Windows 8 Nears Release: What's Good, What's Bad
Microsoft lifts the Windows 8 kimono one last time before the finish line. Here are the improvements and inconsistencies.
The Windows 8 Release Preview arrived ahead of schedule, and I've spent the past week pounding on it. For those of you accustomed to the earlier Consumer Preview, many of the changes hardly rate a yawn. But some show that Microsoft's not down for the count just yet.
The most distressing point? We won't see another snapshot until Microsoft crosses its self-imposed finish line. Past versions of Windows have strewn the battlefield with successive release candidates. With Windows 8, you can kick the tires with this version, but you'll have to hold your breath and see what the final quantum jump will bring. Most assuredly this Release Preview is not a release candidate.
In this look at Windows 8 Release Preview, I won't go over all the baggage that's been debated before -- no, the Start button isn't there; yes, you have to get used to those Metro tiles; no, the interface isn't easy to learn; yes, the Metro to Desktop jumps will knock the eyeballs out of your sockets; no, people with PCs who have to get "real work" done won't like it; yes, on a touch device some of it actually grows on you. Instead, I'll focus on the improvements, quirks, and shortcomings of this last look before gold code.
Windows 8 RP: Incremental improvements
Lots of little things changed between Consumer Preview (CP) and Release Preview (RP). There are more colors and patterns for the Metro Start screen, as well as new cursors, and somebody has stuck a fork in the beta fish, replacing it with a field of tulips.
Famously, Aero effects have been subdued, with flatter borders and fewer glowing buttons, shadows, reflections, and gradients, making the release seem less dated and cheesy. We've been assured that RP represents only a halfway point: By the time Windows reaches RTM, the interface will be flatter than a pancake. The exception is the RTM taskbar, which, according to Microsoft's teaser screenshot, retains its transparent ways (see below).
There are tiny shifts in setup, an expanded "hot zone" on the edges of screens, an array of desktop backgrounds in a multiple-monitor setup, and a new version of the Windows Anytime Upgrade feature called Add Features to Windows 8. The Settings charm now leads to "Change PC Settings" instead of "More PC Settings," and a few settings have been modified slightly.
All of that's typical incremental improvement fare. The most interesting RP changes appear in Internet Explorer 10 and the new Metro apps.
The most interesting Release Preview changes appear in Internet Explorer 10 and the new Metro apps.
Internet Explorer explores more, aims to divulge less
Internet Explorer 10 is now up to its sixth "platform preview," making it one of the most previewed programs in Microsoft's history. Unlike its previous five incarnations, this version of IE 10 has two distinctive features.
First, Adobe Flash Player runs as an integrated program inside IE10, on both the Metro and Desktop sides of the fence; we're promised Flash Player will work on ARM-based Windows RT machines as well. If you use Internet Explorer 10 on the Desktop side of Windows 8, any site with embedded Flash animations should work. If you use Metro IE10, the site with embedded Flash must appear on a white list before IE allows Flash Player to run. Microsoft's Internet Explorer Compatibility View list currently contains 417 sites deemed safe enough for Metro IE10's Flash Player.
If you go to a Flash site in Metro IE10 not on the white list, you may or may not know there's a Flash animation on the site -- most sites revert to a static image if they detect that your browser can't see the Flash, and Metro IE doesn't say a thing. I found that very confusing at times: I expected Metro IE10 to put up a notification saying something like "Flash required to see all of this site," but there's no warning at all.
It'll get even more confusing when people head to sites with ActiveX controls. ActiveX runs on Desktop IE10. ActiveX controls don't run at all on Metro IE10 -- and at least in the sixth platform preview, Metro IE10 doesn't tell you it's encountered nonfunctional ActiveX controls. In Metro IE10, if you guess that you need an ActiveX control to properly view the page, you can tap or click the wrench icon in the Navigation Bar at the bottom of the screen, and choose "View on the Desktop." That takes you to the other IE10, which should be able to handle the ActiveX control.
