Now that the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has been available for download for around a month, I’ve had the time to use it and compare with the Developer Preview of late last year. Overall I have to say it is shaping up to be the most solid OS I’ve had the pleasure of using in quite some time, and provides exactly the refresh that Windows has needed in recent years. I’d encourage everyone to download the preview and see just how good the upgrade really is. But of course, rarely does anyone get big changes done right on the first try, and Microsoft is no exception. I applaud their innovations with the new OS, but during my use of it over the last few months certain things have continually stood out to me as sorely lacking. Here are the top 3 things I would like to see different in Windows 8, either by its official release later this year, in a future service pack, or if all else fails, in Windows 9.
Start Screen folders
While the new Start Screen may be intimidating at first, after spending time with it first in the developer preview and now again in the consumer preview, I can definitely say I’m a fan of the new system. It may appear overly simplistic, but laying beneath the surface is a powerful new interface that will keep you out of the normal Windows desktop a lot more than you might expect…by choice! With this great balance of simplicity and power in mind, I can’t really figure out why Microsoft hasn’t made any sort of folder system for the new Start Screen. Grouping icons is sufficient, but let’s face it, the average person keeps a lot of stuff in their Start menu that they don’t necessarily care to see on a daily basis. Rarely visited shortcuts (e.g. readme.txt) that normally are comfortably tucked away now share equal real estate as major apps and files. Of course one can always remove these shortcuts from the start menu entirely and then simply run a search for them later, but I personally find this to be a potentially awkward way to work with certain kinds of files. Employing folders may be falling back a bit into the old way of doing things, which isn’t what Windows 8 is all about, but in this case we’re talking one of those things that is still in use for good reason: it works. We still file away physical documents in physical folders, and virtual files in virtual folders in other applications, so why not on our Start Screens?
Unified taskbar and gadgets
I have to admit, though it was odd at first not having any sort of Start button or Windows Orb on my taskbar, I’ve gotten used to it quite quickly, and in fact feel it is time to already be taking the next step: eliminating the taskbar. With the left side of the Windows 8 screen already handling some multitasking (and in a superior way to the taskbar, I might add), the main use of that old, familiar taskbar is rendered superfluous. You can still line up icons for quick access, which presently isn’t possible in any new Windows 8 features, but could it be that these icons too could be better handled elsewhere? I think the answer to this question lies in Gadgets. Already gadgets (both included and downloadable) duplicate many features handled by the taskbar; you’ve got your clock, WiFi connectivity, Bluetooth…why not turn the rest of the taskbar’s functions into gadgets as well? Desktop icons could be simple gadgets instead of the old .lnk files, which would allow for greater flexibility (individual icon resizing, anyone?), and as far as system tray functions go, some could be turned into gadgets as mentioned before, while the rest could easily be merged into the right hand panel of Windows 8, which already features a list of connected devices and the most common settings. The result of all these changes would be a cleaner, much more streamlined desktop without duplicated features that suffer from split functionality.
Although Windows 8 customization has already improved vastly since the developer preview, for any power user out there, what’s available will feel seriously lacking. The window decorations still use essentially the same skinning engine we’ve seen now for nearly 12 years, and STILL we have to use uxtheme patches to enable custom, user-made themes. Considering how many of such themes are out there these days, I’d say it’s high time for Microsoft to admit that the user demand is there, and native support for custom themes would be warmly welcomed. As for the new Metro aspects of Windows 8, the options are pretty much limited to a serious of flat color choices that dictate the rest of the operating system’s appearance, and the option to select an image on your hard drive to replace the default lock screen and Start Menu backgrounds. At this point, that means most of the Metro elements aren’t individually customizable at all (barring some additional DLL patching). I would like to emphasize again, the options are far, far better than what we saw at the end of last year, but you can still count on your Windows 8 installation looking pretty much like everybody else’s. Is that a problem? For the majority of users, probably not. But those of us who spend a lot of our lives inside one of these machines like to maintain some sense of individuality, and like so many other recent products, Windows 8 generally treats user-friendliness and user-customization as mutually exclusive things.
Have you tried the Windows 8 Consumer Preview yet? If so, what did you think of it? Were there any other features you felt were missing that you’d like to see added in by the official release? Sound off in the comments below!