Microsoft Unveils Windows 8 Release Preview

It’s finally here – Microsoft on Thursday finally delivered the Windows 8 Release Preview, the last major pre-release version of Windows 8. The Release Preview (what used to be called the Release Candidate) came only three months after the Consumer Preview, the beta. It comes a week earlier than expected, and it is just about feature-complete – an even closer look at what the finished product will look like. And it looks really, really good.

What’s New?

The Windows 8 Release Preview comes loaded with a lot of new stuff. Although it looks like the Consumer Preview at first, there are lots of little changes you will find once you dig a little deeper.

Desktop Interface

First of all, the basic Desktop interface has been changed. Microsoft changed the desktop background (wallpaper) to this:

defaulttheme

Tulips!

It’s a nice change from a fish.

Anyways, Microsoft has refined buttons and boxes and cursors and just about everything you can think of so that they look more Metro-like and flat. They announced that they are killing Aero, which first debuted in Windows Vista, and are replacing all the shadows and depth effects with flatter icons. That may not sound so great to many of you, but it actually looks really nice and it works well with the Metro UI found in the Start Screen and apps.

explorer_02

Release Preview (top), Consumer Preview (bottom) – Credit Paul Thurrott

New Apps

Microsoft has added three more Metro apps to Windows 8 – Travel, News, and Sports. They feature the same beautiful, side-scrolling interface as the Weather and Finance apps, and they put the important data front and center.

News App

Travel App

Sports App

Articles in these apps present themselves in a columnar, side-scrolling layout which is simple, yet clean and uniquely Metro. All of them look like and have layouts like magazines, with beautiful pictures and different sections for topics.

Changes to the Start Screen

On another note, Microsoft has made the Start Screen more customizable. In the PC Settings interface, you can change the Start Screen’s background pattern to a bunch of awesome patterns, and change the theme colors. In the Consumer Preview, there was only a measly 9 color choices, changed in the Release Preview to offer 25 different color choices.

Start Screen customization options

Also, many of the preinstalled apps have gotten new colors on their tiles. Some smaller changes are that the Semantic Zoom button has changed to a simple minus sign. Also, when you right-click on empty space in the Start Screen and App bar appears, the ‘All Apps’ button is now in the right corner of the screen, not the left like in the Consumer Preview.

Changes to Existing Apps

Weather

Weather, along with Finance, is one of the beautiful, Bing-powered apps that debuted in the Consumer Preview. Like the three new apps that I discussed earlier, Weather features a beautiful picture front and center, which reflects the weather in your area.

Weather App

There is only one difference between this version and the one in the Consumer Preview, and that is: if you invoke the App Bar, three square tiles show up in the top-left corner which lets you navigate to other parts of the app, like World Weather. This square tile thing appears in the other Bing apps like News, Travel, and Finance, and unifies the experience. You can also pin a Weather tile for different places in the Start Screen.

Finance

The Finance app has improved by picking up the look and feel of the other Release Preview Bing apps, with the tile-based app navigation from the app bar and the article layouts from the News apps.

Finance App

Exploring the tiles in the App Bar leads you to very useful parts of the Finance app, including the major world currencies, rates, and finance news.

Maps

The Release Preview version of Maps is much cleaner than the CP version, eliminating some of the parts of the cram-packed app bar and removing it from view by default, making the UI look more like some of its sister apps.

Maps App

To search for a location, you no longer use the weird, non-standard search bar at the top, and instead you can use the system-wide Search functionality found in the Charms, or by pressing WINKEY + Q.

 Mail

Mail is one of those apps that, unlike Finance or Weather, felt unfinished in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. It was hard to get to your different apps, it felt clunky, and I always found myself having to right-click to get to the accounts pane to switch between email accounts.

Well, in Windows 8, most of my problems have been solved. It has been given a big makeover, sporting a new bluegreen color scheme and a 3-pane layout, standard in most email clients.

mail_01b

Mail App (Credit: Paul Thurrott)

It is now easier to get to your mail, and account folders show by default – you don’t have to enable them again and again by using the app bar, which was tedious. Account settings have been logically moved to the Settings charm, where it should have been in the first place. Mail now lets you pin individual account folders (your different inboxes) to Start, so you could just click on a tile on the Start Screen and it could take you directly to your Hotmail inbox. Mail also supports notifications, and will alert you when you receive new mail.

Calendar

Although Calendar was alright in the Consumer Preview, it receives a much-needed addition that should have been there in the first place – calendar customization. That is, you can now determine which color each individual calendar could be, and toggle which ones show and which ones don’t.

Calendar app

Calendar also supports notifications, so you will receive a gentle nudge when you have a task coming up.

cal_notificationb

Calendar Notification (Credit: Paul Thurrott)

 Music

Remember the Music app? No? Good. The music app in the Windows 8 Consumer preview was, to say the least, terrible. It was slow and buggy, and your ‘collection’ was sandwiched between ‘marketplace’ and ‘spotlight’, essentially marketing for Microsoft. Music has gotten a real makeover in the Release Preview, receiving a much more attractive interface with a darker background, and a much nicer UI.

Music app

When you open the app, it starts out with the Now Playing group, which was not included in the Consumer Preview version. To the left, off the screen, is your music collection, and to the right is the entry into the Marketplace.

Video

Video has improved much like the Music app, improving the interface and making it easier to use. Microsoft has also added controls for discovering, downloading, and watching videos from the Marketplace.

Looking Forward

What’s next? Sources say that Windows 8 is going to RTM (Release to Manufacturing) in late July / early August, and will be available to the public in October. This follows almost the same schedule as Windows 7, and hope to get your new Windows 8 PC by Christmas!

Final Thoughts

Whereas the Consumer Preview gave you a good idea of what Windows 8 would be like, the Windows 8 Release Preview builds on what the Consumer Preview was, making it much better. I really like it. So, my advice is: go get it!

~P. S. This entire article was written on a computer running the Windows 8 Release Preview.~

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