Since its debut in Developer Preview form last year, people have described Windows 8 as Windows 7 with a new Metro environment tacked on top. This is understandable—describing something alien in familiar terms helps us overcome our initial fears and confusion—but it’s also incorrect. Windows 8 is nothing less than a brand new mobile operating system, based on the same NT core as Windows 7 and previous Windows versions for backwards compatibility reasons only.
That Windows 8 also provides an updated version of the familiar if deprecated desktop environment from previous Windows versions is, of course, the source of this confusion. But the NT core—which includes not just the OS’s kernel but also other low-level system components—and the desktop, combined, provide a valuable stepping stone from our past—Windows, pre-8—and the future, which is Metro, one that lets us retain our past application and device compatibility while Microsoft makes this important and necessary transition.
See, regardless of whether Metro is any good—opinions vary, apparently—one thing is incontrovertible. In Windows 8, Metro is not complete.
And it’s not complete on more than one level. From a user experience perspective, Metro is a new take on the Metro version that Microsoft first created for Windows Phone, adapted for the bigger and more typically horizontally aligned screens we use on traditional PCs. From an architectural perspective—remember, Metro isn’t just a look and feel, or a UI, it’s an entire platform with its own runtime environment and apps and security model—Metro is likewise a 1.0 version that can and will improve over time.
Until that happens, we have Windows 8, as it now stands. A product that comes with a fully functioning desktop environment that’s a dramatic improvement over previous Windows versions. And one that also comes with this new Metro environment, providing Microsoft with its own entry into the new market for non-traditional computing devices, including slates (“true tablets”), hybrid tablets (tablets with clip-on keyboard bases), and other multi-touch devices of all kinds.
How you react to Metro will depend on where you’re coming from. In this case, I am literally referring to the type of device on which you run Windows 8. Microsoft has often made the case that each new Windows version will work fine on existing hardware, but that it really comes into its own on new hardware. That has never been a more accurate statement than it is with Windows 8. And Metro is the reason why.
On a traditional desktop or portable computer—the PC you’re almost certainly using right now—Windows 8 is a strong upgrade, thanks in part to the desktop improvements I mentioned in the first part of this review, but also for many other reasons I’ll get to in future parts. But Metro is ill-suited to traditional PCs. It was designed, in Microsoft’s words, as a “touch-first” platform, where UI elements are ideally located on the edges of the screen, where one might naturally hold and most easily touch. But with a keyboard and mouse, this environment is less suitable. Not unworkable. Just less suitable.
There are two implications to this. First, since some system-wide Metro interfaces such as the Charms, Start tip, Start screen, PC Settings, Switcher, Back tip, Snap, and notifications are hard-wired into Windows 8, they’re unavoidable. You’ll be dealing with these UIs even if you stick largely to the desktop environment, as I recommend for users of traditional desktop and portable computers. That said, these UIs are less touch-dependent than most Metro apps and games. And each comes with usable mouse-, keyboard, and trackpad-based interfaces that should mitigate most complaints. So despite tech pundit freakouts to the contrary, adapting to Windows 8 won’t be difficult, even on current PCs.
Second, most traditional PC users will simply ignore the many Metro-style apps that Microsoft includes with Windows 8 and the many more than are now available in the Windows Store. This is understandable, but I have some advice on that front: Even on a traditional PC, you should at least pay attention to what’s happening with the Metro style apps and Windows Store. By the time Windows 8 ships in late October, there will be thousands of apps available, and some of these will do a lot to bridge the functional gaps between the Metro environment and the more full-featured desktop. Depending on your needs, your inability to move past the desktop will one day be rendered moot. When that happens, you may consider a multi-touch PC or device of whatever kind as your next PC; then, your familiarity with Metro will pay off, as will the move to more Metro-friendly hardware.
If you’re using Windows 8 with a multi-touch device, as I’ve been lucky enough to do for almost a year now, things are decidedly different. Interfaces that are irritating or downright irrational on a traditional PC suddenly make plenty of sense. The onscreen elements you need to tap are always at your fingertips, logically and even intuitively placed. Navigating Metro goes from being strange but learnable to elegant and obvious.
Of course, none of this helps if you’re using a desktop PC, an Ultrabook, or whatever traditionally designed PC you current own. But it’s important to understand that there is indeed a method to what you perceive as madness. And that the knee-jerk reaction we all had to Metro was just that: A first impression, completely understandable, yes, but misguided.
Since most people will be approaching Metro, and Windows 8, with a traditional PC, I think it’s fair to split the discussion of this environment in two. There are the Metro bits you can’t ignore—the Start screen, Charms, and so on—even if you intend to stick with the desktop. And then there are the ones you can ignore—the built-in Metro-style apps, Windows Store, and whatever apps and games are coming down the pike—until you do get a multi-touch device. I’ll cover the former here and the latter in the next part of this review.
