Yesterday Microsoft shipped the Release Preview for Windows 8, the final public sneak peek for what the company keeps calling a "no compromise" version and "reimagining" of the decades-old OS.
Top Windows chief Steven Sinofsky took to a company blog to announce the availability of Release Preview, and along the way cited all kinds of impressive numbers, ranging from "hundreds of millions of hours of testing" to an accounting of the often-verbose "Building Windows 8" blog.
But the Release Preview isn't the final code, Sinofsky warned.
"We will still be changing Windows 8," he said, referring to the time between now and RTM, or "release to manufacturing," the stage where code is handed over to computer makers to begin installing on new systems.
While Release Preview is a step up from February's Consumer Preview, it shows rough spots and has some important unfinished business, among the latter a more complete reworking of the user interface (UI) to ditch Vista's and Windows 7's "Aero" look-and-feel.
That's the point of the whole process, said Sinofsky: "We'll be looking hard at every aspect of Windows 8 as we complete the work on the product," he said.
With that in mind, is it worth your while to try the Release Preview? That's only one question among many that you probably have as you ponder the download. As always, we've tried to answer the most important.
Is it worth my time? Most reviewers have said yes to that one, but with a caveat.
If you're mostly interested in the traditional desktop half of Windows 8, the Release Candidate probably isn't worth the trouble. Preston Gralla, Computerworld's resident Windows guru -- and who reviewed the Release Candidate -- called the desktop "an afterthought," and said there's little different here than in the Consumer Preview of three months ago.
But if you want to see more of the Metro side of Windows 8, the Release Preview has plenty to strut, including three new apps that some have said are "the true stars of the new OS" and "really show what a well-designed Metro app is capable of doing."
Gralla's review of the Release Preview, by the way, should go live on computerworld.com within the next few hours. Return later today to check it out.
Where do I get it? You start the streamlined download-and-install process at Microsoft's Release Preview website.
(And remember, just as with the earlier Consumer Preview, you don't have to give Microsoft your email address to grab a copy, although at first glance that may seem so.)
It all starts with a 5MB setup executable that you'll run on a Windows 7, Vista or XP system, or on a PC or virtual machine that you earlier migrated to either last year's Developer Preview or this year's Consumer Preview. The setup file then downloads the rest of the upgrade -- a 1.6GB to 1.9GB deal for the 32- and 64-bit versions -- and launches the install.
I want something I can hold in my hand. Can I put Release Preview on a DVD or flash drive for later installation? You betcha.
The easiest way is to grab the setup executable, run it, let it download the rest and then use the built-in tools to burn a DVD or put everything on a USB flash drive. You can then use the DVD or thumb drive to install Release Preview on another PC, another disk partition or a new virtual machine you've created on a PC or Mac.
Note: Those tools don't work on a Windows XP machine.
The other way is to download a disk image (an ".iso" file in PC parlance), then burn that to a DVD or flash drive to create bootable installation media.
Links to the 32- an 64-bit .iso files -- available in 12 languages -- can be found here.
What languages does Release Preview come in? The sneak peek is available in 12 languages, 13 if you count Chinese Simplified and Chinese Traditional individually.
The list: Arabic, English, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.
That's more than twice the number of languages offered for February's Consumer Preview, which came in just English, Chinese, French, German and Japanese.
What PCs can I install Release Preview on? Any machine running Windows XP or later. (Sorry Windows 98 holdouts.)
As with the Consumer Preview, though, the only true upgrade -- meaning it brings along all programs, settings, user accounts and data files -- is from a system running Windows 7.
On a Vista machine, Windows 8 retains settings, user accounts and data files, but not applications. It's a partial upgrade.
From XP, Release Preview migrates only user accounts and files.
In one sense there's no upgrade path from either the Developer Preview or Consumer Preview of Windows 8 -- Microsoft says it's a "clean install" in that nothing, absolutely nothing, is saved -- but you should be able to retrieve files, like documents and images, by rooting through the "Windows.old" folder. Microsoft's documented the steps to do that in its own FAQ
Do I need a product activation key? Just as with the Consumer Preview, no you don't, at least if you use Setup to download and install.
You will, however, be asked for one if you install from a DVD or flash drive. The generic 25-character key -- it works for everyone -- is:
Tried it, hated it. Can I uninstall it and get my PC back like it was? Negative.
To return the PC to its pre-Windows 8 state, you must reinstall the older operating system, and restore applications and data from a backup. You did do a backup before upgrading, right?
This is the single-most-likely snafu of the Release Preview. If you don't believe us, just do a search for "uninstall Windows 8" and count the results.
Microsoft has tried to be clearer about that this time around by posting a caveat labeled "Important" on the download page. "If you decide to go back to your previous operating system, you'll need to reinstall it from the recovery or installation media that came with your PC, which is typically DVD media," the warning reads.
When does the Release Preview expire? Like the Consumer Preview, on January 15, 2013. Microsoft spelled out what happens after that date in the Preview's end-user license agreement (EULA).
