Windows 8 Release Preview – What’s New?

There is no doubt Windows 8 is going to be the star attraction amongst the software lineup of the current year. All Windows releases get a lion’s share of the spotlight and customer attention, but this time the effect is going to be amplified many times over. This buzz is largely due to the Metro interface that’s making a transition from Windows Phone 7 to millions of desktop computers.

At this juncture, each and every tech enthusiast out there has witnessed and appreciated the awesomeness of Metro and people can’t wait to have the same goodness on tablets and desktops. With the Windows 8 Release Preview launch from a few days ago, we are inching closer to the final launch date.

After the break we have covered in detail what’s new and what has changed in Windows 8 since the consumer preview. Hit jump to learn more!

The Installation

The installation hasn’t changed much. In a lot of ways it still looks very much like the one from the Consumer Preview couple of months ago. If you aren’t in the know, it looked a lot like Windows 7. One thing though, the overall installation process is now faster. In particular, the Getting ready part of the process zipped past quickly.

For a while, the Installer sat there idly on the Your PC will be ready in a moment screen, but as I noted, the overall process took less time than the previous launch.

Launch Screen

Start Screen

Start Screen

Immediately after the installation, you’ll land straight on a Metro interface. I was eager to know if people actually would be okay to land on a completely new interface and not on the decades old, but very familiar desktop interface. Looks like there weren’t any complaints and in fact, this time around Microsoft has added a bit more emphasis on making users interact more with the Metro UI.

For instance, in the earlier release, the charms menu at the lower left corner (for those who are new to Windows 8, there’s no more startup menu!) was active at launch and you could switch to the desktop mode instantly by clicking on it. Now, if you are booting up, the launch screen doesn’t activate the charm and you will have to click on the Desktop tile in the Metro UI.

And, to make things interesting, the charm to the left isn’t dedicated to switch back and forth between the desktop and Metro modes. Instead, it helps you access the app that you have accessed last. So, if you accessed the mail app before switching to the Metro UI, the charm will let you go back to the mail and not the desktop instead.

Making the Metro effect more magical is the thumbnail view of all the active apps. Sliding your cursor to the far left end of the screen brings out an array of all open apps running the background. Just click on the one you are interested in to bring to the foreground.

File Preview

One of the perks of using a Mac is the ability to start working right out of the box. Most of the apps that we use in our daily lives come pre installed, just like in the case of Linux. Yes, Windows comes loaded with great and useful apps too. But, it lacked the functionality of previewing oft used file formats like PDF. You typically will have to install the bloated Adobe Reader or any other open source equivalent. Now that has changed.

Reading a PDF File

Reading a PDF File

PDF files now sport a nifty little icon that resembles a flip book and open up in short order when clicked. The read mode is in true full screen mode and displays the pages as thumbnails in the left sidebar. This might sound like a trivial feature, but it’s a good thing that we don’t have to deal with the slow and buggy Adobe Reader again!

Flash Support

Playing a Flash Game in IE 10

Playing a Flash Game in IE 10

Just like PDF, Flash support is built right into Internet Explorer 10. Flash might be a thing of the past, but is still used widely across the web. It isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be and most of the issues are created by the Adobe Flash Player. Baking Flash right into the browser solves a major a pain point of the non tech savvy and makes Windows 8 more usable with little to no effort from the part of the user.

Photos

Viewing images has never been a problem in Windows. The built in image viewer is always handy for browsing through images or running slideshows. But, over the years, mobile cameras and social networking have made sharing images way too easy for everyone. The volume of images we used to have has suddenly increased exponentially and most them are tied to our social networking accounts.

Photos App

Photos App

Most common online destinations happen to be Flickr, Facebook and to some extent SkyDrive. Without leaving the task of accessing images from your online accounts to your web browsers, Microsoft has taken the great initiative of making them available locally on your desktop as well. The process is simple enough. Head over to the Photos app in the Metro UI and sign into your social accounts.

Accessing Facebook Albums

Accessing Facebook Albums

If you haven’t already, you will have to sign in first with a Microsoft account ie. either a Live or Hotmail account. Signing up with a MS account helps you associate the settings and other login information as well. Once that’s done, enter your Facebook, Flickr or SkyDrive credentials to pull images to your desktop.

I linked my Facebook account and within seconds all my albums and images were ready for access locally. Images can be viewed in full screen and the beauty is, whenever you add new photos to your Facebook account, they will automatically be available in the Photos app as well!

New Apps

There is a whole lot of Bing powered content in this release preview. Three new native app covering news, sports and travel are powered by Bing. From the looks of the Bing Daily, the new app, it appears that instead of waiting for apps like Flipboard to embrace Windows 8, MS has gone ahead and developed one themselves. Bing Daily stands tall and is another example of the creative prowess of Team MS.

Bing Daily

Bing Daily

News from various reputed sources are collated into categories and the Metro style adds to enhanced eye candy. The app works just like any other modern tablet news reader app and it even lets you to read news from the original source without having to leave the app.

