Windows: Modern UI apps
Windows 8 comes with quite a few apps in three broad categories: media, social and search. Most feel like proper, finished apps compared with the preview versions we saw a few months ago. However, there's clear room for improvement in areas, and Microsoft is already providing regular updates.
Windows 8: Media apps
Unlike the preview versions of Windows 8, the media apps are no longer just bare bones showing what each app would eventually look like. However, they feel more like a shop front than a place to browse and play your own music and videos, not least because they're now Xbox branded.
The Music, Video and Games apps are essentially the same app, albeit with different content. In Music and Video, your own local content is 'hidden' off-screen to the left, and the apps default to a selection of new or popular songs and videos in the Xbox store. You can preview music tracks, but there are currently no trailers for most video content.
For £9 per month - £1 less than Spotify premium - you can subscribe to Xbox Music Pass (formerly Zune Music Pass) which lets you stream an unlimited number of tracks to play on your computer, Windows Phone or Xbox.
The Photos app is largely unchanged from the beta versions, and lets you view your local photos along with pictures from online services including SkyDrive, Facebook, Flickr, and other computers with SkyDrive installed.
You can set one of your photos to be the app background and the app's tile in the Start screen. The slide show button on the main page plays random photos from all connected services but you can click on one to display only local photos, for example.
The semantic zoom works in the Photos app, so just as with the Start screen you can zoom out to see smaller thumbnails or folders, making it faster to browse a large library. You can also pinch to zoom in on a thumbnail to view the photo full screen, then pinch to flip back to thumbnail view.
It's possible to import images from a USB device or memory card from within the app, and share photos via any installed app which supports photo sharing.
Videos you've uploaded to Facebook can also be viewed via the Photos app, not the Videos app. Strangely, there are no options to connect to online video services in the Videos app, such as YouTube or Vimeo.
Windows 8: Social apps
These include Mail, Calendar, Messaging and People, although Photos could arguably be a 'social' app as, like the others, it aggregates information from several services. Fire up any of these apps for the first time and you'll be prompted to sign in to services you already have a login for, including Google, Gmail, Hotmail, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and others.
With these connected, the apps quickly fill up with contact information, emails, calendar appointments and updates. There's inevitably a bit of crossover between apps – particularly People and Messaging.
In Messaging, you can add Windows Live Messenger and Facebook accounts, but when you create a new message, the People app opens so you can see who's online and choose someone. There's no list view of online contacts as you get when using Live Messenger or Facebook themselves. Plus, unlike in Live Messenger, you can send only text, not photos or files. There's no support for video or voice chats, either. Currently, the Messaging app doesn't work with any other IM clients, but that's sure to change in the future.
The People app feels more finished. You can link to Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail and Outlook accounts. Adding them all brings in rather a lot of contacts, and to remove a linked account, you have to revoke access via the web interface, which is a hassle.
As you'd expect, contacts are automatically merged from the various services, so you don't see duplicates. At the left-hand side are favourite contacts and a Social column which has links to notifications and 'What's new' which aggregates posts from your contacts via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and any other connected services.
One problem, which we're sure Microsoft will fix, is that the People app doesn't feature in the list of apps which can show notifications, so you have to open the app to see them. Notifications from other apps appear as a pop-up window at the top-right corner of your display.
Mail is a good example of what can be done with a Modern UI-style app. It's split into three columns with folders on the left (Inbox, Sent, Trash etc), the list of emails in the middle, and the contents of a specific email on the right. At the bottom of the left-hand column are the names of the accounts you've set up, so it's just a case of clicking on an account name to switch to it.
Beyond this, there's not much of substance. There's no way to sort emails except chronologically, and no way to flag or mark emails. Conversations aren't shown in threads, either, so most people would be better off sticking with their webmail client for anything more complex than quickly sending or replying to an email.
One useful feature is the ability to pin a folder (such as your inbox) to the Start screen. This way you can create shortcuts to each email account and jump straight to an account from the Start screen.
The Calendar app merges all your connected accounts to display all your appointments together. Feeds are colour-coded and you can turn them on or off as you like, as well as flipping between one day, two day, weekly or monthly views.
The SkyDrive app provides a simple way to view your online files, open them for editing or download to your local hard disk. The app bar, visible when you swipe up from the bottom (or right-click) adds options to create a new folder, upload files or delete them.
WIndows 8: Search apps
Microsoft has given Bing a noticeable presence in Windows 8. It's naturally the default search engine in IE10, but there's also a Bing app, plus Maps, Travel, Sport, News, Bing Weather and Bing Finance.
The Bing app is unlikely to get used much as it's almost a direct duplication of searching in IE10, but with a fancy-looking interface. Maps is a slick but basic version of Bing maps online, but it's great on a big screen for exploring areas. It lacks the great 45-degree Bird's Eye photography from the website, though.
The Travel app delivers more eye candy, offering information and photos on a wide selection of popular destinations around the globe. It's hardly comprehensive, but does provide some nice panoramic photos and the ability to search for flights and hotels.
Sport, in the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 was a rather US-centric affair, but it's now UK-friendly and brings the same horizontal Modern UI style to football, cricket, golf and F1 fans. Swipe downwards from the top of the screen and you can pick a sport. In certain sports, football for example, you can pick a specific team to follow. The feed with then bring you news, results and photos for that team.
News is a basic-looking app, but you can create your own news feed by adding sections on subjects in which you're interested. Rather than limiting you with a few categories the app lets you type in your search term and gives you stories with those keywords. There are plenty of popular news sources to choose from.
Finally, there's Finance, which lets you keep track of stocks and shares via a configurable watchlist, and get your fix of finance-related news. Another section provides up-to-the-minute exchange rates.
Windows 8: Internet Explorer 10
IE10 is unrecognisable from IE9 in Windows 7. The default view is for a website to appear full screen, with the address bar and tab thumbnails only appearing when you right-click or swipe in from the top or bottom edges.
It means you get to see much more of a web page than before, but we're not sure why Microsoft has moved the combined search / address bar to the bottom of the screen. It seems an unnecessary change as everyone is used to it being at the top, and the tabs could just have easily appeared at the bottom instead.
IE10 keeps the odd Flip Ahead feature from IE9, which tries to predict which link you'll click on and displays an arrow to click on to go to that page.
Windows 8: Performance
Aside from some foibles, we like the full-screen mode and the fact that pages load noticeably quicker than in any Windows 7 browser. In fact, Windows 8 in general is a fast OS compared to Windows 7 on the same hardware. The whole interface is responsive, apps load quickly and, crucially, it's much fast to boot up and shut down.
On an old Sony Vaio with a Core 2 Duo processor and 3GB of RAM, Windows 8 boots in only 21 seconds, and shuts down in 20. That's a vast improvement on a relatively recent and uncluttered install of Windows 7 which took 56 and 43 seconds respectively.