"You have no right to use the software after the expiration date. Starting from the expiration date, you may not be able to access any unsaved data used with the software. Any applications you receive through the Windows Store will also cease to be available to you in future versions, unless they are made available for re-download and you re-acquire them. You may not receive any other notice."
By the expiration date, of course Windows 8's final better be available. Or, failing that -- or a decision to not buy the operating system -- you can reinstall the prior OS.
Has Microsoft listened to users who have complained about the disappearance of the Start button? Nope. The Start button is still AWOL, and the Start screen -- Metro all the way -- is the entry to Windows 8.
Microsoft officials have said that they will include a tutorial to get users comfortable with the Start screen -- and presumably, the omission of the Start button -- but whatever Microsoft has planned isn't in the Release Preview.
Can I play DVDs on my PC if I install Windows 8? Yes.
Although the Windows Media Center will be a for-a-fee add-on to Windows 8 Pro -- Microsoft hasn't said how much -- the company's giving it away during the Release Preview period.
To install it, head to "Add features to Windows 8" and enter this product key:
"Add features..." is the new name for what Microsoft called "Anytime Upgrade" in Vista and Windows 7 that lets consumers upgrade to a higher-priced, more feature-filled edition.
Is it any easier to use with a mouse and keyboard? Somewhat.
The "hotspots" in the corners of the Windows 8 desktop seem to be more reliable, in that mouse movements to the lower left and lower right corners -- for returning to the Start screen and pulling up the Charms menu -- don't need to be as precise as in the Consumer Preview.
The Release Preview also has added gesture support for trackpads, the kind embedded in most notebooks' cases, according to Windows blogger Paul Thurrott.
However, Thurrott reported that support for trackpad gestures -- think of the kind that Apple offers on its MacBook Pro and MacBook Air lines -- will be available only on new Windows 8 notebooks, and not likely to be supported by current Windows 7 laptops.
Trackpad support, though perhaps no replacement for a true touchscreen, could go a long way to quieting complaints about Windows 8's Metro interface and its gesture-first UI.
Anything new in Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) worth checking out? Yes.
The newest build of IE10 -- officially it's the sixth Platform Preview -- for Metro includes an integrated copy of Adobe's Flash Player.
Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, called that move a "real surprise and ... smart" today.
Previously, Microsoft had said it would ban all plug-ins, including Flash, from the Metro version of IE10 in Windows 8, with the company's biggest browser executive saying plug-ins were "not a good match with Metro style browsing."
Technically, Microsoft isn't going back on its word, since the Flash included with Metro IE10 isn't a plug-in, but has been integrated with the browser itself.
But we predict that Mozilla, which has lambasted Microsoft for not giving third-party browser makers access to the same Win32 APIs as IE10 uses, will not be happy with the move: It gives IE10 another advantage over rivals in Metro, whether on Windows 8 or its offshoot, Windows RT.
FYI: Microsoft has said it will also release a version of IE10 for Windows 7, but there's been no sign of such since November 2011, the last time the company upgraded the browser for the older OS. The only way to run IE10's newest build is on Windows 8.
Can I use the same PC for Release Preview as I did for the Consumer Preview of Windows 8? Microsoft says yes, but some users say no.
Microsoft's list of system requirements for the Release Preview is identical to what it published for February's Consumer Preview: It's as unrealistic in the real world now as it was then.
But a thread on Microsoft's support site shows that some people haven't been able to run Release Preview on machines that were perfectly capable of managing the Consumer Preview. Those users reported seeing the message "Your PC's CPU isn't compatible with Windows 8," when trying to install the newest milestone.
"Very disappointed that my PC can run Windows 7 and Consumer Preview but not the Release Preview, said someone identified as "SinlessEarth" yesterday. "So much for paying for the final version. I'm not buying a new PC just for Windows 8."
According to others on the same thread, Release Preview requires that the "NX" feature of the processor must be enabled. NX, which stands for "Never eXecute," is a security technology used by most modern CPUs, and can be switched on by editing the PC's BIOS settings.
Microsoft calls the NX technology "Data Execution Prevention," or DEP, within Windows, where it's used as a crucial part of the operating system's anti-exploit portfolio.
When will Microsoft wrap this up and start selling it, for Pete's sake? Don't know.
Microsoft's still not saying when it will officially launch Windows 8, but Sinofsky provided some hints yesterday, saying that if everything goes according to plan, the OS will reach the RTM mark in two months, meaning late July or early August.
That would put Windows 8 at the same schedule as Windows 7 of three years ago, when the latter made RTM in late July 2009.
The dates are important to anyone trying to read the tea leaves and come up with a good guess for a Windows 8 ship date. Because Windows 7 hit RTM in late July 2009, then went on sale Oct. 22 that year, the assumption is that Microsoft should be able to match that for Windows 8.
October is critical if Microsoft expects a revenue bump during the holiday selling season this year, from Windows 8-equipped desktops, laptops, tablets and hybrids. The last thing the company would want is a repeat of Vista, which missed the 2006 holiday stretch because of delays that pushed initial sales into late January 2007.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.