This is the first thing you'll see when booting into Windows 8: the new lock screen. Apps can show live information, such as calendar appointments (and reminders) as well as the number of unread emails.
When you log in, you'll be presented with the new Metro user interface, rather than the old desktop. It's the first major change since Windows 95 was launched.
You can add more apps to this 'home' screen, and resize them as you like, but there are many other applications installed that aren't shown by default. To find them, you have to move your mouse to the right-hand side to show the pop-up menu:
At the top you have Search, then Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Click on Search and a box (like Windows 7's Start menu search box) will appear. Start typing and a list of matching apps will appear on the left. Depending on the app, it will either launch in the Metro interface or switch to the traditional Windows desktop and run in a window.
NEXT PAGE: Traditional desktop, multiple screens
Here's the traditional desktop. Note the lack of a Start button.If you hover your mouse in the bottom-left corner, a thumbnail of the Metro UI will appear. Simply click to return to it.
Back on in the Metro interface, click Devices in the right-hand pop-up menu and you'll see a option to configure a second screen, even if there isn't one connected. You get the usual options you'd expect on a laptop for duplicating and extending the desktop, and displaying it on the second screen only.
Choose settings from the pop-up menu and six icons appear. This is similar to the notification area in Windows 7, but it's been tweaked to include brightness and power options. Here, we've clicked on brightness and a slider pops up to adjust it: far easier than in Windows 7.
Click the more settings link below the six icons and a clean settings screen swings into view. The traditional Control Panel still exists, but this settings screen is finger-friendly. The screen below shows the options for personalising the new lock screen.
NEXT PAGE: More options and settings
Windows now has similar notifications to Android and iOS:
You can also choose which apps to include when searching:
In the General settings, you'll find options for resetting and refreshing. This is more in line with what you'd find on a smartphone for restoring factory settings, or fixing problems by 'refreshing' Windows without affecting your saved files.
NEXT PAGE: Metro apps
Long-time Windows gamers will no doubt be relieved to know that Solitaire has made it to Windows 8 unscathed - and with a makeover to boot.
Maps, as you'd expect, uses Microsoft's own Bing maps. As well as searching for a location (which didn't work for us, no matter whether we typed in 'London' or a postcode) you can get driving directions (which did work). You can also select a hybrid sattelite view.
Windows 8 will ship with Internet Explorer 10. It provides a minimal interface with the combined search and address bar at the bottom of the screen to give priority to the website itself. You right-click to get a menu to open a new tab; existing tab thumbnails appear along the top so you can switch between them. The current version of IE10 is very unstable and crashed constantly.
It's easy to run multiple Metro apps side by side. You simply move the cursor to the top of the screen and then drag the app to the position you want it in. Here we've got the calendar occupying the bulk of the screen, and the SkyDrive app much smaller to the right. On the left, you can see a pop-up menu showing all running apps. To get this menu, move your cursor to the top or bottom corner at the left of the screen and then to the middle. You can still switch between apps using Alt-Tab though.
NEXT PAGE: Removable devices and photo viewing
When you plug in a USB drive, a pop-up notification asks what you want the default action to be: nothing; open a folder to view the files; use the drive for backup or use it to speed up your computer using ReadyBoost (an existing feature from Windows 7, which didn't do much to improve performance in our experience).
Windows 7 was pretty hopeless at organising and presenting photos in an attractive way (unless you fired up the Media Center interface), and the default picture viewer's only saving grace was its slideshow mode. Unsurprisingly, photos are given the Royal treatment in Windows 8. Not only does the app pull in images from your Pictures folder, it also lets you connect your Facebook, Flickr and SkyDrive photos so you can view them all in one place. We're sure other services will be added by the release version, too. PhotoBucket and Picasa would be nice, Microsoft.
In our brief test, it appeared that only the first couple of photos from each service are cached in order to display an 'app tile'. The rest are streamed from the service in question, which was too sluggish for our liking. However, this could have been down to a number of factors, including the speed of our internet connection. The screen below shows a list of photo albums in our Facebook account, but again, only the first couple are cached. The rest remain grey until the photo is downloaded.
If you double-click a photo from a Windows Explorer window, it will open in the Photos app. A pop-up asks if you want to make this the default action:
When you right-click a photo in full-screen mode in the Photos app, you'll see options to make it the app tile or set it as the lock screen. Note that there isn't an option to set it as your wallpaper. If you're viewing an image that's not stored locally, you'll also get a button to see the image on its native web page.
NEXT PAGE: Windows Explorer, Music and Email
Windows Explorer has had a facelift, although you have to look closely to spot the changes. Anyone familiar with Office 2010 will instantly spot the 'ribbon' which is a row of icons providing quick access to common tasks. Here, you can see controls specific to photos as we're viewing the Pictures folder. It's here that there's an option to set the selected photo as your wallpaper - this will appear only on the traditional Windows desktop, not in the Metro interface.
Below is the ribbon you'll see in any folder. It's tabbed, as you'd expect, but the new feature is that one or more are highlighted. Here, as we're browsing the Music folder, you can see Music Tools. Similar to the Photos library above, Music Tools include playback controls and a button for 'Add to playlist'. The Library tools tab appears whever you're browsing a folder that's included in a Library (a feature introduced in Windows 7 which allows you to collate various folders on your computer into one 'library').
Windows 7 (and Vista, for that matter) often came under fire for poor file copy speeds. It appears that Microsoft has fixed this, as there's now a real-time graph showing transfer speeds when you copy files, even if you don't click the More details button. You can also pause transfers as well as canceling the process.
The new Music app is distinctly Metro-style with its tiled interface. If you try and play a supported music file from Windows Explorer, it will fire up the Music app, but most people will launch it from the Metro home screen. If you click the Show More tile, you can then choose to view your collection by album, artist and song.
The 'now playing' view is minimal to say the least. It's kept this way to make it easy to use with your fingertips - the round handle for scrubbing quickly to a point in the track makes this obvious.
Email is another prominent title on the Metro home screen. By default, email from your Microsoft account (the one you use to log into Windows 8) appears here, but links at the bottom let you link your Gmail, Exchange and other accounts.
The app Store is one of the major new features of Windows 8, and will be familiar to anyone with an Xbox 360 or Windows Phone 7 handset. Currently all apps are free, but once Windows 8 launches, most will cost a pound or two.
We'll be adding more screenshots shortly. so be sure to check back.