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.