On Leap Day, Microsoft made the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8 available to anyone with 3.1GB of available storage space. Within twenty-four hours, over a million intrepid—or merely curious—souls had downloaded one of the various flavors of the beta software. Both 32- and 64-bit versions were available, in several languages. The immediate reaction of those who had previously installed the Developer Preview, or alpha version, was universally positive.1 As expected, much of the dev code was removed, thousands of bugs were squashed, and many more device drivers were available.
Although I switched to Macs and OS X several years ago (yes, Vista claimed me as a victim), my wife has continued using Windows, and I’ve maintained Windows 7 on my desktopin a virtual machine under VMWare Fusion.2 As anyone who has used both Vista and Win7 knows, Vista was a dog, while Win7 is the best version of Windows since (and probably including) Windows XP. (My oldest son works for Microsoft as a Premier Field Engineer, so I have free lifetime tech support. *grin*) Thus, I was expecting a favorable experience with the Windows 8 beta.
So, I braved the waters and downloaded the Consumer Preview (64-bit). On the iMac, I installed Windows 8 under VMWare Fusion. Installation was quick and painless. The highlight for me is the visual pun, pictured above, which appears during installation and on the boot screen: a whimsical Siamese fighting fish, also known as a betta fish.3 Setup is very straightforward, and fairly familiar, although I do like the more modern look of the screens in Windows 8 compared to earlier versions.
The MacBook Air (MBA, henceforth) was a bit more problematic. I’ve actually been trying to install Windows 7 in a Boot Camp partition for the better part of a month, off and on. The MBA has no disc drive, so you need a Windows .iso file and a USB flash drive. No matter what I did, I was getting one error or another—usually the MBA would freeze up trying to format, partition, or otherwise manipulate the USB drive. When I started to work with Win8, I got the same problems. The .iso file that worked flawlessly on the iMac wasn’t recognized or was otherwise disliked by the MBA. I even went out and bought an external Apple Superdrive, burned a DVD on the iMac, and still no joy.
I finally realized that if Disk Utility and Boot Camp Assistant were working fine on the iMac, then they should be working on the MBA. That they weren’t could only be attributed to one thing: corrupted files on the MBA. So, I bit the bullet and went through the lengthy but ultimately successful process of reinstalling OS X Lion on the MBA (including reformatting the hard drive).4 Once I finished that, the installation of Win8 on the MBA was just as quick and easy as it was on the iMac.
The Metro Interface
Yes, the Windows user interface has changed. The introduction of the Metro interface (left) has traumatized a lot of users. Just as OS X did previously with Snow Leopard and later with Lion, Microsoft is beginning the unification of its desktop and tablet/cellphone operating systems. (A lot of Mac users screamed bloody murder about changes in OS X, just as Windows users are weeping and wailing about changes in Win8—remember when MS introduced the MS Office Ribbon? Yeah. Like that, only more so.)
Granted, the tiles look better, and work better, with a touch interface, such as that on a phone or tablet. But really, using a mouse isn’t that tough. As you can see if you compare the picture here to those in most other articles, my Metro screen has been modified: I’ve moved some tiles, removed others, and generally played around with it. It’s not horrible!
And, once you click the Desktop tile (and isn’t that a gorgeous wallpaper Microsoft provides?), about the only visible difference between Win 7 and Win 8 is the absence of the Start button in the lower left corner. Instead, if you place your mouse down in the bottom left, a thumbnail of the Start screen pops up. Don’t move the cursor; just click, and the Start screen opens up. You can also get there directly via the Windows key. (For Mac users, it’s not unlike the Launchpad—only easier to use.) Oh, by the way: you do not have to use the Start screen! Nosirree Bob! Just as in Win 7, you can pin all kinds of stuff to the taskbar. Or, you can right click and pin just about anything to the Start screen. Or both!
