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Windows 8 Release Preview: Good OS, weak apps


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Windows 8. It sounds so innocent.

The name of Microsoft's coming operating system, updated today to Windows 8 Release Preview, implies just another version of an OS once much loved and now much maligned. But Windows 8 means much more to Microsoft: It's a bold attempt to build an Apple-proof operating system with modern visual elements via the risky Metro design language. It's a salvo in the war for tablet relevance. It insists that touch screens matter, and it sets the stage for upcoming versions of Windows Mobile.

For Microsoft to succeed with Windows on all platforms, Windows 8 has to work. The changes in today's Release Preview take a step in the right direction, tightening up the operating system and introducing new apps to showcase just what Windows 8 can do. But Microsoft isn't there yet. This is more "beta two" than "release candidate."

It's true that the Windows 8 Release Preview has a lot going for it, and people are curious. Microsoft says the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, which debuted at Mobile World Congress in February, is "the most tested Microsoft operating system of all time," with more than 1 million downloads during its first 24 hours of public availability. It's tricked out with social networking and synchronization, it's robust enough to handle monster suites like Adobe's, it gracefully moves from touch to keyboard and mouse, and it's got some top-notch security. What you'll find in the Release Preview is a stable, fast operating system that's ready to compete, but a selection of default apps that are far from complete.

You can get the Windows 8 Release Preview from Microsoft's site, or CNET Download.com. Microsoft has revealed the Windows 8 upgrade plan for Windows 7 computers purchased after June 2.

What's new: Multitouch touch pad

One of the big new features is that Windows 8 will allow multitouch gestures on touch pads. Macs have had multitouch touch-pad drivers for a few years, while Windows touch pads haven't progressed much since Windows XP. The blame for that can sit at the feet of Microsoft just as easily as you can point a finger at the hardware manufacturers. The point is now, with Windows 8 forcing dramatic hardware upgrades to accompany it, Windows touch pads are finally moving forward.

Three default gestures will come with all laptops that have touch pads: pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scroll along the X and Y axes, and edge swiping. That last one is important because it will give you an easier way to activate the edges on non-touch-screen Windows 8 computers besides using the mouse.

Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the User Experience team at Microsoft, told CNET that Microsoft is working with hardware manufacturers to build specialized mice that also support the features, most likely for desktop Windows 8 computers that don't come with touch screens or for people doing at-home upgrades on non-touch screens.

When Windows 8 is finalized, Harris said that you'll be able set swiping in from the left edge to bring up the last viewed app, as it is on a touch screen, or for the Start screen button with thumbnails of the last viewed app, which on the touch screen is swiping in then back out from the left edge.

In two days' worth of use, the touch pad never failed when using its new features on the Start screen or Desktop mode. However, it was far less stable in apps, and often ignored pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scroll. Since it worked well on the Start screen and in other Windows 8 screens like the settings window, it looks like the apps are still quite rough.

Harris also said that he expects the development of the default apps to be an ongoing process. Like mobile apps on iOS and Android, they will see continuous revision, up to and beyond the release of Windows 8.

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Windows 8 Release Preview comes with protoype touch-pad drivers to allow people to use multitouch gestures on their touch pads. It's a big, long-overdue step forward for Windows.(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Let's hope so, because the versions I tested -- labeled App Preview as in the Consumer Preview, but without the beta's yellow caution-tape-style banner at the top -- were not usable on a daily basis because of crashes and incomplete features. They're a good start, but they're not ready yet.

Of the new Microsoft-built News, Sports, and Travel apps, only the Sports app worked consistently. The other two worked on the first day, and then would crash immediately after opening on the second.

What's new: Default apps

Despite the problems with the default apps, I can accept that they're in development but expect bugs to be sorted out by the time that Windows 8 is released to the public. The Sports app offers some very cool customizations for following your favorite teams, including pulling in box scores, statistics, rosters, and related news stories. The Travel app will let you not only buy plane tickets and book hotels, but it will grab travel-guide information. Likewise, the News app serves as a robust aggregator.

Improvements to the semantic zoom let developers layer content, and make it pinch-to-zoom accessible. All the new apps use it, and it's been brought to other apps such as People. Zoom out, and you can browse your contacts by alphabetic category. Place the cursor over a letter and zoom in to jump to that letter's list of contacts. This may not sound big, but it will allow app developers to create richly layered apps with content that's easy to dive deep into.

