Of all the features in Windows 8 - application sandboxing, built-in virtualisation, built-in antivirus, a de-junking feature for refreshing your system - one that has a lot of people talking is the interface.
The Start menu has been part of Windows for more than 15 years, so it's expected that there be discussion when it's changed.
We have Windows 8 running in our test area, and it's been interesting to see how different the new interface is. The old desktop is still there, but the new method of browsing programs is a departure from what we're used to.
In all of this discussion, remember that this is a Developer Preview, not the public beta, and not a Release Candidate. It's a good opportunity to see where Microsoft is going with Windows 8, but it's too early to draw any final verdicts.
The Start screen
What you see below is a screenshot showing the screen that appears after loading the Windows 8 Developer Preview. As you can see, it's a dramatic change: a tiled grid of big, in-your-face boxes and graphics. To get to the Start screen, you hit the Windows keyboard button.
The Windows 8 Developer Preview Start screen. Click to enlarge.
The Apps menu in Windows 8 Developer Preview. Click to enlarge.
This screen - the Start screen - becomes your main portal for launching your most commonly used applications, but it also becomes a place to check things like RSS feeds and the like. Then press again to return to what you were doing. Or, if you want to dig into the full list, you can use the "Apps" view above.
Depending on how many programs you have, you'll need to scroll to get to some of them. The tiles scroll from right to left, and you can zoom out to get a big picture of all your program tiles. The tiles can also be grouped by category.
The desktop is still there - you just can't see it in the background. To get to the desktop, you click an icon called Desktop.
The Start button is still there - it pops up when you move the mouse cursor to the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Switch over to the desktop and you can also see the Start button over in the corner. This new Start button only lists Search, Share, Devices and Settings in the Developer Preview we have loaded. It's not, in this version anyway, a list of all your programs.
One of the good things about all this is that tablet users will have a version of Windows that isn't a headache to control. In our experience the Start menu could be a nightmare to control on a tablet using fingers. But why also apply this logic to everyone else, including desktop users who are happy with their keyboard and mouse?
If you've tried Windows 8, or you are interested about what Metro does or doesn't mean for the Windows desktop you're used to, you can read Microsoft's explanations in more detail here and here. We've summarised some of the main points below - it's not as simple as Microsoft saying they want to convert everyone to touchscreens.
The fastest route
The Windows 7 Start menu. Click to enlarge.
The Start button in Windows 8 Developer Preview. Click to enlarge.
As handy as the Start menu is for providing a single path to all your programs, it's getting crowded, says Microsoft. Some users, especially on older versions of Windows, can end up with Program menus that expand over the desktop across three panels; or in Windows 7 you get a scrollable list. Instead of taking advantage of your desktop space, Search results within the Start menu are crammed into a restricted area.
As a consequence, the Microsoft blog posts argues, people are using the Start menu less and less as a way of getting to commonly used programs. Microsoft has numbers which show that people are more often pinning their favourite applications to the taskbar. By contrast, in Windows 8, a big chunk of the desktop is given to your program items, making them easy to see.
The new Start screen can also show data feeds. In theory this will cut down on system resources because you won't be launching the same programs all the time, says Microsoft. "The news app shows the latest headlines, the weather app shows the forecast, an RSS app tells you what’s new, a social networking app displays your status, or a game can tell you when it is your turn—and when it isn’t."
The desktop in Windows 8 Developer Preview. Click to enlarge.
Microsoft has disputed the idea that the new design is all about touch control. There's still a start button in the left hand corner of the screen. Keyboard users can pin items to the taskbar that still on the desktop. The desktop is still there.
"...many believe that our design is all about touch rather than keyboard and mouse, or even that we’re putting the phone interface on a PC—it is neither," states Alice Steinglass, the group program manager for the Core Experience Evolved team, in this blog post.
The post notes that you don't see the "full scope of mouse and keyboard support" in Windows 8 Developer Preview. It's too early to make any final verdicts.
So why not make two versions of Windows 8, one with a touchscreen friendly interface for tablets, and leave the desktop alone on the PC and laptop? We asked Steve Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of Microsoft's OEM Division. He said that they did not want to separate users into niches.
It's clear that Microsoft sees touchscreens being integral to the future of the PC, not just tablets. This comment by Chaitanya Sareen, program manager lead on our Core Experience Evolved team, is an example example of the current thinking:
"Unlike when the mouse was introduced—before desktop publishing programs came along there were few use cases for the mouse other than early paint programs—today we are surrounded by touch screens—at the airport, the gas station, the movie theater, every cash register, and of course, on our phones. The one place touch has not yet become mainstream is on the most capable of all the devices you use. "
"…We believe that, as with the mouse, we will see touch augmenting, but not replacing, most every aspect of the PC experience over time."
Also read: Will Windows 8 really block Linux installs?