Updated: September 8, 2011
By now, you have probably read three million articles previewing the upcoming Windows release, so you might not feel keen about reading this one, too. Still, if you're in for an unbiased and totally professional review of Windows 8, do read on.
Anyhow, Microsoft decided to allow everyone to download and free-sample their new release, known as Windows Developer Preview. The name implies it's somewhat of a pre-beta, unsuitable for common users, but it's bread and butter for geeks. The operating system comes with the new tile-based user interface, called Metro, although you still have the classic Windows looks if you want them. There ought to be many other improvements under the hood, including a heavy emphasis on security and making sure there is no bloat. In other words, if your machine can run Windows 7, it ought to run Windows 8 just as well. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Enough talking, let's take a look.
Get and install Windows Developer Preview
Windows Developer Preview is available for free download on the Microsoft Dev Center site, so click to grab. You get no support, so you should be fairly confident and capable of handling computer issues on your own. There are both 32-bit and 64-bit versions available, ranging from 2.8GB to 3.6GB in size, plus a whooping 4.8GB 64-bit edition with the Windows SDK for Metro style apps. Yes, it's another new framework, so get used to it.
Windows 8 pre-beta can currently only be installed as a clean install, although you can keep your files and settings. System requirements are identical to Windows 7, which means about 1GB of RAM for 32-bit machines, 2GB of RAM for 64-bit machines and about 15-20GB of disk space, although the eventual installation will be approx. half that. You can burn the ISO image to CD or copy it to USB, whichever you prefer.
The installation is fairly Windows-like. There's a rather human-worded license agreement, which warns you that you're trialling unsupported software, that you cannot use the build in a production environment, that you are not allowed to copy fonts and style elements, and a few other restrictions, although there's nothing draconian.
Once past this stage, just choose the partition you want to place Windows on and let it run. Once the installation is complete, you will need to customize your system, a step better known as Personalize. At this point, you will be able to connect to Wireless networks, provided your network card is properly detected and initialized, setup Windows updates, configure statistics and reporting options, which include sending your usage metrics back to Microsoft and whatnot, and a few more things.
By default, Windows 8 will want to log you in with the Live ID (AKA new MSN), which is the Microsoft equivalent of Google slash Facebook if you will, a feature we have seen in the Google Chrome OS and Jolicloud, for instance. But you can also use the local account option, which I think should be your preferred choice, especially at home. However, you can feel the taste of Microsoft going more sort of online, similar to what many other companies are doing, enthralled with the latest buzzes and suchlike.
All of these steps come without a screenshot, so you will have to trust me and use your imagination. But again, except a somewhat different choice of fonts and colors, this is virtually identical to previous editions of Windows.
First taste of Windows 8
If you expected a classic desktop, you will be surprised. Windows Developer Preview launches with a green-dominated tile-like interface optimized for touch screens and multiple monitors, with a horizontal navigation. This can be frustrating, since most people do not think horizontally. Basically, anything we do has a top-bottom flow, so this might not be intuitive. Again, on smaller screens like smartphones, this might actually work, as you swashbuckle your index finger back and forth like a champ.
Most of the icons are currently inactive or require that you login in somewhere, be it Microsoft or Facebook. If you're not into social, you will find most of the previewed items simply useless.
Navigating the Metro
If you click on the Windows meta key on your keyboard, the desktop will flip into the classic interface, but more about that later. Typing anything will cause the system to automatically search for that, with results grouped by logic, although I did find the overall effect to be somewhat counter-intuitive, or at the very least, requires relearning the system all over again.
The bottom-left corner hides the system menu, which lets you see your connected devices and configure settings. You will also get a humongous clock that dominates some 10% of the screen real estate, which is somewhat radical if you ask me. Moreover, the overlapping items of the same color - green on green - feel clutterish and somewhat distracting.
If you decide to install normal programs, which at the moment constitutes all applications, as there are no Metro apps yet, then your local installations will show farthest to the right on the horizontal desktop space, plus activating them will switch you over into the regular desktop, with some fancy slide-like transitions. So, the classic desktop ...
The classic looks are there. Compared to Windows 7, the Developer Preview comes with a thicker borders and chunkier buttons, more shadows and an invisible 5px border around applications similar to what you get in Ubuntu Unity.
Most importantly, Microsoft still offers both Aero and the Windows 95 looks for those who want or need it. Gnome and Ubuntu people, do take heed. This is what they call customer orientation and backward compatibility, the reason why people might actually want to use Microsoft products rather than having to undergo a cultural shock every six months.
