Curious users, developers, and early adopters can now get a closer look at Windows 8, Microsoft’s upcoming operating system. At an event today in Barcelona, Microsoft Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky announced that Windows 8 Consumer preview is available for download starting today at preview.windows.com.
“We challenged ourselves to bring the best of mobility and the best of PCs,” Sinofsky said, noting that Windows 8 is designed to be a “no-compromise experience” that lets you choose the form factor you want but provides a consistent experience.
Though Microsoft released a developer preview of Windows 8 last fall, the Consumer Preview version features a number of significant improvements in both the UI and functionality. With its attractive, touch-friendly Metro UI, Windows 8 promises to bring the best of the desktop and tablet functionality today.
“Every subsystem . . . has all been touched and improved as we developed the consumer preview of Windows 8,” Sinofsky said. He noted that developers have made over 100,000 code changes since the developer preview.
During a nearly two-hour event, Sinofsky and other Microsoft execs showed ned features like a Windows store, built-in cloud connectivity and Internet Explorer 10 build 5. The company also showed off the device’s ability to run on ARM-based devices.
In a demo, Corporate VP Julie-Larson Green showed how the operating system’s UI can scale to different form factors. Using a 10-inch tablet and talked about the personalized info on the start screen and the operating system’s ability to unlock when by simply drawing a pattern on top of a personal picture like one of her family. She then walked users through the Metro interface, showing how users can pin their friends to the tile-based interface then zoom in and out, to quickly navigate through the many screens and categories of tiles.
Larson-Green also spoke about IE 10 on Windows 8, showing how you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get the address bar and a list of bookmarks. She also explained how you cna slide out the Charms bar, which includes the settings, search and other key buttons, by sliding your thumb in from the right side of the screen. She also showed off a Windows 8 version of the popular game Cut the Rope to demonstrate how well the OS can handle casual games.
She announced that Windows 8 comes with built-in vidoe and music stores. In the video store, she demonstrated the ability to buy or rent movies. In addition, Larsen-Green showed off a Metro-style app calld iCookbook that shows attractive photos of food, along with their recipes. Continuing to show gestures, arsen-Green showed how you can swipe from left to move between apps.
Larsen-Green then showed off the people pap, which lets you see vibrant photos of all you friends and keep track of their updates and photos across all their social networks, and also pin your favorite people to the start screen. She also demoed Windows 8’s new instant messaging app and showed how Windows 8 can dock a second application — in this case a video — to the left or right side of the screen.
She also explained how users can take advantage of system-wide sharing by sliding out the charms bar when they are in one application — in this case, IE 10 — and tapping on the share button. Larsen-Green explained that the sharing options don’t even need to know about the app they are being shared from. For example, FaceBook doesn’t have to be aware of IE 10 to share links from it directly.
Corporate VP Antoine Leblond took the stage to show how well Windows 8 works on a laptop without touch, demoing the OS on a Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. First, he showed the start screen, which unlocks with a simple PIN, much like it does today. He then showed how the wheel on the mouse and page up / page down to scroll through the Metro-based Start screen. The mouse lets you pick which tiles to click and start. If you are within an app and want to return to the Start screen, he showed that you can hover over the lower left corner of the screen and click on a pop-up icon that appears.
Leblond also showed how you can zoom out on the Metro UI by clicking on the lower left corner of the screen. By zooming out you can see all your tiles on one screen and rearrange groups of styles like video, kids, and work-oriented tile groups, just by dragging them around. He also explained how you can switch between open apps by clicking on the upper left corner. Hovering over the left corner and dragging down lets you see a panel of open apps.
“It’s just as easy to navigate with the mouse as it is with your fingers,” Leblond said.
He also showed how the keyboard can help you find apps. When he started typing “usa” on the Start screen, a list of apps, including USA Today app appeared.
He loaded up USA Today’s app and then clicked the Share button from the Charms menu and showed how an article could be added to a WordPress blog directly from that app, even though the app doesn’t anything about WordPress.
He also demonstrated the desktop mode, which launches when you click on a desktop app like Office 2010. He explained that the desktop mode looks and feels just as it did in Windows 7.
Leblond showed that Windows 8 has an improved file copy status menu which shows you a graph of your file copying and lets you pause a copy and then resume later. If you run two copy operations at once, both status charts appear in the same window so you can pause one until the other is complete. It even resumes copy operations that were stalled when you put your computer to sleep in mid-copy.
