Until now, it seemed like Microsoft was gearing up to unveil the almost-final Windows 8 Release Preview in the first full week of June, just in time for what is sure to be the world's premier Ultrabook trade show. As it turned out, though, the folks in Redmond couldn't contain their jubilation any longer: the company is now rolling out the Release Preview several days ahead of schedule. The update, free to anyone who wants to try it, offers a few notable enhancements, including a trio of new apps, a "Flip ahead" browser gesture, Flash support and a couple of updated multi-monitor features. A few heavy hitters like Wikipedia and Box.net are also using the occasion to debut apps in the Windows Store. And the OS is now available in 13 languages. Mostly, though, this update brings performance and stability fixes, along with granular tweaks like being able to pin stocks to the Start screen. Certainly, a two-hour press conference was not necessary this time around.
Ready to upgrade from the Consumer Preview? Just remember that you'll need to a do a clean install, which means unless your user account is tied to a Microsoft ID you're going to lose your personal settings. Got it? Good. Get your download on now, and then meet us past the break for some early impressions and a video walk-through of the new features.
Windows 8 Release Preview detailed impressionsSee all photos
New Metro apps
Starting with some of the more major changes Microsoft's made this time around, the engineering team has added a few more native apps and a trio of Bing-powered hubs: travel, sports and news. Across all the apps -- even the ones that aren't new -- Microsoft unified the look of the app bar that drops down from the top of the screen. The options are app-specific, of course (favorite sports and trending news, for instance), but the look of the icons doesn't change. Now that we've got that cosmetic tweak out of the way, let's jump into the new apps.
Even when Bing first launched, trip planning was touted as one of its specialties, so it makes sense that travel research and flight / hotel booking get their own dedicated app. Using the app bar at the top, you can choose to book flights or hotels, or view certain destinations, which you can pin to the Start Menu. If you don't already have a fantasy vacation, the main page is home to a selection of featured locales, along with a motley collection of pictures, panoramas and travel articles. Once you dig into a specific destination's page, you'll get more detailed info: everything from maps to weather forecasts to fare stats. While sharing isn't an option in every native app, you can pass on lots of things here, including travel guides and particularly fetching photos.
New in Release Preview is a sports hub, where you can follow your favorite teams or digest the top stories across all athletics -- yes, even Formula One racing. When you enter, you'll be greeted by a top story (not unlike the new Bing News app described below), with other articles listed over on the right. Scroll far enough and you'll find schedules, followed by a self-explanatory area called "Favorite teams." Adding these is as easy as clicking a plus sign and then typing your team into a field, which spits back autocompleted suggestions in record time.
You can add as many teams as you want, and each team's page is pinnable as a live tile. Click on one and you'll notice the general layout is the same: news, followed by a schedule. In the case of teams, you'll also get more detailed info, like standings, a roster, batting and pitching leaders, etc. Right now, you can't share anything in Bing Sports, but fear not: your ability to rub the Mariners' losing streak in your Yankee friend's face is apparently "coming soon."
Using the app bar at the top, you can also search by sport. We're sure someone will suggest a pastime that's not listed, but the options already cover the basics: there's baseball, hockey, basketball, various soccer leagues and golf.
Similar to the new sports app, Bing News' main page is crowned by a top story, though as you scroll to the right you'll see top headlines in various categories, such as business. Click the app bar up top to view news by trends, or by source. These media outlets, include a mix of newspapers and websites (ours included!) and are broken down into categories such as technology and business. Each is accompanied by a shortcut with that outlet's icon, making it easy to spot your favorite among the bunch. We like that you can pin not just categories that interest you (politics, say), but custom topics (think: "Julian Assange").
Existing Metro apps
Weather and Maps
Nothing new to see here. Just the same app bar that you'll see across all the Bing apps. In Maps there's one subtle change, and it's that there used to be a dedicated search button, but now search has moved to the Charm bar (just where you'd expect it to be, frankly).
Bing's Finance app delivers the same news and stock quotes it always did, but now you can pin various bits of information to the Start Menu. These include watchlists (e.g., "Tech Movers and Shakers") or individual stocks you happen to follow. That seems like a logical feature to add -- after all, every native and even third-party app should support pinning. Still, it would be nice if you could glance at the Live Tile and see General Electric's closing price for the day. We caught ourselves glancing after US markets shut down, and were met with a blank tile that had the stock's name on it and nothing more.
Though many of the changes here amount to stability improvements or fit-and-finish tweaks, the Metro version of IE has actually benefited from an honest-to-goodness new feature. It's called "Flip ahead," and it uses crowd-sourcing to figure out what page you're most likely to click on next. Then, instead of clicking on it, you can either swipe the screen or click the onscreen forward arrow to advance. (There will also be a corresponding touchpad gesture, but our test machine wasn't set up for this.) Interestingly, you don't need to be surfing in Bing for this to work; you can choose any search engine, so long as you're using Metro IE as a browser. The feature is also disabled by default, so you'll need to venture into Internet Options to turn it on.