Many small changes that are nevertheless worth noting have landed in the older apps.

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Microsoft recently has promised that Adobe's Flash plug-in will work in Internet Explorer 10 Metro by the time Windows 8 is finished, but it wasn't ready when we used it.(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

In the Metro version of Internet Explorer 10, there's built-in support for Flash -- not unlike how Google Chrome comes with Flash built in. While Windows 8 defaults to HTML5 playback when available, it means that people with Windows 8 computers will still be able to run the majority of Flash content on the Web in Metro IE10. IE10 in Desktop mode already supported plug-ins like Flash.

Also in IE10 Metro, the Do Not Track header that tells sites to not issue you tracking cookies will be set to On by default. You can use swipe to move back and forth through your history from the edges on touch screens. Non-touch screens will have forward and back arrows appear as you mouse along the left and right sides of the Web site. These are small changes, to be sure, but they indicate how far Microsoft is willing to go to make Windows 8 ready for new and older computers.

The lock screen has been enhanced so that the Video and Music apps can be controlled from it. The volume controls on tablets and traditional keyboards will pop open a small control window. Meanwhile, the Music app has inherited ZunePass, and gained DLNA support. This brings the app better streaming support than before.

The SkyDrive app will feature a new "fetch" option for grabbing photos from other computers that have SkyDrive installed, regardless of how large the pile of pictures is. It's implied that this will depend on the size of your local drive on the recipient computer, and that "fetch" will work like a data transfer service.

Meanwhile, the Mail app offers better multiple account support and a more logical organization of folders. You can also now pin specific e-mail accounts to your Start screen, so it's easier to get right to the e-mail you want.

One major concern I have with the Mail app is that, combined with the Calendar app, it appears to be far easier to use than Outlook. Is it possible that Microsoft will be killing off Outlook? Not likely, and certainly not yet. Outlook will ship in the upcoming Office 15, said Harris, although he did say that, "We're not talking about the Outlook brand at this time."

For what it's worth, the Mail app in the version of the Release Preview I used was marked as version 16.4.3364.511 -- but so was the SkyDrive app. Microsoft may not want to talk about what's up with Outlook, but it's hard to imagine they're not discussing it internally.

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We know that Microsoft plans on ditching the translucent Aero borders for Windows 8 Desktop mode, but that hasn't happened yet.(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Sync hasn't been fully implemented yet, although Harris promised that it will be by the time of the general release. Apps will sync and have a certain amount of memory to "roam" on, which means that each app will get an allocation of megabytes in the cloud to allow data syncing. He noted that the final amount of memory has yet to be decided. For now, though, sync remains incomplete.

What's new: Interface and performance

There's no dramatic changes to the look of Windows 8 in the Release Preview. The feel, though, ought to be noticeable to people who have been toying with it since the Developer's Preview last September. Navigating around is even smoother than before, and fast. Booting up the demo laptop that Microsoft loaned, a Samsung 900x loaded with the prototype touch-pad drivers, booted in about 15 seconds over three cold boots. That's about the same as the Consumer Preview.

Resuming from sleep took under 2 seconds, about half of what it was in the previous version. However, despite changing the settings, Windows 8 would lock the screen after only one minute of idling. On its own, it's not critical, but it's certainly annoying and is indicative of the enormous bug-hunt that Microsoft will have to do to get this ready for the public.

Snapping apps to one side so you can view two apps simultaneously -- such as Mail and Calendar -- is much smoother, too. You can also grab an app from the top and drag it to the bottom to close it. Do that with the Desktop view, though, and you free up the resources of the Desktop without losing any data. Reopen Desktop, and if, for example, you had desktop Internet Explorer open, it will return to the site you were viewing.

The Desktop has had its betta fish background removed, which encourages you to choose your own Desktop mode background. The lower left-corner Start button has also been shrunk, so it interferes with traditional mouse pointers less often, and you can now toggle a tile's "live" status so that it doesn't display updates.

We know that the Aero translucent glass theme that debuted in Windows Vista is going away in the final version of the Desktop mode for Windows 8. However, that's not happening yet. Harris explained that they're saving the new look for Desktop mode app borders for the final version of Windows 8.

