Hands on with Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Windows 8 is a gorgeous, interactive, innovative mobile operating system -- one as certain to delight as it is to confound and confuse.

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview -- released to the public for free download following its unveiling at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona, Spain, on Wed., Feb. 29 -- turns the familiar Windows desktop on its ear. It introduces a completely new way to interact with your computer and an entirely new vision for the desktop, thanks to the tile-based “Metro” interface the company created for its Windows Phone platform.

You can download a free version of the operating system yourself at preview.windows.com.

Metro has been widely hailed for changing the way we think about smartphones, much as the iPhone did in 2007. Thanks to it, Windows 8 will actively present information to you from your first power on, via tiles that flip and transform by themselves rather than waiting for you to, say, launch a website and visit Facebook or open your inbox to check for new email.

Metro makes ordinary information more fun. The Photos application, for example, constantly changes, presenting pictures you’d forgotten about and urging you to sift through them again. Likewise, the People app constantly shows you what your friends are up to, importing status updates and new photos from Google+, Facebook, Hotmail and more.

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The other thing you’ll notice immediately: Applications launch in full-screen mode, meaning there’s no Taskbar at bottom or menus at the top of the screen, just an immersive single application.

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There are other new features as well: a new lock screen that presents information at a glance, and lets you use your favorite photo as a backdrop. Rather than sliding a bar to unlock, you can draw a few simple shapes on a picture to unlock your account.

Windows 8 also presents the Windows Store, the first one for the uber-operating system. It’s only for Windows 8, and will only present applications that are vetted to run on the new platform. And there’s a unified account system to carry preferences across computers, thanks to Microsoft’s cloud-connected system.

In short, Windows 8 is elegant, dynamic and beautifully created.

It’s clearly meant to tackle the mobile space that Apple’s iPad has dominated. And it will: Tablets based on Windows 8 promise to be just as droolworthy as the iPad, and the interface in many ways makes the iPad’s feel flat and dull -- even archaic. And Windows 8 tablets will almost certainly be cheaper.

It’s a powerful competitor to the iPad.

The problem is all of the hundreds of millions of ordinary computers in the world. And as soon as you take Windows 8 to your desktop you'll find yourself scratching your head.

Few of today’s laptops and desktops come with the touchscreen monitor needed to facilitate the Metro interface, itself the one big change separating Windows 8 from Windows 7. And conversations with industry experts reveal that only a few PCs will be touch enabled later this year or early next year, when Microsoft finally ships Windows 8 to PC makers.

That means most users will find themselves staring at an operating system designed from the ground up for touch -- and unable to touch anything.

Use one of those full screen applications and you’ll find yourself lost, hunting for a way to go back a screen, switch applications, or launch something else -- actions easily reached from the old Start menu.

Did I mention that Microsoft killed the Start menu?

Find your way to, say, a spreadsheet or a Word document and you’ll end up in the old Windows desktop, the one refined and polished in Windows 7 and almost entirely ignored and unchanged in Windows 8 -- save for the absence of that ubiquitous Start button we’ve known since Windows 3.1.

So how do you launch an application from the desktop? Either you’ve pinned the app to the Taskbar or you’ll have to press the Start key to switch back to the Metro interface. And many of the applications we rely on for day to day computing and productivity are best done in the old desktop environment, despite Microsoft’s plans to touch enable the next version’s of Word and Excel in the forthcoming Office 15.

Yes, Microsoft has baked in support for mouse gestures and keyboard commands to replace touch gestures -- some of which consumers will remember, most they’re sure to forget. Few ordinary users rely on the wealth of keyboard shortcuts built into current Windows operating systems, after all.

For example, press Windows-E to open an Explorer window and browser your computer. Go on, do it right now -- probably for the first time. Or Windows-Tab to shuffle through open apps in Windows Vista and 7. Heck, some people don’t even use Ctrl-C to copy text and Ctrl-V to paste it. You’re guaranteed to forget all the new conventions immediately.

There’s no question that touch interface is an important revolution in computing. And there’s no question that tablets are rapidly transforming the hardware world.

To be fair, Windows 8 is a bold vision of where we may be 5 years from now -- using dynamic new versions of computers that take advantage of touch, never again chained to our desktops, swiping and gesturing our way through a whole new world.

But getting there may not be half the fun.