Windows 8 has certainly taken its share of criticism since the official debut of Microsoft’s Consumer Preview last Wednesday (Download and install it here). But let there be no anger within this article. It would be wrong to just crap on all of Microsoft’s latest attempts at Windows brand revitalization because, guess what? There are some pretty nifty features to like within Windows 8.
And guess what else? There’s a good reason why Microsoft has titled this sneak preview of its operating system as a “Consumer Preview” and not, “Windows 8: Set In Stone Final.” While that’s not going to help you much if you’re one of the die-hard opponents of the Metro UI (and we don’t much blame you there), it at least gives Microsoft a little wiggle room to incorporate feedback that users are blasting over the airwaves about their experiences with this not-final iteration of the operating system.
So, what’s there to like about Windows 8?
Finally, Microsoft crawls out of its Hobbit hole to acknowledge that there are more platforms on this earth than just those that start with “Microsoft,” “Windows,” or “Hot.” We applaud the company’s efforts at reaching out to other popular third-party services for super-easy integration of email and contacts into Windows 8’s default apps.
It’s no Hootsuite, but the “People” app built into Windows 8 allows you to quickly put your finger on the pulse of all that’s going on with your Twitter followers and Facebook friends, as well as Google contacts and Linkedin Super-Official Business Buddies (to name a few services). It takes but a few clicks to jump to a virtual business card of each contact you’ve synchronized with Windows 8, and these cards list out your friends’ and contacts’ key statistics (editable, if you so desire).
Once it works, Windows 8’s “Messaging” function will draw from your comprehensive well of “People” and allows you to chat with them via a single interface. Trillian it ain’t, but we do like how Microsoft’s finally trying to build a more unified way to talk to everyone you know directly within the operating system. Messaging feels less like a client or “old” Windows application, more like a delightful integration. Our only issue? It’s going to be pretty obvious to alt-tab out to a not-quite-work-related conversation on the job, given that Messaging takes up the entirety of one’s screen. Yeep.
A Skydrive for every home! A Skydrive for every app! We applaud, too, how Microsoft has realized that the cloud is the future of data storage. We say that knowing fully well that there are still going to be some Windows 8 users who live entirely local lives – as well, instances where Cloud storage of information isn’t appropriate in the slightest (Windows 8 at work).
But for those who enjoy being able to tap into their data wherever they are, Microsoft’s Skydrive integration within Windows 8 is a perfect complement to the synchronizations the OS can perform when your Microsoft Account and Windows 8 user account are one and the same – allowing you to pull up your apps, preferences, and people, to name a few options, on any Windows 8 computer you log into.
Guess what? Sync your user files with Skydrive (or any other data that other apps will be allowed to synchronize up), and you’ll be able to tap into those as well!
RAID storage can be complicated enough for PC neophytes. So we’ll just touch on the basics of Microsoft’s new Storage Spaces feature within Windows 8 – or, as we’re dubbing the feature, “Newbie RAID.”
We joke, but Storage Spaces greatly simplify the process of combining storage of all kinds – physical hard drives, solid-state drives, external hard drives, and flash storage – into giant pools of available storage. You can take drives away, add drives, and swap drives in and out: Microsoft says that a “resynchronization” process will rebuilt the two-way mirror, three-way mirror, or parity that you elect to build into a pool’s “spaces,” or what you’d otherwise see in your typical Windows environment as a single storage volume (e.g. C:\).
Got it? Physical storage – which you can swap around your system, connect, and disconnect – is used to build giant storage pools, which can then be split into as many storage “spaces” as you want. And don’t forget about Storage Spaces’ thin provisioning: You can actually build spaces larger than what your pools could physically support. Physical capacity is only used when there’s an actual file that needs to be saved, which is reclaimed upon the file’s deletion. And as you slowly start to fill up your larger-than-supported space with data, Windows will remind you to add more storage – any kind of storage you want — which will automatically add more storage to your pool with no additional configuration required on your end.
You know a feature is going to be a big deal when we get this excited about it and it doesn’t even work in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. By that, we’re referring to Microsoft’s hopeful and planned partnership with users’ Xbox 360 gaming consoles. In short, it appears that Microsoft wants to break down the wall that separates console gaming and “PC gaming” by allowing gamers to stream the multimedia contents of their systems to their consoles (and attached televisions), and stream their games from their consoles to their PCs. Microsoft’s new way of thinking seems to be that what’s sitting on your desk or lap is but a screen: There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to pull up Xbox 360 games on that screen and use integrated or plugged-in controls to frag away.
The proof? Microsoft’s “Video” app already comes with the grayed-out option to “Play on Xbox” and you can already start games on your Xbox 360 using a command within Windows 8’s “Xbox Companion” app. Why would Microsoft go to all this trouble just to let you use your laptop to fire up a title on your TV instead of the nearby Xbox 360 controller? And why would Microsoft build a virtual controller of-sorts into its Windows-based Xbox Companion app for no reason whatsoever?
