With the Windows 8 Release Preview finally available, Microsoft has taken a major step toward putting its chips on the table for its biggest gamble ever. While we may start seeing some of the hardware that will run Windows 8 as early as next week, we know enough about the operating system itself to say what's surprisingly good and what needs help, STAT.
What we liked so far:
The Metro interface comes at app icons from a different angle than Apple and Google. Live tiles are actually useful, updating the stock ticker concept for a modern, mobile world. You can create tiles for individual e-mail accounts, or follow updates from specific contacts, and it presents a nearly non-existent learning curve.
Semantic zoom is the ability in Windows 8 to access different levels of content via zooming. On the Start screen, zooming out gives you a bird's eye view of your tile groups. In an app, you can zoom out to see different kinds of related content -- in the Bing Travel app, you'll see categories like Today, Featured Destinations, Panoramas, and Articles.
Picture password has never failed to impress. Everybody loves it. You create a series of gestures on a photo of your choice, and use those to login instead of a typed password. It's an obvious win for touch-screen devices, and you can choose the photo from almost anywhere -- your Facebook account, SkyDrive, Flickr, or locally stored.
The three S's: search, sync, and share provide a solid skeleton to hang much of your Windows 8 activity on. Search is intuitive, and although the search tool lives on the Start screen, it lets you drill down into Apps, Settings, or Files with ease. Sync will synchronize enormous chunks of what you do in Windows, from browser history to settings to apps. Share lets you share content across apps with little effort, powered by Microsoft's innovative Share API. App makers only have to code for that API, and other apps will be able to "talk" to it for sending content. A great example of this is the Evernote app, which you can now create a note from a Web page in only two taps.
What will frustrate you:
Learning Windows 8 doesn't take long, but it will require a quick tutorial for most people. You won't intuitively know that the Charms bar slides out from the right edge, or that zoom takes you to a different layer of content. However Microsoft decides to teach people how to use it, nearly everybody who gets a Windows 8 device is going to have to be taught.
Mousing through the Metro interface feels daunting, despite Microsoft's efforts to make it accessible. Until you get used to it, it feels like running through a herd of elephants looking for a small and possible flattened dog. That's a shame, because it's not bad with a mouse. But hot keys are faster.
Sync, again. While I did say that Sync will synchronize enormous chunks of what you do in Windows, it doesn't do it all yet. Apps and Start screen tile groups don't sync yet, and nor does your super-cool picture login. Microsoft promises that it'll be a fully operational Death Star of Sync by the time Windows 8 is shipped, but it's not a Jedi yet.
Jumping to Desktop mode is jarring. Microsoft has kept it for several official reasons, but it's really about easing the transition from Windows 7 to Metro. I don't see what they can do to fix that, because they are two diametrically opposed designs. The company seems to think that killing off the translucent Aero program borders will help, but we won't get to judge for ourselves until the final version.
Apps, where art thou? It's a nice OS. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it. Where we stand now, there's little risk of anything happening to it because there's so few native apps to test on it. Like Sync being finished by the final version, Microsoft says that there will be plenty of apps for you to play with by the time it launches in the fall. But now? Aside from the default apps like Mail, People, News, and Travel, you've got Evernote, Slacker Radio, and Cut the Rope and a handful more. It takes time to build a deep bench of apps, and Microsoft's on a tight schedule.