We've already spent a considerable amount of time with Windows 8, in both its Developer and Consumer Preview versions and we've now had a good look at the Release Preview, which was made public slightly earlier than planned.
Windows 8 Release Preview
It's not the finished version which will appear on PCs, laptops and tablets around Christmas time later this year, but it's a good indication of what to expect. As well as some new native apps, there are some tweaks to the interface and improvements in reliability behind the scenes. There's nothing dramatically different, but here's what you need to know about this latest version. As before, you can download and try for free.
See also: How to install Windows 8 Release Preview
New Metro apps
The most noticeable update is the addition of three new apps: Sports, News and Travel. They all take their feeds from Microsoft's Bing search engine, but each provides a more attractive portal to the information than simply diving into Internet Explorer 10. All Metro apps now have a unified top bar, with context-sensitive options.
Sports offers a convenient way to keep up with the latest news and results from your favourite teams, albeit with a heavy bias toward US sports in this preview version. Hit the right-click button on your keyboard to display the top menu (easier than fiddling around with the mouse) and you can choose a sport to focus on.
You'll see a main news story but you can scroll right to get more news as well as recent results and schedules. Further right is an area where you can add your favourite teams (there's also a button for this in the top menu), although this isn't shown for some sports such as Formula 1 and football.
Thanks to autocomplete, we had to enter only a few characters of 'Manchester' before seeing a list of matching teams (United and City). Each sport's page can be pinned to the Start screen as a live tile.
Currently you can't share anything from the Sports app, but this feature will be added soon.
Travel is useful if you want to research a potential holiday destination, book a flight and / or hotel and look at some pretty photos from the location. If you don't have a destination in mind, Travel will provide inspiration via its Featured Destinations, Panoramas and Articles sections. When you drill down to a particular place, you'll find maps and other useful tourist information along with a weather forecast, flight search plus lists of tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants.
Sharing has been implemented and you can send travel guides and photos to friends and family you might want to invite on your trip.
News looks very similar to the Sports app, and starts with a top story (a photo and headline) which you can click on to see the text from the article. Scrolling right reveals local news, then world, then categories such as technology, business and entertainment.
There aren't many options in the top menu bar, but you can see trending topics (these were fairly US-focused in our testing) and 'My News' where you can add favourite topics in a similar fashion to teams in the Sports app.
Other app updates
In the Finance portal, things remain much the same as in the Consumer Preview, but you can now pin things to the Start screen. You could pin the stocks you own, for example, or add them to your Watchlist (essentially a Favorites list as in the other apps).
Weather and Maps have gained the unified top menu bar and Maps now uses the search tool in the Charms bar rather than having its own search button.
In IE10 there's a new feature: Flip ahead. It's slightly strange addition, but can occasionally be useful. It tries to predict what you'll click on next and provides an onscreen arrow to click to take you to that page (on touchscreens you can swipe instead - you'll also be able to use a touchpad gesture on compatible laptops). It works well when you're reading an article with several pages, but it's less useful on a website's homepage where there's no obvious path to take (the onscreen arrow appears only when Flip ahead has data for that page). The feature doesn't only work when you're using Bing as the default search engine, so you can still choose Google.
Flash 11.3 has been integrated in both Metro and desktop versions of Internet Explorer and is said to work in both the x86 and ARM versions of Windows 8. This will give Windows 8 RT (the tablet version) the jump on the iPad as it will be able to display Flash-based websites as well as playing embedded video which Apple's tablet can't.
Interestingly, the Do Not Track privacy feature is enabled by default, but Flip ahead isn't, so you'll have to turn it on in the settings before it will work.
The Mail app has seen several updates, but there's still no option to view conversations as threads. However, you can now pin an inbox to the Start screen and different inboxes are listed separately in the left-hand pane. Overall, Mail still lacks polish and feels much too basic - even when compared with the main webmail services.
In Photos, the main interface has been redesigned and is prettier than before. There's also a new photo stream: the local Pictures library which was missing before. However, when you click on any of the various streams: Flickr, Facebook, Skydrive, you see the old view from Consumer Preview.
We were disappointed with the half-baked Music app in Consumer Preview, and that's now sorted. Your music no longer appears between Marketplace tiles, but off to the left in a dedicated My music section. Zune Pass, the music streaming service, has also been integrated. Music from Zune Pass can be made available when you're offline, which is a handy inclusion.
Anyone hoping that the Windows 7 Start menu would reappear will be disappointed to learn that nothing has changed in this respect. There's still a basic menu on the Classic desktop if you right-click in the bottom-left corner but if you want to search for apps, you'll still have to use the Charms bar.
Microsoft has made the Start screen more customisable with more colours and more pinnable items. Multi-monitor support, something which received heavy criticism in Consumer Preview, has been addressed and you can now drag an app to a second monitor where it will stay. Its Taskbar icon will move to that monitor as well, which makes things easier to manage, but you can also choose to have pinned apps appear on the taskbar on both monitors.
Each monitor has its own hot corners, so you can access the Charms bar, for example, without moving the cursor all the way to the far right of your second screen. You can choose whether to have an extended desktop or a mirrored one, just as with Windows 7.
Does the Release Preview change our opinion of Windows 8 though? In a word, no. Although the improvements are welcome, they're largely superficial. We're still frustrated by how difficult it is to operate the Metro interface with a mouse, and also how you can't have two apps occupying half the screen each. Of course, these problems could be addressed in the final version of Windows 8 but one thing that won't be is the fact that this still feels like two operating systems co-habiting on our laptop.
There are now more apps in the Windows Store, but all the programs we run on a daily basis will still have to be run on the Classic desktop and there's still the fear that, like Siri on an iPhone 4S, Metro could end up being played around with for the first few days and then side-lined in favour of the old way of working.