The so-called Consumer Preview version of the next version of Windows, code-named Windows 8, debuted on February 29 (as promised). As with the September 2011 Developer Preview, this version is open to the public. But the Consumer Preview offers a more feature-complete peek at Windows 8 than did its predecessor. This version's well-rounded user experiences work not just with touch, but also with the mouse- and keyboard-input types that are common on today's PCs.

How you feel about Windows 8 depends on whether you accept that the Apple iPad and its tablet ilk are ushering in a new era of simpler, more approachable computing experiences. There's little doubt that Apple's devices (not just the iPad, but also the iPhone and, to a much lesser extent, the Mac) are making huge inroads with both average users and businesses of all sizes. So Microsoft's response—what it calls a "no compromises" vision for Windows that addresses both the touch-friendly, iPad-like future and the more pedestrian, workhorse scenarios for which we use more traditional computers—is at least timely.

It's also debatable whether the strategy makes any sense. Rather than take the more aggressive Apple approach and abandon the past for a new, lighter platform, Microsoft has chosen to drag its past (i.e., the Windows desktop environment) kicking and screaming into the future. In Windows 8, we see a strange mix of dual—and, dare I say, dueling—environments, duking it out for our attention. The result is powerful and backward-compatible, but confusing.

Dueling Desktops

Figure 1 shows the first of these two interfaces, the Windows desktop. This desktop has been spiffed up with a handful of new features, including a new Ribbon-based Windows Explorer, a new file copy-and-move experience, a new Task Manager, and integrated browsing of ISO and Microsoft Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) disk image files. But Microsoft makes it obvious that this legacy UI now plays second fiddle. The desktop that we know, love, and understand is not where the software giant's attentions lie in this release.

Figure 1: Windows 8 desktop
Figure 1: Windows 8 desktop 

Instead, up front and center is the second and newer of these two user experiences, which (annoyingly) doesn't even have a proper name. I call it Metro because it provides what Microsoft calls immersive, Metro-style experiences:

  • a new lock screen
  • a new Start screen, which replaces the Start menu that we've used since Windows 95, as well as the application-launching functionality of the Windows 7 taskbar
  • a new runtime environment, called WinRT, which supports new, full-screen, Metro-style apps
  • a slew of system-level UIs that cross between both UIs

Is it a mess? You bet it is, but in some ways it's a beautiful mess. Metro, which Figure 2 shows, is attractive. And although power users will shudder at the thought of its full-screen apps and experiences, the Consumer Preview proves that this environment works well with mouse- and keyboard-based machines, as well as with the touch-based tablets and hybrid devices. Microsoft has extended the Developer Preview's touch-based edge UIs, in which users swipe the edges of a touch screen to accomplish various actions, with a full selection of screen-corner hotspots (for mice) and keyboard actions and shortcuts. It all works surprisingly well—once you figure out what's going on.

Figure 2: Metro-style Start screen
Figure 2: Metro-style Start screen 

One key to this system is that certain Metro experiences, such as the Start screen, PC settings, and Metro-style apps, are available whether you're in Metro or in the desktop. These include a new application switcher called, logically enough, Switcher, which Figure 3 shows; the new Start experience, which replaces the old Start button; and charms, a curiously named but useful set of system capabilities that includes Search, Share, Devices, and Settings. Charms are powerful, as it turns out, and context-sensitive. For example, when you access Settings from the desktop, you see desktop-related settings options; when you access Settings from a Metro-style app, you see settings that are relevant to that app.

Figure 3: Switcher
Figure 3: Switcher 

The interaction between Metro and the desktop might be confusing at first. It might help to consider the desktop as an app of sorts, something that runs underneath Metro rather than alongside it. That isn't what's really happening, at least not technically. But when you consider that the desktop environment was essentially the OS in previous Windows versions, you really do need a way to wrap your mind around its subservient nature in Windows 8.

The Metro Experience

So, the desktop works mostly as it did before, aside from the previously mentioned additions and a handful of UI deletions to accommodate the Metro UI. The real changes in Windows 8 come via that new Metro user experience. And it makes itself known from the get-go: Setup has been updated yet again, to be faster and sleeker. (IT pros will note that a handful of configuration options need to be completed after setup, making the gains there somewhat illusory.) The final phase of setup, called the out-of-box experience (OOBE), has been significantly updated with a Metro look and feel.

That new Metro-style user experience carries on from there, with a Metro-fied lock screen that will immediately be familiar to Windows Phone users (as Figure 4 shows). It has app-notification icons for such tasks as email, calendar, and even weather. And unlike the Windows Phone version, the desktop version of the Metro interface is extremely customizable. You can log on to the PC by using a smartphone-like PIN or picture password, which is fun. But the big news is that non-domain users can now log on directly to their Microsoft ID (formerly Windows Live ID), instead of linking the accounts later. In Windows 8, this capability accomplishes a lot, as many settings can be automatically synced between PCs that use Microsoft cloud services. (I've been told that domain users can link their accounts to a Microsoft ID, but I couldn't find the setting to do so in the Consumer Preview.)

