Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Introduction to Windows 8 Developer Preview: Review

In this post I want to go over some of the features in Windows 8 and compare it to previous versions of Windows.

The most obvious thing is the new GUI. Let's start with the Start menu, since this is used much more than in previous versions. The Start menu has changed drastically, mostly in looks. The Start menu is the first thing you see when you log in. It is a full screen menu with a list of apps. When you click the Start button on the desktop, the desktop slides away to reveal the Start menu. This is fundamentally different than the old Start menu, which appeared on top of the desktop and used only one corner of the screen. There are two kinds of apps on the Start menu: ordinary applications and Metro style apps. Ordinary applications open on the desktop and behave just as Windows applications have always behaved. Metro style apps are very similar to Windows Phone apps. They appear full-screen, and are independent of the desktop. In fact, the desktop acts very much like a Metro app itself, as it can be 'snapped', hidden, and otherwise treated the same way. The Metro interface has a new look for its widgets, with very square-looking controls and the absence of gradients and 3D effects. The desktop looks quite similar to Windows Vista and Windows 7. The widgets look the same, but the windows have gotten a facelift. Instead of the rounded corners for the borders that the original Windows Aero displayed, the corners are now square. The title text has a larger font and is centered in the title bar. The Windows Aero 'stripes' on the title bar are gone. There are a few changes to the appearance, but the Windows Aero experience is still there. That should give you a bit of an idea of the new look in Windows 8.

There were some drastic changes in the functionality of standard Windows features. The Task Manager is completely redone. The default view is a simple list of open apps, similar to the default page in the old Task Manager. However, by clicking the More details button, you can access more information in multiple tabs, which is slightly more powerful than the classic Task Manager. The default tab is the Processes tab. This is not the same as the Processes tab in the original Task Manager. It has been renamed to Details. The new Processes tab has more information, including color-coded resource usage stats: the processes that are using the most CPU/RAM/IO are highlighted. The Task Manager as a whole manages to present the same amount of information, but in an easier-to-digest format. The Start menu has hidden some features deemed less useful, such as the Shut Down button. The search box which was so useful in Windows Vista/7 seems to have disappeared too, but it is just camouflaged. If you start typing while in the Start menu, it automatically opens up a search that works the same as you are used to. The Start menu has also hidden the usual links to Computer, Documents, Pictures, etc. Some other Windows fixtures, such as everybody's favourite Blue Screen of Death, have changed. The BSOD is still blue, but instead of a glaring blue, it is more of a sky blue. Instead of a pixelated text-mode font, it uses an anti-aliased font in multiple sizes. The first thing you will see is a giant :( emoticon, and below that there is an extremely short description of the error.

Here is a list of a few of the things I liked or disliked about Windows Developer Preview.


  • The GUI is very attractive and easy to use.
  • The new Metro style apps are simple, useful, and very cool.
  • Some stuff is hard to find, especially on the first day.
  • Apps can't be closed, just suspended, presumably increasing memory usage.
  • For people on desktop PC's, the fact that most apps are designed for touch input is a little unfamiliar.
Here is the grade that I would give Windows 8: 4/5 stars.

I think this will be a very successful project for Microsoft. It is a very modern operating system that takes advantage of the move toward tablet PC's. It has a few features that make it hard to get used to, but with a little time it becomes second nature (a lot like the drag-up-to-maximize feature of Windows Aero, that always gets me when I use XP). This is the start of a new era for Windows.

In the next post, I want to get into some programming for Windows 8, especially the Metro style interface and the Windows Runtime (WinRT).

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Introduction to Windows 8 Developer Preview: Setup

I have been investigating Windows Developer Preview recently, and I thought it fit to share some of my experience. This post is mostly how to get Windows 8 set up, but in the near future I want to post a quick review, and get into programming in Windows 8.

First, lets start with some info on getting your own Windows Developer Preview setup running. The first step is to download it from the Windows Dev Center. As of this writing, there are three downloads that include Windows Developer Preview. There are two downloads, for x86 and x64, as well as one for x64 that includes the developer tools. Hopefully there will soon be a download for the x86 folks who want to use the developer tools. The download you probably want is the first one, 'Windows 8 Developer Preview with developer tools English, 64-bit (x64)'. It is a DVD image of the installation disk for Windows Developer Preview.

Once you have the file downloaded, there are two options. If you have a spare computer that you can wipe and install Windows, I recommend that option. But if you are like me and don't have one, Windows 8 works on a virtual machine. I will explain how to get it set up for those that haven't used one before.

I used VMware Player to run Windows 8. For anyone who wants to use Microsoft Virtual PC, don't. Virtual PC doesn't support x64 operating systems, which is a major barrier in this case. VMware player also has a toolset that installs on the guest OS, and can greatly improve the user experience.

Before you set up the VM, you need to think about how to share your computer's resources between the host and the guest. I recommend at least 4GB of RAM on the host, but you may be able to squeak by with 2GB. I have 4GB, and I ran Windows 8 with 1.5GB of RAM, and it worked fine. I had tried it with 2GB, but that caused my host (Windows 7 for the curious) to almost freeze sometimes. I recommend giving Windows 8 at least 1GB. Disk space shouldn't be an issue. VMware recommends 60GB for Windows 7 x64 (the closest option to Windows 8).

Setting up the VM is easy. in VMware player, click 'Create a New Virtual Machine'. In the first dialog, select 'I will install the operating system later.' In the next dialog, select Windows 7 x64 as the guest OS. The rest is self explanatory. On the last dialog, click 'Customize Hardware...'. There you can set the available memory, processors, drives, etc. Set everything as you would like, and also 'insert' the Windows installation disk. In the CD/DVD settings, select 'Use ISO image file' and enter the path to the ISO file that you downloaded.

Once you have everything tuned to your preference, close the hardware options and click Finish. You are all ready to run Windows 8. Click 'Play virtual machine' and when the machine starts, follow the instructions to set up Windows. Once you are set up, you should see a green screen with a list of apps.

The first thing you want to do if you are using VMware Player is to install the VMware tools. Open the desktop and in the VMware menu (not within Windows 8) select Virtual Machine > Install VMware Tools... This 'inserts' a CD with the VMware tools into the virtual machine. Install the tools from the CD and reboot the VM. Then you are pretty well set up completely.

Feel free to to explore the new Windows. A helpful tip: to shut down the computer, move the mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen and select Settings. This opens a menu that includes power options. I couldn't figure out how to do it myself, so I figured you might not either.

Look for a short review of Windows 8 features soon!