What's not new

Logging on: Windows 8 offers some great log-on options. You can choose to create a local account, but the OS becomes infinitely more useful when you use a Microsoft account. You'll be able to synchronize all kinds of data and settings across Windows 8 machines, so that when you log in to any other Windows 8 machine with that account, background settings, address book, IE10 history, bookmarks, and passwords, other accounts like Facebook and Twitter, e-mail, and instant messaging will all sync.

App syncing is planned for the Windows Store, too, while the SkyDrive integration can be used for syncing files.

Beyond sync, once you've logged on for the first time you can change your log-in to a PIN or a picture log-in. The picture log-in is quite cool, and lets you set a photo as your log-in background. You can then customize a quick series of drawings on the picture, made up of a line, a circle, and a dot, to log you in.

I was able to choose my photo log-in from my Facebook photos, which I had synced using the native Photos app that comes with Windows 8. The process was easy, and the photo picker tool in Settings connected through the Photos app to provide access to my Facebook account.

In drawing my log-in on the photo, there were times when it worked on the first attempt, and other times that required multiple attempts. This appears to be more related to the hardware than anything else.

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From the Consumer Preview, the lockscreen has been enabled to surface content from your apps, including unread e-mails and calendar appointments.(Credit: Microsoft)

A killer feature that's missing is facial-recognition log-ins. The better of these apps have been proven to be resistant to printed photo hacking, and it would extremely useful to have a Webcam recognize your face and log you in without having to physically touch the computer. At least nobody else has this integrated into the operating system yet, but since third parties like KeyLemon and FastAccess have been working on their versions for a while, expect it to arrive in the big players sooner rather than later.

Navigating Windows 8 on touch screens: You can navigate around Windows 8 in two ways, and they work well enough so that you can use them simultaneously if you're into that kind of torture.

As we've all seen, Windows 8 is highly gropeable. It wants you to touch it, and frankly touch is the easiest way to get around. Windows 8 doesn't come with a quick tutorial yet, so although the workflow is easy, it's not necessarily obvious.

Windows 8 is all about the edges of the screen. You swipe in from the right edge to reveal the Windows 8 "charms." These include the instantly recognizable Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. The Start button returns you to the Start screen, which is what you see after you log in and where Microsoft expects most of your activity to take place. Once you've launched at least one app, you can swipe in from the left edge to return to the last-open app.

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From the Consumer Preview, this quirky split keyboard works best with thumbs. Think: tablet, held vertically with two hands.(Credit: Microsoft)

You can also perform a U-turn from the left edge. Swipe in a little bit, then swipe back to the edge, and instead of pulling forward the last app you used, you'll get a sidebar of thumbnails of your last six apps. At the bottom-left corner of the thumbnail bar is a thumbnail of the Start screen, providing another way to return "home." So yes, the familiar Start "button" is hidden, but no, it's not hard to get to. It takes about the same effort to get to the Start screen from either edge.

One of Windows 7's better interface features was a split-screen view that you could initiate just by dragging one program's Title Bar to the left or right side of the screen. This has been updated for Windows 8. When you drag an app from the left edge, if you drag it slowly and hold it near either the left or right edge, a vertical separation bar will appear. Once the bar shows up, release the app and it will "snap" to the edge. The screen will be split, with one-third for the app you just dragged over, and two-thirds for the previous app.

Tiles, Microsoft's term for its app icons, are arranged in groups. A long press on a tile will select it, and you can change its position or group from there. You can also pinch to zoom out and get a global view of your groups, or create custom groups by dragging a tile to the right edge and releasing it.

Where the left and right edges are global, the top and bottom edges are for the apps themselves. In Internet Explorer, for example, this means that your location bar is at the bottom, and your tabs are up top. On the Start screen, you can get a list view of all your apps. In Mail, you can set up accounts -- including non-Microsoft ones like Gmail, create folders, sync, and more.

The Desktop tile will jump you directly into a Windows 7-style desktop, complete with Recycle Bin, traditional Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, and taskbar. The side edges still work here, though, and it's much more responsive to touch than Windows 7. I was actually quite impressed how even on the older demo hardware that Microsoft lent me, the desktop mode of Windows 8 was incredibly accurate. Of course, Windows 8's desktop mode is really for easing the transition to the Metro interface.

