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Windows 8 Consumer Preview: User Experience and Fit and Finish Improvements

With the Windows 8 Developer Preview, Microsoft made a promise about the future of Windows, a promise that is only now coming to fruition in the Consumer Preview. And that promise is this:  While the major user experience changes in Windows 8 are indeed inspired by, and tailored to, multi-touch, they will work equally well with traditional PC interfaces, including keyboard, mouse, and trackpad.

Users who braved the Developer Preview hoping to garner some hint at this future, as I did for several painful months, came away disappointed. But that was by design, in the sense that Microsoft knew it had a certain amount of time to get the new, touch-based interfaces right, and it thus focused its efforts on shipping the new user experience first, while knowing that the keyboard and mouse/trackpad improvements could follow in a subsequent milestone.

But the Developer Preview wasn't just incomplete from a user experience standpoint, it was also in some ways fundamentally incorrect. That is, because there were unfinished user interface bits, Microsoft had to implement small hacks just to get the Developer Preview out the door in a way that could be used.

The weird Charms-based menu that appeared when you clicked on the desktop's Start button is such an example. Microsoft knew it would be removing the Start button (really, the "Start orb") from Windows 8, and it knew that it would offer a consistent Charms experience for both the Metro-style Start screen environment and the Explorer desktop. But neither of these changes was ready for the Developer Preview, so the weird little menu was hacked in. Developers and other testers routinely complained about this menu, since it bore no relation at all to the old Start menu, and they'll no doubt be delighted that it's gone in the Consumer Preview. But their feedback did nothing to influence this decision: It was all planned, for many, many months.

Too, it's worth noting that while the Consumer Preview contains literally thousands of user interface tweaks and improvements, it's still not final, and nor is this build "feature complete." It is instead "substantially feature complete," which is to say very close, but not done. There will be further changes and improvements to the user experience between the Consumer Preview and RTM (release to manufacturing, or the final release of the product), some of which I'll describe below. But the Consumer Preview is indeed much more complete, from a user experience standpoint, than was the Developer Preview. Substantially so.

(This user experience has been called "v1" of the new Windows user experience, leading me to believe that Microsoft is already planning subsequent evolutions for future Windows versions. But my efforts to trigger an admission along those lines were brushed off with a smile. I tried.)

Aside from cosmetic niceties, the biggest change in this release, of course, is that Microsoft has really completed the story around user input. And that means, of course, that we now understand how Windows 8 will work, not just with multi-touch screens, but also with traditional keyboard, mouse, and trackpad devices.

We know from the Developer Preview that Windows 8 will rely heavily on what Microsoft calls Edge UIs. These Edge UIs allow the user to trigger app- and system-wide actions that would otherwise be ponderous in this new computing environment in which apps are full-screen and the devices themselves are often bereft of traditional keyboards, pointing devices, and buttons. (Well, not completely: Of course, Windows 8 devices will all include a minimal set of buttons, including a Windows key button.)

Thinking about just a single device type, like a Windows 8 slate, you can see where Edge UIs would be useful. You swipe in from the right edge of the screen to display the Charms, which include Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. And apps can support top and bottom edge actions as well; Internet Explorer uses the top edge for tabs, and the bottom edge for the App Bar, which includes an Address box, Back button, and a few other frequently-needed commands. The left edge of the screen is used for multi-tasking, or more accurately task-switching.

This was all well understood with the release of the Developer Preview. But what about keyboard, mouse and trackpad? In the Consumer Preview, these input types are nicely integrated into the system as well, in ways that are consistent with the touch interfaces, and that work across both the Metro-style Start screen and the desktop.

Of course, actual "Edge UIs" don't make much sense in the context of these other input devices. So Microsoft has instead tailored these experiences for each, and utilized the motor memory of experienced Windows users to make it even easier.

For example, with a mouse or trackpad, it's all about the corners of the screen, since these areas are natural resting points for the onscreen pointer. The screen corners are simply the fastest place to go onscreen with the mouse, and doing so is consistent with previous Windows versions, where the Start button/orb was in the lower left corner of the screen and the Show Desktop/Aero Peak button was in the lower right.

And each of the four screen corners does something unique in Windows 8. If you mouse down to the lower left corner of the screen, where the Start button/orb used to be, you'll see a Start tip, and for click and right-click purposes, the whole area (and not just a single pixel) works as did the Start button before. So why not just leave the Start button there, you ask? Check out my related article, The True Story Behind the Missing Start Button, for the full story.

Mouse into the upper left corner of the screen and you can trigger the Back action, which you may equate to the Back button in a browser or Explorer window. But really it's more akin to the Back stack on Windows Phone, which is tied to that system's hardware Back button, meaning that it's actually a system-wide behavior that relates to all of your navigation actions, in-browser or without, throughout the system.

