Microsoft pulls back the covers on Windows 8, releases developer preview

Windows 8 Start Screen - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

After months of anticipation, Microsoft has finally pulled the wraps off of the next version of Windows. The OS is currently dubbed Windows 8, but that name is subject to change. “Windows 8” really is the biggest change to Windows since Windows 95. The beautiful interface is inspired by Microsoft’s Metro design language and is very similar to both Windows Phone and this fall’s Xbox 360 dashboard update. Microsoft has touted its “three screens and the cloud” strategy for over a year, but this dream is finally coming to fruition. Going into Windows 8, Microsoft’s main focus was to create a great experience for any use case scenario–desktop PC, laptop, netbook, or tablet–without any compromises. Believe it or not, the software giant has managed to do just that.

When you first boot a Windows 8 device, you’ll be surprised by how fast it is. New devices will be able to go from zero power to full performance in as little as eight seconds. Blink and you might miss it. In fact, some Windows 8 devices can start faster than the fans which cool them. Enterprise customers with UEFI-based BIOSes can also protect their devices with a new feature called Secure Boot.

Once the computer is up and running, the first thing you’ll notice is the lock screen. Here, you’ll find the current time, notifications, and calendar appointments in a style not unlike that of Windows Phone. Swipe up to reveal the login screen, where things get interesting. Unlike a traditional login screen, Windows 8 allows you to enter a PIN or Picture Password (which consists of drawing or tapping on a custom picture), in addition to your run-of-the-mill password.

The start screen itself is, once again, heavily influenced by Windows Phone. The single-colored tiles have been replaced with a variety of colors and gradients. Tiles are still live, but the Windows 8 variety doesn’t flip over. Apps can be pinned to the start screen and organized into categories, which are accessible by swiping left and right. It all works very much like Windows Phone, but on a PC. Don’t assume, however, that Windows 8’s touch-first interface will make using a mouse and keyboard more difficult. Microsoft understands the importance of classic input devices has made every input method–touch, mouse and keyboard, and even stylus–first class citizens.

Charms located on the right side of the screen provide quick access to Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Search allows you to find applications and files on your device, while Share takes advantage of a new feature called Contracts, letting apps communicate with each other without any prior knowledge. This means you can select images in a photo application and share them via another app. The other two Charms, Devices and Settings, provide quick access to connected devices and what was formerly known as the Control Panel. Who could have imagined that the Control Panel would one day look so good?

Digging through the Settings, you’ll find new features like PC Refresh, which cleans out any bugs in the OS while leaving your files, apps, and settings alone, and PC Reset, which will completely wipe the device and return it to factory defaults. File History is a more full-featured version of Volume Shadow Copy from Windows Vista and Windows 7, protecting users from data loss.

The best part, however, is Windows 8’s tight integration with Windows Live. Every Windows 8 user will have a Windows Live ID and, therefore, a free SkyDrive account. This allows Microsoft to sync apps, documents, photos, and settings with SkyDrive for safe keeping. Logging into another Windows 8 PC will automatically pull all of this content back down from SkyDrive. The same applies to email, contacts, and calendars, which are synchronized with Windows Live and other services.

Windows 8 also makes programming easy for developers. We’re not going to get too technical here, but suffice to say that coding Windows 8 apps is a snap. Porting them over to Windows Phone is even easier, sometimes requiring as little as a single line of code. Microsoft plans to sell both Metro-style and legacy applications in the Windows Store, a one-stop shop for all of the applications and entertainment you could want. Developers won’t be required to sell their apps through the Windows Store, but Microsoft has opted to give developers that do 100% of the profit.

Of course, with an open development ecosystem, there’s always a risk of malware. That’s why Microsoft is baking anti-virus into the operating system and giving Windows Defender all of the features found in Microsoft Security Essentials. Better still, SmartScreen is no longer limited to Internet Explorer, allowing it to protect the entire OS from file-based attacks. The result is the most secure version of Windows ever made.

Many of Windows 8’s built-in apps are still under wraps, but Microsoft did show off the chrome-less Internet Explorer 10. Many of Windows Phone’s popular features will also show up in Windows 8, like the People Hub, which aggregates contacts and friends on social networks into a single location. Also discussed, but not really shown, was support for Xbox LIVE-enabled games through a full-featured Xbox LIVE app. Other improvements include a system-wide spellchecker, a more subtle Windows Update mechanism, and easy access to documents and photos stored on SkyDrive, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

As great as Windows 8’s new Metro interface is, it doesn’t work for everything. Programmers, designers, and other people are sure to yearn for the traditional desktop experience. Thankfully, Windows 8 has that too. Hitting the Windows key or selecting a legacy application immediately switches over to the traditional Windows desktop.

Microsoft has given this part of Windows a fresh coat of paint as well. Windows Explorer now includes a Ribbon interface, as seen in Office 2010 and Windows Live Essentials, and the Task Manager has been given a much needed overhaul. Even the process of copying files has been streamlined. Power-users will be glad to know that the experience with multiple monitors has been greatly improved. Wallpapers stretch across screens, and the taskbar can be configured to show up on any number of monitors and in all sorts of configurations. Microsoft has left no stone unturned.

Finally, Microsoft is working closely with its partners to manufacture great hardware. NFC chips, Retina Displays, and ARM chips are all supported. Unfortunately, due to technical limitations, devices with ARM chips will only support Metro-style apps, not legacy applications. Windows 8 will also run on current hardware as well. The minimum specifications are lower than that of Windows 7, allowing Windows 8 to run on even first-generation netbooks with Atom processors. The new Windows 8 interface is supported on all displays wider than 1024 pixels, but a width of at least 1366 pixels is required to run Metro-style apps side-by-side.

All told, Windows 8 looks to be shaping up to be a great competitor in every computing market. Windows 8, as Microsoft has said, will work great on devices ranging from 7-inches to 70-inches. With Windows 8, you’ll be able to use your tablet on the go, then plug it into a dock and magically transform it into a full-on PC. It’s versatile and there’s no need to compromise. Bravo, Microsoft. We can’t wait to see what else the Redmond software giant has in store. It’s going to be an exciting year.

A Windows Developer Preview is available for download from the Windows Dev Center. Windows 8 probably won’t be released for another year, but developers and enthusiasts can already get their hands on the operating system. Just keep in mind that it is pre-release software, so there may be some bugs.

[BUILD | Microsoft News Center | SuperSite for Windows | LiveSide]

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/Outlook.com Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.

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