Test Driving Windows 8 RTM

I’m writing this on an Asus Zenbook UX31A at a Peet’s Coffee on Stevens Creek Boulevard in the heart of Silicon Valley. In an adjacent table a man and woman have papers spread out on a table, talking in hushed tones, with the word “Apple” occasionally audible.

Installed on the Zenbook is a freshly minted copy of Windows 8 RTM. The official launch date for Windows 8 remains October 26, but the RTM (“release to manufacturing”) is available to Microsoft Technet and MSDN subscribers today.

Windows 8 Desktop Background
The default Windows 8 desktop background

PCWorld has covered the major features in articles on the release preview and consumer preview versions. Rather than dive once more into the myriad of features of Windows 8, I thought it would be more interesting spending a day with Windows 8 doing actual work. The goal here is to dive into the deep end of the pool of Microsoft’s vision of the future of PC computing. Not only is this laptop running the RTM, but I also installed the preview release of Microsoft Office 15.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A Brief Word on Installation

This is not a detailed review; that’s impossible in a few hours. But while PCWorld will be serving up tutorials on Windows 8 installation and upgrading, I’d like to touch briefly on installation.

Installing Windows 8 on this Zenbook is actually my second attempt. The first attempt on different hardware failed due to driver issues with Wi-Fi.

Installing Windows 8 on the Zenbook went smoothly, but only after figuring out that several of the disk partitions on the Zenbook were GPT-style partitions. That seemed a bit odd for a modern Microsoft operating system, but after nuking all the partitions and reformatting, the rest of the installation went smoothly.

When you first boot into Windows 8, you’re asked if you want to use your Microsoft login (formerly your Windows Live login). If you say yes, you are dropped into the full-on Windows 8 experience, including full integration with Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage service, social networking services, and simple access to the Microsoft Store. You can opt out of this, but then you end up with an enhanced (or crippled, depending on your point of view) Windows 7 experience.

After logging into Windows 8 with my Microsoft ID, my phone buzzed with an SMS confirmation message. I also received a similar message via email. Both asked me to give permission for the new system to access my SkyDrive folders. That little bit of extra security may help assuage some security fears. In the increasingly cloud-driven technology world, the line between security and convenience is becoming increasingly blurred.

Office 15 Preview Installed

I followed up the Windows 8 installation by installing the Office 15 preview. Windows 8, Office 15, and SkyDrive make up the three legs of the tripod that shores up Microsoft’s new vision of computing. Office 15’s SkyDrive integration when running under Windows 8 seems much less sluggish and more organic than under Windows 7.

Elan touchpad control panel

After installing Office 15, I encountered one more issue: the touchpad. The Zenbook’s Elan touchpad supports edge detection, but Windows 8 saw the touchpad as a “Microsoft PS/2 Mouse.”

Using the touchpad in this mode is a pretty terrible experience. The touchpad lacked any advanced features—no multitouch gestures or palm detection.

I hit up the Asus website, where I found actual 64-bit Windows 8 drivers for the Elan touchpad. After that, usability went up considerably, though it's still not perfect. Palm detection seems to go in and out. Multitouch gestures work great, but edge detection works only some of the time.

One key problem for me in this installation is that Cisco’s AnyConnect 2.5 VPN client software wouldn’t connect to PCWorld’s corporate VPN. Some Internet searches uncovered possible solutions, but none seemed to work. So while I can write on the Windows 8 system, I’ll have to post it from my desktop system. Since I’m saving this to my SkyDrive, grabbing the file from another system is simple.

After installing software, the Windows 8 user interface screen became cluttered with tiles. Tile sizes seem to vary and, while there may be some logic to the organization, it's not always esthetically pleasing.

Windows 8 Start Screen
Windows 8 start screen, after installing a bunch of stuff.

The Usability Experience

While the touchpad worked reasonably well after installing the new drivers, I carry around a Logitech Anywhere MX mouse for most normal use; I've never been much of a fan of touchpads. Windows 8 recognized the Logitech Unifying receiver after I inserted it into the USB port, and I was mousing away in short order.

It didn’t take long to realize how seriously improved the responsiveness of the mouse has become. Charms, sidebars, and Windows 8 UI features popped up with no lag. Clicking on items offered similar immediacy. In fact, the mouse experience is so improved that the user interface formerly known as the Metro UI didn't get in the way nearly as much.

You're never more than a couple of clicks away from the desktop, if you prefer that, but the desktop seems almost extraneous now. More often than not, you can get to any important running app just by moving your mouse to the corners. In fact, that's the single tutorial tip you're given during the Windows setup process: Move your mouse to the corners.