Frankly, hitting the Windows key (well, the Command key5 on Mac keyboards) and selecting a program tile is pretty quick ‘n’ easy. About those tiles—Mail, Internet Explorer, Calendar, for example—selecting one of the Metro applications, as they’re called, opens a full-screen version of the app. Again, that’s probably a lot handier on a mobile device than even a laptop, much less a desktop computer. However, I’ve read a lot of favorable press about (especially) the Mail client, and if you’re someone who prefers a standalone mail client to, say, Gmail in your browser, the interface is clean, the ability to add accounts (Gmail, Yahoo! mail, POP3, etc.) is there, and the client itself is robust.
Once you’re through with a Metro app, you can hit the Windows key to return to the start menu, Alt-Esc to return to the Desktop, or Alt-Tab to choose among open apps. You don’t actually exit a Metro app, either: it goes into standby, using zero CPU cycles, and very low memory footprint (one screenshot I saw showed Metro apps using well under 10MB of memory apiece; most were in the 5–7MB range.
I mentioned that Windows 8 is in beta, right? (That’s what “Consumer Preview” means, just in case you weren’t clear on that point.) On my iMac, in a VM, Win 8 is so much peppier than Win 7, it’s ridiculous. For one thing, resuming from a suspended state takes less than 30 seconds.6 So that’s nice. But so far, I’ve noticed no lag or sluggishness at all, whether I’m in Internet Explorer (version 10, in case you’re curious) or using applications.
I won’t be using IE as my full-time browser, but I will try to hold off on installing Chrome for a little while, at least, just to see what bugs, if any, I run into with IE. I’ve already found one thing I dislike, and that’s having the address bar on the same line as the tabs. Fortunately, that can be changed easily in IE’s preferences. Otherwise, tabbed browsing is the best it’s ever been in IE—and is a damn sight better than in Apple’s native browser, Safari.
Supposedly, IE blocks popups, but it sure seemed to me that I had some obnoxious ad windows underneath the main browser a couple times; however, I’m not ruling out the possibility that I launched those windows. The Magic Trackpad on the iMac is very responsive, and it’s not difficult to accidentally give an extra tap or two if you aren’t paying attention.
No, I haven’t tried to run World of Warcraft under Win 8, and I’m not going to, either—especially not on a beta client that doesn’t have optimized video drivers. However, there is a pretty cool pinball game included with Win 8, and I could get addicted to that pretty easily! The game was very responsive, graphics were excellent, and gameplay was . . . well, potentially addictive! I also tried Bejeweled Blitz on Google+, and unlike playing under Windows 7, the game was as responsive as it is in native OS X on Chrome.
On the MBA, there’s no driver specifically for the Apple trackpad; I may have to use an external mouse there. On the other hand, my Magic Trackpad works almost perfectly on the iMac, but I think that is primarily due to inheriting the Apple drivers, since “natural scrolling”—the way you scroll on a touchscreen—is supported on the Magic Trackpad.7
Overall, I’m Pleased
I spent most of the day Thursday in Windows on the iMac; installing to the MBA didn’t get finished until around 9 p.m. However, I plan to spend most of Friday on the laptop, and if I have anything salient to add, I’ll do so in a comment to this article (since updates won’t get into the RSS feed).
Has anyone else given Windows 8 a spin? What are your thoughts? If you haven’t, are there any questions you haven’t found the answers to yet? Ask away, and I’ll see if I can enlighten you.
- I wasn’t one of those: I’m cutting-edge, but not bleeding-edge. ↩
- Currently, I have a 24-inch iMac (mid-2008, I think) and a current (mid-2011) 13″ MacBook Air. ↩
- If you don’t get it, I’m sorry. Blame Redmond. ↩
- Didn’t do the reformat the first time, so nothing got fixed—that was a wasted three hours! ↩
- Some people still call it the Apple logo key, but I’ve never had an Apple keyboard with an actual logo key on it. ↩
- I normally just quit Fusion when I’m through with Windows, and it saves the current state of the Windows machine, putting it more or less into sleep mode. ↩
- Incidentally, the Windows built-in dictionary doesn’t recognize Warcraft or trackpad. Come on, Redmond! ↩