Windows 8 Release Preview Hands-On: Wonderful But Kind Of Boring

The Windows 8 Release Preview is among us and, boy, is it lovely. It's so much dreamier than the Consumer Preview and makes the Developer Preview look like something cobbled together out of two-by-fours, electrical tape and rebar. It's also quite boring.

Windows 8 is Microsoft's next-generation operating system, due to ship late 2012. It adds lots of touch-based gestures to the old familiar Windows, and it introduces an entirely new notion of how apps should look and run with its Metro interface, where single apps take over the entire screen and run free of clutter from buttons and menu bars. It's a dramatic leap forward. But while the Developer Preview was a grand unveiling, and the Consumer Preview was its first big meet-and-greet, this version of Windows 8 is all about refinements. The new Release Preview is an iterative update, inching us closer to final release. It's more mature, increasingly refined and already possesses a subtle elegance.

What's New

There are lots of subtle interface enhancements in the Release Preview, and one especially major change: trackpad gesture support. One of the big knocks on Windows 8 has been that it's too touchy-feely, and that if you don't have a touchscreen or tablet, it's going to be a pain to use.

To answer that, Microsoft sent us this build on a Samsung laptop with a boring, old-school, non-touch sensitive LCD screen. Using it side by side with another laptop running the Consumer Preview was revelatory. The gesture support built into the trackpad made the experience far, far better. It was more navigable, less likely to launch inadvertent actions, and just all-around easier to use.

The trackpad gesture support is basic and intuitive. Swiping from right to left brings up the Charms menu, which is basically Windows 8's version of a home row. A left side swipe will switch between apps. Dragging down from the top brings up options. And gestures are built into individual apps as well. For example, pinching the trackpad brings up Semantic Zoom in both the Metro Start screen and in select apps. (And any app can have this ability built in.)

Given that Microsoft is also building all this into its touch-sensitive mice, and other manufacturers can take advantage of that support as well, any concerns you might have about using touch-sensitive screens on Windows 8 are way overblown.

The new Release Preview also adds much-needed polish and interface enhancements. Subtle touches abound that make it easier to navigate and get things done in Metro, like adding semantic zoom to the People app so that you can easily jump from your contacts in the A section all the way to Z without having to scrooooooooooooooooooolllllllll forever.

Mail may be the most useful upgrade. In the Consumer Preview, it was kind of a pain to navigate between folders. You had to drop down into the menu to swap from, say, your notifications folder to your bulk folder to your inbox. Every time you chose one, the others would slide away out of view. Here's a reminder of how it looked:

The Release Preview keeps the three-pane interface front and centre by default, and that's far easier to deal with. Sorting through your inbox and then moving quickly to scan your other folders is much easier in this layout. And it's also designed to be navigated with the thumbs in a tablet layout -- the sidebar that lists your mailbox folders is extremely narrow, but that doesn't mean it's a touch-only interface. It's not. It works very well with a trackpad or mouse.

Basically, all the Metro apps you've been using have been made slightly slicker, slightly easier to navigate and all-around better.

The Desktop experience has been bettered-up too. It uses fewer resources when it's in the background, and some of the touch-forward UI elements have been toned down. The Start menu gets out of your way faster now, for example, so you can access the task bar.

Apps Aplenty

It also includes a few new Metro apps from Microsoft, all of which are as gorgeous and fluid as any of the others that have come before it.

The News app aggregates information from hundreds of stories into one gorgeous app. It's got personalisation features so that you can select sources or track stories you want to follow. You can pull out of the main view using Semantic Zoom to jump from topic to topic.

A Sports app lets you add favourite teams to track their players, schedules, scores and news of the day, as well as follow general news about individual sports.

A Travel app serves as both a Frommer's-powered guidebook and Kayak-powered reservation engine, so you can research your trip and book it all in one spot.

Microsoft also showed off some new third-party apps like a beefed-up WordPress app and a SkyNews app that we couldn't test yet because they weren't available on the Store until after the Release Preview ships. But they were all taking advantage of Windows 8's ability to share data across apps -- a photo displayed in the News app can be shared with any other app without actually having to download it to your machine, for example. It all just works together really well.

