SOFTWARE REDEVELOPER Microsoft's Windows 8 looks like it will be a steep learning curve for users, as the PC operating system leaves behind the conventions of previous versions to adopt a user interface that has a lot in common with Microsoft's Windows Phone.
We tested the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a HP Touchsmart 520 all-in-one PC, and found that while the new Metro-style user interface has much to recommend it, it also feels rather constrained and limiting compared with Windows 7 and earlier desktops.
The home screen is a different world than the traditional Windows interface.
The impressions we got from our initial hands-on with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview are that many users are likely to be baffled by the Metro-style user interface and it could take a long time for most people to get used to it, as it introduces a completely different way of working.
Overall, Microsoft has not changed the look and feel of Windows 8 much since the Developer Preview that we tested out the firm's Build conference in September.
The main Start screen still consists of a set of blocky coloured tiles that represent applications or functions, such as email, messaging, web browser, and photos. As before, the tiles are 'live' meaning that they show status updates such as notifications of new emails, and touching a tile or clicking on it with a mouse opens the application full screen.
For users of Windows Phone, all this will have a certain amount of familiarity, as the Metro-style look is largely inherited from Microsoft's smartphone platform. For pretty much everyone else, the change is likely to be a jarring experience.
It is not even immediately clear how you access settings using the Metro interface. This is partly accomplished via what Microsoft terms 'charms' - pop-up tools that appear if you swipe or move your mouse to the right edge of the display (see screenshot).
In fact, the whole Windows 8 experience is designed around giving the user access to their key information - email, messaging, contacts, social networking - directly from the main screen.
For those wanting to use existing Windows applications, there is still a Desktop that can be accessed by a tile on the start screen. It looks very like the desktop of Windows 7, but is a largely emasculated version with no Start menu and nothing more than the Recycle Bin icon showing.
It appears that applications must be launched from the main Start menu, with current applications opening in the Desktop rather than as a Metro-style app. Built-in Windows tools such as the Computer Management console can be found if you look for them, and these run in the Desktop.
The new-look Metro applications have a deliberately sparse appearance, and are designed to fill the entire screen.
Using these can also be confusing at first, as many of the controls and menus that Windows users are accustomed to are completely absent, and you often have to resort to searching for the 'charms' or context-sensitive menus that pop-up from the bottom of the display.
Still, it's clear Microsoft has understood that with mobile devices, chiefly smartphones and tablets, set to dominate the future of computing, the Windows 8 system needs to meet this trend.
The use of the live tiles, as on the Windows Phone operating system, is a slick, innovative system, and many users might, having got over the initial shock of the new system, quickly find themselves happily using the new interface without too much difficulty.
We also found installing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview more challenging than with earlier pre-release versions of Windows. Based on previous experience, we expected the best route to take would be to create a bootable DVD and perform a clean install from this.
However, we soon ran into problems as our test system had Windows 7 pre-installed, and Windows 8 declined to install itself to any of the available partitions, stating, "The selected disk has an MBR partition table. On EFI systems, Windows can only be installed to GPT disks."
GPT, or GUID Partition Table, was introduced as part of the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) initiative to replace the ageing PC BIOS firmware.
To cut a long story short, we were forced to use the Diskpart tool from the command prompt to delete each existing partition, then use the same tool to convert the disk to GPT before creating a new partition to accept Windows 8.
After this, Windows 8 installed, but the clean install has some drawbacks which we found out too late. We had lost the drivers for the touchscreen hardware, among one or two other things, and Windows 8 was unable to find suitable drivers to do the job.
We managed to locate the necessary drivers on the support section of HP's website, but the install file checks which version of Windows you are running and will not proceed on Windows 8.
We hope to find a solution soon and provide a fuller report on Windows 8 running on the HP Touchsmart 520. In the meantime, we sincerely hope that Microsoft provides a better upgrade experience for users than this when Windows 8 finally ships. µ