Windows 8 Release Preview: Updated but still uneasy

The newly released version of Microsoft's upcoming OS still seems caught between two worlds.

Windows 8 Release Preview is out, and it offers only moderate changes to the previously released Consumer Preview version. The biggest change isn't to the operating system itself, but rather the inclusion of some new, well-designed Metro apps that ship with it. Clearly inspired by Windows Phone 7, these apps seek out information based on your interests and automatically present them to you, rather than you having to do the work yourself.

Windows 8 Release Preview
The Desktop in Windows 8 Release Preview has not yet completely gotten rid of Aero; that will be done in the final version.

That's the upside of the new apps. The downside is that they still seem suited more for tablets than PCs, if you accept the standard definition of a tablet being used to consume content and a PC used to create it. You won't find Office or similar content creation tools among the Metro apps yet, showing yet again that the Metro interface seems designed more for tablets than traditional PCs and laptops.

Still missing is the final form of what the Desktop will look like when the operating system ships later this year. Even though Microsoft has said that it is killing the Aero interface and replacing it with a flatter-looking one, that new look has not been implemented in the Release Preview. It is expected to first see the light of day when Windows 8 ships, later this year.

As with the Consumer Preview, Windows 8 Release Preview still feels like two operating systems co-existing somewhat uneasily, rather than a cohesive whole: the visually-oriented and tablet-oriented Metro interface on one side and the old Desktop interface, for more traditional computers, on the other.

Metro apps -- are they good enough?

The new complement of Metro apps in the Release Preview shows that, even on desktops and laptops, Windows 8 could do well in a world in which information is pushed to the user. Previously released Metro apps have been improved and some very nifty new ones have been introduced. But they remain a mixed bag.

Among the new apps are Bing Sports, Bing Travel and Bing News, and all of them are winners -- beautifully designed and easy to use. Think of them as information hubs. In Sports, you can customize settings to follow your favorite sports and individual teams. Like other Windows 8 apps, it grabs information so that you don't need to go out and find it yourself. All in all, it's a slickly designed, useful app. (Not that it's perfect -- I couldn't make Bing Sports find all the news and results related to the 2012 French Open tennis tournament currently under way.)

Windows 8 Release Preview
The Sports app lets you choose what sports and teams you want to follow.

Bing Travel does more than just tell you about travel destinations, offer travel news and let you view spectacular travel photos. You can also right-click the screen to pull down a toolbar that lets you book flights and hotels and get more information about destinations. You can pin information to the Start Menu as well. It's an exceedingly useful travel hub.

Bing News works like the other new Bing apps, and serves as a central news hub. You can customize the news you read by selecting from news sources -- and you've got close to 200 to choose from in a wide variety of categories, including not just national but also regional news sources.

On the other hand, the update to the Mail app has both good and bad points. On the plus side, it still handles multiple email accounts (although not yet POP or IMAP ones) and has some great new features, such as the ability to customize how each account syncs email. For example, you can sync all messages or only those sent and received in a given time period. (This will be more useful on tablets than on traditional PCs, because tablets typically have far less local storage.) And you can also pin each account's Inbox to the Start screen, making it easier to keep track of the individual accounts.

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