On Windows 8 Consumer Preview

I’ve been using Microsoft’s Windows 8 Consumer Preview for the last week or so now, running it in Virtualbox on my XP machine. In fact, I’m working with it right now as I type this.

Windows 8 is a frustrating experience, because there’s so much here that Microsoft got right mixed with a bunch of missed opportunities, and a number of infuriating deliberate decisions which appear to have been implemented out of pure spite towards people who prefer working with as *ahem* the ‘old desktop paradigm’.

So, here’s my brief take on Redmond’s latest…

I like to end on positive notes, so I’ll start on the downers.

First off the obvious: the Metro Start Screen. I can see this working very well on a tablet, where one has no mouse, and can swipe horizontally. It’s become an intuitive, learned behaviour for millions of people, and is an efficient way of navigating through a horizontal tapestry of icons and information. The tiles show useful little bits of information too, and the Metro app tiles in particular have that distinctive minimalist Metro look about them, so no shiny faux-glass surfaces or drop shadows here.

The desktop is a little icon itself. I think the idea here is that the desktop is now to be thought of as an app, rather than the main interface with the operating system.

The problem I have with the Start Screen is the lack of configurability. One cannot, for example, shrink the tiles in any way, or reduce them to an ordered list of programs like you can icons in Explorer. On my monitor they are about an inch square. You can unpin them and move them about though.

Also, in a rather bizarre decision that flies in the face of intuitive UI design, if you’re using keyboard and mouse, rolling the mouse wheel up and down scrolls it left and right. You can’t ‘grab’ the right hand side with a mouse and fling it to the left, but there is a scrollbar.

OK, nothing much to complain about I guess, but it’s a radically different environment to the desktop, and this is where Microsoft screwed up.

On previous versions of Windows we had a Start menu on the desktop, which gave us quick access to a few pinned programs, the ‘Run’ command, the power off/hibernate/logoff commands, the search function, control panel etc.

It was unobtrusive, just a little button in the corner, and behaved rather like a toolbelt. When not in use it would collapse back out of sight leaving your desktop free of clutter – there was no need to have icons and shortcuts dotted all over the place. Unfortunately Microsoft has done away with it forcing you to use the Start Screen instead.

This for me is a major problem. Opening a program from the Start Menu was like reaching for your toolbelt and grabbing what you need. There was no break of concentration, you could keep half an eye on your already-open apps, and your attention and workflow were largely uninterrupted.

However, the Start Menu is not like that. It’s as if Microsoft are forcing you to go next door to your neighbour’s garage to fetch a tool, each and every time you need to use a new one, rather than let you keep it on your belt. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and smacks of railroading users into some kind of UI ‘vision’.

Not convinced by this, I must say.

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