Microsoft teases users with Windows 8 preview

It has been about three years since Microsoft released its very popular Windows 7, intended both as a full release product and as an upgrade for the problem-prone and controversial Windows Vista. Now, Microsoft has simultaneously released a free “Microsoft Windows 8 Release Preview,” as well as a nominally priced Windows 8 upgrade offer for anyone purchasing a new Windows 7 PC, as of June 2.

While there are always users who want to be early adopters and be among the first to use something new, there are always laggards who want to wait until a new software product or operating system has been out for a while. The new Windows 8 is not a simple upgrade of Windows 7, but as stated by Wikipedia, “Windows 8 has been ‘re-imagined from the chipset to the user experience’ to connect more with the user. It features the Metro interface that is designed for touch screen input similar to that in Windows Phone and on the Xbox 360.” A companion version of Windows 8, currently named Windows RT, is explicitly designed to support the ARM processor, the primary processor used in many smartphones, tablets and other portable computing devices.

Windows 8 will offer a lot of features that are not currently available in Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows. According to a Wikipedia posting “Features New to Windows 8” (wikipedia.org/wiki/Features_new_to_Windows_8), “Windows 8 is expected to include several new features, including native USB 3.0 support, Microsoft Account Integration, the Windows Store, the ability to run from USB Flash drives with Windows To Go, and easier system restore options, among others.” The video display on Windows 8 is explicitly designed for the newer wide screen 16:9 monitors. Another feature currently common on Apple and Android powered devices is an “App Store” where users can purchase and directly download software for their devices; Microsoft, seeing a potential massive and continuous revenue stream, will be offering a “Windows Store” where developers can publish their new “Metro Style” (optimized for Windows 8) applications for machines running Windows 8. According to Ted Dworkin, a Partner Director of Program Management on the Windows Web Services team (quoted in Wikipedia), “ ... the Windows Store will be the only means of distributing Metro-style apps to users to allow Microsoft to scan apps for security flaws and malware.”

This new “Metro Style” desktop is designed to work equally well using the more traditional mice and keyboards, as well as the newer touch screen technology. Rather than the traditional Windows Orb or start button, traditionally displayed in the bottom left corner of the monitor screen, Windows 8 will offer a “Start Screen” with live icons, called application tiles. This new start screen is opened by pressing the Windows key, or a start button. One of the application tiles will be “Desktop” which will open up a traditional appearing desktop on the screen. When configured, the new start screen will display the registered user’s name and photo (or avatar).

Enhanced security is one of the benefits cited for users of Windows 8. Possibly the first security enhancement that users may notice is that the user can access the computer via a four digit PIN, rather than a more traditional password. While currently used on many smart phones and tablets, the PIN logon will also be available on laptop and desktop computers. Another method of enhanced security and authentication is what Microsoft is calling a “Picture Password,” where users perform manual gestures, such as tapping on a selected picture or image, or tracing common shapes (lines or circles) on the screen. An incorrect gesture will refuse access to the computer, and the user will be locked out of the computer after five consecutive unsuccessful Picture Password attempts; access can be restored by correctly entering the correct password as text.In Windows 8, major changes have been made to common Windows features that many of us are currently familiar with. The new taskbar on Windows is fully configurable and can selectively span multiple monitors, now that users with multiple monitors have become common. While connected to a single computer, multiple monitors can share the same wallpaper or each have different wallpaper. While there is no orb or start button on the taskbar, clicking on the bottom left corner of the screen will open the start menu, just as if there was a start button at that location. Windows Explorer, the ubiquitous file manager, will have a command ribbon at the top, similar to the ribbon used on newer versions of Microsoft Office, but each selection will display a selection of context sensitive choices. The Windows Task Manager has been changed in Windows 8 to include color coding of running processes, improved monitoring and display of hardware performance, a new tab displaying the applications loaded at startup (similar to the old msconfig - startup feature), and other improvements. Windows 8 will offer native support to the latest USB 3.0 devices, offering much faster transfer speeds and improved functionality. This will include an option for the operating system and key files to be installed on a bootable USB 3.0 device. Many current Windows users complain about the long boot times in the legacy versions of Windows, but Windows 8 will offer a quicker and faster boot. The latest version saves the kernel’s memory to the hard drive when the computer is shut down, similar to what current computers do when the “hibernate” option is selected, reloading it when the computer is booted.

Some of the other features and enhancements in Windows 8 include a variety of applications that are powered by Microsoft’s Bing and include real-time news and sports, as well as travel information. The new version of Windows also offers improved apps for managing e-mail, photos, and social apps, as well as more parental controls for increased family computing safety and security. The newly-released version of Internet Explorer 10 offers enhanced touch support for devices equipped with touch-screen input.

If anyone would like to try Windows 8 for free, the Windows 8 Release Preview is currently available for download from Microsoft at windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/download. The download is huge, several gigabytes in size. Gizmo, on TechSupportAlert.com warns, “ It’s still a multi-gigabyte download. It’s still best kept off your main PC, if only because it’ll destroy your recovery partition and thus make it difficult to return to your previous OS when you’ve finished trying it. So don’t bother with the download unless you have a spare machine to try it on, or you know how to create virtual machines.” Also, prior to installing the Windows 8 Release preview, be sure to do a full backup of all programs and data on your computer. There have been reports published that the Release Preview wiped out installed programs and other applications, but did not delete any data files. If I were to install this Release Preview, I would create an image backup of my current hard drive, such that I can restore my computer to its current state if need be. Because this is a pre-release version, it still may be bug-infested, and not all features may be fully implemented or functional. Good practice says that pre-release and beta software should never be used on a production computer, as there is a dearth of information on reliability and compatibility.

While this Release Preview is free, it does have a finite life, with an expiration date of Jan. 16, 2013. Any user of this Release Preview will either have to purchase and install Windows 8 prior to that date, or reinstall the previous operating system by Jan. 16. That is when the Windows 8 Release Preview will cease to function. The system requirements for this Release Preview are modest, with most modern PCs being capable of running Windows 8. Windows 8 requires a minimum of a 1 gigahertz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM for the 32-bit version and 2 gigabytes for the 64-bit version, 16 to 20 GB of available hard drive space, and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9 with a WDDM driver.

Microsoft is offering anyone who purchases a new PC with Windows 7 between June 2, 2012 and Jan. 31, 2013, an opportunity to purchase a Windows 8 upgrade when it becomes available, which will probably be later this year. For a fee of $15, those with an eligible Windows 7 PC, regardless of the version of Windows 7 installed (other than Windows 7 Starter Edition), will be able to purchase and download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. This upgrade version must be purchased and downloaded by Feb. 28, 2013. In order to take advantage of the many new features and power of Windows 8, the major PC manufacturers are starting to produce desktops, laptops, tablets, and other devices that can better utilize Windows 8. Many of the current crop of Windows 7 PCs will be able to upgrade to Windows 8, but may be lacking the hardware features to fully benefit from the program. Some industry pundits write that if you really want Windows 8 to wait a while for the next generation of hardware; but if you cannot wait and want a proven and mature operating system, get a Windows 7 device now. I fully concur with this logic.

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