Metro for Everyone
Like you, probably, I use traditional desktop and portable computers. My main PC is an old-school HP tower (albeit it one with a very modern processor) attached to a 27-inch widescreen display, and my main portable is a 15-inch Samsung Ultrabook. Neither of them has a multi-touch anything anywhere in sight, and neither ever will. Windows 8 runs just fine on both, thank you very much, and it’s even possible to be very efficient on such computers, despite worries to the contrary. And while the interaction between Metro and desktop is a bit strange at first—kind of like bacon ice cream—after a bit of use, you get used to it and you move on.
Your first hint of Metro-ness occurs during the initial Setup, which for most people will only involve the “out of box experience,” but of course once that’s over, you’re punted into the new Start screen. This will shock many people, since it bears absolutely no relationship to previous Windows UIs, and in fact I think it would have been fun to instead boot into the desktop and have it animate into the Start screen. No matter: Your first Metro experience, basically, is a hard, cold slap of reality. And while PC makers will be somewhat screwing up the view with assorted tiles for their crapware and demoware, one thing should be made obvious right up front: This UI is bright, colorful, full-screen, and decidedly less busy and complex than anything we’ve seen before in Windows, aside, possibly, from Windows Media Center.
The Start screen isn’t completely avoidable, though I suspect many traditional PC users will be moving right past it and to the desktop as soon as they figure out how to do that most efficiently. (Hint: WINKEY + D, or simply move the Desktop tile to the top left and then you can just tap ENTER at any time from the Start screen.) But histrionics aside, the Start screen is essentially a replacement for the program launching capabilities of Windows 7’s Start menu and taskbar, and it performs ably enough in that regard.
As important, perhaps, the Start screen is also a dashboard for your daily computing activities. These tiles are larger than traditional icons and far more expressive—thus the term “live tiles”—since they are backed by dynamic, live data. So the Mail tile will display unread emails, the Calendar tile will display your next appointment, and the Weather tile will … well, you get the idea.
These tiles, indeed the entire Start screen, is pretty nicely configurable, but whether you use it or not will depend, again, on the device type you’re using. On a tablet, the seamless movement between the Start screen and various other full-screen Metro experiences is pretty seamless. On a desktop PC or Ultrabook, you pretty much just pretend it’s not there. (And yes, you can continue to pin items to the taskbar on the desktop, as before.)
The system-wide Charms are less avoidable than the Start screen, but that’s actually OK, because this interface is useful no matter what type of PC you’re using. Essentially a side-mounted system menu, the Charms bar contains five “charms”—Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings—most of which are just as useful from the desktop as they are from any Metro experience.
The Search charm brings up the new Start Search experience, which, like the Start screen, happens full-screen. Unlike its predecessor, Start Menu Search in Windows 7, Start Search now segregates search results by Apps (which includes both Metro-style apps and traditional desktop applications), Settings (which includes both new Metro-style PC Settings as well as traditional control panels), and files. So you’ll need to do a bit of clicking to see the results you want sometimes. But it works as before—just tap WINKEY and start typing—and works well.
The Share charm is the front-end to a new Metro feature that Microsoft has described as “copy and paste” on steroids. Basically, any Metro-style app can configure itself as a Share provider and/or target, providing a way for apps that don’t know anything about each other to work together seamlessly. So if you’re viewing a favorite web site in, say, Internet Explorer 10, you can trigger Share and then share that site with others via, say, email using the Mail app. But Share—and thus Windows 8—gets better as you install more apps. So let’s pretend that Google creates a Google+ app for Metro. Now, when you choose to share a web site using that previous example, Google+ will be listed as one of the possible ways you can share. This stuff is actually really well done, but it applies only to Metro: Desktop users will see a depressing “Nothing can be shared from the desktop” message if they try.
The Start charm is one of about 200 ways a Windows 8 user can toggle the Start screen. This will be used almost exclusively by touch-screen users, and its ideal location right in the center of the Charms bar, literally at your fingertips, makes doing so simple and seamless.
The Devices charm is a context-sensitive interface that will let you access the appropriate devices from both the desktop and various Metro-style apps. On the desktop, the choices pretty much amount to configuring secondary screens, but once you stray into Metro-land, things get more interesting. Most apps can use this interface to print, for example. And if you’re in a media app like Xbox Music or Xbox Video, you can use the Devices interface to access DLNA Play To compatible devices like the Xbox 360.
Settings is perhaps the charm that many users will access most frequently. This useful pane provides a top section that is context sensitive and a lower section that always appears. In the top, you’ll see options like Control Panel and Personalization on the desktop and Account Settings, Permissions, Options, and other relevant items in various Metro experiences.
