Windows users are one step closer to getting a major system facelift — and if today’s release of Microsoft’s latest OS build tells us anything, it’s that the company is putting the system’s strongest focus on home-grown software.
We’ve already spent a lot of quality time with Microsoft’s Windows 8 “Consumer Preview”, which was released last February, but today the company made its near-final Windows 8 “Release Preview”available to the public.
The Release Preview comes earlier than originally stated, but there is virtually no shortage of new or improved features, most of which focus on lean-and-mean Metro apps. Just don’t expect anything astonishingly different in terms of system architecture, as the majority of changes in this latest Windows 8 iteration center around software additions and performance improvements.
In our hands-on of Microsoft’s Consumer Preview, we declared that your familiar Windows desktop is all but dead. In the changes we’ve 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 — or even an afterthought, for some users — 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. Still, they’re all slick and highlight how much Microsoft wants its PC experience to more closely resemble an app-based mobile experience.
The News app aggregates the latest news stories in a way that’s reminiscent of Flipboard or Zite. But according to Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management for the Windows User Experience, it goes much deeper than that. A “Trends” section will show news stories that are trending across the Internet, a feature that’s powered by Microsoft’s Bing engine.
“It’s different than a Zite or a Flipboard, where you’re getting a few articles that are being editorially put there, or put there by a small group of users,” Harris told Wired. “You have to look across the entire social graph to build this.”
For Microsoft, however, the apps in their current form are less about functionality, and more about, well, proof-of-concept: “This is just an example of a personalized Metro-style app that’s unlike what you have on any other platform,” Harris said.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. “All of them are in the same state that Mail and Calendar were in the previous version,” he said. This was clearly evident during testing: The News and Travel apps crashed on several occasions until they just conked out, and no longer opened for me.
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. And while I wasn’t able to install third-party apps onto our test laptop, I did get to see a demo of how Photos can speak to non-native apps, like Photobucket.
“The cool thing about Windows 8 is the way apps work together to complete scenarios,” Harris said. “I liken this to the way that there was originally the web and then there’s Web 2.0. In the original web, every website was a silo. Then Web 2.0 comes and says, ‘Well, actually, websites can start to talk to one another.’ Windows 8 is the glue that binds any two apps together for a whole bunch of scenarios.”
Harris’ vision is all fine and dandy, but 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. Harris says it’s not a plug-in, but rather a native part of the Internet Explorer engine, and shouldn’t be such a resource hog as a result.
The upshot: 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.
“We’ve taken Flash and integrated it into the rendering engine of IE. We’ve done the work to basically make Flash touchable, make it have great battery life, and to take out all of the bad parts of having plug-ins,” Harris said.