Navigating Windows 8 with keyboard and mouse: Because Windows 8 is intended as a unified system for both PC and tablet, it works as well with a keyboard and mouse as it does with touch. As with seemingly everything in Windows 8, this too serves two masters. Sure, it gives you the precision required for Photoshop editing or navigating a spreadsheet's cells, but it's also Microsoft waving a big flag that proclaims Windows 8's usefulness. You get touch, mouselike precision, and keyboard hot keys in Windows 8, Microsoft is saying. If it could give you a way to interface with the OS via Morse code, that would be in here, too.

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From the Consumer Preview, the desktop tile will take you to the desktop view of Windows 8. It's like Windows 7, but with a cooler secret identity.(Credit: Microsoft)

Not only do hot keys work, but from what I can tell, all the major hot keys in Windows 7 perform the same functions in Windows 8, as well as some new ones. These include Win+Print Screen to take a screenshot, which then gets automatically saved to your Photos app, or using the Windows key to switch between the Start screen and your last-used app.

One of the best keyboard functions is that you can pull up an app from the Start screen just by beginning to type. It's ridiculously simple and effective: type "ma" when on the Start screen, and a list of apps with "ma" in their name appear in the center of the screen, but on the right you can flip from Apps to Settings to Files that have the same "ma" string.

Not much will happen when you first connect a mouse to Windows 8. As soon as you move the mouse, though, a scroll bar will appear along the bottom edge of the Start screen. You can then use the scroll bar to navigate through your groups, or you can use the scroll wheel for that -- so the vertical motion is interpreted by Windows 8 as a horizontal scroll.

Move the mouse to the lower-left corner to reveal your Start screen, or the upper-left corner for your most recently visited app. If you then move the mouse alongside the left edge, it will reveal your other most recently used apps.

The mouse has been enabled for apps, too. So in Internet Explorer, for example, a back navigation arrow appears on the left, and a forward nav arrow appears on the right edge. Mouse to the lower-right corner to reveal the navigation charms, and then mouse up along the edge to use them.

Right-clicking reveals the "app edges," the app-specific options from the top and bottom screen edges, while a button denoted by a magnifying glass on the far right of the scroll bar zooms you in and out of your groups.

If you're on the lock screen, you click and drag it up to reveal the password dialog. It may sound like a lot that's different from the touch workflow, but it's actually quite simple. You can even use the mouse for your picture log-in.

It's impressive how well Microsoft has been able to replicate the touch workflow with the mouse and keyboard. I don't think we've ever seen the two integrated quite like this before. The multiple ways to interface with the interface also will go a long way toward convincing previous Windows owners and perhaps even skeptics that Windows 8 is all that and a bag of chips. Most importantly, though, both work well with your apps.

Features: From social and security to sync, Windows 8 lives on the cusp of what's expected from a modern operating system. And if it's nothing else, Windows 8 is integrated.

Windows 8 is quite the social butterfly. Not only can it shmooze with the best of them, it actually may be the best. If you're looking for an integrated social experience, Windows 8 comes very close to having it all. Unlike iOS and Android, which require you to dive into apps as if they were buckets of specific information, Windows 8 is broad and expansive. Start screen tiles are natively integrated with your apps; it is impossible to decouple them, and I can't see a reason for why would you want to.

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From the Consumer Preview, swipe up from the bottom edge of an app and you'll get app-specific controls. In the case of IE 10, this means your URL bar on the bottom and tabs thumbnails on top.(Credit: Microsoft)

Tiles surface information as it comes in, not unlike peering through a window. See what Microsoft did there? So the Mail app previews recent e-mails; the Calendar app shows your next appointment. You can also set this information to surface on your lock screen, although the version of the beta I tested could only surface detailed previews from the Calendar.

Contacts from multiple sources are integrated, too, in the People app. When it recognizes the same contact from different networks, it merges them. I found most merged without fail, although there were some oddities. Physical addresses appear with a link to Bing Maps for quick lookups, and accounts that are added to one app -- such as People -- cross over to other related apps, like Messaging.

Search is global, and includes data from all your apps that have activated the search hooks. Of course, this being Windows, you can easily tweak those settings.