So far as we can tell, the algorithm is smart, but then again, Flip ahead only seems to work in no-brainer situations. If you search for something in Bing, it knows your next click is likely to be the second page of results. (But not the top-rated item? Hmm.) Or, if you're reading a lengthy web article broken into seven different pages, the browser knows you're going to want to move onto the second page after you've finished page one.
Beyond that, the feature doesn't come in handy often. If you're looking at something Flip ahead understands, you'll see a forward arrow on the right side of the screen. Most of the time, though, it's missing. Understandably, Flip ahead doesn't know what to recommend if you click on a site's home page, or even a tag link (next Justin Bieber story, anyone?). If you're shopping online, it won't push you toward the next dress in the collection, or even something that other customers looked at. That's not to say we're demanding this -- we don't want IE making assumptions about what pair of pants we want, thank you very much. It's just that there don't appear to be many cases where Flip ahead can actually be useful.
Moving on, IE now has the Share feature baked in (it was previously in Mail, but not the native browser). That means you can share webpages with individual people and also social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
But that's not all. Internet Explorer has also received another, less visible update: both the desktop and Metro versions have Flash 11.3 built in. Since Metro IE is plug-in-free by default, Flash works without any additional setup required. (If you want to disable Flash in the desktop version, though, you'll find that option in the add-on manager.) And in case you're wondering about Flash's diminished role on mobile devices, well, we're told it'll work with both x86 and ARM devices.
Microsoft admits Mail wasn't the smoothest or most complete app when it launched in the Consumer Preview, but says it's made behind-the-scenes tweaks to make it more stable. Feature-wise, users can now pin an inbox (or several) to the start screen, making it easier to differentiate between, say, your work and personal addresses. (It doesn't make it any easier to avoid emails from your boss while on holiday, but who really expects you to do that?) Additionally, when you open the Mail app, your inboxes will be listed separately in that left-hand pane.
That's a good start, and Microsoft is right that this version of the app performs reliably -- we haven't suffered a single crash or blip yet. Despite all that, the Metro Mail app still doesn't feel anywhere near as feature-rich as Outlook on the desktop. Heck, even Gmail and Hotmail are more sophisticated. And we don't ask for much, really; just being able to view threaded conversations would be a welcome upgrade.
This release hasn't brought any real cosmetic changes to the Pictures and Music apps, though Microsoft's happily gotten around to integrating Zune Pass, which means all of the cloud-based music you downloaded using your all-you-can-eat subscription will roam from one device to another.
Particularly after reviewing the latest version of Chrome OS earlier this week, we can really appreciate that Zune Pass music can be made available offline. This doesn't exactly happen automagically, of course -- you need to manually download songs and albums you think you'll want to listen to on that five-hour flight. But we're glad Microsoft remembered that feature at all. In Chrome OS, all your cloud-based music stays there -- if you want anytime music, you'll have to load it on an SD card. This way is better.
Oh, and you'll want to keep this in mind: the Release Preview is meant to mimic the Pro version of Windows unlike, well, the Consumer Preview, which means that Media Center does not come installed by default. Rather, you'll have to download it from the Windows Store. A minor inconvenience if your permanent version of Windows will be of the consumer-friendly variety.
Taking a cue from pretty much any mobile device ever, Microsoft rejiggered the OS so that you can adjust the volume of music tracks even when your Win8 laptop or tablet is locked. Even better, you can actually pause songs or skip tracks while your device is locked up, which is more than we can say of most handsets that come through our labs.
It would be futile for us to attempt to review every third-party app, but as the selection grows it's worth pointing out a few big players that have been added to the list. Some highlights that just went live in the store this afternoon: Wikipedia, The Financial Times, The LA Times, Fruit Ninja, Slacker Radio and Box.net.
One thing we couldn't squeeze out of Microsoft reps: an estimate of how many applications are currently on offer. All a product manager would say is that there's been "tremendous" interest from developers building all manner of apps. You heard it here first.
As promised, Windows is getting some additional multi-monitor support in the Release Preview. Specifically, the engineers over in Redmond added the ability to drag an app across the screen and onto an external monitor, and it'll automatically park itself there, no tweaks to the settings needed. If you move an application, the pinned shortcut in the taskbar will move to the monitor as well, since the desktop is extended, though you can also choose to clone pinned apps so that they appear on both your PC and secondary display.
It's also worth noting that both your PC screen and external monitor have four "hot corners," which means even if you've extended your desktop, you don't need to drag your cursor all the way to the edge of your 20-inch display in order to pull up the Charms bar on the right. You can do that just by moving to the right end of your PC's screen, even if that's technically no longer where your desktop ends.
