Technologizer

Windows 8 Release Preview: Not Ready for Prime Time, but Closer

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Windows 8's new News app

For all the ways in which Windows 8 is a bold departure from its predecessors, it’s following a road map to release that’s very much like the one Microsoft has used for years. Last September, the company showed the new version off in public for the first time and let developers get their hands on a very early version.  In February, it followed up with a further-along Consumer Preview which any interested party could download for free, install and use.

Starting today, Microsoft is offering a Windows 8 Release Preview — an update to the Consumer Preview — that’s even closer to completion. It’s the latest sign that Windows 8 is on schedule, and while Microsoft isn’t saying when it plans to ship the operating system, the smart money says it’ll show up on new PCs and as an upgrade by the fall of this year. Earlier this week, Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the Microsoft Windows User Experience Team, briefed me about the new version. The company also loaned me a Samsung Series 9 notebook with a preinstalled copy of the update.

The Release Preview is a form of pre-release software which Microsoft usually calls a release candidate, a version that, in theory at least, is just about done. Judging from the couple of days I’ve spent with it, however, it’s not yet a candidate for release. I found it pretty buggy; some apps crashed or didn’t quite behave. Much of the time, the Samsung notebook’s touchpad didn’t work properly. And Microsoft hasn’t yet replaced the Windows desktop’s signature Aero look and feel with a theme that’s meant to be more consistent with the new Metro interface.

I also couldn’t test the Windows Store app market. It’s the only source for apps that use the new Metro interface, and therefore an all-important feature. (Microsoft didn’t turn it on for the Consumer Release until today.)

The nuts and bolts of Windows 8 haven’t changed much in this latest pre-release version. The primary user interface is still Metro, a streamlined, touch-enabled approach that has almost nothing in common with Windows as we knew it, and everything in common with Windows Phone.

Metro still looks beautiful, works smoothly (for the most part) and is rife with clever ideas. For instance, while you can’t tile windows in the old-school manner, you can slide an application over to one side of the screen — whereupon it morphs into a simplified, widget-like version which you can watch out of one side of your eye while working in another app.

Windows 8 split-screen mode

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

As in earlier incarnations of Windows 8, you can still run conventional non-Metro applications, and the Windows desktop lives on in slightly modified (and potentially confusing) form. Microsoft touts this as a major benefit: You can use new-wave apps and all your favorite Windows programs on one device! But I still suspect that many users — especially ones who are relatively happy with whatever version of Windows they’ve been using — will find the two-interface approach jarring rather than a seamless integration of the best of both worlds.

So what’s new in the Release Preview? Well, Microsoft is bundling a bunch of Metro apps with Windows 8. They’re way more important than the bundled apps in previous versions of Windows, since Metro will be so new and the world will need great examples of its potential. This update to Windows 8 has some new apps, plus improvements to the existing ones.

The debutantes include News, Sports and Travel programs. They’re all based on content from Bing, and they all wrap continuously-updated content from the web in fancy Metro skins with large photographs, crisp typography, and an interface that lets you scroll to the right to see more and more stuff. You can also pin items (such as a news topic, a favorite publication or your hometown team) to the Windows 8 Start screen, where they appear as tiles which preview new information as it comes in.

Windows 8 Sports

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

The Metro apps from previous versions of Windows 8 feel beefier — less like demos, and more like tools you might actually want to use. Mail, for instance, has a revised three-pane interface with folders, your inbox and a message, all on one screen. It can aggregate multiple Hotmail, Exchange and Gmail accounts; it still doesn’t handle POP or IMAP accounts, however, and it sometimes got stuck downloading messages when I tried it.

As for Internet Explorer 10, it now supports Adobe’s Flash Player. It’s not a plug-in: Flash is built into the browser, and any patches will be handled through Windows Update.

The Flash support is more of a necessary stopgap than an endorsement: IE 10 will only resort to Flash if it’s necessary for a site to work properly. It would rather give you an HTML5 version, and won’t display Flash if it’s used only for fripperies such as ads and rollover menus.

When Microsoft has demoed Windows 8 in the past, it’s usually done so on a Samsung tablet. This time, it did some of its demoing to me on Samsung’s MacBook Air-like Series 9 thin-and-light notebook, and let me borrow one with a preinstalled copy of the software. The company did so in part to show how Windows 8 works on a conventional PC, and so I could try Windows 8 gestures on the Series 9′s touchpad.

That didn’t work out so well, since something — I blame a balky driver — prevented the touchpad from working reliably. But it did get me thinking about the new operating system and touchpad support.

Right now, the touchpads on Windows laptops are often smaller than their Mac counterparts, and gestures such as using two fingers to scroll are sometimes herky-jerky or simply unavailable. Windows 8 supports conventional usage of touchpads and mice, but it’s such a touch-centric operating system that you’re going to want an oversized touchpad and a driver that makes gestures smooth and reliable.

In fact, what you’re really going to want is a computer that was designed with Windows 8 in mind. Some Windows 8 gestures, such as dragging your finger in from the right side of the touchpad to reveal Settings and other options, require a touchpad with edge-detection capability, a feature which isn’t standard on Windows 7 notebooks.

I also think that hardware makers will need to ensure that there’s adequate clearance around the touchpad. The Samsung Series 9 I tried has a touchpad that butts up against the sloped area around the keyboard, which made sliding my fingertip down from the top a tad cumbersome.

Speaking of hardware makers, they’re the ones who will answer the biggest remaining question about the new operating system: What will Windows 8 PCs be like? The software will ship on a bevy of devices, including both utterly conventional computers and iPad-style tablets. Most important, it’ll arrive on machines which aren’t quite conventional computers or tablets, such as touchscreen-equipped laptops with keyboards that twist out of the way

Now that Microsoft has spilled nearly all of its beans, I’m dying to learn what the hardware will be like. It’s going to play at least as significant a role in determining Windows 8′s fate as anything Microsoft does, and until we’ve seen it, all opinions of the operating system are incomplete.

For now, I’m planning to install the Release Preview on a spare laptop and use it as much as possible for actual work. More thoughts to come. Including, I hope, yours — if you try the software, tell us what you think.

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