There's a Live SDK that developers can use to hook into the single sign-on, and the aforementioned SkyDrive for file sync. So as your apps are integrated with each other and Windows 8 as a whole, they are also syncable. Use your Microsoft log-in on any Windows 8 computer, and instantly your apps, settings, files, and browser history will get pulled down.

The beta of Internet Explorer 10 continues on the path dictated by IE 9. IE 9 and 10 are the most standards-compliant versions of Internet Explorer yet, as well as recognized by several sources as extremely good at blocking malware and phishing.

There's also stuff you're likely to never encounter that's protecting you, like Trusted Boot for double-checking system integrity and SmartScreen to protect you from phishing and malware. There are features like Xbox Game and Xbox Companion apps for pulling XBox content into Windows 8; a new Refresh option that will reinstall Windows 8 without deleting your data; and multiple monitor support for showing Start on one screen and the desktop on the other.

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From the Consumer Preview, it's not all flash and bang in Windows 8. The decidedly unsexy Task Manager has been given a new coat of paint, and is easier to use, too.(Credit: Microsoft)

Some people may find it jarring that most of the Windows utilities appear in the Windows 8 desktop screen, even when you launch them from the Start screen. Still, Microsoft has made some effort to make them more accessible. The Task Manager, for example, has been redecorated with colors, charts, and tabs.

As far as default features are concerned, though, Windows 8 Release Preview presents a solid baseline of apps and functionality to get you started. Don't be surprised if hardware manufacturers are allowed to insert their own preferred apps -- read: bloatware -- by the time that Windows 8 ships in the second half of this year.

Performance: Windows 8 feels quick. You swipe and you're there. Tap and you're there. Mousing around feels just as zippy, and there's a speed and responsiveness to Windows 8 that no other version of Windows has ever had. Two-finger scrolling may be too quick, and I often found myself whooshing past the point in an app where I wanted to stop. If there's a third pillar supporting this massive overhaul alongside the integration and the touch interface, it's that Windows 8 zooms.

The demo tablet that Microsoft lent reviewers for the beta version of Windows 8 was pretty good about battery life, as was the laptop for demoing the release candidate. Microsoft has said that Windows 8 is designed to sip on battery life. We didn't get the opportunity to benchmark precisely how accurate that claim is, but after heavy daily use for six days straight, I only had to plug in this older-model tablet once a day. It also was good about keeping a charge when unplugged and not in use, something that has not been true of many tablets currently on the market.


Unfortunately, the conclusions that we arrived at after the Windows 8 Consumer Preview was released haven't changed much. The release candidate version of Windows 7 was practically baked. Windows 8 remains a much harder sell to the public than any other operating system because of its ambitious changes to workflow, and its reliance on new, unseen, untested hardware.

While Windows 8 does get much right, there's too much that hasn't been finalized. The workflow is easy, once you learn it. Does that mean that Microsoft will be including a tutorial for people who haven't read up on it? Ten seconds will do, but that may be 10 seconds too long for many people.

Windows 8's reliance on unknown hardware remains a challenge because we don't know what those devices will look like. Last, there's no strong evidence indicating that a unified laptop-tablet experience is what people want next. Do people even want tablets that aren't made by Apple? Is the tablet more like a larger smartphone, or a thinner laptop? Is there interest in one operating system that offers both casual touch and robust power modes?

And yet, this isn't the dog that Windows Vista pre-Service Pack 1 was. Windows 8 offers a tight consumer experience, with features both new and familiar, in a refreshingly different package. Microsoft says hardware makers are onboard and that developers are investing heavily in it, and it's earning its mixed bag of buzz because there's nothing like it out there.

I think there's room for a third player in the tablet game, and Google has left the door open for a good fight over the No. 2 slot. But Windows 8 goes beyond tablet; it looks to be an attempt to unify tablet and laptop. Too much of Windows 8's fate depends on its core apps working from day one; on sleek hardware; on affordability; on how closely the pitch to consumers matches the reality of adoption; and, frankly, on what Apple does. Ultimately, Microsoft has full control over too few of those.

There's a long, narrow road ahead for Windows 8, and the Release Preview hasn't gone as far down the path as we were hoping. It could be the next big thing, but there's not much room for missteps.


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