The beta of Windows 8, which Microsoft released today, brings several new features including more Metro apps, the Windows Store, Internet Explorer 10 platform preview 5, the integration of SkyDrive cloud services and many smaller tweaks. In all, Microsoft said, there are more than 100,000 changes since the release of the Developer Preview late last year. Microsoft also previewed several new hardware features including the ability to run Windows 8 entirely off a USB key.
The Windows 8 Consumer Preview (CP) is available starting today at http://preview.windows.com. I'll be posting my hands-on impressions later, but in the meantime here's a quick summary of what's new.
It is fitting that Microsoft chose Mobile World Congress to unveil the beta since this is the first version of Windows designed as much for tablets as it is for laptops and desktops. But in contrast with the Developer Preview, Microsoft now seems to be making the case for Windows 8 on PCs of all shapes and sizes. In addition to tablets, the launch event included demonstrations on Ultrabooks and desktops.
Microsoft says the goal with Windows 8 was a "no-compromise" experience for all types of PCs that scales across levels of users, screen sizes and usage scenarios. In particular, that means apps that work on all devices and cloud integration so that folders, files and user settings can "roam" across all devices from Windows PCs to Windows Phone smartphones.
The launch event included demonstrations of several new Metro apps; some are pre-installed and others are available in the Windows Store. The highlighted apps included Xbox Live Games; Video and Music stores; a People app that integrates contacts, social media and mail; Bing Finance; Cut the Rope; USA Today; and iCookbook, a recipe app. The Windows Store has all the features of typical app stores including featured apps, lists of top paid and free apps, and user reviews. Microsoft said its more attractive terms would lure more developers to build apps for Windows 8, though it did not state the total number of preview apps currently in the store.
The SkyDrive features are not a surprise--Microsoft discussed these features in an earlier post on the Building Windows 8 blog. But the SkyDrive Metro app is now pre-installed. It allows you to save files to SkyDrive, create folders to organize them, and synchronize documents, photos, and Favorites and others settings across devices. Metro apps can open files from and save them to SkyDrive, and you can use Charms menu on the right side of the screen to easily share content from within an app that supports the Share contract. Microsoft has also announced a SkyDrive desktop app that provides some of these features on PCs running Windows 8, Windows 7 or Vista.
Microsoft seems intent on demonstrating that Windows 8 will work equally well with a keyboard and mouse. Since the Metro apps are full-screen, one key to this is the use of hotspots on the edges of the screen. Place the cursor in the bottom left corner to return to the Start screen, the left edge to see all open apps, and the right edge to open the Charms menu. You can drag apps off the screen to close them or dock them to right or left side of the display to keep them in sight while working on something (this works with both Metro and desktop apps).
There wasn't any major news on the hardware front, but that's not terribly surprising since the final version of Windows 8 is still months away. There was lots of hardware on display though including a Samsung tablet, several laptops (Dell XPS 13, HP Envy 14 Spectre, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s and IdeaPad Yoga and Samsung Series 9), several desktops and even an 82-inch touchscreen. Perhaps the most interesting hardware demo was Windows to Go, which lets you keep the OS, settings, apps and files on a USB drive that you can move from one device to another. There are third-party tools that let you run apps from a USB key, but this looks like an easier and more complete solution.
The next step is the final Release Candidate. In the meantime Microsoft plans to release updates to the OS (presumably through Windows Update), more preview apps and updated drivers.