Windows 8 first impressions: It's a game changer

@CNNMoneyTech March 16, 2012: 5:31 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The PC needs saving. With Windows 8, Microsoft believes it has the magic cure.

It just might. I've been testing a consumer preview version of Windows 8 for the past week, and it's unlike anything I've ever seen in a PC operating system.

The stunning "Metro" interface just begs you to touch and interact with it. Beautifully designed apps, ultra-simple navigation, and instinctive commands make it hard to believe Metro came from the same company that brought us Windows Vista. Interactive, "live" tiles and an intuitive app store simplify the PC. Windows 8 is as easy to use as the iPad.

That's exactly what Microsoft intended. As PC sales slump amid a surge in tablets (okay, iPads), Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) is creating an operating system that lets hardware makers reimagine the PC for a tablet world. The software is slated to go on sale later this year.

But let's be clear: Under the veneer of its redesign, Windows 8 is still very much a PC operating system. It features the familiar desktop and taskbar you've learned to love -- or hate -- over the years, and it works just as well with a keyboard and mouse as it does with a touchscreen.

That's the key difference between Apple's (AAPL, Fortune 500) iPad strategy and Microsoft's Windows 8 approach. Apple made a complementary gadget, while Microsoft's software is designed for a catch-all device.

The iPad is the simplest entry point to what Apple calls the "post-PC" world, but PCs haven't outlived their usefulness just yet. Most people still go to their PCs for tools like Microsoft Office and more complex content creation tasks

That's where Microsoft sees uncharted territory. It wants Windows 8 to power each user's primary device, which can be as portable and intuitive as the iPad but also be able to perform all the intricate tasks that today's tablet users flock to their PCs for.

Microsoft does that by making the desktop itself into an app. The PC boots to the Metro interface, which serves as the "start screen" and main backdrop for Windows 8.

Metro is ideal for everyday tasks like Web browsing, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and casual gaming. But when you need to manage files, edit a document, or do anything else you wouldn't typically try on an iPad, a tap or click on the desktop app launches what looks and feels like the Windows 7 interface.

Is Windows 8 a perfect solution? Not quite, but it's getting closer.

What I liked: Windows 8 meets Microsoft's goal of producing a "fast and fluid" operating system. It's so lightweight, in fact, that even on a five-year-old, battered Dell laptop with a puny Intel (INTC, Fortune 500) Centrino processor, Windows 8 booted up in 16 seconds. By contrast, my iPhone 4S takes 27 seconds to start up.

The app store is well designed, and the Metro apps are of the same quality you'd expect from the iPad.

There were some bugs, as you'd anticipate from a preview version of the software, but getting out of a stalled program has never been easier. Just tap the Windows key, and you're back to the start screen.

My favorite feature was the built-in search mechanism, which allows you to just type to find and launch a program or file. Adios, Ctrl-R!

What I didn't like: My main gripe is a design oddity: The word "Start" is permanently displayed in the upper left hand corner.

It wouldn't be as irksome if "Start" did anything, but you can't click on it, tap it, swipe it or interact with in in any way. It just sits there, staring at you.

To actually launch the Start menu options, you have to swipe from the right of the screen or hit Windows Key-C. That's the only way to bring up the clock, Wi-Fi status or battery life. Maybe those things could be displayed at the top of the screen instead of "Start."

But if that's my biggest quibble so far, Microsoft might be onto something big.

Bottom line: Windows 8 won't kill the iPad. It's not trying to. It's trying to save the PC.

Anyone 25 or older probably remembers the way Windows 95 reimagined what a PC could do. Windows 8 does that again, to a much greater degree.

It's not hard to envision waking up to your alarm in the morning, reading a book on the train, creating spreadsheets at work, playing Angry Birds on your ride home, and watching Netflix in bed -- all on the same Windows 8 device. To top of page

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