More about look and feel
There are some visual inconsistencies, including misaligned divider lines and menu items, but these will probably be polished out eventually. Overall, the look and feel of the classic interface is quite decent. The colors are more reasonable, the fonts are splendid.
Windows Explorer has been revamped. It features an Office 2010 like interface, with tons of buttons for all kinds of casual operations. Some people will find this useful, others will probably hate it. One thing is sure, it does help keep the interface uniform across the whole range of Microsoft flagship products. This new look is only available when you're using the Metro interface.
Internet Explorer 10
We previewed the software some time ago, now it's here, integrated into the desktop, with two distinct looks. In the Metro view, the navigation bar is at the bottom, with few options; backward, forward, cancel, and alike. In the classic view, you can actually do what you need.
Windows updates & hardware support
Windows 8 works well in this regard. Better than Windows 7, in fact. For example, it managed to connect to a network printer than my 64-bit Windows 7 box is refusing to use. Then, there were a lot of driver updates available through the Windows update, plus actual updates for the Developer Preview, which is a nice thing.
The Task Manager has also seen some decorative makeovers, plus it offers more information, but the changes are only useful if you're running Metro, otherwise the utility will fall back to its classic looks and functionality. In general, the heat map is a nice visual addition.
Here, you can see some of the unpolished items, like the 1px misalignment between the four category titles and the actual entries listed in the process table. Then, the major digit figure in the Memory column is truncated to the left in the default view.
Speaking of the task manager reporting all kinds of numbers, there's the important question you must ask: how quick is Windows 8, especially compared to Windows 7?
So, Microsoft promises no bloat, but there is a marked, negative impact in the responsiveness of the system. With both Metro and the classic interface turned on, there's quite a bit of lag switching over between views, minimizing and maximizing applications, at least on an elderly laptop with an aging graphic card. On modern machines, you might never notice the difference, but it's non-trivial on older hardware.
The system uses some 550MB of RAM, which is not that much, although still 50-100% more than modern Linux distributions. But this figure does not tell the whole story, as the graphics acceleration also plays a critical part, much more so than in previous incarnations of Windows. Now, even if you turn off Metro using a simple registry tweak, the inherent core still remains active and imposes some lag penalty on the system. With the classic only interface running, the experience is reasonable, but less than Windows 7.
Ah, the least important aspect of the computer usage, but it has to be taken into account. Overall, you get most of the stuff you already know and use, or not use. Windows Defender is there, which feels so 80s. After 20 years of the exact same security model, scanners ought to be delegated to museums or at least maintained as personal compulsive hobbies, definitely not included as real-time elements in any system. At the very least, you can turn the program off easily; no need to burrow into the services and disable anything.
On top of that, you have UAC, smart filters again phishing and whatnot. Moreover, for the first time in Windows history, file extensions for regular files are not hidden and shown by default, which is most sensible and commendable.
The biggest change is probably going to be the mandatory use of security features in the UEFI, which will allow booting only signed versions of operating systems, in order to make hacking core system elements harder or less desirable. This is not Windows 8 per se, but it's another stormy geekfest raging out there. You can start reading this article and expand from there.
Did I like the pre-beta release of Windows 8? Yes and no. By itself, the Metro interface is meaningless. It has no value whatsoever for desktops, but it could prove useful on touch-screen devices like tablets. Indeed, Microsoft is really trying to tackle new markets for the very first time, which is manifested first and foremost in the upcoming support for non-Intel architectures, like ARM. So there, it might work. On the desktop, it's a visual, functional and resource bloat. Flipping desktops over to do simple things, no thank you.
But let's put Metro aside. If you disable this thing and never use it, then Windows 8 feels something like a new Windows 7 service pack. The changes are tiny, barely visible. Most people won't know any difference. This is a good thing, but it does not justify the whole new edition of a system, though. On the bad side, the performance is not as good as it used to be. Windows 8 is slower, more sluggish than its predecessor.
Overall, Windows 8 is a happy, fairly soft system. It does not provoke love or anger or anything alike. The Metro interface deserves one big meh if anything, as it makes no sense on desktop platforms, and should probably be offered as an optional layer during the installation. Smartphones users might be excited, but I can't comment on that. From the perspective of someone with an IQ level somewhere above 70, I'm interested in the functional bits and pieces of the whole thing. in this regard, Windows 8 is robust and stable and offers a very good hardware support and backward compatibility. It just needs to consume fewer resources, that's all. Overall, 9/10, well deserved.