Windows 8 Release Preview — more technically termed build 8400 — works a lot smoother than the Consumer Preview, though the Windows 8 team has quite a bit of work ahead of the Release To Manufacturing (RTM).
It’s All About the Apps
With Microsoft’s Consumer Preview, the familiar Windows desktop is all but dead. In the changes seen in the Release Preview, this still holds true. Microsoft is focused on improving and deepening the Metro experience, where the desktop is only a portion of a larger, app-based system.
Right on the Start screen, you’ll see the new build’s most noticeable updates: Three new apps — Sports, Travel and News — are pinned directly on the screen, and come built into the OS. Each of the apps implements great Metro design, but caters to a very specific purpose that might not appeal to every user.
A “Trends” section will show news stories that are trending across the Internet, a feature that’s powered by Microsoft’s Bing engine. Because Bing has agreements with Twitter and Facebook — the world’s two biggest news-sharing social networks — the News app can pull what people are sharing across search, Facebook and Twitter, and present more accurate results for trending content. There’s also a “My News” section, where you can choose to pull news on very specific topics, such as ultrabooks or The Bachelorette.
The new Sports app is a dedicated hub for the latest news, schedules, and team and player stats. The app comes pre-loaded with information silos for a number of sports leagues, including the MLB, NFL, NBA, and even the NHL and Premier League (the top soccer league in the U.K.).
The Travel app provides information on travel destinations, and helps users book hotel rooms and flights, view panoramas from various locales, and read articles on travel topics.
The new apps are very easy, and even fun, to use — at least when they work. Harris made clear that News, Sports and Travel are still in beta.
Beyond the three new apps, other apps are already seen in the Consumer Preview — such as Mail, Calendar, Photos and Internet Explorer — have received noticeable updates. Mail has a new three-pane view that enables easier navigation when using the OS with two thumbs in tablet mode. Calendar has received improved week and month views. And Photos now works a lot faster, and can tap into information from other apps.
For example, when you’re in the Photos app, you can access images from your local drive as well as other apps you have on your Windows 8 PC. This means SkyDrive, Facebook, Flickr and other connected Windows 8 devices are all direct sources of gallery navigation.
One of the new build’s most significant new features actually arrives via a very familiar app: Internet Explorer for Metro now supports Flash directly.
The upshot is you’ll be able to get as much Hulu video as you want on a Windows 8 tablet — even on Windows RT, the ARM-based Windows 8 tablet platform.
The Windows 8 Release Preview smooths out the Metro multitasking experience in Snap View, a split-screen view that lets you have two Metro apps open at once. The screen is split so that one app appears smaller on the right side, and another takes up the majority of the display. This allows for serious multitasking — a feature that’s always been essential to the Windows desktop experience, but never a big part of Windows Metro functionality.
Trackpad Multitouch Magic
Ever since Microsoft introduced Windows 8, the conversation has focused on the operating system’s role on touch-based devices — tablets, notebooks and all-in-one PC with touch screens. But most people’s first experiences with Windows 8 won’t be on new devices. They’ll be migrating from an older version of Windows on conventional, non-touch PCs.