Installing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview

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    I'm writing this on February 29. Not only is it Leap Day (and the day I ran out of month way before I ran out of work), it's also the day Microsoft released the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The official launch event took place at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – a fitting venue since Windows 8 is far more focused than previous versions of Windows to work on mobile devices such as tablets.

    The Consumer Preview is functionally a public beta, although Microsoft's not calling it that. It's available for download as an ISO image that you can put on a DVD or a USB stick for installation. You can get it in 64- or 32-bit editions, in English, Chinese, French, German or Japanese. It should work on any hardware that runs Windows 7.

    Like millions of other folks, I spent the morning installing the Consumer Preview. I first put it on the HP TouchSmart that we use as our kitchen computer because it has a large touchscreen and I wanted to get the full experience. Next I'll be looking for a touchscreen monitor to add to the array attached to my main productivity system.

    You can install the Consumer Preview software in a dual-boot configuration alongside the OS that's currently installed on your computer or you have the option to upgrade and keep settings, data and apps (although be forewarned that it won't necessarily keep all of them) or you can keep just your personal data (what's in the data folders in your User folder) or you can wipe everything and start clean. I chose the upgrade option.

    If you want to install the preview as a dual-boot option, you might need to create a separate partition for it (if you only have the one hard drive with which many systems ship). You can do that by going into Disk Management, right-clicking the C: volume in the bottom pane and selecting to shrink the volume. This creates free space that you can right-click and create a volume out of and then format. You can only do this if the C: is formatted in NTFS.

    Microsoft recommends you install Windows 8 on a volume of at least 16GB, but I'd recommend a minimum of 64GB if you have the space. It's true that the simple Metro apps will be smaller than legacy applications, but if you want to install desktop applications such as Office, Photoshop, etc., you should allocate more than 16GB of volume. Of course, you can install these desktop applications to a different partition, but some things will automatically place files on the OS volume too.

    The installation process on the TouchSmart went pretty smoothly, although not as quickly as I'd hoped. The whole process took a little under an hour, about the same as installing Windows 7. The interface is definitely simplified and more “conversational.” Setup announces it's “checking for anything you have to do first,” and it may come back and tell you that you need to uninstall some applications. Interestingly, these included Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) and PlayReady (the digital rights management technology in Windows Media Center) for my installation. Setup offered to uninstall MSE for me, but told me I had to uninstall PlayReady manually.

    Once the offending programs were gone, I had to restart, then go through the installation process again before I was given the “Ready to Install” thumbs up. After the restart, you'll also see the famous betta fish (a.k.a. Siamese Fighting Fish) that implicitly acknowledges that this is, indeed, beta software.

    We went through several minutes of “Preparing” and then the computer rebooted again. Back to the fish, but now it was “Getting devices ready” and then “Getting system ready.” Once everything was ready, we went back to “Preparing” for a while (I'm thinking the devs who put this together must have been Boy Scouts, since they definitely want us to be prepared). Finally, we got to the fun part: personalizing. First you pick a background color scheme for the Metro Start Screen. Being in a festive mood today, I picked red. Then you shuffle through some basic settings: Network (it defaults to Wi-Fi if you have a wireless adapter, even if you're also plugged into Ethernet), Sharing Options and such.

    Next, if you've upgraded a Windows 7 system, you're asked to sign in with the administrator account that was already set up in Windows 7. After that, you're asked to sign into a Microsoft account (Windows Live). On the next screen, you're asked for your mobile phone number, which I declined to give (you can skip it; the purpose is to allow Windows to send your password to you via text message if you forget it. That's all well and good but I have text messaging blocked on my phones and I'm not going to forget my password).

    Just when you thought you were done, there is one more round of “preparation” and then, what you've been waiting for: the Windows 8 Start Screen appears.

    I enabled the option to show Windows administrative tools as tiles; by default they're not shown. Swipe the far right side of the screen horizontally and the “Charms Bar” will appear. It contains links for Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings (note that these settings apply only to the Start Screen).

    Okay, that's pretty neat, and especially on a touchscreen. You'll have fun playing around with Metro, but what if you want to go back to your “old” way of doing things? Where's your desktop? You'll see a tile in the bottom left corner of the screen displaying our friend the Betta splendens. That's the Desktop tile, and it takes you to what looks very much like your old familiar Windows 7 interface. You can also get there by typing “desktop” anywhere on the screen and selecting its icon on the left.

    The upgrade preserved my pinned taskbar items, desktop icons, even my Windows 7 gadgets. IE9 was replaced by IE10 and the new Windows Explorer sported the Ribbon interface (but the Ribbon was closed by default; you can turn it on or off with a click of the little arrow to the left of the Help (?) icon in the top right corner).

    All the Office programs worked fine. You can get to them by typing the application name anywhere on the Start Screen, or if you're already on the desktop, using your pinned taskbar program icons. You can also hover (or press, on a touchscreen) in the lower left corner and a miniature Start Screen will appear. Right-click it and you'll get a context menu that gives you choices that include the Run box. Even Windows Media Center worked flawlessly after going through an abbreviated setup process (which recognized and preserved all the WMC settings from Windows 7).

    All in all, I'm impressed with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. I heard a lot of negative comments from people who downloaded the Developer Preview, many fears that the desktop wasn't going to be functional at all, that Metro was taking over the whole Windows experience, that Windows Media Center was going to be gone, that legacy applications wouldn't work. Based on what I've seen so far, those fears were groundless. In the coming week, I'll have a lot of time to work with the Consumer Preview on a daily basis and I'll be reporting back here with any quirks, bugs or surprises (delightful or otherwise) that I find.

    If you've download and installed the Consumer Preview, please let us know what you think.


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