Windows 8 Release Preview is out, and it offers only moderate changes to the previously released Consumer Preview version. The biggest change isn't to the operating system itself, but rather the inclusion of some new, well-designed Metro apps that ship with it. Clearly inspired by Windows Phone 7, these apps seek out information based on your interests and automatically present them to you, rather than you having to do the work yourself.
The Desktop in Windows 8 Release Preview has not yet completely gotten rid of Aero; that will be done in the final version.
That's the upside of the new apps. The downside is that they still seem suited more for tablets than PCs, if you accept the standard definition of a tablet being used to consume content and a PC used to create it. You won't find Office or similar content creation tools among the Metro apps yet, showing yet again that the Metro interface seems designed more for tablets than traditional PCs and laptops.
Still missing is the final form of what the Desktop will look like when the operating system ships later this year. Even though Microsoft has said that it is killing the Aero interface and replacing it with a flatter-looking one, that new look has not been implemented in the Release Preview. It is expected to first see the light of day when Windows 8 ships, later this year.
As with the Consumer Preview, Windows 8 Release Preview still feels like two operating systems co-existing somewhat uneasily, rather than a cohesive whole: the visually-oriented and tablet-oriented Metro interface on one side and the old Desktop interface, for more traditional computers, on the other.
Metro apps -- are they good enough?
The new complement of Metro apps in the Release Preview shows that, even on desktops and laptops, Windows 8 could do well in a world in which information is pushed to the user. Previously released Metro apps have been improved and some very nifty new ones have been introduced. But they remain a mixed bag.
Among the new apps are Bing Sports, Bing Travel and Bing News, and all of them are winners -- beautifully designed and easy to use. Think of them as information hubs. In Sports, you can customize settings to follow your favorite sports and individual teams. Like other Windows 8 apps, it grabs information so that you don't need to go out and find it yourself. All in all, it's a slickly designed, useful app. (Not that it's perfect -- I couldn't make Bing Sports find all the news and results related to the 2012 French Open tennis tournament currently under way.)
The Sports app lets you choose what sports and teams you want to follow.
Bing Travel does more than just tell you about travel destinations, offer travel news and let you view spectacular travel photos. You can also right-click the screen to pull down a toolbar that lets you book flights and hotels and get more information about destinations. You can pin information to the Start Menu as well. It's an exceedingly useful travel hub.
Bing News works like the other new Bing apps, and serves as a central news hub. You can customize the news you read by selecting from news sources -- and you've got close to 200 to choose from in a wide variety of categories, including not just national but also regional news sources.
On the other hand, the update to the Mail app has both good and bad points. On the plus side, it still handles multiple email accounts (although not yet POP or IMAP ones) and has some great new features, such as the ability to customize how each account syncs email. For example, you can sync all messages or only those sent and received in a given time period. (This will be more useful on tablets than on traditional PCs, because tablets typically have far less local storage.) And you can also pin each account's Inbox to the Start screen, making it easier to keep track of the individual accounts.
But Mail still lacks some basic abilities that you expect from a modern mail client and works more like an underpowered mobile app than a fully featured one.
For example, you can't set rules for automatically handling incoming mail, as you can in Outlook, and it doesn't allow for threaded messaging. You can't mark messages for follow-up or set their level of importance. It simply doesn't measure up to an email client such as Outlook, or even a Web-based one such as Gmail. If you're a heavy email user, you'll simply find it unsuitable for your main email client.
Mail has been somewhat improved, but is still more like a simple tablet email client than a fully featured one for a traditional PC.
There's one thing that I find problematic with most of the Metro apps: Their horizontal orientation makes them better suited for tablet navigation, where you typically use swipe gestures, than for traditional PC navigation, where you typically scroll vertically with your mouse.
The other problem with Metro apps is what's missing: productivity apps. You won't find Microsoft Office or its equivalent, photo editing software or other productivity tools.
Flip ahead with Internet Explorer
The biggest change to Internet Explorer is a feature called "Flip Ahead," which is somewhat of a cross between the "I'm feeling lucky" link on a Google Web search and Chrome's pre-rendering feature. When you're visiting a Web page, Flip Ahead figures out what page you're likely to click next by examining what most other people have clicked on when on the same page. Then instead of actually clicking on a Web link, you swipe the screen (if you have a tablet) or click a forward arrow. You'll then be sent to the page Flip Ahead thinks you want to visit. If you're lucky, you'll get sent to where you want to go. If not, you'll get sent somewhere else.
