5 things to like about the Windows 8 Consumer Preview

We interrupt our regular transmissions to talk about Windows 8. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, but in the meantime here’s a brief look at just five of the many things which make this, quite possibly, the best version of Windows yet. And that’s while it’s still in Beta.

1. It’s free

Has Microsoft gone all soft and Linuxy in its old age? Is this a new caring sharing Microsoft? Most likely not, but what they are doing is worth applauding even so. The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is free to download, use and install right now. This is still very much in Beta so it’s not recommended upgrading your existing OS to try it out. As with previous OS Betas from Microsoft this one is likely to expire at some point after the final version is officially launched, but that’s some way off yet. My guess is there’s at least a year to go before Microsoft hits the kill switch, possibly longer. To give it a try download the ISO image, repartition your hard disk (a minimum of 12Gb is advised) and give yourself a fresh clean install. Lifehacker will tell you all you need to install it.

2. It’s faster than Windows 7 on your existing hardware

I’m running Windows 8 on – I kid you not – my little netbook, and it’s blazingly fast. This is a bog standard 1.6Ghz HP netbook with 2Gb RAM, an Intel 945 graphics card and a 220Gb hard drive. I’m using a hacked graphics driver (yes, Windows 8 uses Win 7 drivers just fine) to get a resolution of 1152×864 rather than the netbook standard of 1024×600, but that’s about it.

And it’s fast. Power off to the login screen is around 8 seconds. Less that a second after I’ve entered the password I’m up and running. Touch the power button and the netbook goes to sleep. Press it again and it’s ready at the oh so swooshy lock screen in under a second. App switching is damned near instantaneous (more on that later), and applications start and run quicker than ever before.

Which is nice. 

3. Integrated spell check across all applications

This might not be a killer feature for many, but it sure is a godsend once you use it. The spell checker is built right into the operating system and even works across apps not designed for explicitly for Windows 8, including Firefox. This means one dictionary, one set of exceptions and one consistent interface (complete with auto-correct and wiggly red lines) for all your spell checking needs. Hopefully this should mean smaller and lighter Office suites in the future too. Libre Office, I’m looking at you.

4. Internet Explorer is surprisingly good

Those aren’t words I expected to type, but it’s true. IE10 is stable, memory efficient and, as with the rest of Windows 8, very fast indeed. It even renders web pages properly. Who’d have thought it?

The small fly in the ointment is that it feels like there’s two web browsers in Windows 8 – the regular Desktop version of IE and the Metro-skinned one. Apart from the appearance, the Metro version runs with no plugins, and that means no Flash support even after you’ve installed the Flash plugin. I understand (and to an extent agree with) Microsoft’s rationale for this, but having an Icon labelled Internet Explorer on the desktop which (from a consumer’s perspective) just doesn’t work properly is going to frustrate an awful lot of folks. 

Here’s a thought. There’s a button in the Metro IE address bar which can be clicked to load the web page in full-blown Desktop Internet Explorer. Why not make is a toggle button to enable/disable Plugins instead, and give the choice back to the user?

That aside, even though I’ve installed Firefox, I’m finding myself using the full screen Metro version of IE as my browser of choice. And I’m picky, so it must be good.

Talking of Metro……

5. Metro

Love it or hate it, but I love it. There’s a lot to love too, even though the interface itself is as simple as can be. That’s called good UI design. Coo.

The Desktop is the Start Menu! See interactive Icons providing meaningful content before your very eyes! Easily uninstall apps with a right click on the Icon! Move and categorise applications in a way that suits you! And so much more!

Despite the critics claiming that Metro is just for touch tablets and phone, it’s a gorgeous interface to use with the mouse too. It’s the corners that make it. Ah, the corners.

Move the muse pointer to the top left and click. That switches between your last two apps, instantly. Keep clicking to cycle through other open apps, or move the pointer down to open a list of all the apps on the left hand side. Move the mouse to the bottom left corner and click to bring up the Start screen. That’s the same action we used to open up the old Start Menu. Or, if you prefer, just hit the Windows key on your keyboard to bounce between the Star screen and your current app.

The top and bottom right corners both bring up the oddly named Charms pane. This holds icons for Search (across all apps, the web, and pretty much everything else). Sharing, the Start screen, Devices and application Settings.  Of those, the Sharing icon has the most potential, but it’s under-implemented right now. It will eventually allow you to share web pages, documents, photos and whatever else is shareable via Email, Twitter, Facebook, a Cloud service or anything else that lets you share things. That one icon will by the glue that links a Noun (what you want to share) with a Verb (how you want to share it) in oh so many ways. But not yet, not quite. Soon!

I could go on. I could talk about the excellent Mail app (I’ve set it up to receive my Gmail and it’s immediately become my mail client of choice), that way existing Windows key combinations still work (Alt-Tab, Win-Tab, Ctrl-Tab, Win-Esc, etc) meaning finger memory isn’t impaired, the App Store (which is currently a bit sparse but does contain Cut The Rope, so that’s ok), the excellent SkyDrive integration which finally make SkyDrive a usable and worthwhile service, or the way that Microsoft have done a great job of supporting non-MS services such as Gmail, Twitter and Facebook.

Instead, I urge you to make some free space on your hard drive and give it a try. You might just like it.

5 Comments on “5 things to like about the Windows 8 Consumer Preview”

  1. I’m sticking to my Mac, thank you very much. Sure, IE 10 is great, and Windows 8 may be the best thing since Adam invented Stonemasonry, but I’ve been burned too much by Windows Me not to use Windows as a primary operating system. :P

    Yes, I have a Windows partition on my Mac, but with all the games I have, I’ll probably need to purchase a windows based computer just to play them all. :P

  2. Integrated spell check across all applications? Mac OS X had that since it came out twelve and a half years ago. Great to see that Windows is finally catching up :-)

    1. Microsoft haven’t really done integrated anything (beyond the clipboard) much at all in the past, so this is quite a big thing for them. Also, it’s integrated across all applications, not just those made by Microsoft themselves (which that have had in the Office suite since forever).

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