Microsoft takes wraps off Windows 8 consumer preview

The release is available for download, giving Microsoft a chance to act on feedback before the full Windows 8 launch later this year
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Microsoft has released a consumer preview of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system.

Windows 8 consumer preview

The Consumer Preview of Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 8 operating system is now available for download, after it was unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Image credit: Microsoft

The release is the most feature-complete yet, ahead of the final product's appearance later this year. Microsoft said on Wednesday that the developer preview saw over three million downloads.

The launch of the consumer preview took place in Barcelona, at Mobile World Congress — Windows 8 is the first version of the OS that can run on ARM's architecture, which dominates the mobile industry.

"With Windows 8, we reimagined the different ways people interact with their PC and how to make everything feel like a natural extension of the device, whether using a Windows 8 tablet, laptop or all-in-one," Windows chief Steven Sinofsky said in a statement.

Wednesday also saw the beta opening of the Windows Store, which will offer various Metro-style apps to desktop and tablet users of Windows 8. The apps that are currently available are all free to use during the consumer preview period, Microsoft said.

The company also put out a fifth platform preview of Internet Explorer 10 and published a product guide for business users of Windows 8.

One of the main rationales behind widely available releases such as the Windows 8 consumer preview is to give Microsoft "a lot of feedback through telemetry, forums and blog posts", Microsoft's Kent Walker wrote in a blog post.

"The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is just that: a preview of what's to come. It represents a work in progress, and some things will change before the final release. This means you'll encounter some hiccups and bugs," Walker said.

New features

The consumer preview includes many features that were missing from the developer preview. SkyDrive integration is one of the most notable features, plugging Metro apps into Microsoft's consumer cloud.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview represents a work in progress, and some things will change before the final release.
– Kent Walker, Microsoft

Microsoft is encouraging users to log in with their Microsoft accounts, which immediately hooks them up to settings, files and contacts that are stored in the cloud. The company is pitching this as a way to set up quickly on a new machine, or more easily share machines between different users.

The lock screen now includes smartphone-style notifications and more gesture and mouse controls have been added. Microsoft has also included its new 'semantic zoom' feature, making it possible to more easily arrange and access groups of tiles.

The 'charm bar' has been added to the side of the screen, offering common tasks such as sharing and searching. Background images are now customisable, albeit not as freely as will be the case in the final release of Windows 8. Xbox integration also turns the PC into a remote control for the home entertainment system.

Business side

On the business side, the consumer preview of Windows 8 now supports Hyper-V virtualisation, and can also be run off a USB stick as 'Windows To Go'.

Microsoft is also heavily pushing the live tile experience in the new OS — its business product guide notes that "a worker in a warehouse can view stock inventory warnings with data displayed on a live tile... with a single tap, they can open an app that lets them make changes or review more detailed information".

The preview also includes an improved version of Microsoft's BranchCache technology, aimed at making it more efficient for branch offices to access data from their headquarters. It has been around for a few years, but BranchCache is now more easily deployed and its performance has been improved, Microsoft said.

The new SmartScreen Application Reputation service is one of several added security features in the preview, giving users information about the safety of the apps they download. Another feature, AppLocker, restricts which files certain users and groups can run, and is being pitched at businesses that manage their Windows machines with group policies.

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