I'm sitting in my breakfast nook, my Samsung Series 9 sitting on the countertop. I check the news, and then look at how the markets are doing. After that, I fire up IE 10 to check my morning blogs, which kills another 15 minutes or so. At that point, I swipe the home page to the list of apps and open Word. It's a little disconcerting to be in the Metro-style interface--in what Microsoft calls the "Windows Home Page"--and then suddenly be in the desktop as Word launches. But cognitive dissonance is likely to be a common phenomenon among experienced Windows users. See also: Install Windows 8 Release Preview.

There's no question that Windows 8 is polarizing--particularly with regard to its new Start screen. On the other hand, initial user impressions came in response to very early builds. Microsoft is now set to release the Final Release Preview. Based on Build 8400, the Final Release Preview is similar in scope to the Windows 7 Release Candidate. In most respects it is feature-complete, though bugs remain and Microsoft still has lots of polishing to do. Overall, however, the FRP is substantially more usable than previous versions were. The included apps work more smoothly, the mouse and keyboard are more responsive, and the OS in general seems much more solid.

Not Just About Metro

I'll take you on a tour of apps shortly, but it's worth discussing improvements built into Windows 8 over earlier Windows. The Metro interface and the Microsoft store have garnered considerable scrutiny, so it's worth taking a look at other aspects of Windows 8 that maybe more important to users considering upgrading. While most of the Windows 8 sales volume will be on new systems shipped with the OS, those considering upgrades would like to know if the pain of upgrading will pay off. Here's a brief rundown of "under-the-hood" improvements to Windows 8.

  • Smaller memory footprint. Windows 8 uses memory more efficiently and requires less memory to run. This is important for systems like Ultrabooks, which often ship with 4GB of non-upgradable RAM, some of which need to be allocated to the graphics frame buffer.
  • More efficient performance. Windows 8 and its underlying subsystems consume fewer CPU resources than previous incarnations. That's important for ultraportables and tablets, whose CPU performance may lag those of higher end systems.
  • Less disk space needed. As SSDs become more mainstream, having more disk space for user files is always good.
  • HyperV integration. This is key for enterprises and businesses which make heavy use of VMs for running work apps in a world where people want to bring their own devices to work.
  • Skydrive integration built-in. Cloud storage is now an integral part of the OS.
  • Improved multimonitor support, including the ability to set the location of the task bar.

Most of these differences, with the possible exception of improved multi-display support, won't appeal as much to desktop PC power users, but will have major impacts on mobile systems, which often ship with constrained memory, CPU and storage.

App Improvements

Earlier incarnations of the included Metro apps were criticized for their limited functionality. The included apps, like Music, Mail, Video and News, are much more polished, though there are still rough edges.

Mail

The Mail Metro app is still labeled "App preview"; it's not quite full-featured yet. For example, it can easily be set up for Hotmail, GMail and Exchange accounts, but not POP or IMAP. So I was able to configure two GMail accounts, but not my private Yahoo mail account. You read that right: two GMail accounts. Mail is now an aggregator, so you can view all your mail at once. Note that it behaves similarly to mail applications on a smartphone, so you won't see your entire mail history by default. This is configurable, so you can change the history setting. The interface is clean, and it's easy to rename accounts so you know what you're viewing.

Music and Video

The Music and Video app previews look startlingly like their cousin apps running on Xbox 360s--they were written by the same dev team. So they both play back local content and allow you to easily buy additional music or videos. If you have an existing Zune Pass, it carries over into the Metro music app.

News, Finance and Sports

These apps all have a similar user interface, in the now familiar chromeless style. (I'll discuss how the user interface works in a bit.) Although you typically see these big photos, the actual articles are rendered in clear, columnar format, and take good advantage of higher resolution displays. You will want higher resolution displays--the minimum recommended display is 1366 x 768 pixels, but the Windows 8 Start Screen and associated Metro apps look fabulous at higher resolutions.

Photos

The Photo app can, of course, display local photos. But it also integrates with social media services, including Facebook and Flickr. It's easy to group select multiple photos within a folder or service to create a slideshow, but there's no obvious way to create a slideshow from multiple different sources. Photos downsized from larger images look quite good, and the appearance is clean, but you're still quite aware that you have photos in different locations, and can't easily get an integrated view.

Contacts

The Contacts app servers as a universal contacts list. You can point it to mail and social media accounts. The idea is to engage your contacts in whatever medium they live in, but also be able to contact users in a cross-applications manner.

It was easy to fold in my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google contacts. Exchange and Hotmail are also supported, but there wasn't an obvious way to add Yahoo contacts.

Windows 8 Start Screen Improvements

Microsoft takes pains to distance the Windows 8 start screen from associated Metro applications. The goal of the start screen is to create a unified user experience on desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, the overall experience for PC users has improved substantially.

Microsoft supplied PCWorld with a modified Samsung Series 9 ultraportable laptop. The key modification is the touchpad, which now offers edge detection. This allows users to use the touchpad as a virtual interface into the Windows 8 start screen. For example, moving onto the touchpad from the right side of the bezel brings up the charm bar, a context-sensitive bar that pops up on the right side of the screen.

Sliding from the left side onto the trackpad switches between active applications. You can scroll through many Start menu pages by using two-fingered swipes right or left. The drivers on our unit were a tad buggy and sluggish, but it was still slick nonetheless.

What this really means for users looking to buy "Windows 8 ready" laptops is to see if the units ship with edge-sensitive touchpads, particularly if those systems lack a multitouch LCD panel.

Mouse and keyboard improvements are also evident. Moving the mouse cursor to the corners brings up various features. Moving the cursor to the upper right or lower right pops up the charm bar. Moving to the upper left brings up a small popup of the most recent window; sliding down slightly, and a visual list of active apps slides in from the left. Moving the cursor to the lower left and clicking will return you to the Start screen.

Another term Microsoft uses when discussing the start screen is the idea that this is the Windows "home page." Using a few mouse gestures or keyboard shortcut takes you almost anywhere you need to go. And if you need access to common functions previously available on the old Start menu, you can right click on the lower left to pop up the Power User list. This list can even be modified, though how you might do this won't be officially supported or documented.

IE10 and Flash

Perhaps the most controversial addition recently has been Adobe Flash integration into IE10. Based on Flash 11.3, Microsoft is integrated Flash directly into the IE rendering engine--it's not a plugin. The goal is not to be able to run all things flash, but to support key content that improves user experiences. To that end, Microsoft is creating a white list of supported sites, though they aren't divulging how large that white list is. Note that the integrated Flash support doesn't include all Flash features. Certain types of pop-up menus and Flash ads aren't supported, for example.

I pointed IE10 towards Disney's main site, which is the poster child for a Flash heavy site. Animation and videos rendered cleanly, and audio worked properly. I also spend several hours a few minutes on the Armor Games site, which is chock full of Flash games. Crush the Castle certainly worked fine.

Final Thoughts

It's clear that Windows 8 has come a substantial distance since the Consumer Preview, but rough edges still exist. The Mail app still lacks some functionality, and the Windows 8 Start screen will continue to generate controversy. But after spending some time with this build, it's clearly more usable than past efforts. Whether that will be enough to convince naysayers is an open question, but Build 8400 is a big leap forward.