I’m writing this right now using Microsoft Word on the recently released Windows 8 Developer’s Build. I’m using a real PC, not a tablet, and it’s a system any Maximum PC user would be proud of: a Core i7 990X system running 12 GB of RAM plus an eVGA GeForce GTX 580SC. The system also has a pair of 1080p monitors attached. The goal was to live with the OS for a few days as my primary operating system and see just how usable it is in its current state.
The bottomline: not ready yet.
That’s not a criticism. After all, the Windows 8 Developer’s Build released during last week’s Microsoft Build conference was labeled pre-beta. The OS itself seems pretty solid. Installation was similar to installing Windows 7, though you do need to be careful, or you’ll end up with a login that requires an active Windows Live account. While having a Windows Live account is optional, I prefer to have my system login be local and private. Note that if you eventually want access to Metro UI apps and the Windows 8 app store, you’ll need a Windows Live account, though.
It took a little time to adjust to the new user interface. When you first fire the system up in single display mode, you’re presented with the new Metro UI. Calling it a user interface is a bit of a misnomer. What you’re actually seeing is the replacement for the start menu, which has been ubiquitous since Windows 95. The Start menu has really only seen evolutionary change since Windows 95, incrementally improving over the different Windows versions. You can click on the desktop tile if you want to be delivered to the more familiar Windows desktop.
The problem is that most PCs aren’t touch enabled, so the Metro UI isn’t an efficient use of space for mouse-and-keyboard users. Metro start is scrollable with the mouse wheel at least. But would you prefer Metro?
Or if you’re a keyboard and mouse power user, would you rather have the option of using the Windows 7 style start menu?
I could probably adjust to Metro, since the apps are much more easily visible. But allocating all that space just to tiles also strikes me as being wasted space.
Once in the desktop, you’ll find the start menu button is gone, replaced by a Windows icon that responds with a pop-up menu when you hover your mouse cursor over it. This behavior is a little inconsistent – sometimes the pop-up fails to actually pop up, which sounds like a bug more than a feature. Clicking on the icon delivers you back to the Start Menu…er, Metro UI.
I use multiple displays, so attaching a second monitor and bringing it up was important if I was going to use this build as a working environment. Windows 8 detected the second display, but I still had to configure it in the resolution control panel. There are some nifty new features in how Windows 8 handles multiple displays. You can allocate the taskbar to individual monitors, or spread it out over the two displays. This includes placing the taskbar icons where you want them. Background images can tile or be stretched out over two displays now.
More importantly from an actual usage point of view, you can still pin icons to the task bar, and Aero peek still works as expected. You can also have Metro up on one screen and the normal desktop on another. Clicking on an app in the task bar hides Metro and the app appears on the second monitor, if you’ve previously dragged the app window to that display.
There’s also a button that swaps itself with the default start menu icon from one display to another. This feels like a feature that’s not yet fully fleshed out, however, as it’s more quirky than actually useful.
After configuring dual monitors, it was time to install applications. I installed Microsoft Office 2010 Standard, Google Chrome and Adobe Master Suite CS5. This gave me most of my main productivity apps. I also installed Steam and transferred over a number of games, just to give them a whirl. All work and no play, as they say.
Office applications mostly work well. There are occasional glitches, however. Every few times I’d exit word, I would get an error dialog indicating that Word might be experiencing a compatibility mode error. Note that I never lost any data when saving and exiting, but it’s still a little disconcerting that Microsoft’s latest Office apps would have issues with Windows 8, even at its early stage.
I encountered more substantial issues with Adobe apps – specifically, the 64-bit version of Photoshop CS 5.1.
When I initially installed the Adobe Master Suite CS 5.5, the installer generated an error most of the way through the second DVD. Note that the installer didn’t crash, and continued after the error. After installation, I ran Photoshop CS5.1 and attempted to load a Nikon RAW image. Here’s what happened.
Oops. No 64-bit Photoshop for me. Note that this is the 64-bit version of the Windows 8 Developer Preview I’m running. Also note that the 32-bit version of Photoshop CS5.1 runs with no problems. I’m able to use filters, load raw files, edit, and convert photos. But 64-bit Photoshop crashes without fail when trying to load a RAW file.
The other Adobe accessory apps—Camera Raw and Bridge—also seem to run flawlessly.
Managing apps as you install more and more software, can be problematic, though search works as well as it did with Windows 7. After loading up a bunch of applications and games, Metro starts to look a little cluttered. Even when you do the search for apps, you get a list that’s less than ideal. I can imagine this list becoming practically unusable for power users.
Windows 8 pre-beta ships with some built-in games, but I was more interested in how major titles ran. First, I installed Steam. After installing Steam, Windows 8 popped up a message telling me that Steam may not have installed properly. But Steam seemed to work just fine.
I tried out two different games: Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dead Island.
DX: HR proved unplayable. The mouse sensitivity was off the charts, and no amount of changing the sensitivity in-game or with the Windows control panel had any effect. Just touching the mouse would send the scene wildly panning.
Dead Island, on the other hand, worked flawlessly. In fact, I blame Dead Island for the fact that I didn’t play anything else, since I ended up sucked into the game for several hours. Frame rates at 1920x1080 seemed a little chunky with detail levels pumped up, but I hadn’t played it on Windows 7, so have no way of comparing it.
I did attempt to run benchmarks. I quickly discovered that none of the Futuremark benchmarks: PC Mark 7, 3DMark Vantage and 3DMark 2011 – would run. PCMark 2011 would run, but hang at the first test. Both 3DMarks hung at the loading screen; I suspect that Futuremark’s Sysinfo system status checker didn’t know how to handle Windows 8.
I also booted up Just Cause 2, so I could run the built-in Concrete Jungle benchmark. At this point, I had attached a 30-inch display running at 2560x1600, so I could run our standard benchmark resolution of 1920x1200 with 4x AA. Here’s where I ran into another glitch. At 1920x1200, Just Cause 2 ran in a window, even if it was set to run full screen mode. There was no way to force full screen mode. The game ran, and so did the benchmark – but in a window. The benchmark result was just under 50fps (49.99), which is about right for a single GTX 580 with all the detail levels cranked.
In the end, I’d avoid trying to run this as a working OS, unless you’re really trying to test compatibility. Microsoft has noted that will update the Developer Preview on a regular basis, rather than rolling out an entire new beta code base after a few months, unlike the Windows 7 process. So maybe Windows 8 will stabilize over time. Until then, feel free to play with it, but don’t rely on it to actually get any work done if you’re not a developer.