But the bottom part of Settings is where you’ll spend the most time. Here, you will find icons that replace functionality we’ve previously associated with the system tray—Networking connections, volume, screen brightness, notifications, power, and system language, as well as a useful Change PC Settings link that brings up into the new PC Settings interface. (See below.)
As Microsoft moves to Metro, it has begun moving its many system configuration settings from the classic Control Panel to a new full-screen Metro UI call PC Settings. As noted previously, however, Metro is not complete. So Windows 8 includes some configuration settings in PC Settings and some in Control Panel. Obviously, the new stuff—Metro personalization, Metro notifications, search, sharing, settings sync, and so on—is in PC Settings. I recommend spending some time in here and really going over every setting, especially if you’re new to Windows 8.
Windows 8 exposes several new features for navigating between Metro experiences (Start screen, PC Settings, apps and games), and the desktop. Most of these are best used via multi-touch, but most can also be accessed easily enough with a keyboard, mouse, or trackpad-based gesture.
The one you’ll use most frequently is the Start tip, which replaces the old Start button. It’s hidden by default—which has alarmed some people beyond reason—but move the mouse cursor down into the lower left corner of the screen and it appears. You can click this tip to navigate to the Start screen, of course. But you can also right-click it and get a handy power-user menu.
While Windows 8 retains the familiar Windows Flip (ALT + TAB) keyboard combo for switching between running desktop applications (and Metro apps), it also replaces the old and relatively unknown Windows Flip 3D (WINKEY + TAB) keyboard combo with a new Metro interface called Switcher. This interface appears on the left side of the screen and lets you switch between the current experience (which can include the desktop, but not individual desktop applications) and any running Metro experiences (including the Start screen).
If Switcher is too much for you, Windows 8 also includes a simpler UI called the Back tip that appears when you mouse into the upper left corner of the screen. As with the Start tip, it’s invisible by default. But you can click this to toggle the previously-used Metro experience (or the desktop).
In Windows 7, Microsoft added a neat feature called Aero Snap that let you “snap” windows to the screen edges or maximize, restore, or minimize them using drag and drop or keyboard combinations. With Aero gone in Windows 8, Aero Snap continues as something I’ll called Desktop Snap, and it works just as before. But Microsoft has added a new feature, simply called Snap, that lets you use otherwise normally full-screen Metro-style apps side-by-side with other experiences in very limited ways. These other experiences can include other Metro-style apps (but not the Start screen) or the Windows desktop.
To say that Snap is borderline useless is perhaps an overreaction, but it is fair to say that you will see only limited use of this feature, and that’s true regardless of what type of PC or device you use. Basically, this feature is a reaction to the limitations of Metro’s full screen apps, but it doesn’t go far enough: Snapped apps can only occupy an non-resizable and tiny slice of onscreen real estate, so you can’t, for example, have two apps taking up exactly half the screen.
While all Metro apps are required to support this snapped mode, only some do so in ways that are useful. Overall, all Snap does is highlight what is perhaps the worst part of Metro, that there’s no elegant way to view two or more apps at the same time.
Microsoft has been plotting to create a system-wide notifications scheme since the Longhorn days and in Windows 8 it has finally taken meaningful steps in that direction, with two new types of Metro notifications that appear throughout the system, both in Metro experiences and on the desktop. That said, some will complain that Microsoft didn’t include a central notification center in the system, a place where you can go and deal with past (or missed) notifications.
The first of the two new notification types is a full-screen, in-your-face, not-quite-modal alert that you will want to deal with immediately. This notification type comes only from the OS, and not from apps, and involves something serious, such as file system corruption or a SmartScreen warning about a downloaded executable.
The second notification type, called a toast, can be triggered by any Metro-style app (though I’ve seen two Microsoft desktop applications, Windows Defender and Outlook 2013, that trigger these types of notifications too). These pop-up notification toasts are quite common, slide in near the top right of the screen, and will disappear if ignored. Desktop users may consider simply turning them off, or at least turning off notifications from apps they don’t care about. (You do this in PC Settings.)
I’ve been asked by many people whether Windows 8’s lack of a true notification center—like the one in OS X “Mountain Lion” or iOS 5/6—is a detriment. I don’t miss it, personally. And it looks like Apple uses this interface in its own OSes to provide a type of third party extensibility that is already offered in Windows 8 (and Windows Phone) through live tiles, which includes both the obvious functionality as well as “deep linking,” where users can pin interior “parts” of an app—like a specific inbox in the Mail app—to the Start screen as a new and separate tile. Put another way, other OSes need a notification center because their app icons are dumb. Windows 8’s continue to update you about what’s going on, so there’s no need.
This discussion of Metro has of course only touched the surface of what’s happening here. In the next part of this review, I’ll look at the actual platform, which I’ve described as a completely new mobile operating system in its own right.
Welcome to the Metro generation.
Next: Part 3, The New Metro Platform