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Windows 8 Consumer Preview: The Top 8 Features

Anyone using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview will be struck by how much more complete the experience is this time around, how the seemingly disconnected strands presented in the Developer Preview are all coming together suddenly, and wonderfully. Yes, there will be lingering questions from power users about the interoperability of the Metro environment and desktop apps. But really, the sheer amount of polish on this release should be a wake-up call to anyone who thought Microsoft would never pull this thing off. Windows 8 isn't just real. It's in great shape.

As you probably know, I have a ton of content for the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, and tons more to come. But before moving on to the next stage of my coverage, I thought I'd take a step back and reflect on the handful of things--OK, 8, what the heck--that really stand out in this release.

1. Touch Me, Baby

While Apple popularized multi-touch interfaces on its iPhone and then iPad, one thing that company simply didn't get right is how it adapted iOS for larger screen devices. On a phone, it's easy to tap any area of the screen while using just a single hand. But on the iPad, some software-based navigation buttons are in the top left corner of the screen, while others are in the bottom area, making navigation more difficult. It's like Apple simply took the iPhone screen and made it bigger. Because that's exactly what they did.

Windows 8 benefits from the maturity of time. Instead of taking the Windows Phone interface and exploding it onto a larger screen device, Microsoft really thought about how people would hold these devices and interact with the software. Windows 8 devices are thus oriented in landscape mode, not portrait, because a tablet is different than a smart phone. And the navigation is consistent, logical, and usable, with edge UIs sitting right where the user's fingers naturally fall. They're not random, or different from app to app.

That means you can trigger the Charms simply by twitching your right thumb on the edge of the screen, or flick easily through running applications with your left thumb. App bars and other contextual UIs always appear using exactly the same gestures, from the top or bottom of the screen. The system is well designed, beautiful to look at, and a delight to use, with quick performance and gorgeous animations and transitions.

2. Metro-Style Apps That Actually Work

While the Windows 8 Developer Preview came with a relatively lame set of sample apps that had been written by college interns, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview dumps all them (literally) for a far more professional set of Metro-style apps that will grace most Windows 8-based PCs and devices in the future. And there are some wonderful, wonderful apps in there.

I provide descriptions of each of these apps in my article The Windows 8 App Previews, but a few are worth calling out here. For example, there are a pair of Xbox apps, Xbox Companion and Xbox LIVE Games, that people are going to freak over. The former is a way to control your Xbox console from a Windows 8 device, and it provides a neat way to browse the content in the music and video marketplaces and then enjoy it, seamlessly, on your HDTV via the Xbox. And Xbox LIVE Games brings the Windows Phone's Games hub to the PC, but with connectivity to Windows games too. Excellent.

Mail, Calendar, Messaging, People, and Photos all look and work as expected, and are nice enough in their own rights, but I'm pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the other bundled apps, if only because they are so unexpected. Bing Finance, for example, is a gorgeous app with an amazing presentation, as is Bing Weather and Bing Maps. And Pinball FX2 and Solitaire might be the best two games ever bundled with Windows, period.

And remember when Rafael Rivera and I exclusively revealed the existence of Modern Reader almost a year ago? Well, Microsoft's PDF reader is back, and present and accounted for in the Consumer Preview, but slightly rebranded to Windows Reader. Pretty sweet.

3. Your Choice of Hardware

Tied into points 1 and 5 is the notion that the Windows 8 Consumer Preview will work great, almost no matter what kind of PC you have. (Don't hold your breath if you're a netbook user, however, since those devices don't meet Windows 8's screen resolution requirements.) That means that, yes, Windows 8 works great on slate-like tablets, of course. But who has one of those devices yet, right? No one, that's who. And that's just fine, because it works really well on traditional laptops , desktop PCs, and all-in-one PCs as well, including those with large displays or, better yet, multiple displays.

4. Respect: Windows Desktop Improvements

Of course, traditionalists are going to stick with the Windows desktop and the amazing collection of Explorer applications we're all familiar with already. And on that note, kudos to Microsoft for actually improving this environment as well, and not just ignoring it as they race to embrace the future with Metro-style apps and the Start screen.

The Windows desktop gets some neat updates in Windows 8, including previously announced features like the ribbon-based Explorer, the new Task Manager, the file copy improvements and so on. In the Consumer Preview, however, we see the more complete edge and corner navigational elements coming to the desktop, including the new Start tip, which replaces the old Start button. Right-click that tip and you'll get a handy power-user surprise: A menu of useful options that were previously really hard to get to in Windows 8.