You might think an embedded Flash Player would put the monkey on Microsoft's back to keep Flash patched and safe, but that isn't the case. According to Adobe evangelist and Flash development guru Mike Chambers, "Similar to how Flash Player is distributed with Google Chrome, Adobe does all of the player development, and then shares the player with Microsoft to distribute via its update mechanism. Microsoft doesn't have access to the Flash Player source code."
Second, IE10 implements Do Not Track by default. Right now, Do Not Track (DNT to its friends) has no teeth: It's a privacy poster boy, and not much more. With some luck that will change. DNT is a simple flag in the header sent to every website you go to that says, "Please don't track me." It's up to the site to refrain from all tracking behavior, presumably including IP logging and dishing up both first- and third-party cookies. I say "presumably" because there's still no standard for DNT, although the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been asking for it since December 2010 (PDF).
Mozilla invented the DNT approach, and Firefox and Safari both implement it. (To turn on DNT in Firefox, click the Firefox button, Options, Options, Privacy, check the box "Tell Web Sites I Do Not Want to Be Tracked.") IE9 has a DNT implementation, but enabling it is extraordinarily convoluted, even by Microsoft standards. Google is on record as saying it will implement DNT in a future version of Chrome.
On the one hand, making DNT the default is rightfully going to be viewed as a bold pro-privacy step for Microsoft. On the other hand, it's a shot fired across archrival Google's bow. On the third hand, the World Wide Web Consortium group that's working on DNT has been thrown into a hissing contest, with advertisers and browser designers slinging a dozen different points of view about how browsers should offer DNT to their users, how websites should treat DNT requests, and whether there's enough consensus to be able to implement anything meaningful, this year or this decade.
After Microsoft made its announcement that IE 10 would implement Do Not Track by default, the latest proposed draft of the Do Not Track specification requires that users choose to turn on the feature, meaning that, according to this proposed draft, IE10 won't be compliant and thus its Do Not Track headers can be ignored. Surely we haven't heard the end of this.
Check my demo page to test your browser's settings.
New Metros apps: Great features, but buggy
If you tried to get anything done with the CP version of the Metro apps, you have my sympathy. They just didn't do anything. Trying to use Metro Mail with more than one email account, for example, brought up bumper car panels that stepped all over each other.
The updated Metro Bing Finance app, once again, shows a beautiful, meaningless splash screen with Metro-style story tiles and a buried, boxy stock watch list. It also has bugs: The Russell 2000 month and year graphs are wrong, and they've been wrong since the day RP was released. Since the Metro Finance app is just a shell -- all the lifting is done by Bing on Microsoft's servers -- fixing the bug should be simple. It'll be interesting to see how long the fix takes.
The app has some interesting new depth: Slide down or right-click on an individual stock, index, exchange, or fund list, and you can pin it to the Metro Start screen. Pull down the navigation bar from the top of the screen (or right-click inside the app) and you can convert currencies and track 10 of the world's largest stock market indices.
No doubt some serious brokerage firms will come up with a better Metro-style financial app soon. It's hard to take Bing seriously when Microsoft won't cough up the bucks to display real-time stock quotes.
The new Metro Bing News app follows the same big-shot-for-the-tile layout with news categories that mirror the major categories on Bing's news site. Each group consists of three tiles, for three different stories. Just like the Metro Finance app, you can tap on a topic that interests you and see links for dozens of stories.
If you slide from the top of the screen (or right-click on the app), the News app reveals four separate feeds: Bing Daily, the main "newspaper" you see when you start the app; My News, in which you can specify a term and Bing dutifully assembles stories about the term; Trends, which follows trending topics; and Sources, for following your favorite newspaper, TV network, blog, or other content generator. Many of the linked sites are decidedly touch-unfriendly, and some require paid subscriptions for full access. Some of the sites have Flash videos that won't play inside the News app, but will play inside Metro IE.