Larsen-Green took the stage a second time to show how a system that has both a touchscreen and a keyboard / mouse combo can work well in Windows 8. She also demonstrated how your settings sync between different machines by signing in to the desktop with the same ID and noting that it had the same pinned apps and lock screen photo.
She then went into SkyDrive to show Microsoft’s Cloud service helps keep users in sync and stores their most important data. Larsen-Green explained that SkyDrive is integrated into the OS so that your SkyDrive account appears in all your file dialog boxes. She showed how Windows 8 lets you attach files to an email from both local and SkyDrive storage at the same time.
Larsen-Green also demonstrated Windows 8’s ability to search from anywhere within the OS by clicking the Search charm button and then entering text into the docked search dialog that appears on the left side of the screen. You can decide what to search, including apps you have installed like Netflix.
Leblond shoed off the built-in app store. he first drilled into the store’s Games category, clicked on the app “Pirates Love Daisies,” then went through that app’s detail page which has screen shots and descriptive text. He announced that during the consumer peview period, all apps in the app store will be free.
He also announced the 8 winners of Microsoft’s Windows 8 apps contest, which was launched in September. These include Air Soccer, Pew Pew, Flip Saw, SigFig Portfoliio, Elements Weather, CookBook and Physamajig. All of the winner’s apps will be preloaded on Windows 8.
Microsoft VP Michael Angiulo came on stage to show a demo of Windows 8 on ARM. He spoke about the benefits of ARM-based system that work in “connected standby” mode, which allows them to download updates even while asleep.
He took out a Tegra 3-based tablet and showed that the UI looked exactly the same, including the lock screen. Sinofsky pointed to devices with Qualcomm and TI OMAP chips on stage to show that all the major ARM manufacturers will support Windows 8.
Angiulo said that Windows 8 on ARM works the same way as on x86 chips, because it uses the same codebase. He then launched the USA Today app that Leblond showed before to show that the code on HTML 5 apps works across both platforms. USA Today only had to write its app once.
Sinofsky explained that Microsoft uses something called a “class driver” to make ARM-based devices compatible with popular PC peripherals like keyboards, mice, or printers. Angiulo also briefly showed Office 15 running on the Tegra 3 tablet while Sinofsky explained that Office 15 files will be fully compatbile across platforms.
Angiulo showed how another one of the ARM tablets on stage could go to sleep and wake up in just a second. He explained that Windows 8 for ARM had to be made more efficient and “smaller” to handle background tasks.
Angiulo also talked about Windows 8 on ultrabooks, first holding up a second-generation Intel reference design Ultrabook. He then showed an Acer S5 Ultrabook cold booting in just 8 seconds, a time he said should be commonplace.He then took out an HP Spectre ultrabook and showed how that it could wake and go to sleep in just a second or two.
Both Sinofsky and Arguilo talked about the benefits of Utlrabook design, pointing to the Dell XPS 13 as a great example of an ultrabook and saying that thinner and lighter PCs mean that users will take them on the road more often. Arguilo explained that Windows 8 also speeds up your Wi-Fi connection and automatically switches between mobile connections to prioritize inexpensive Wi-Fi over expensive mobile broadband. Sinofsky said that, on Ultrabooks, Windows 8 should be able to finish connecting to a hotspot so fast that it will be done connecting before you’ve finished typing in the password.
Anguilo took out Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga to show how PC makers are using Windows 8 to reimagine what the notebook can be. He showed how the Yoga’s screen can bend back 180 degrees to turn this clamshell into a slate. He also showed an all-in-one desktop that flips over to become a touchscreen table that reminded them of Microsoft Surface. Both Sinofsky and Anguilo said they expect vendors to create lots of new form factors based on Windows 8.
Sinofsky said that users will have the freedom to switch back and forth between keyboard/mouse and touch based on the task. He said users could swipe through web content with touch and then switch to keyboard when writing an email. The two then showed Windows 8 running on a giant screen that supports 100-finger touch so up to 10 people can touch the device at one time.
He explained that Windows 8 has better multi-monitor support. He showed that, in Windows 8, the taskbar expands to your second or third screen and shortcut icons follow your windows as you move them from one screen to another.
Anguilo showed a new feature called Windows to Go, which allows users to carry the entire OS on a USB key. He plugged a Windows to Go USB stick into a notebook and showed how it boots faster than a Windows 7 PC booting from its internal hard drive.
In closing the presentation, Sinofsky reiterated his belief that Windows 8 will revolutionize computing by bringing together the worlds of touch and keyboard/mouse entry and allowing users to choose between multiple form factors. He said that the next major release after the consumer preview will be a release candidate version.