windows 8 on every kind of consumer computing device, including tablets and smart phones; Google's Android OS and Apple's iOS are currently the top dogs in that arena. Windows 8 tries to make the transition by addressing Windows 7's weaknesses in mobile operation.

Microsoft has created a new user interface (UI) called Metro, which centers on a checkerboard arrangement of dynamic tiles representing the apps you can launch, which is nothing really new to smart phone and tablet users. Metro has the requisite ability to rearrange tiles within and between groups and remove them entirely from the Start screen (they are still reachable via an All Apps button). For some tiles, you can choose a square or rectangular shape. And they can be dynamic, depending on the app, showing some content as with Windows 7's Gadgets.

Windows 8 has integrated touch-screen functionality into every part of the Metro UI, using gestures to replace mouse clicks and keyboard actions. A touch or single click on a tile launches the app. Switching between open apps is a swipe in from the left side, and closing an app is a swipe all the way from top to bottom—that's good arm exercise on a 24-inch screen! And the oddly named Charms bar, which lives at the right of any screen, lets you swipe to return to the Start screen, search, share content, or change settings (the last two are app-dependent).

Swipe the Charms bar at right to access Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.

Any app, file, or setting can also be located from Metro's Start screen by simply starting to type its name. A list of matching apps or files will come up, and you can touch or click the one you want. That could be handy, since app tiles may lose their name identity when active content obscures them. The LA Times tile shows only an "L" in the corner when it is running in the background, and the music player shows just a little headphone symbol.

Unlike with desktop icons, you can't create tiles that link to files—only to apps. Metro apps are supposed to keep track of the files they can open, either locally stored on the PC or in the cloud. How this will work with Metro apps that use portable formats, like DOC files, remains to be seen, since all the apps currently available use only proprietary files, stored who-knows-where.

Some apps can share files in various non-obvious ways. When I created an animated "doodle" using the Doodleinator app, I pulled up its control bar from the bottom, and found an Export button that opened a lengthy "creating video…" process, letting me save the animation as a file in my Video Library. It then showed up in the Video app. The Share button on the Charms bar had an e-mail option that attached a ".doodle" file to a blank e-mail. Presumably, a recipient would also have to have the Doodleinator app to view it.

The MSNBC app running in the Metro user interface.

Metro is not the only user interface in Windows 8. You can swipe or click your way to a desktop UI that looks much like earlier Windows versions, without the Start button. Apps that can operate in both UIs (not all can) look different: In Metro, apps run full-screen (as on a tablet or phone) and have embedded buttons, a swipe-up control bar or a right-swipe Settings icon to operate their functions. On the desktop, apps have the expected menus and can be windowed and arranged.

Desktop utilities have been updated as well. Explorer (file) windows now have an optional Ribbon menu system that puts most options, such as revealing hidden files, one click away. I was especially impressed with the improvements to the Task Manager, which now shows how each running app and Windows process is using the computer's CPU, memory, disk, and network resources, and keeps a history of app usage. It also includes the features of the System Configuration manager—a utility that lets you check and change what runs every time you boot up—which you formerly had to launch by typing "msconfig" into a Start/Run window.

Some things are just missing in the Metro UI. You can't view a photo's properties, such as its name, location, or date, within the Metro Photos app, for example. For that info, you need to open a file window to the Photos library, as in Windows 7. In the desktop UI, the Start button-cum-orb that been with us since Windows 95, is gone, ostensibly replaced by the Metro Start screen, according to Microsoft.

Finally, Microsoft has integrated a variety of online features into many of the built-in apps and into Win 8 itself. There's an app store (with a little under 100 apps in the preview), lots of them tied to online info such as news, weather, and mapping. I suspect the final version of Windows 8 will have a strong tie-in to Microsoft's Live cloud-based services for storage and backup.

The built-in backup program is rebadged as Windows 7 File Recovery, indicating that Microsoft is abandoning it. But there's a new program in the Control Panel called File History that keeps track of changes you make to files, letting you revert to an earlier version, much like Apple's Time Machine. Another new Control Panel item, Manage Storage Spaces, appears to mimic the pooled storage system Microsoft included in its Windows Home Server OS. That system let you add hard drives—external or internal—treating their combined capacity as if it were one large drive, simplifying backup.

There will be much more to say about the retail release of Windows 8, which will no doubt be somewhat different from this Consumer Preview. And we'll be interested to see how PC and tablet manufacturers respond to this imminent touch-based Windows release.

—Dean Gallea

How to create a dual-boot setup

Until Windows 8 is released, you can try it on your own Windows 7 or Vista PC without affecting your current system; you need at least 30GB to spare on your hard drive. We recommend following this path to create a "dual-boot" setup:

  1. Back up your personal files and documents, just in case something goes haywire.
  2. Create an empty partition of about 50GB at the end of your hard drive. To do this:
    • On your Start menu, search for "partition", which will open the Disk Management tool.
    • Right-click the C: drive and choose Shrink Volume. (Note that you may not be able to shrink the volume enough in some cases, where there are unmoveable files near the end. You need at least 16GB to install Windows 8, and we recommend at least double that so you can try out many apps.)
    • Enter 50,000 as the amount of space to shrink.
    • When it's finished, exit the Disk Management tool.
  3. Download the setup program from http://windows.microsoft.com.
  4. Run it, allowing it to check your PC for incompatibilities and write down the Product Key you are provided.
  5. Allow the full installer to download.
  6. Choose the option to "Install on another partition."
  7. Choose to create either a bootable USB flash drive or a bootable DVD. The latter will create an .iso file that you must then use to produce the installer DVD with a DVD-burning program.
  8. Restart your computer with the installer DVD or flash drive inserted, and boot to that media.
  9. On some computers, you may have to press F12 to choose the boot media.
  10. When the installer starts, choose a "Custom" installation, and choose to install on the new partition you created earlier.
   

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