Microsoft released the Windows 8 Release Preview (RP) — the next big step in its seemingly never-ending journey to get on store shelves — bringing new features, improved apps and more polish to the whole experience.
Except it’s totally not a surprise. Ever since a leak of the new version appeared on a Chinese website, unnamed “sources” have come forward to spill the beans that the RP was coming today, and Microsoft itself even reportedly let the cat out of the bag early with a blog post, which it quickly took down. Oops.
A lightning recap: Microsoft is re-inventing Windows. Windows 8 radically alters the experience with a highly visual interface called Metro. Metro is loaded with rectangular iconography that maintains a consistent look and experience across apps — and it also happens to be ideal for touchscreens, like tablets.
If such massive change sounds scary, you can take heart that the familiar desktop environment is always a click away from Metro. Microsoft is rolling out Windows 8 in stages: The first was last fall’s Developer Preview, then the Consumer Preview in February, and now it’s time for the Release Preview. This will be followed by the full-on “here it is, folks” General Release, expected this fall (no formal date has been announced).
First impressions weren’t so great, since the machine’s touchpad was incapable of clicking on the “Accept” button on the terms of service page that first appears when you switch on the machine. After futzing with keyboard commands for a while, I was able to get past it, and the touchpad had no more problems. Hopefully it was just a bug with our machine.
The touchpad may have been a little buggy because that’s one area that’s much improved. Microsoft has added some new touchpad gestures to Windows 8. You’ll actually have to download the drivers for them separately from the RP download, but they include very useful tools like being able to call up the “charms” menu by sliding in from the right edge — exactly how it works on a tablet. I criticized the Consumer Preview for the keyboard-and-mouse interface not quite working the same way as the touch experience, and this mitigates the problem a little.
The special drivers also add the ever-popular ability to perform two-finger scrolling. The feature is extremely useful, proving popular on MacBooks and many Windows 7 machines. However, the implementation is incomprehensible.
Here’s why: Metro’s entire design aesthetic is based on scrolling horizontally. Why, then, when I scroll up and down, does the screen scroll left to right? This is an insane choice. It puts the experience at odds with the vertically scrolling pages you’ll encounter in Internet Explorer, and it’s totally inconsistent from app to app: To scroll horizontally, you sometimes gesture up/down (People, Photos), side-to-side (the Start screen) or both (Finance).
If there’s a setting that can restore order to this chaos, I didn’t find it. Microsoft really should sort this out before General Release — I can see it being a real turn-off for casual users. (Update: Microsoft says two-fingered scrolling isn’t supposed to work this way, and it would release updated drivers. In the final build, horizontal scrolling will be purely side-to-side.)
Internet Explorer Upgrade
Finally, there’s Internet Explorer 10, Microsoft’s in-house web browser, which adds a couple of interesting features. First, Microsoft has added a strip of frequently visited and pinned/bookmarked sites that appear when you begin typing in a URL.
Potentially more useful, however, is “Flip Ahead,” which adds an arrow (only visible if your mouse is close by) to the right of the screen. The arrow looks at Bing user activity and page data and actually tries to predict the most likely page you want to go to.
This would be very handy for, say, articles split among multiple pages — that is, if it actually took you to the next page. In my brief test with a few multi-page articles from Slate, it did nothing of the kind, but perhaps it just needs tweaking (and more user data).
Most important, IE10 now has Flash compatibility built in. However, as Microsoft explained to me, this does not mean that every Flash site will render properly. Since IE in Metro uses a customized version of Flash that Microsoft worked directly with Adobe to create, sites need to submit themselves for approval to work with IE10. Microsoft said it’s already taken care of big Flash sites (like YouTube) and more are getting added to the bucket.
Windows 8: Almost Fully Formed
With the Release Preview, Windows 8 enters its final stretch toward release, ready or not. There’s clearly lots of polish here, and Microsoft has good reason to be proud. One great example: In addition to the many features I’ve outlined here, the RP adds the ability for Wi-Fi passwords to travel with your Windows Live ID. That means if you ever borrow your friend’s Windows tablet or switch machines, you won’t have to input the network passwords for your home router, local coffee shop, etc. It’s a nice convenience that I hope is stolen by Android and iOS quickly.
Nonetheless, I’m still bothered by some of the basic interface issues (like the inconsistent scrolling). Windows isn’t just the OS for work machines — about 90% of the world’s computers run it. That means this thing has to be idiot-proof, or users will hurry to exit Metro for the traditional desktop.
That would be a shame, since there’s a lot to love in Metro; it just needs a perfectionist’s touch. There’s still time. Windows 8 may be close to the finish line, but whether or not it scores a win probably depends more on what happens in the next few months than even Microsoft thinks.