BUILD Conference: What We Know Now About Windows 8

Maximum PC Staff

We share our updated impressions of Windows 8 from Microsoft's BUILD Conference

Day one of Microsoft’s BUILD Developer conference is over. Conference attendees have received their Samsung Developer Tablets, and information overload has set in. Though this event is specifically targeted at developers, there is a wealth of information for the consumer to digest. Let’s look at some of the key features we learned about today, as well as some that we’ve received more detail into.

Metro Apps

The number one difference you will see in Windows 8 is all about Metro Apps. If you’ve been following the evolution of Windows Phone 7 you won’t need much of an introduction to the Metro design language. Essentially the idea stems from Microsoft attempting to create consistent interface elements and controls across all of their platforms (Windows, Xbox, and Windows Phone). The implementation of Metro Apps in Windows 8 certainly takes some cues from Windows Phone, but there are a number of new tricks in the Windows 8 bag. It is important to note that Windows 8 is not limited to Metro Apps, and many of the rules and new functionalities may not apply to classic Windows Applications running in the traditional Windows UI.

Live Tiles are extremely similar to the implementation in Windows Phone 7. For the uninitiated, Live Tiles are somewhere between static icons and widgets. These square or rectangular buttons can contain live data updated from whichever service or application they reference, providing at-a-glance updates for weather, sports scores, or stock prices without even entering the application.

Multitasking with Metro Apps is going to take some getting used to for Windows Power Users. Generally, Metro Apps are intended to run in full-screen mode, with minimal buttons or scrollbars (also known as chrome). Users can easily cycle between their open Metro Apps by swiping a finger from the left border of the screen towards the middle. If instead of swiping all the way to the center of the screen you stop short on the left side, you will be given the option to ‘dock’ the app to the side of the window, giving you access to two applications at once.

HTML5 support is on full display here at BUILD. The classic web languages of HTML and JavaScript are now full members of the Windows developer toolset. Metro Apps can be designed and built entirely using standard web technologies familiar to the multitude of web developers in the world.

Lock Screen

If you were concerned that Microsoft would lack attention to detail in Windows 8, look no further than the lock screen. The locked view is of a full-screen image of your choosing with ‘Glyphs’ that provide you with connection status and message count information. The UI to actually unlock your screen supports standard passwords and pins, as well as a sweet pattern-based system that allows you to use gestures against a picture. Demos of the lock screen included tapping on parts of the screen and tracing others. Very cool stuff, and very personal, which is one of Microsoft’s mantras with Windows 8.

Start Screen

The Start Screen in Windows 8 isn’t entirely new, as Microsoft has demonstrated it briefly over the last few months, but there were some additional features and functionalities demonstrated throughout the day. Unlike Windows Phone 7 Live Tiles can be grouped logically, providing an easy method to organize and prioritize your applications. Whole groups can be easily rearranged, increasing usability. One brilliant scenario was demonstrated, where the presenter used one finger to ‘grab’ a group of apps, and with another finger scrolled through to the opposite end of the Start Screen, where the application group was dropped into place.

Charms

More of a critical piece of the user interface than a real feature, ‘Charms’ are hidden on the right side of the Windows 8 Metro interface. Swiping from right to left on the extreme right border of the screen will activate the Charms menu, providing you access to Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Don’t think of these as simple shortcuts, as that is most certainly selling them short. The Start Charm simply returns you to the Start Screen, and we haven’t seen the Devices Charm demonstrated yet, but the others provide some nifty functionality that is worth mentioning.

Search integrates deeply into Windows 8, and this post will not be able to cover the scope of this feature. Tapping the Search Charm will allow you to search both the device and the web in a single UI. Additionally, Metro Apps that have made their content available to the search function will show up in a list on the right side of the screen. Selecting one of these search-aware applications will focus the search to the confines of that individual application. This provides a consistent and simple method of finding content wherever it may be located.

Sharing is another integral part of the Windows 8 system. In the past individual applications required code to integrate with each service they wanted to connect with, a notion that is rendered obsolete in Windows 8 Metro Apps. Applications can register to either share content from the app or to accept content from another app to share with a service. Choosing the Share Charm from within an imaging application could give you access to photo sharing or social media apps which would allow you to easily post the content to the associated service.

Settings would seem like an area that didn’t need a lot of work, but Microsoft has ‘reimagined’ (a competitive square in buzzword bingo) the way Settings work and integrate into individual apps. Clicking the Settings Charm while in a video player will launch a context sensitive settings bar on the right side of the screen. Application specific settings will be listed at the top of the screen, while applicable system-wide settings will be listed at the bottom. This method again stresses Microsoft’s endeavor to create a consistent experience throughout the OS.

File Explorer

Metro Apps will make use of a new File Explorer which provides access to locally stored media and files, or files accessible on network shares or the HomeGroup. Microsoft also provides an avenue for services to deeply integrate into File Explorer, allowing you to browse pictures from your Facebook or Flickr account using the same UI you would use to browse your local hard drive.

Live Integration

Combining services into the File Explorer are just one of the functions provided by Windows 8’s integration with Windows Live. System settings, application preferences, and authenticated services are just a few of the items that can be automatically synchronized and configured on any machine you log into using your Windows Live ID. Windows Phone 7 users will be happy to hear that this also integrates fluidly with similar functionality on their mobile devices. If that weren’t enough, Windows Live allows for you to synchronize files to your SkyDrive, and will even allow you to remotely view files stored on your home or office PC.

System Reset

If you’ve ever experienced assisting a friend or family member restore their machine to working condition you will appreciate the built-in ability to reset Windows 8 PC’s to the default build state, either preserving the user’s files and settings or completely resetting everything.

Windows Store

Like it or not, the centralized Windows Store for software is here. The Windows Store is the clearinghouse for Metro Apps, but classic Windows software will also be available through the store. Metro Apps submitted to the Windows Store will go through a series of tests to verify stability and security, as well as making sure that the application developer isn’t attempting to do something malicious to your machine.

Sensors and Connectivity
(NFC, GPS, 3G, Sensitivity to Metered Data)

Windows 8 natively supports GPS and Accelerometers, sensors commonly found in smart phones and tablets. NFC (Near Field Communication) support is also baked in, providing capabilities that combine features of Bluetooth, RFID, and Bar Codes. Cellular Data connections over 3G are also native to Windows 8, giving you more control over how the PC should act differently over a metered data connection (not looking for software updates for example).

Performance

A baseline Windows 8 install uses less memory and runs fewer processes than a comparable Windows 7 SP1 machine, but a smaller footprint is just one of the ways Microsoft is looking for performance enhancements in Windows 8. Microsoft had previously demonstrated improved boot times with Windows 8, though we’re taking those with a grain of salt until we can test it ourselves. UEFI support is on full display, and promises to speed up boot times and provide enhanced security against pre-boot malware.

Conclusion

We’re fairly certain we haven’t done justice to the amount of information that was dumped on conference attendees today, and Microsoft isn’t done yet. Be aware that all of the demos are on Developer Preview builds of Windows 8, meaning we’re a long way from a final product.

Are there any features or changes that you’ve been waiting for? Has Windows 8 met your expectations so far? What would you like to see tweaked before the final release? Let us know in the comments.

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