Many assume that Microsoft will slowly but surely push the desktop out of Windows as it moves to an all-Metro future. But the company tells me that's not the case at all, and that Metro and the desktop will co-exist indefinitely. Proof of this, I'm told, comes in the fact that there will be new versions of both Microsoft Office and Photoshop released in the next year, and both will be desktop applications, not Metro apps. The desktop isn't going anywhere, and in Windows 8, it's getting even better.

5. Mouse and Keyboard Actually Work

Some have called Windows 8 "touch-centric," and while Microsoft prefers the term "touch first," there's no doubt that traditional mouse- and keyboard-wielding PC users have looked somewhat suspiciously at the new interfaces in Windows 8 and wondered what the heck was happening. Well, wonder no more: Windows 8 doesn't just tolerate mouse and keyboard interact, it excels at it, and you can see the changes in the Consumer Preview.

I wrote a lot more about this topic in Improvements to Mouse and Keyboard Navigation, but the point here is simple: If you thought that the full functionality of Windows 8 would only be available through touch interfaces, you don't get Microsoft at all. The software giant knows that most customers will be using Windows 8 with traditional PCs and traditional input devices, and the system has been engineered to work just as well with mouse and keyboard as it does with touch. In fact, chances are you'll mix all three as you move to more touch-capable devices going forward.

6. Cloud-connected

Every time Microsoft develops a new version of Windows, a curious subculture of technological Morlocks decrees that this version of Windows, magically, will be the last. That's hogwash--users will always need some form of hardware to deliver a future of even purely cloud-based content--but the foundation of this claim is simple enough. More and more, we're moving from traditional Windows applications to web and mobile apps.

It's no surprise then that Windows is all about web and mobile apps. In fact, that's pretty much what Metro-style apps are, when you think about it. But one of Windows 8's real strengths is a quality that is shares with its Windows Phone stable mate. And that's that it integrates very nicely with the services you care most about.

There are obvious example s of this like the SkyDrive-based settings and app sharing that occurs between linked Windows 8 PCs and devices, and of course the online email and PIM services that power Mail, Calendar, People, and other apps. But the services integration capabilities in Windows 8 go much deeper than that.  And thanks to an infinitely extensible Contracts functionality, it will only get better over time, all without the need for Microsoft to improve the OS or for apps developers to improve their apps.

So for example, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview includes the ability to find and save apps with the local file system and with SkyDrive. But anyone could add similar support for other cloud storage systems, like DropBox or iCloud, and make them a seamless, integrated part of the OS. In the future, you'll install apps, but you'll also install functionality that makes the OS better. It's a sea change for the way Windows works, and interconnects with the outside world.

7. Installing, Upgrading, Repairing, and Refreshing

In the past, users could buy a copy of Windows in a retail store and, depending on which version they bought, they could clean install that OS onto a new PC or upgrade an existing PC (and previous Windows version). With Windows 8, things are getting quite a bit better.

Yes, you'll be able to clean install and upgrade as in the past. But Microsoft is also supporting a cool new web-based installer for Windows that will be able to upgrade a PC across the Internet. (Or you can download the code and perform a normal clean install.)

Even more exciting, Microsoft is killing off "PC rot" for good with a new set of features that's collectively called Push Button Reset. There are two pieces to this. The first is PC Reset, which removes all of your personal data, apps, and settings from the PC, and then reinstalls Windows to its factory-fresh, day-1 condition. The second, called Refresh Your PC, performs similarly, but retains all of your personal data, Metro-style apps (but not legacy Explorer applications), and settings, reapplying them to Windows after its been reinstalled.

Push Button Reset is amazingly fast. According to Microsoft, most PC reset operations will finish in roughly six minutes. And a PC Refresh will take a bit over 8 minutes. Now, there's no excuse not to have a finely-tuned PC, and fixing a non-optimal PC will no longer take an entire day that's fraught with the possibility of data loss.

8. Windows Store

Finally, I present the one major secret that Microsoft reserved for itself and will unveil on February 29th: The Windows Store. Yes, the new Microsoft app store has been previewed and written about, in depth, on Microsoft's blogs. But on February 29, we're going to get our first peek at the real, running store and, more important, which apps will ship at launch.

Here's a heads-up: The apps will only be free during the beta--paid apps are coming later--and the first batch will consist of Microsoft apps, winners of a recent Microsoft apps contest, and a selection of tier-one apps that Microsoft worked on closely with third party developers. Put simply, it's going to be pretty damn good. And Windows 8 is still many months away from its final release.

Or is it? Based on what we see here with the Consumer Preview, one might logically wonder if the software giant isn't planning to pull off an earlier-than-expected release too. That's not really the company's style, but I guess you never know. In the meantime, enjoy the Consumer Preview. There's a lot of good stuff going on here. And this only scratches the surface.

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