Windows 8 Release Preview: Updated but still uneasy

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

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Interface tweaks and other changes

Windows 8 Release Preview sports a number of small, subtle interface tweaks, many barely noticeable. For example, when you use the task switcher that shows your open windows as thumbnails down the left part of the screen, there are now labels, so that it's easier to identify any to which you want to switch. The Start screen thumbnail also seems somewhat smaller.

Windows 8 Release Preview
The task switcher now includes labels on top of thumbnails.

Dig deep enough and you'll find other changes as well. Even when Windows 8 is locked, you can now change the volume, pause songs and skip to new songs. Multimonitor support has been tweaked so that you can now drag an app from the screen of one monitor to another. Microsoft also says that this version of Windows 8 includes touchpad multitouch gestures for tasks such scrolling, although they didn't work on my machine.

According to Microsoft, there have been a number of under-the-hood changes as well, including a smaller memory footprint, faster performance and reduced disk space requirements. I can't say that I saw a difference in performance between this and the Consumer Preview, though.

Windows Store

Windows Store is the place to go for Metro apps -- in fact, it's the only place to go for Metro apps, because Windows 8 is a closed store, like the App Store for iOS. Although it's not quite as bare as it was for the Consumer Preview, it still doesn't offer an overwhelming number of apps.

For example, in the Consumer Preview the Productivity section had five productivity apps. In the Release Preview, there are now a dozen. The same holds true for other categories.

Metro vs. Desktop

As mentioned before, what still hasn't changed in this version of Windows 8 is the sense that Metro tablet interface and the more traditional Desktop interface are two separate operating systems, co-existing somewhat uneasily. Integration between the two is still minimal. The Desktop is still missing the Start Menu -- in fact, at least one report maintains that Microsoft has gone through code in this version of Windows 8 and deleted anything that might allow someone to hack the Desktop to bring back the Start menu. And there's still no way to boot directly into the Desktop, so even if you plan to spend most of your time there, you'll have to first go there via Metro.

What's missing

It's not only the Start menu that's missing. Since the Consumer Preview was released, Microsoft announced that even bigger changes were in store for the Desktop, notably killing the Aero interface introduced in Windows Vista, and then refined in Windows 7. Microsoft has said that although Aero was aesthetically suited for the time it was developed, it now looks "dated and cheesy."

In its place, says the company, will be a flatter, Metro-inspired design for the Desktop. No more glass, no more reflections, no more glows, no more gradients. Shadows and transparency will be gone. The edges of windows and the taskbar will be squared off.

Microsoft chalks up the changes to aesthetics, although it's also true that Aero requires more battery life than a flatter design, so that may be a reason as well. In a blog entry announcing the change, Jensen Harris, director of program management for the Windows 8 user experience team, listed "long battery life" as one of the goals of the Windows 8 user experience. Whatever the reason, we'll have to wait for the final release of Windows 8 to get a complete look at the new interface.

That being said, there have been subtle changes in the Desktop in this version with a nod toward moving to the flatter Desktop look. "Glass" features are no longer there, although transparency is, and the windows seem to have been made more rectangular.

Bottom line

The Windows 8 Release Preview makes no major changes to the Consumer Preview and has its same strengths and weaknesses. The interface has received relatively minor tweaks, and several new Metro apps are quite good.

Metro is still a visually compelling interface that is optimized for touch and for consuming content. The Desktop remains an afterthought. And Windows 8 still seems as if it's two operating systems bolted together not particularly well, rather than a seamless whole.

If you want to try it out yourself, you can download it from Microsoft's Windows 8 Release Preview page.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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