Windows 8 Start Screen with Sidebar
Note the app sidebar to the left of the start screen.

Spinning the mouse wheel lets you scroll smoothly through all tiled screens, whether it's the main UI, the Microsoft Store, or other applications using the new interface style.

That sidebar you see above is easy to bring up in the main Windows 8 UI. What I thought was equally useful was making it available in the Windows desktop. Given how Windows 8 uses screen real estate, having a monitor with higher pixel density is a good thing. The laptop I'm using includes a 1080p IPS panel.

Windows 8 Desktop with Sidebar
The sidebar can also be made visible in the desktop.

The other thing I've gotten used to while using the release preview was to start typing when in the main tile interface. As you type a word, the number of choices diminish.

The first letter of any word in the file or app name seems to be searchable, so when I typed the letter "A," I got entries for the Dark Arcane game, Help and Support, Windows Fax and Scan and finally, Access 2013.

Windows 8 Search
Just start typing in the UI to find apps.

It has taken me some time to adapt to the radical change in the visual experience. Microsoft is using DirectX to accelerate all the graphical UI elements while simplifying the style of those same elements. Gone is the faux 3D, drop shadows, and beveled windows, replaced with flat, saturated colors and tiles. It seems almost too simplistic but, by the same token, my eye wasn't distracted by extraneous elements.

Accelerating all UI elements, including text, with the graphics processor makes Windows a much more fluid experience. Enlarging text in browsers or apps seems smoother than the staggered steps in Windows 7. The integrated Intel HD 4000 GPU in the Zenbook is more than adequate, though you can see a slight flickering in the text as the antialiasing kicks in when you're changing text size.

Sticky Applications

Windows 8 Task Manager
Apps can remain sticky, even when you think they're shut down.
One minor concern I had revolved around sticky applications. When you close an app, it doesn’t really close. It remains dormant in the background.

There’s no CPU hit, but some memory is consumed. The laptop I used had 4GB of RAM, though some of that was reserved for the integrated graphics frame buffer. I loaded up a bunch of apps just to see what happened.

The system tended to be mostly responsive. “Mostly” means that the preview version of Word would occasionally freeze. This freeze turned out to be temporary, not a hard lock.

The combination of many open apps plus Word’s SkyDrive integration seemed to result in slow temp saves. This seemed to happen rarely, but worrying nonetheless. On the other hand, this is a beta version of Office, so what I experienced may simply be a bug in Word.

The Store and More Shopping

I was also eager to try out the Microsoft Store, shown below. There's a lot of curiosity around the new store, but it's really gone live only since the RTM. While I didn't try to count all the available apps, only a few hundred seem to be currently, and most are free.

Microsoft Store in Windows 8
The Microsoft store in Windows 8.
In fact, after a fair amount of searching, I could only find three paid apps, all games. Then again, only a small handful of users will be running the RTM. The real deluge will come as the October 26th release for the final version of Windows 8 nears.

I didn't have time to explore a lot of apps, but I checked out a couple of Twitter clients (including MetroTwit).

MetroTwit running in Windows 8
The Windows 8 MetroTwit twitter app

Then I wasted some time... er, explored the Wikipedia app.

Windows 8 Wikipedia App
The Windows 8 visual Wikipedia app
While checking out Wikipedia, the Naturespace app ran in the background, playing soothing ambient sounds recorded from nature.

Windows 8 Naturescape
Naturescape turns out to be more soothing than you expect.

Gamer that I am, I checked out a handful of games, though most seemed to be pretty casual and light. I wasted a little too much time on Dark Arcane,shown below, which is really just a simple point-and-click puzzle adventure.

Windows 8 Dark Arcane Game
Dark Arcane, a point-and-click Windows 8 game.

The Microsoft Store isn't the only way to hand Microsoft your hard-earned money. If you click on games, you would expect to get a folder of game links, as you did with Windows 7.

You would be wrong. Instead, you find yourself in the Xbox Games store, as shown below. Despite its name, it's not just a way to buy games for your Xbox 360; you can also buy PC games as well. Your Microsoft account is tied to your Xbox account, which also merges in the elements of what was once the Games for Windows Live store.

Xbox Games in Windows 8
What's this Xbox stuff doing in my Windows 8?

In a similar manner, clicking on "Music" and "Video" takes you to the Xbox music and video stores, respectively. The Music app does allow you to play any music you own, but you're always presented with new music to buy. It seems just a little too aggressively up front—worse in some ways than iTunes.