In theory, the feature sounds nifty; in actual use, not so much. When I visited the main pages of sites such as CNN and Computerworld, it simply didn't work; the forward arrow was grayed out. When I was on an article page, it was smart enough to make the obvious choice, knowing that on a multipage article, I likely wanted to read the next page. But on single-article pages, more often than not I was sent to what seemed like a random page.
The feature works only on the Metro version of Internet Explorer, not the Desktop version. By default, it's not enabled. You enable it by going into Internet Explorer settings and turning it on. You may not find it worth the effort, though.
Flip Ahead figures out what Web page you're likely to click next by examining what most other people have clicked on when on the same page.
Internet Explorer has also gotten some minor improvements. It now has the same "Share" feature enabled in Mail and some other Metro apps. When you're on a Web page, you can share its URL with other people via email or social networking. (This works only for the Metro version, not the Desktop version.)
In addition, Flash 11.3 is built into both the Metro and Desktop versions of the browser. However, Flash will not work on every site in the Metro browser. In addition, a "Do Not Track" feature has been turned on by default, for more privacy during Web browsing. (A move that has been decried by the Association of National Advertisers.) Apart from that, though, Internet Explorer seems unchanged.
Interface tweaks and other changes
Windows 8 Release Preview sports a number of small, subtle interface tweaks, many barely noticeable. For example, when you use the task switcher that shows your open windows as thumbnails down the left part of the screen, there are now labels, so that it's easier to identify any to which you want to switch. The Start screen thumbnail also seems somewhat smaller.
The task switcher now includes labels on top of thumbnails.
Dig deep enough and you'll find other changes as well. Even when Windows 8 is locked, you can now change the volume, pause songs and skip to new songs. Multimonitor support has been tweaked so that you can now drag an app from the screen of one monitor to another. Microsoft also says that this version of Windows 8 includes touchpad multitouch gestures for tasks such scrolling, although they didn't work on my machine.
According to Microsoft, there have been a number of under-the-hood changes as well, including a smaller memory footprint, faster performance and reduced disk space requirements. I can't say that I saw a difference in performance between this and the Consumer Preview, though.
Windows Store is the place to go for Metro apps -- in fact, it's the only place to go for Metro apps, because Windows 8 is a closed store, like the App Store for iOS. Although it's not quite as bare as it was for the Consumer Preview, it still doesn't offer an overwhelming number of apps.
For example, in the Consumer Preview the Productivity section had five productivity apps. In the Release Preview, there are now a dozen. The same holds true for other categories.
Metro vs. Desktop
As mentioned before, what still hasn't changed in this version of Windows 8 is the sense that Metro tablet interface and the more traditional Desktop interface are two separate operating systems, co-existing somewhat uneasily. Integration between the two is still minimal. The Desktop is still missing the Start Menu -- in fact, at least one report maintains that Microsoft has gone through code in this version of Windows 8 and deleted anything that might allow someone to hack the Desktop to bring back the Start menu. And there's still no way to boot directly into the Desktop, so even if you plan to spend most of your time there, you'll have to first go there via Metro.
It's not only the Start menu that's missing. Since the Consumer Preview was released, Microsoft announced that even bigger changes were in store for the Desktop, notably killing the Aero interface introduced in Windows Vista, and then refined in Windows 7. Microsoft has said that although Aero was aesthetically suited for the time it was developed, it now looks "dated and cheesy."
In its place, says the company, will be a flatter, Metro-inspired design for the Desktop. No more glass, no more reflections, no more glows, no more gradients. Shadows and transparency will be gone. The edges of windows and the taskbar will be squared off.
Microsoft chalks up the changes to aesthetics, although it's also true that Aero requires more battery life than a flatter design, so that may be a reason as well. In a blog entry announcing the change, Jensen Harris, director of program management for the Windows 8 user experience team, listed "long battery life" as one of the goals of the Windows 8 user experience. Whatever the reason, we'll have to wait for the final release of Windows 8 to get a complete look at the new interface.
That being said, there have been subtle changes in the Desktop in this version with a nod toward moving to the flatter Desktop look. "Glass" features are no longer there, although transparency is, and the windows seem to have been made more rectangular.
The Windows 8 Release Preview makes no major changes to the Consumer Preview and has its same strengths and weaknesses. The interface has received relatively minor tweaks, and several new Metro apps are quite good.
Metro is still a visually compelling interface that is optimized for touch and for consuming content. The Desktop remains an afterthought. And Windows 8 still seems as if it's two operating systems bolted together not particularly well, rather than a seamless whole.
If you want to try it out yourself, you can download it from Microsoft's Windows 8 Release Preview page.)
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).
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