Our prediction: Remote gaming is on its way. Here’s hoping Microsoft doesn’t charge a squillion Xbox Points to let gamers “unlock” the feature between their Windows 8 PCs and their consoles.
On the next page: The Four Other Things We Love About Windows 8 (including its startup and shutdown times!)
A number of the fun little improvements found within Windows 8 are mostly cosmetic – too small to warrant their own individual mention in this article, but still worth calling out in aggregate. While much can be said about Windows 8’s split classic desktop/Metro UI interface, we love-love-love some of the tweaks that Microsoft’s put into cornerstones of the operating system.
Take, for example, the window that now appears whenever you go to copy or move a file. Previously, your typical Windows “Progress Bar” would just be accompanied by a dumb little, text-only estimate for transfer times and speeds. Ugly, right?
Windows 8 kicks it up a notch by giving you a pretty, up-to-the-second graph that reflects your system’s file transfer speed, a graphic that slowly fills out as the file chugs along. Borrowing a page from some of our favorite freeware file transfer tools, you can also now pause your transfers at any point – useful if you’re copying multiple batches of files at once and you need one to take priority.
Speaking of, we also enjoy how multiple transfer requests automatically stack on top of each other, only to disappear from sight once the transfer’s complete. A subtle, but pleasing touch.
Other bells and whistles we enjoy? The overall look and feel of Windows 8’s “Music” app (take that, iTunes and/or Windows Media Player), the delightfully new-and-improved Windows Task Manager (with historical app resource use built-in), the fact that you can now mount .ISO files directly within the operating system (not a graphical comment; we just love the feature!), et cetera…
We kind of gave away the answer in the header, but here goes: What’s the one part of the Windows operating system that you’re sure to encounter on a daily basis, and a part you'll be most perturbed about when it starts messing up? Bingo: Windows’ startup and shutdown routines.
We can’t speak to the overall “snappiness” of Windows 8, as we’d be comparing an application-packed installation of Windows 7 against a barebones, fresh installation of Windows 8. However, we can (and have) run stopwatches to compare the two operating systems’ starting times – from power on to password prompt – and shutdown times.
The verdict? On a fairly antiquated laptop (by today’s standards), Windows 8 beat Windows 7’s shutdown time by ten full seconds, taking only 17 seconds to go from the press of the “Shut Down” button to a powered-off state on the laptop. But the juicer statistic is the comparison of Windows 8’s startup time to Window 7’s: From the press of the power button to the Windows 8 lock screen (or Window 7 login screen), Windows 8 only took 32 total seconds to boot. Windows 7? Almost a full minute (51 seconds).
Why such a dramatic difference? Windows 8 slaps the kernel into hibernation mode when you shut down the system, saving your system from having to reinitialize it on the next boot.
Fire up Windows Explorer within Windows 8 and you’ll swear you accidentally launched Microsoft Office 2007. That’s right: The ribbon is here. Or, to say it another way, Microsoft has finally started taking steps to unify its user interfaces across its major applications. Amen.
While you can still access Windows’ tried-and-true Folder Options via its own link within the View tab of the Explorer ribbon, you’ll quickly find the most of the options you need most are conveniently located within one of the three tabs on Windows Explorer’s ribbon: File, Computer, and View. Or is that File, Home, Share and View?
That’s right – the tabs shift depending on the context of what you click on within Explorer. Common folders get different options than user libraries; User libraries get different options depending on the media stored within (audio files, versus documents, versus pictures, et cetera); Disks (or spaces) get different options than folders.
We love all the shifting around, mainly because it puts all the key options we’re looking for right at our fingertips. And if you disagree, you can always customize up your own ribbon just like how you might add new buttons to an Office 2007 toolbar.
We were fans of Windows 7’s speedy indexed search capabilities – giving users a kind of ”Spotlight” field within Windows Explorer (and the start menu) that they could use to find anything on their systems at any time.
Windows 8 ups the ante by adding a lovely looking (and lovely functioning) search screen directly within the Metro interface. And here’s the fun bit: You don’t have to click on anything at all to start searching. If you’re just looking to find one of the many applications littering your tile-filled desktop, you need merely to just start typing the app you’re trying to find. Boom! Up pops Windows 8’s search window.
Want to find a particular file (or subset of files) instead? You can still start typing your query directly within Windows 8’s Metro UI. Only, when the search screen loads, you just have to click on “Files” to find what you’re looking for within your storage spaces. Windows 8 will even allow you to search for keywords within Windows’ settings, if you happen to be looking for the various places you can set options that ultimately affect, say, your MP3 playback. This context-sensitive search even carries through to other apps installed on your system, depending on what you click on within the search results window – a great touch on Microsoft’s part!
Ready to see what we hate about Windows 8? Check back tomorrow for our list of Window’s 8 Worst Features!