Microsoft Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Server 8 and Windows Phone 7.5 put the Metro UI interface right in the spotlight. Like Apple, Microsoft is unifying the UI across all platforms. That idea, in theory anyway, makes sense for developers, users and even IT just in terms of training and development.
But what does the unified UI mean for real-world usability for the workplace or power users? Does it scale — or even make sense? I took a tour through the Windows 8 consumer preview, released last week at MWC 2012 in Barcelona, the beta of this next gen OS.
With the Metro UI, Windows 8 is aiming at a mouse-free, keyboard-free setup. This works to a point. The tiles are beautifully designed, large and adequately labeled. They’re snappy and respond with animations just as a tablet or smartphone interface should.
Opening apps is really straightforward. It will display apps in full-screen — as does OS X Lion 10.7. Full screen viewing is a useful feature at times, but it doesn’t always make sense for enterprise, (try getting a budget spreadsheet done on deadline with just one giant full-screen view). Fortunately, Windows 8 Server supports dual monitors.
But the user interface on the apps included with the OS really needs work. If you go into the music marketplace app to browse for an artist, it’s awkward. There isn’t a search field obviously visible on screen.
The Music app in Windows 8 is nice looking, though. The album preview applet is really sharp. Overall, the music app is nicely done, but that’s where the eye candy stops.
The Internet Explorer 10 experience, new to this release, also runs in full screen mode — in the Metro UI. The system hides the address bar and menu bars. Those now are by default on the bottom row and at the top of the screen. Just mouse over to view the bars. As for rendering content, it works pretty much like IE 8 or 9.
The friendly UI on Windows 8 is a drawback in some cases for business and enterprise use. For example, if you want to access Microsoft Exchange via the Web — say you don’t have your smartphone around — you’ve got to do some work. My company’s Outlook Web Access (OWA) loaded fine. But the display failed on a script.
Previously, in IE 7, 8 and 9 my big issue was the reply function to emails in OWA. The workaround you see on Microsoft support forums is to use S/MIME download under the options menu on Windows XP computers running OWA. But that’s not perfect, either. I’ve seen it fail on Windows Vista and Windows 7 computers. I’ll be focusing on this issue for Windows 8 soon.
In its documentation for Windows 8 for Business — aka Windows Server — Microsoft claims IE 10 supports legacy ActiveX Controls. But this isn’t working for me. I’ve tried accessing my company’s customer relationship management (CRM) software, which will ONLY run on IE 7 or IE 6. It wouldn’t load up the ActiveX controls. The browser crashed completely. Microsoft clearly needs to fix this before rollout.
IE 10 in the Metro UI works fine — as long as you’re not multitasking. Watching HTML5 video full-screen works and looks great. The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, again, is more entertainment than work-oriented.
So if you need to get something done, my advice is to switch the browser to desktop mode.
The desktop experience of Windows 8 has a totally new look and feel. You’ll have to relearn basic things, such as how to find your programs and where they even are. The desktop icons and Start button you know so well are gone or relocated in Windows 8.
When you hover the mouse in the lower left corner, you get a translucent icon. But it isn’t the Start button. Clicking this takes you back to Metro. You have to access your programs via the Charm menu hidden on the right of the screen. This launches an application list screen as shown below.
I’m curious about the support for dual monitors. This, of course, opens another potential issue of driver support for mid- to high-end graphic cards. I use dual monitors every day and I’m lost without one of them working for me. How would this metro UI seamlessly work with the traditional extended desktop feature? Or is there even an option for an “extended Metro”? Running this under a virtual machine with single display does not allow for testing at this time.
How do you feel about the coming of Windows 8 Consumer Review, Windows 8 Server and Windows Phone 8? Let me know.
Screenshots credit: Ant Pruitt