This Back action is also tied into a new user experience for task switching, so if you pull down with the mouse you'll see a thumbnail list of running apps. You can close apps from here, rearrange their positions in the list, and of course switch to one if you'd like. It's pretty full-featured. Not bad for a supposedly touch-centric system, eh?

The right side of the screen is reserved for the Charms, as it is with the touch interface. So if you move the mouse into either the upper right or lower right corner of the screen, you'll invoke the Charms.

This area of change is big enough that I've written a separate article about it, called Improvements to Mouse and Keyboard Navigation. So do read that, of course, for more information.

Beyond these major changes, you'll see a huge amount of additional polish in the Consumer Preview when compared to the Developer Preview. The animations have changed and, as important, are now much faster, lending some credence to Microsoft's oft-repeated "fast and fluid" mantra. Again, many of these changes were previously planned, in fact most were, but Microsoft did of course take into account whatever feedback and criticisms that it received from the previous milestone as well.

One semi-major change was inspired by some common feedback that it didn't see coming: Many complained that the experience of switching between the desktop and Start screen (or between an Explorer application and a Metro-style app, as is generally the case) was "jarring." Not helping matters is that there were no useful Metro-style apps to use during the Developer Preview phase, so users were generally relegated to sticking with the desktop, and their infrequent forays into the Start screen/Metro environment were unwelcome.

Microsoft took this complaint to heart and tried to fix it. And the way it did so was through a combination of animations and performance improvements. So in the Consumer Preview, when you move from, say, the desktop to the Start screen, the desktop no longer visually scrolls off to the side, an animation that emphasized the jarring change that was occurring, which simultaneously slowing down the operation. Instead, the Start screen pops to the foreground immediately. And while that may seem more jarring without having actually seen it, the reality is that the effect is far more natural and pleasing. It makes the whole system feel faster.

(That said, I expect the debate about Windows 8 dual interfaces to continue for some time to come. We have to complain about something.)

There's also a new mouse action called Push Scrolling that lets you effortless scroll left to right onscreen, in Metro interfaces like the Start screen: just move to the right side of the screen and it will scroll automatically. You don't need to hit a scroll bar as you did in the Developer Preview.

(I mentioned that further tweaks are coming after the Consumer Preview. Here's one: Microsoft is going to enable the scroll wheel on a mouse to perform left-to-right scrolling as well. It's not there yet, but it will be.)

The All Apps view, previously available only via Search, has been significantly updated or, in Microsoft's words, "fixed" in this release. This, too, is a big enough deal that I wrote a separate article about it: All Apps Comes Of Age. So check that out for all the details. (And know that this feature will be further enhanced post-Consumer Preview with an App Bar that's not present currently.)

Mill around the Start screen and you'll notice plenty of changes. New themes, of course, as all the blogs will eagerly tell you, but also lots of new options around pinning items to the Start screen. Put simply, virtually anything can be pinned to the Start screen now, including apps and desktop applications, of course, but also web sites, folders, files, Microsoft Management Consoles, Libraries, virtually anything you can think of. And there are more options now for pinned items, especially desktop applications.

These changes make the Start screen a better dashboard of all the things you need and care about, and of course that was the original vision, a promise in the Developer Preview that is now fulfilled. Microsoft believes that even those who primarily use desktop applications will still use the Start screen, and not the desktop, as their home base in Windows 8. We'll see about that--and yes, I intend to test that exhaustively--but there's little doubt that things have improved dramatically.

There are some neat new capabilities around closing Metro-style apps with a mouse or touch, an action that users requested in the Developer Preview. Also long planned, this capability was added for the Consumer Preview. So you can grab the top of the screen with the mouse, for example, pull it down, and then "throw away" the app by dragging it visually to the bottom of the screen; it "poofs" away and is closed. And yes, all the old ways of closing apps, like the ALT-F4 keyboard shortcut, work in this build as well!

Put simply, the Consumer Preview takes the basic premise of the new user experience from the Developer Preview and really builds it out and (almost) complete it. There's a ton of polish across the system, across all the user experiences and UI surfaces, including the presence of on-screen transport controls (Volume Up/Down etc) everywhere, the lock screen, and so on--several new themes, with more coming, and better personalization capabilities. There's a real set of apps, albeit in App Preview form, and not silly sample apps, as in the Developer Preview. Suddenly, Windows 8 seems real, and not just a proof of concept.

Or, as I noted at the beginning of this article, consider the promise kept: We can now see a more complete user experience picture for Windows 8. And I'm liking what I see here.

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