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Hands on with Windows 8 Release Preview
Ahead of Schedule." That's not a phrase you hear often when referring to an operating system launch. Windows 8 Release Preview bucks that trend by a smidge: Microsoft's Stephen Sinofsky originally announced a date of "early June." But there may have been a trade-off. Normally, a "release candidate" would be just that—the company's first take on the final product, which, if all went well, would become the final product itself. Microsoft's "Release Preview" is not a "release candidate," because it lacks several feature updates that the company has already announced. But there's certainly progress to report on.
The Release Preview is available for download in 14 languages from preview.windows.com. You can install it to your heart's content, but as in the past, Microsoft will shut down any copies some time after the final version is available. Microsoft has also announced an upgrade path for purchasers of Windows 7 machines starting June 2 through January 31—it'll cost them $14.99.
PCMag.com got an early look at Windows 8 Release Preview, Build 8400, installed on a slick and slim Samsung Series 9 ultrabook. Our take on the latest publicly available version of the next Microsoft operating system follows, but at the outset you should realize one thing: In appearance, it's nearly identical to the Consumer Preview released late last February.
In fact, this Release Preview may be more notable for features that we'll have to wait for: The simplified desktop interface design discussed in the Building Windows 8 blog is one of these. And maybe even of more importance to first-time users of the re-imagined OS will be help pointers and mini-tutorials that the final released version will include, showing users how to use new touch and mouse gestures—which are at the center of the Metro user interface experience.
Nevertheless, along with a lot of under the hood tightening and performance optimization, there are a few new treats for end users. New color choices, some support for Flash in the Metro browser, a new set of default apps, and enhanced multi-monitor support top the list. For a quick runthrough of all the major new stuff, read Top 6 New Features of Windows 8 Release Preview. In any case, Microsoft usually saves some new final visuals for the finished product launch in previous major Windows upgrades.
Some very minor changes to the interface have been made between Consumer Preview and Release Preview. For example, now the Settings Charm says "Change PC Settings" instead of "More PC Settings." (If you're not familiar with terms like "Charms" and "Metro," see our Glossary of Windows 8 terms). An even more visual change is that now there are 26 possible color combinations for the Start Screen in the Personalize section of Settings.
Aside from the expanded set of color choices for the start screen, the setup process for Windows 8 Release Preview is similar to that for Consumer Preview. When you first run the OS, you need to go through a four-step setup—Personalize, Wireless setup, Settings, and Sign in. Each step is very simple and uncluttered, using the readable Windows 8 sans serif Segoe font.
The choice of colors is one reason Microsoft decided to go with a new Windows logo that didn't specify set colors. You just tap one of the 26 choices along a bar, and the background instantly changes to reflect your choice. The only other choice on this Personalize page is to enter a name for the device.
The Wireless setup is a matter of tapping your Wi-Fi SSID from the typical list showing signal strength bars, with an optional "Connect automatically" check box that's checked by default. You can actually skip this step, but that will limit your Windows 8 experience. Hit Connect, and then you're asked for a password if your router requires one. For a deeper dive into networking in Windows 8 read, Windows 8 Wireless Networking Secrets Revealed.
The Settings page of this initial setup process is more complex and text-heavy—unless you just use Express settings. That choice sets the device to automatically install updates; turns on malware protection; sends Microsoft usage data; lets apps access your location, name, and account picture, enables network sharing; and sets the localization to U.S. English. If you instead choose Customize, you are simply taken through a page for each of these choices. The only option you can't turn off is to send usage info to Microsoft's Customer Experience Improvement Program, which only makes sense, given that this is a free test version of the operating system.
Next comes signing in. In order to download apps from the Windows Store and take advantage of the SkyDrive cloud service that stores files and photos and syncs your settings with other machines, you need to sign in with a Windows ID. You don't have to sign in, and can sign in locally instead, but you'll lose a lot of advantages of Windows 8 and apps designed to use these services. Even after you do log in with a Windows ID, you are asked for a mobile phone number or alternate email address, about which the setup says, "We'll only use this info to help you recover your password and keep your account more secure." Nevertheless, it seems similar to the way Facebook tries to verify your identity.
The Metro Interface
After you're done setting up and signing it, you finally get your first look at the Windows 8 Metro start screen! This gridlike display of brightly colored rectangular "live tiles" is where you launch any apps, control settings, and enter the more traditional Windows desktop. The tiles are "live" because they flash information from the apps they represent—Mail shows the latest inbox items, Finance shows stock quotes, and so on. If you find this distracting, luckily you can turn it all off in PC Settings | Notifications.
After a shutdown and restart, you'll see the lock screen (which will be familiar to any smart phone user). On this you can see battery charge, Wi-Fi signal strength, and notifications for email and any other apps you've allowed. A new type of notification for Consumer Preview is the "toast" that pops in from the upper right if, for example, you have an incoming instant message. You can also boot from a USB stick or other external device or disc.
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