Last week, Microsoft issued a "Release Preview" for the public to further test and evaluate the next version of its desktop operating system. It reflects four more months of development and user feedback from the February "Consumer Preview," another word for beta test.
Compared to the Consumer Preview, the OS is much more complete. It's not feature complete, as a new desktop theme that leaked out in March, but you got a lot of new features like integrated Adobe Flash, all new starter apps, more customization of the Start screen, and a whole bunch of little tweaks here and there.
I only had a weekend to dig into it so there's more to discover. The test bed system was unfortunately not a tablet, so I can't comment on the "touch-navigation-ability" of Windows 8, but rather an Intel Core i7-2600 CPU with 8GB of DDR3 memory, an NVIDIA GeForce GTX560Ti video card and a pair of 23" monitors. Windows 7, of course, runs like a champ.
First off, know that if you install the Release Preview, it will not set up a dual boot environment. So don't install it on a computer you want to use as a primary system, unless you have a spare hard drive to sacrifice (as I did).
Download the Release Preview from Microsoft only, for obvious reasons. If you are running Windows 7, the executable will perform an evaluation of your system for compatible and incompatible apps. You can't install it over the earlier beta of Windows 8. You'll have to do a clean install. After the system check, you can download an ISO, which is then burned to a blank DVD-ROM disc.
The install process is largely similar to that of Windows 7. It takes about 30 minutes total with one reboot needed. At the end of installation, it asks if you have a Windows ID (formerly Windows Live ID). I entered mine, and it became the login password to the PC itself.
On entering an existing Windows ID, everything will be available to you. Your contacts from ID are all there, your files on SkyDrive are accessible, and your mail accounts. Mind you, this is not engineered to be a Microsoft lock-in, because my Windows ID account is a Gmail account.
At first, it did not discover the media content on the computer. Once I went into regular Explorer and pointed out the Libraries and all of the media folders, Windows quickly loaded and indexed them all.
I found this release to be pretty much a polished version of the beta but it had all of the problems that frustrated me from the start. When you set this up, you better get your ducks in a row because going back and trying to fix things is frustrating and exasperating.
A chief example: email. I have two Windows ID accounts and attempted to swap accounts after the install. Forget it. First, the process is absolutely buried. Second, there were server errors on Microsoft's part and I couldn't make the change. When I tried to set up the mail account in the Mail app, all I got was an empty screen, and there was nothing in the control panel.
The People app is an interesting one, but again, you have to be careful in how you use it. By the time I populated it with contacts from email, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, it was a monstrosity. When you want to contact someone, it asks you your preferred way, such as through Facebook, email or LinkedIn.
Metro vs. Explorer
If you have a dual monitor system like me, Windows will come up with the Metro interface on the main monitor and the Explorer desktop pops up on the other. Unfortunately, you cannot switch them in software. You will have to physically move the two monitors if you want Explorer to be your default view.
Tablet users will likely have the same experience as desktop users with a single monitor. When you need to switch between Metro and Explorer, the screen will blink between the old view and the new, depending on which direction it is going.
Whatever the use case, I found myself switching back and forth between the Metro interface and Explorer constantly. It was reminiscent of the old days of Windows 3.1, when you spent half your time popping between the Windows desktop and DOS C:\ prompt.
It took several years and Windows versions before the DOS prompt entirely disappeared, and I suspect it will be the case with Windows and Metro as well. The entire Control Panel, for example, still runs in Explorer. Windows 8 users will be switching between Metro and Explorer constantly in their daily use, unless they have a two-monitor setup, in which case they can just stay in Explorer and use Metro as an information display. Once I got all my Metro tiles set up, for People, News, Mail, Pictures, Music and Stocks, I had a desktop that was constantly updating and flashing new information at me. This is not a bad thing but it's not new, either; I do it already with Rainmeter.
The Windows store is filling with apps and there were a few to download and test. The store works just fine. I clicked on install and it did the rest. No downloading an MSI file or ZIP file and running an executable. It just installed everything in the background.
Those apps aren't flawless, though. Take a look at this picture of the Wikipedia app. Notice anything missing? Like a search box?
It's still not clear how thorough the Metro app catalog will be. Bloomberg recently ran a story that said Facebook has no plans to make a native Metro app. That doesn't help.
Nor does it help that the first regular app I installed, Google Chrome, promptly locked up the entire system. Not a good impression for what is supposed to be an operating system at the Release Candidate level.
Windows seems to have fallen into a rut like the Star Trek movies; it alternates between good and lousy. At this point, I can wait until Windows 9. If Microsoft sticks to its three year OS release schedule, that means 2015. I can wait.
If Microsoft follows the pattern set down with Windows 7 and Windows group chief Steven Sinofsky is a notorious stickler for schedules then the code should go gold by July and be released to manufacturing, which would put it on target for an October release.
In anticipation of this, Microsoft is offering a Windows 8 upgrade for $14.99 for people who buy Windows 7 PCs between now and through January 31, 2013.
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