Bing Finance App

Bing Finance App

The Bing Finance app serves content which happens to be a combination of finance news and market updates. Live tickers and reports make the app look enchanting even when the markets are in the red!

Charts and Market Indices

Charts and Market Indices

You can create watchlists, add stocks to it and keep an eye on your portfolio in style.

Bing Sports - Game Schedule

Bing Sports - Game Schedule

Sports fans are going to go nuts over the Bing Sports app. Huge photos and the Metro UI add more drama to sports and you should also check out the splendid Scheduler which lists upcoming games across all major sporting leagues. As an icing at the top, the app lets you add your favorite teams and track all related news, scores, records and team roster information from a single screen!

I usually skip writing about apps that are similar and was about to do that for the Bing Travel. Predictably, it’s powered by Bing and sports a Metro interface so why bother users with redundant info. I stand corrected! You gotta try Bing Travel without fail. From images of various famous destinations across the globe, to unbelievable panoramas and detailed guides, the experience is just mindblowing!

I’m not a big Bing user myself, but the content showcased in the was both great and relevant. One thing for sure, Bing usage is gonna rise by leaps and bounds post Windows 8 launch.

SkyDrive Integration

SkyDrive is one of the unsung achievements of Microsoft. Millions of folks now backup and sync their data without any hassle and on the cheap. In the era of cloud computing and cheap cloud storage, OS developers cannot shrug their responsibilities to educate novice users on the importance of backing up their data.

Skydrive Integration

Skydrive Integration

It’s a smart move from Microsoft to make the service available to every Windows user out there, by integrating the app deeply into the OS. Getting started isn’t hard either. After signing in, simply start using the app to store and share your data. It’s as easy as it gets!

App Store

Coming to the most critical aspect of the success of Windows – the app store. Despite owning what could very well be the superior mobile platform in the World, Windows Phone 7 lags behind others just because of the lack of quality apps. Critics have started expressing doubts if developers will jump aboard Windows 8 and start building awesome apps just like they did for the iOS store. Lack of decent third party apps in the app store at the time of the consumer preview launched didn’t make things better at all.

Apps in the Market

Apps in the Market

But things seem to be improving and this time around, we have quite a few nice apps in the app store. Wikipedia, Newegg, Fruit Ninja are some examples of the quality of the collection that’s now available for free. One among the lot is the cloud storage pioneer, Box. As a Box user on both desktop and mobile, I was thrilled to see the Metro version of the app available already!

Box for Windows 8

Box for Windows 8

From iPhone to iPad and Android, I have used the Box app in all its avatars and I can vouch that it looks best with a tinge of Metro to it!

If you ask me, I would say Windows 8 app store won’t face the lull of Windows Phone 7 when it comes to apps. Unlike WP 7, which requires people to buy a new phone and possibly a lengthy contract, hundreds of millions of existing Windows users are just one step away from upgrading to Windows 8. Ignoring such a humongous market would be absolute folly. So, trust me Windows users, we’re gonna swim in a sea of Metro powered apps real soon!

Other Enhancements

On the system resources front, Windows 8 has made some amazing additions. Keeping in mind the limited resources of tablets, netbooks and other portable computing devices, the OS is now capable of running effectively with a tiny memory footprint and is also less intensive on the CPU performance.

Mail app now supports linking multiple email accounts and to make things easier, it now allows you to label all your accounts appropriately. Though POP and IMAP aren’t supported yet, the universal inbox and the ability to pin multiple inboxes to the Start screen should keep you productive.

To the delight of audiophiles, controlling volume and playback are now possible right from the lock screen, like we now do in our smartphones and tablets. Talking about music, Zune Pass integration should help you download songs to your heart’s content!

Final Thoughts

During the entire duration of my review (close to a month now), I noticed a see change in the performance of the operating system when compared to the consumer preview. Windows 8 Release Preview is much faster, snappier and responsive than the earlier release. This can only mean one thing; as the bugs are ironed out in the coming days and weeks, the operating system is just gonna fly!

I’m not a big fan of the charms menus, but we’ll all have to move forward someday and embrace change. And the day has come. However, taking off of the desktop access exclusivity from the charm at the lower right corner is an interesting move. In the customer preview, it used to be the Start menu charm. So, even when the Start menu flag was not there in the screen, it was there in spirit. It’s not there anymore and it takes a couple of clicks to get access to the good old buddy of ours!

Similarly, it takes a few clicks to get to the options to restart and shut down the PC when in desktop mode. Small quirks, I agree, but would be very interesting to see how well the rest of the world reacts to this change.

In the Windows 8 Release Preview, a lot of changes and enhancements went into the core of the operating system with a gamut of tiny tweaks to the frontend. But for a change, you will feel the difference between the consumer and release previews. The performance improvements and tweaks are that effective!

What happens if you polish something that’s already sparkling and amazing? Try the Windows 8 Release Preview and you will get a first hand experience!


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