(originally posted on my personal website track7 on november 4, 2011: http://www.track7.org/bln/win-8-dev-prev)
i was having some problems with my recently-reinstalled windows 7 not being able to map my network drives on startup (though it actually sort of did), so i decided to fix it by installing the windows 8 developer preview which is currently available from microsoft for free download to anybody who wants to check it out. while the network drive problem appears to be gone, as expected i now have some new problems. there are also some other improvements, as well as things that are just plain different.
the installation process was similar to windows 7. it didn’t ask me what time zone i’m in though, choosing pacific time for me (which is interesting considering the weather gadget defaulted to new york). they seem to be working on location services so maybe it’s either not plugged in here yet or isn’t working yet. setting up my first account and network connection happen in the new metro style, which mostly stands out due to its flat solid colors and green backgrounds. just like windows 7, if you enter a password (not required), you’re forced to enter a password hint. i had always assumed that was unintentional in windows 7, especially since if you didn’t set a password at install but instead added it later through the control panel, the hint wasn’t required. windows 8 appears to always require a hint if you set a password, though i haven’t tried the desktop control panel.
it seems that if you set your network connection to public (as opposed to home or work) you can’t connect to a network file share. i’m not entirely sure about that though as all of the descriptions only reference whether anything your computer is sharing will be accessible. i don’t want to share anything from my computer — i just want to access stuff shared from a linux machine running samba. overall it felt more difficult to connect to network drives than in previous versions. part of that came from not having a map network drive button in windows explorer when viewing my computer (i found it in the context menu). once i got it connected though it works the same as always.
i had heard that you need to let windows 8 update itself because there are some very useful fixes out. while doing that i noticed that windows update actually got me the latest video drivers from nvidia automatically, which is nice for people who aren’t as comfortable downloading and installing drivers as i am (it’s also convenient for me). it’s possible windows update already did that on windows 7 but i wouldn’t know since i don’t usually use windows update. i set it to just tell me when there are updates so i can see the list, but it didn’t actually tell me. maybe i just hadn’t waited long enough, but when i used the start screen to get to windows update it said there were a handful of updates. then it said i had to go to the desktop windows update to actually install them. it feels like microsoft has converted parts of the control panel to metro but still has all the desktop versions available, possibly because they haven’t finished rewriting in metro yet. i expect this to change before release.
the metro part of windows 8 in general doesn’t feel like it belongs on a desktop computer. instead it feels like a stripped-down interface aimed at making the best of a small touchscreen. it also feels very separate from normal windows, which it calls desktop, acting more like a gateway to what most people will probably see as the real windows. of course if metro apps become more common than desktop applications then maybe whatever desktop applications remain might become the annoying ones that don’t seem to fit.
i can understand why there are popular tweaks out there that get rid of the metro start screen and replace it with a windows 7 style start menu. with everything i use running on the desktop, it’s overly jarring to have the desktop slide away when i push the super key to bring in the start screen and then slide back in once i pick an application to launch. that probably works fine on a small screen, but you could get dizzy sitting in front of a 20″ monitor showing all that motion.
it’s also unnecessarily difficult to shut down or restart. the start screen doesn’t have these options at all. of course it never really made any sense to go to start to shut down, but at least that was easy to get to. now you can log out, move the mouse to the bottom left and click settings on the mini menu that pops up, or press ctrl-alt-del to get a screen (or sidebar in the settings case) with a power icon you can click to bring up a menu with options to shut down or restart. i’m not sure how to shut down using the keyboard.
i also couldn’t find a way to set the icon spacing the way i like it. in windows 7 i could do the somewhat awkward personalization → window color → advanced to get to the classic display settings dialog where i could change vertical icon spacing (i like mine closer together), but the advanced link is gone in windows 8. i think that value is stored in the registry somewhere so i could probably track it down, but why was the dialog removed?
when i started installing software i had two specific issues. the first affected was firefox, which had some messy display artifacts in the menu, tabs, toolbar area. it’s kind of annoying but doesn’t get in the way all that bad. thunderbird as you might expect had the same problem, and then so did a desktop gadget i use. the other problem happened with the pidgin installer. it needs to download and install gtk in order to work (and the same for aspell if you want it to check your spelling), but it can’t. i assume this is because it ran the installer without internet access, but it’s also possible the servers it tried to download from were inaccessible at the time. one final point about installing software is all that crap they typically throw in their start menu folder (documentation and uninstall links, for example) now shows up with everything else on the start screen. it's entirely possible to get a dozen or so “uninstall” entries all with the same icon but for different applications with no way for you to tell which is which without launching one. i don’t think installers should put uninstall links in the menu anyway — that’s what the programs and features control panel is for.
by now i’ve used most of the applications i regularly run. a partial list includes 3 steam games (osmos, penumbra black plague, and team fortress 2), firefox, thunderbird, ultraedit, 7-zip, gimp, and libreoffice. pidgin won’t run until i get gtk installed where it can see it (apparently there’s an offline installer that may help), but besides the firefox / thunderbird display issues everything has worked just fine.
for the most part i’ve only done things in windows 8 that i used to do in windows 7, so it’s entirely possible there’s cool new stuff i just haven’t come across yet. i did try setting a picture password but got hit with an error. a little later i tried the metro sudoku, which was ridiculously easy for anyone who’s ever heard of sudoku before, didn’t notice when i filled in the last empty space, and didn’t appear to have a way to start a new game.
i of course used windows explorer as well, which now has an up button next to the back and forward buttons and a ribbon replacing the smart toolbar. i find the up button a waste of space that would have better gone to the address bar (much like how i feel about the search box that was added in vista). the things i used from the smart toolbar (mainly the map network drives button) aren’t even in the ribbon, so i just collapsed the ribbon and decided to ignore it. thankfully it doesn’t take up any more space than the toolbar did. i also brought up the task manager, which looks a lot better than before and seems fully functional. i will probably still download process explorer to use instead, but it’s nice to see some improvements here.
overall the windows 8 developer preview is like windows 7 with a few important things removed and a bunch of half-working new stuff added. oh and the new stuff is just jammed in next to the old stuff in an annoying, in-your-way sort of fashion. if they manage to integrate metro and desktop and get the new stuff fully working, then it may be worth upgrading from windows 7 to get the new stuff. i also think if they don’t make the metro start screen work better with the desktop it’s likely people will prefer windows 7 and new computers will continue to sell with 7 much like xp was still available after vista was out.