Windows 8 Music App
Not just for buying: playing a song in the Windows 8 music app.

Your Home Network

After writing a few hundred words, I drained my mocha and headed home to integrate the new Windows 8 system into my mostly Windows 7 home network, which proved straightforward.

Windows 8 works with Windows home groups, and sharing files is easy. I had actually installed Windows 8 earlier in my home office, and attached the system to my local Wi-Fi network. As I fired up the home network, Windows 8 also found a number of other devices on the network, including two printers (one network-attached, the other shared off a desktop system), the Onkyo network connected TX-NR 809 A/V receiver.

Windows 8 Network Status Page
Windows 8 enumerates my network.

Hardware Web pages replace the Windows 7 hardware property page. The look varies, depending on how much work the OEM puts into making the page useful and attractive. For example, the page for the HP Photosmart printer offered up lots of information, as shown below.

Windows 8 Hardware Web Page
Hardware web pages under Windows 8 can look good.
On the other hand, the hardware page for the Onkyo TX-NR809 network attached A/V receiver is certainly not the epitome of elegant page design, as you can see here.

Onkyo Windows 8 Hardware Page
Windows 8 hardware web pages may not look so great, either.

Window 8 also includes Microsoft's Smartglass application. Smartglass is a way to control certain aspects of the Xbox 360 dashboard using Windows 8.

Windows 8 Xbox Smartglass
Smartglass lets you control the Xbox 360 dashboard.

While Smartglass is really tuned to work effectively with Windows 8 tablets, connecting up with the laptop and navigating the Xbox 360 on the network was pretty simple. You do need to have Xbox Companion enabled in the Xbox 360's settings if you want to use Smartglass; it's off by default. You can use Smartglass to navigate the Xbox 360's user interface and even launch games.

Windows 8 Smartglass launching a game
You can launch Xbox 360 games with Smartglass.

Bedtime Dreams

I've clearly only touched the surface by trying to give you a feel for what it's like to use Windows 8 and associated applications. I've yet to install any full-on desktop games. That will come later, as we explore using Windows 8 on desktop PCs. It's worth taking a moment to recap the day.

It begins with a full installation of Windows 8 (not an upgrade install).

After navigating minor headaches like the inability to install with GPT partitions present and having to hunt down proper touchpad drivers, the installation was pretty smooth. During that process, I also connected to my home network, configured the laptop into the home group, and proceeded to install applications.

This is also where I personalized the system, which included bringing up the Windows 8 settings screen. It bears a strong resemblance to the Xbox 360 control panel.

Windows 8 PC Settings
General PC settings -- it's not the same as the control panel.

I installed a variety of applications, including Microsoft Office 2013 preview, Google Chrome, Techsmith's Snagit (for taking screen shots), and a number of apps from the Windows Store. At that point, it was time for a little caffeine boost, so I headed over to a nearby coffee shot, bought a mocha, and started to write.

Returning home, I played a few games, checked out some social media, and connected to the Xbox 360 to see how Smartglass actually works. Now I'm sitting down to wrap up this first day with Microsoft's shiny new OS.

Final Thoughts

The integration with SkyDrive, both within Windows and the Office 2013 preview, is excellent, and a more robust experience than running under Windows 8. Most users should have no problems being productive.

I also discovered that Microsoft is pretty serious about using Windows 8 as a platform for "monetization." (I really hate that term.) You're given multiple opportunities to plunk down your money for music, videos, apps, and other virtual goods.

The real problem is that the shopping experience seems a little too in your face. Now we have an idea of why Microsoft is making the upgrade available at such a low cost—the company hopes to make it back in online store sales.

Still, you can ignore most of that, and spend most of your time in the good old Windows desktop if you prefer. Everything is really just a touch or mouse gesture away.

Windows 8, it turns out, is highly usable. The final release is noticeably more responsive with the touchpad and mouse than the prerelease versions. The user interface is easier to navigate than I'd feared, and the whole affair seems to hang together pretty well.

The responsiveness of the UI, down to mouse movements, scrolling and swiping large swaths of UI screen is incredibly smooth, made possible by GPU acceleration of most of the UI elements.

Whether Windows 8 will be a big winner is still an open question. It clearly has improvements over Windows 7, though the two-step to access the Windows desktop will no doubt be off-putting to some users.

A bigger annoyance, to my mind, is just how eagerly Microsoft seems to want to collect your money after you install Windows 8. How users respond to that will be interesting to watch.

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