Thursday, March 15, 2012

Windows 8 Consumer Preview: Metro Apps

Windows 8 Start Screen

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview comes pre-installed with a good selection of apps, and depending on what your needs are, you might not ever have to leave Metro. Here’s a look at some of the major applications bundled with the installation, and a couple others I tried.


Hey, stop reading my mail!

This is a big one for me. I’ve been looking for a simple, no-frills desktop mail client that I can use, and the Windows 8 Mail client does not disappoint. It offers simple integration with Gmail, which was a must-have feature for a mail client for me. Unfortunately, some things sync between the Mail app and Gmail, and others don’t. Read status on messages does not sync, but moving an item to another folder does. Drafts will stay local only, so if I’m composing something on my computer I have to make sure to finish it and hit send before I go somewhere else.

Speaking of composing on the Mail app, you can’t change the default signature in the version I’m using. The default signature is “Sent from my Windows 8 PC”, and while I don’t particularly have a problem with this particular message, I usually send most of my emails without a signature of any kind. The actual text of the signature can be deleted, but it’ll be inserted at the bottom of every message when you first begin to compose.

One really nice thing about the Mail app is that it takes full advantage of the new feature in Windows 8 that allows apps to “snap” to one side of the screen or the other. When in this mode, it becomes a sort of mini-client that only shows one thing at a time, such as the inbox, or the text of a single message. It’s a really nice feature to have, as you can just leave it up and watch your emails come in one at a time while you are working on other things.

Overall, the Mail app is pretty good. I had a few problems where it would inexplicably hang and refuse to load, but those were usually solved by forcing the app to close and reopening it. The only feature I can really ask for is tighter Gmail integration such as archive support and syncing drafts.


Wait a minute... I only own a couple of those albums being shown.

Although I was more excited about the Mail app, I’m more likely to be using the Music app at any given time, so proper implementation here is important. Overall, it’s pretty good, but there is one major problem with it that makes it nearly impossible for me to use: it doesn’t group compilation albums.

Guess what - you're only seeing five albums.

Grouping compilation albums means that when an album has more than one artist, songs by the other artist aren’t considered to be part of a different album. The problem is that one of the albums in my music library contains over 1,500 songs by several hundred different artists. Because the Music app considers each song with a different artist within that album to be a different album, suddenly I go from having a total of around 200 albums to having over 1000.  As you can imagine, this makes navigating to a specific song significantly more difficult. Combine this with the lack of a search function, and basically all I can do is hit “Play all” and hope that what comes out is what I want.

Putting aside the fact that I basically am unable to choose what I want to listen to, there’s a lot to like about the Music app. It looks slick. When playing it shows album art in a tiled fashion, and has a color rotation that just looks great. When you snap it to the side of your monitor, it switches into a mini-player that just shows your playlist and what’s coming up. When it comes across a song by an artist in its database, it will display pictures of that artist underneath the playlist. It’s really great stuff.

Windows Store

The storefront is pretty slick, if a bit spartan.

The Windows Store is potentially one of the coolest things about Windows 8. It provides a unified place to get your apps, and gives you peace of mind when you get your app there, secure in the knowledge that you are getting your app from a safe place. Overall, the experience works pretty well.

Easy as can be. Why wasn't it this way sooner?

Downloading an app is easy as can be. Just navigate to the app you want, and hit the install button. In the future paid apps should be supported, but for now everything is a free app. There’s not a lot of selection on the app store at the moment, but that should change by the time Windows 8 hits the market.

App updates are also handled through the Windows Store. From the Start Screen you can see a number on the Live Tile for the Store indicating how many apps have updates available. Updating is just as easy as installing apps; a couple clicks and you can have everything up to date.


I... uh... don't have a lot of Kindle books.

There weren’t a lot of apps on the store that struck my fancy, but one that did was the Kindle app. The app is pretty simple, as it just shows the books you own. You can see which ones are in the cloud, and which ones have been downloaded to your computer. I was a little disappointed when I clicked on the “Kindle Store” text in the top right and it shunted me over to the Kindle Store in my web browser. I wish they had built a store interface into the app itself to keep the experience consistent.

This book was written by a friend of mine. You should read it.

I only have one book on Kindle (Paradise Seekers by N. Major, check it out), and it does a good job of showcasing the application. Text displays beautifully, and it syncs progress without any problems. The only real problem I have with it is that when I snap it to the side of the monitor it doesn’t format the text into a narrow enough column to be able to read it without scrolling horizontally. I guess that’s not a big deal, since when I’m reading a book it’s likely to be the primary activity I’m doing, so I’d want it in the larger area, but it would have been nice to see that level of polish.

Other Apps

I actually tested a few more apps than the ones I discussed here. I didn’t download many from the Store, since there’s not really much that appeals to me there. (Currency converters? Something where everything is in Japanese? Cooking apps?)

  • YouCam: This is a camera app, but I couldn’t get it to work at all. Completely broken.
  • Evernote: A note-taking and sync app, I use a version on my phone. Allowed me to read notes I had already made and create new ones, but I couldn’t figure out how to edit existing notes.
  • Calendar: Integrates with Google Calendar. Slick and useful.
  • Messaging: An all-purpose messaging client, in theory. Only integrated properly with Windows Live Messenger, and since I don’t have contacts there, it was completely useless to me.
  • Camera: A simple program that uses the webcam to take pictures and video. Easy to use, but light on features.
  • Weather: Displays the weather, including a forecast. What, you expected more?
  • Maps: Bing maps disguised as an app. Seems to work fairly well, but I don’t see it as being useful.


Generally speaking, these apps give me a lot to like. I regularly use some of them, and I can see me adding more to the list as time goes on. Here’s hoping Microsoft irons out all the little problems I ended up running into, and that more quality apps get made.


  1. Windows Store = Mac Apple Store? The "App Display" (which you didn't cover) kind of looks like Launchpad too. I don't know why computers think they really need to be like phones now. Hmm...

  2. The whole "here is a limited number of things to look at" also reminds me of OS X's philosophy of only giving you what Apple decides you "need." The difference is Windows lets you still do it in the background (though Macs have been better at that recently. Steam for Mac helped), but it seems against the Windows philosophy.

    Still, as a group having to compete with the extremely consumer friendly OSX, this Metro style of Windows 8 seems the obvious way to punch back. I'm really curious to see how it works and if it is actually significantly different than Window 7 or is just Windows 7 with a Metro App/Skin over it.

    Also since when do we call everything "Apps" now? Weren't they Programs just a few years back? I swear the iPhone is ruining my whole technical jargon. "Apps" are on phones, "Programs" are on computers. Gosh dang it, Apple.