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Windows 8 is finally ready to have its tires kicked by the masses in the Consumer Preview. Here's what's new since the Developer Preview. Anyone who's been playing with the Windows 8 Developer Preview will notice quite a few changes, both in content and user interface design. In general, the Consumer preview does a better job of integrating the two faces of Windows 8—the touch-centric Metro interface and the traditional Windows Desktop interface. It also introduces some very handy new touch gestures for tablet users. But keyboard and mouse users—Microsoft's bread and butter—haven't been left out either. Here are the changes that stood out among those in this latest pre-release of Microsoft's next big operating system.
1. The Windows Store
With the launch of Consumer Preview, we finally get a look at the Windows Store—Microsoft's answer to Apple's App Store for iOS devices and Macs. In its present form, the store only offers free software. You just need a Microsoft ID such as a Hotmail or Windows Live Messenger account to acquire the Metro-style apps in the store. None of the clever apps developed by Microsoft's college interns are pre-installed on the Consumer Preview, so look in the Windows Store if you miss them.
You'll also find the addictive game, Cut the Rope in there, along with many other games. Apps are well categorized into groups like Social, Entertainment, Photos, Music & Videos, Books and reference, News, Food, Shopping, and so on. And it's easy to swipe back and forth through them. There's also a Spotlight section, along with tiles for Top Paid, Top Free, New releases, and All Stars.There's a surprising selection for a store that just opened. Since all the current apps are free, I couldn't check out the Trial install capability—something not offered by the iOS App Store.
Each App's page shows its user star rating, icon, price (all free for now), screenshots, text summary, and Install button. Once you hit that, the activity dots animate across the screen. Then you'll see a fly-in notification at upper-right telling you that the app was installed. The new app's tile will appear at the end of your Start screen.
2. The Charms Have Moved!
In Developer Preview, the "Charms"—what Microsoft is calling Windows 8's main system menu icons—have moved from the lower left corner of the screen to the center of the right edge. The mouse point to open them has moved to the opposite point on the screen: Now you have to move the cursor to the top right corner and then down to access the Charms. For touch input, the charms are more accessible, requiring only a swipe out off right edge of the screen.
3. Semantic Zoom
This feature lets you pinch the Windows 8 Metro Start screen to more easily see all your app tiles. Just pinch on the screen, and the tiles will not just shrink, but intelligently resize to remain useful. You can rename and move groups of app tiles around using this gesture, too, for better organization.
4. Running app stack gesture/mouse to top left corner
There's a new way to navigate among running apps. On a touch screen, you swipe a finger in from the left edge of the screen and then back out. This displays a vertical stack of thumbnails for all your running apps. Just touch one of these thumbnails to switch to the app it represents. This gesture took me a little while to get the hang of, but once I did, it proved an extremely quick and useful way to navigate around my applications.
5. Smoother transition to Desktop
It's a subtle difference, but in the Developer Preview, the animation displayed when you switched from the Metro user interface to the traditional Windows desktop interface was pretty jarring. It was a showy sliding animation with a zooming out effect. The Consumer Preview makes the desktop and Metro interfaces feel more like a single operating system, with a simple fade to black transition and reappearance of the other guise. It just feels quicker and less drastic.
6. Mouse to move Metro start tiles on Start
There's plenty of new goodness for keyboard and mouse users in Consumer Preview, too. Possibly foremost among these is the ability to move through the Metro Start page tiles by simply nudging the mouse cursor against either edge of the screen. Previously, you had to move the cursor down to the scroll bar and drag its handle. That still works, though, as does the ability to page through the App tiles with the mouse wheel.
7. Systemwide Spell checker
Spell checking is the newest of the features Windows 8 apps will be able to take advantage of. The others being Share (to mail, social networks, and so on), and store to SkyDrive's cloud storage. The new spell checker, in typical fashion, places a squiggly red underline under suspected misspelled words, and clicking on this proposes corrections. You also get the Word-like Add to dictionary and Ignore options.
8. No More Start Button, or Is there?
There was an outpouring of lamentation for the dearly departed Windows Start button a few weeks ago, but it's death is only virtual. When a mouse user moves the cursor to the place the Start button has occupied for decades, a new one sprouts up, looking like a mini-thumbnail of the Metro Start screen. Clicking, of course, invokes the Start screen. You can still just start typing to search for an app or document as you could with previous Windows Start buttons. Right clicking this brings up a list of geeky choices like Disk Management, Event Viewer, and Command Prompt. Microsoft (probably rightly) considers right-clicking the sole province of geeks and power users.
9. Close app by dragging down
Another new gesture lets touch users close a running app simply by holding a finger on its window and dragging all the way down to the bottom of the screen. Based on my testing of this, Microsoft has a little more work to do to get the animation smoother; the large thumbnail didn't follow my finger, though the app did close once I dragged the thumbnail all the way to the bottom of the screen.
10. Screen Capture—Windows Key + PrtSC
Tech writers will rejoice at this one: Now, to create an image file of the screen anywhere in the system, you simple press the Windows key + Print Screen. On a Windows 8 tablet, you can also hold down the Windows button and volume rocker.
11. Resizable virtual Thumb keyboard
One of Windows 8's many touch input innovations is the thumb keyboard, which puts all the letters of the on-screen virtual keyboard near the left and right edges of the screen for easy thumb typing. But the keys were one-size-fits all, and often didn’t. Thankfully, now you can choose among small, medium, and large key layouts for this.
12. New Apps—People, Music, Mail, Messaging, SkyDrive
Apps includes with Windows 8 Consumer have been pared down to about a dozen, compared with the over two dozen that came with Developer Preview. Those were coded by gifted college interns, while the present apps are all professionally developed. The new ones include essentials like mail, photos, weather, finance, Maps, People (for social updates), Calendar, Video, Messaging, Photos, and Music.
13. Picture password
This was shown by Microsoft at its Build Conference during the unveiling of Windows 8 Developer Preview, but only now in Consumer Preview can we actually try it out for ourselves. In my testing the setup and use of the picture password was snappy. It was forgiving when I didn't repeat my gestures exactly as I had during setup. This is a good thing, since it would be very frustrating if it made unlocking a Windows 8 tablet too difficult. Microsoft has done extensive research on the security of these passwords, even testing whether screen smudges could give trespassers entry, which proved highly unlikely. Statics analysis has also shown that there are in excess of a billion three-gesture combinations.
For more, read my Hands On with Windows 8 Consumer Preview.
For more from Michael, follow him on Twitter @mikemuch.___
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