Although you don't need to adjust any settings to drag individual apps onto secondary screens, you will have to specify if you want your desktop and accompanying wallpaper to extend, or if you'd rather just mirror it.
By the time Windows 8 launches, most touchpads will be optimized to support all the native Win8 gestures -- swiping to expose the Charm bar, etc. Behind the scenes, Microsoft is still engaged in quite a bit of back-and-forth with trackpad makers like Synaptics, and we've yet to see a final product, but for now we know this much: touchpads will be subject to guidelines, at least if they're to support Windows 8 gestures (and why on earth wouldn't they?). In particular, these rules will dictate how sensitive a touchpad should be, and how small it can get before it becomes too cramped to comfortably pull off gestures. Alas, though, this feature wasn't enabled on our test machine (a new Samsung Series 9), so we didn't get to try this out.
Other than all that, you'll notice a bunch of tiny changes as you poke around. The lower-right corner of the screen now says "Change PC settings" instead of "More PC settings." Dig inside those menus and you'll see there are more color themes to choose from. It's obvious Microsoft had a long checklist of things to sort out, and simply didn't get to all of them in time for the Consumer Preview launch.
For starters, the Windows Store will now be available in 13 languages, including Arabic, Chinese (traditional and simplified), English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Catalan and Swedish. Further, Microsoft will accept app submissions from 38 countries, up from five.
When are new apps and performance enhancements not welcome changes? As you'd imagine, the Windows 8 Release Preview is an improvement over the previous milestone, though none of these additions fundamentally change the user experience. For better and worse, this is the same OS you've been getting to know: it brings the same gestures, the same slick animations and the same learning curve. If you were expecting the Start button to reappear in this more final version, you'll be sorely disappointed. But if you already warmed to the Consumer Preview, you might appreciate how relatively polished this version is: sharing and pinning are more prevalent, Zune Pass integration has arrived and key apps like Mail run more smoothly. And hey, a Charlotte Bobcats live tile never hurt anyone, right?
Tim Stevens and Zach Honig contributed to this preview.
Microsoft Announces Availability of Windows 8 Release Preview
May 31, 2012
Windows Upgrade Offer introduced, which gives consumers a path to Windows 8 upon general availability.
REDMOND, Wash. - May 31, 2012 - Microsoft Corp. today announced the availability of the Windows 8 Release Preview, the next milestone of the highly anticipated Windows 8 operating system. Available for download today in 14 languages at http://preview.windows.com, the Windows 8 Release Preview delivers a fast and fluid experience, along with a new user interface that responds equally well to touch as it does to keyboard and mouse. Since the February release of Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which was downloaded more than 1 million times in the first 24 hours, Windows 8 has become the most tested Microsoft operating system of all time, and with today's release, it enters its final phase of development before it releases to manufacturing.
"We're thrilled to be at this milestone with the Windows 8 Release Preview," said Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live Division at Microsoft.
New Apps Provide an Even Richer Experience
Windows 8 Release Preview delivers new apps from Microsoft and partners. Highlights include Bing Travel, News and Sports apps, as well as Gaming and Music Xbox apps that integrate with your Zune pass. The Windows 8 Release Preview also features notable improvements to the Mail, Photos and People apps that initially debuted with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. In addition, Microsoft has worked closely with its partners to deliver apps from around the world through the Windows Store.
Beyond the new apps from Microsoft and partners, customers testing the Windows 8 Release Preview will also experience tens of thousands of refinements across the product, such as increased personalization options for the Start screen, improved multimonitor support, refinements to the way people find and download apps through the Windows Store, and new Family Safety features. The new Internet Explorer 10 redefines browsing, particularly for touch-enabled devices. The Web is as fast and fluid as any app, and with new capabilities in the Windows 8 Release Preview such as "flip ahead," it is just as intuitive. A touch-friendly and power-optimized Adobe Flash Player is now integrated into Internet Explorer 10, and it is also the first browser to feature Do Not Track "on" by default, giving customers more choice and control over their privacy.
The Path to Windows 8
Beginning June 2, 2012, Microsoft will roll out the Windows Upgrade Offer in 131 markets, including the U.S. and Canada. Consumers who buy eligible Windows 7-based PCs through Jan. 31, 2013, can purchase an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for an estimated retail price of $14.99 (U.S.) during the time of the promotion. More information about the Windows Upgrade Offer will be available June 1. In addition to the Windows Upgrade Offer designed for consumers buying new Windows 7-based PCs, Microsoft will also announce other offers in the coming months that will help consumers with existing Windows 7-based PCs upgrade to Windows 8 when it is generally available.
In the next month, Microsoft will further detail the value Windows 8 brings to businesses at TechEd North America. More information about Windows 8 and how to download the Windows 8 Release Preview is available at http://preview.windows.com.