Figure 4: Windows 8 lock screen
Figure 4: Windows 8 lock screen 

However you sign in, you're then confronted by the new Metro-style Start screen: a full-screen, fully configurable dashboard that contains Windows Phone–like live tiles for the Metro and classic Windows apps (as well as documents, websites, and other items) that you use most often. As with their Windows Phone equivalents, the Windows 8 live tiles, which Figure 5 shows, are far more graphical and expressive than simple icons. For example, instead of a little "4" badge to indicate that you have four new email messages, the Mail tile actually cycles through a preview of each message.

Figure 5: Live tiles with always-updating faces
Figure 5: Live tiles with always-updating faces 

Nice! But also potentially overwhelming. With about 16 live tiles or so visible on a typical 1366 ´ 768 screen, you could be looking at a lot of animating and live updating, depending on your configuration. On my test tablet, at least six of these tiles are constantly spinning and redisplaying. Maybe it's an age thing, but I sometimes find it tiring. I suspect youngsters will love it, given their shorter attention spans and penchant for sound bites.

Admins and IT pros who aren't fans of live tiles should know this: The Start screen isn't just fully customizable; it's also fully controllable via Group Policy. You can literally create custom-tailored dashboards that expose only the apps that your users need to get their jobs done. As with any technology, this can be used for good or evil, but I do believe that a Windows 8 PC could ultimately prove easier to lock down than earlier Windows versions. And that could be a selling point, despite the training that this new experience requires.

What's Up with Apps

The Metro-style apps that run from the Start screen are, like smart-phone apps, full-screen experiences. However, many have been adapted to work in a unique side-by-side mode, in which the main app takes up about two-thirds of the screen and a secondary app takes up the rest, as Figure 6 shows. Not all Metro-style apps are custom-tailored for this type of use, but those that are (e.g., Calendar, Weather) will be useful for multitasking. And there's nothing like this on the iPad, where all apps are full-screen all the time, making task management more difficult.

Figure 6: Side-by-side display with Weather and Calendar
Figure 6: Side-by-side display with Weather and Calendar 

Microsoft bundles a number of apps in the Consumer Preview, but the company has indicated to me that this selection doesn't necessarily represent what will be available in the final product, but rather what most users will see preinstalled on most PCs. This information tells me that the apps that fall neatly into the Bing and Windows Live categories—Maps, Weather, Finance, People, Photos, Calendar, Mail, and so on—will likely be bundled as Windows Live Essentials is today. That is, most new PCs will probably include these apps with Windows 8, but those who manually install the OS will need to get them manually (and for free) from the Windows Store.

Although all these apps represent a major step up from the intern-created sample Metro apps that Microsoft bundled with the Developer Preview (none of which are available now), few stand out. The Bing and Windows Live apps, in particular, are clearly labeled as App Previews, meaning that they are incomplete. Microsoft tells me that its developers only got started on Windows 8 apps with the Developer Preview last fall, so the App Previews are at least six months behind the rest of the OS. And it shows. These apps are incomplete, lack obvious configuration options, and are often buggy.

Some are at least attractive. Finance (Figure 7) and Weather, both Bing apps, are simply beautiful. And Windows Phone users will appreciate that Microsoft has taken the Windows Phone apps for Mail, Calendar, People, Photos, and Videos and updated them for the increased real estate and landscape orientation of the Windows 8 screen. This is something that Apple has never done effectively with most iPad apps, which mostly just resemble bigger versions of the equivalent iPhone apps. (Yes, Apple lovers, there are exceptions, but Microsoft's work here is more consistent across apps and looks better on the big screen.)

Figure 7: Bing Finance app
Figure 7: Bing Finance app 

As with mobile-device app stores, Microsoft will require that consumers find, download, and purchase all Metro-style apps for Windows 8 through a single online service, called the Windows Store, which Figure 8 shows. This store is in itself another amazingly attractive app. More important, it provides a nice way to discover, download, and manage your apps. Only free apps are currently available, but the selection is growing week by week. Microsoft will enable paid apps—which can come in trial versions, another feature that the iPad lacks—by the time it finalizes Windows 8. And businesses will be able to host their own internal apps in a private part of the store. Naturally, Microsoft understands the unique needs of businesses.

Figure 8: Windows Store
Figure 8: Windows Store 

The Real Question

Ultimately, I keep coming back to the same question: Does a single OS with two user experiences—Metro and the desktop—make sense? I just don't know, not yet. In a bid to find out, I've installed the Consumer Preview on all my regular-use machines and will be using only Windows 8 going forward. (I've written more than 40 articles about the Windows 8 Consumer Preview so far. You can find them all on the Windows 8 landing page on the Supersite for Windows.)  For now, I can say that the Metro environment makes plenty of sense for tablets, whereas the desktop is likely to continue to rule on traditional PCs. Given the Windows 8 release schedule, that might need to be enough.