The new Metro Bing Sports app has drawn praise from many quarters. Not only can you keep up with news from various sports leagues, but you have instant access to a bewildering array of scores, schedules, statistics, photos, and detailed news about most major teams.
The new Metro Bing Travel app uses the same basic layout, with a greater emphasis on pictures. The main page houses a spectacular array of photos. Pull down the navigation bar and you can choose from mini-reviews of specific destinations, or you can use Bing to book a flight or hotel. Most of the articles are from Frommer's, Fodor's, or Bing's travel writers, and many seem to be dated.
Other apps have minimal face-lifts. Metro Music, for example, now puts your music in front of the music Microsoft is trying to sell. Imagine that. It still requires a log-in to Xbox Live, and the new version has tiles to help you buy Zune Music Pass and more Xbox Live titles. There's a new overlay for music that you're sampling, but the same Microsoft-cobbled background when playing music -- and no volume button on the navigation pane. The song list for an artist isn't even grouped by album, which is tough if you have 2,478 Grateful Dead songs. Metro Video follows many of the same trends, with added offers to get movie showtimes and sell you movie tickets.
Microsoft promises that the Metro apps will be improved by the time RTM hits -- and continue improving after Windows 8 goes on sale. We can only hope so. Maybe the Metro Photos app will get some simple editing tools, and/or it will be able to see photos on a network drive. Maybe a future Metro SkyDrive app will actually be able to pull data out of the sky and put it on my hard drive. Or a few of the apps will actually be able to share data with the Share Charm. But I digress.
Windows 8 RP hiccups and inconsistencies
I've been running both a desktop and a touch-only tablet with the various Windows 8 releases since the Developer Preview hit, and I found more stability problems in RP than in CP or DP: Metro apps freezing, inexplicable blank screens, an occasional blue screen. (No, I don't use the Microsoft-supplied laptops.)
On the other hand, RP participates in networks much better than its predecessors, with straightforward server and peer access, even on networked Macs -- although Windows Explorer occasionally flashes a bogus "File sharing is turned off" message. The Desktop side continues to be solid as a rock.
Using a Microsoft account (nee Windows Live ID) to log on to multiple machines is supposed to sync several items between machines, similar to the Mac with iCloud or even Google Chrome. Some of it doesn't work: Metro apps don't sync, the Metro Start screen tiles don't sync, and as best I can tell picture log-ons don't sync either.
Mouse navigation is inconsistent. For example, on the Metro Start screen there's a scroll bar on the bottom, but no forward/backward arrows, and you can't "grab" the screen by clicking on it to move horizontally. In the Metro Calendar app, there is no scroll bar on the bottom, but left and right buttons appear near the top of the screen. In the Metro Photos app splash screen, there's only a scroll bar, but in individual libraries, you can grab and drag the screen. Metro Store only has a scroll bar. The Metro Travel app only shows pictures with left and right buttons (slideshow). And so on.
With big changes to come, I still see lots of niggling incongruities, including a Windows Experience Index that measures "Desktop performance for Windows Aero." The Windows Color and Appearance screen still has a checkbox to Enable Transparency. It isn't at all clear how those settings will change in RTM. Zune died at E3 last week, and Microsoft is being coy about how Windows 8 will be modified/rebranded to acknowledge the loss. We might even see an Xbox Music or Xbox Video app.
Persistent rumors say Microsoft is busy defenestrating the old Start button and making it impossible for third-party programs to bring back Start. Paul Thurrott reports that "Microsoft has been furiously ripping out legacy code in Windows 8 that would have enabled third parties to bring back the Start button, Start Menu, and other software bits that could have made this new OS look and work like its predecessor." It remains to be seen if Microsoft will succeed at tearing Start asunder, but the three major third-party Start button replacements, LeeSoft's ViStart, Stardock's Start8, and Classic Shell, all work with RP.
Stay tuned. There's much more to come.
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