A Slow Build

It's a remarkable new operating system, that somehow still drives home Microsoft's inability to gin up excitement about its products. The Release Preview feels like yet-another-trailer when you're just ready to start the show. And while it addresses a lot of concerns and makes very many under-the-hood fixes, there's just not anything radically new that bowls you over.

When Windows 8 finally does drop, it's going to be one of the top technology releases of the year, a watershed product that ultimately affects hundreds of millions of people's lives. It is a Big Deal. And Microsoft is going to bore the hell out of you as it dribbles it out bit by bit along the way. But that's OK. Sometimes boring is good.

You can download the Windows 8 Release Preview yourself here.



    A little harsh Mat. The majority of people in the future will be exposed to Windows 8 for the first time when they purchase it. To them it will be an entirely new experience.

    It's like iOS 5 which I had 5/6 months before the actual launch, and it wasn't spectacular for me when it finally launched, while everyone else was cooing about it. Same situation here for us bloggers.

    Quick question: Is an OS supposed to be distracting? I feel you've missed the point. I thought good design was supposed to be invisible.. not beholden to the ego of the designer, flashy, distracting and convoluted as a less "boring" UI might entail.

    "Microsoft is going to bore the hell out of you as it dribbles it out bit by bit along the way."
    Indeed, very harsh. Especially when you've just gone on for 95% of the article about how cool, beautiful and refined things are. What part of what you described was "boring"?

    It's not Apple so it's boring.... /trollololol

    3rd picture, gray font on white back ground? I can feel my eyes starting to bleed and squint :(

    Actually I found them all hard to read, hopefully thats part of the scaling to diff size screens thing and these are screenshots of larger screens.

      Seriously? What sort of monitor are you using and in what environment? I doubt I'd have trouble reading that image if they halved the contrast from its present level and I have tired, old eyes.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      I published the publicly displayed install key for others to use. Why was that inappropriate?
      Not like this is a pirated version... It's public for all to use...!

    I can't believe anyone uses trackpads, they annoy the bejeesus outta me. They don't track 1:1 with the screen, which means you have to swipe several times to get from one corner of the screen to another and you can't just plonk your finger down in one spot and have the cursor appear there. They seem to offer all the worst features of a mouse and a Wacom tablet without any of the advantages of either.

      depends on how you have it set up MotorMouth. Change the speed and sensitivity, and it'll track 1:1 with the screen.

        Maybe on your machine but not on any I have owned. The only thing I can do on mine is map gestures to functions.

      I agree, trackpads do indeed and have always sucked. They are a low end compromise of far better technologies, all for the space and low power requirements of the form factor...
      But then I'm used to using hi-end Wacom digitisers and need high accuracy from my mouse because of the type of work I do. But I suppose your average user doesn't know any better and makes do without getting frustrated over the obvious limitations.

    I heard somewhere that Win 8 doesnt have the windows 7 desktop UI anymore, is that true?

    Whats the point of Windows 8 when the tablet market is dominated by iOS and Android and the PC and Notebook market don't have touch screens to fully utilise the interface?

    PS. this is my own opinion so dont shoot me down if i am wrong.

      What was the point of the Xbox when the game market was dominated by Nintendo and Sony?

      What was the point of the iPhone when the phone market was dominated by Nokia?

      Mystery, hey Luke? ;)

      PS not shooting you down just having a bit of fun.
      PPS Windows 8 on non-tablets still has the standard Windows interface included, I believe.

      It still has the desktop UI, it's just not the default view.

      As said above though, gestures on touch mice are now supported, so if you don't have a touch screen, buy a new mouse!

      Luke, fear not. Windows 8 feels pretty much exactly like Windows 7 most of the time. The Start Menu, which sucks in Win7 anyway, has been replaced by something much better and there is now a separate space with its own look and feel for running tablet-friendly "apps". But if you just want to use traditional desktop software, you will hardly notice any difference at all.

    i havent met an OS that wasn't boring.

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