Microsoft made a preliminary version of its next operating system available as a download last week. Windows 8 Consumer Preview comes as a small program that you can run from within your existing Windows installation or as an ISO image that you can burn to a DVD.
I chose the latter, because you can boot to the DVD on multiple PCs without an Internet connection on each one.
The installer gives you plenty of options. If you’ve used the Windows 7 disc for installation or rescue, it’ll look quite familiar. You can upgrade your existing Windows system and keep all your files; wipe the drive for a fresh install; or carve up some unused space on the disk to boot into both new and old operating systems. The disk partitioning tool is very basic, so if you’re going that route, use a more capable program beforehand, like EaseUS Partition Manager Home Edition, available for free at www.partition-tool.com.
The setup disc whirred for 20 minutes or so before rebooting the machine. I was then prompted for more personal information than I’ve ever had to enter to install Windows: an e-mail address, my ZIP code, a security question — all to establish a Microsoft account so that I could download apps straight from their store and use pre-installed apps that depend on the cloud. Irritating? Sure. I could’ve bypassed it and just not used those particular features, though.
In less than an hour, my Windows 8 computer was up and running. Fairly well, too, considering the age of the box. The machine was a powerhouse a few years ago, but certainly nothing to brag about today: a 2.8GHz Pentium D processor, 1GB memory and a 160GB hard drive. Nonetheless, it got the thumbs-up from the Consumer Preview setup program. Whether the final build of Windows 8 fits within those modest specs remains to be seen, but since at least one edition will be aimed at tablets, it shouldn’t require bleeding-edge hardware.
In any case, the multicolored tiles representing common programs slid around my screen smoothly. One touch of the Desktop tile key brought up the familiar icons and taskbar, while pressing the Win key (or Ctrl+Esc) brought me back to the tiles. This is the new Start menu, though there’s no longer an actual Start button on the taskbar. Windows 7 removed the word “Start” from the button, and now you just point the mouse to the extreme lower-left corner.
A lot of navigation is like that — hover your mouse near the right edge of the screen to bring up a menu for system settings and searching; hover in the upper-right corner to switch between open apps. It takes a bit of getting used to on a PC, but makes perfect sense on a touchscreen.
Most of the built-in programs you expect are there, and for the most part, improved. The Task Manager (for viewing running processes and killing troublesome programs) is much more detailed; Internet Explorer fills the screen by default and has touchable controls along the bottom; and, yes, Solitaire remains, and connects to XBOX Live for some reason.
The only app I had any real trouble with was another XBOX Live game, Pinball FX 2, which was dreadfully slow before I had Windows detect and install the proper video driver, replacing the generic one it started with. Afterward it failed to open at all, but all the Windows animations were noticeably smoother.
To try yourself, visit windows.microsoft.com/en-GB/windows-8/download.
Watch me defend my positive review of a Microsoft product at twitter.com/CitizenjaQ.