This post is by Scott M. Fulton
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Microsoft may be listening to its customers, though the final preview edition of Windows 8 before the product ships this fall indicates that it turned its customers’ volume knob down to about two.
Today’s release, with its improvements to Start screen customizability, shows that Microsoft is at least slightly aware of users’ chief complaints about the two previous Windows 8 previews. The big customizability option revealed today is a wider range of color scheme choices for the Start Screen.
Now, users may choose a variety of different colors for their Start Screen backgrounds, including brighter reds and oranges, pastels, and combinations of bright colors on grey or charcoal backgrounds. That’s not exactly the tweaks that some early Windows 8 testers – admittedly, including this one – were hoping for.
But there are improvements, and they’re worth noting. The previous Consumer Preview had difficulty logging in to some Microsoft Exchange servers. For business users who keep their email, contacts, and calendars in Exchange, it’s this feature that could very well justify making Windows 8 more similar to Windows Phone 7.
Our freshly installed Release Preview on our test machine did not allow us to keep any of the existing settings we configured in the Consumer Preview, but that may have been just as well. The Release Preview had a considerably easier time recognizing the existing Windows homegroup in our office. Because of this, the revised versions of the Metro-style Music, Video, and Photos apps could more quickly connect with media that is not being stored in the cloud. Connectivity with one’s own local media was, after all, the whole point of adding Libraries to Windows 7 in the first place.
This quick connectivity gives the updated Start screen a bit more life. More like what was originally advertised last September, the Photos tile rotates with photos in your library, the Mail tile shows the subject line of the most recent item received, and the People app tile rotates the faces of people to whom you frequently send mail. Ironically, with earlier previews, these tiles would only “come alive” for us when we kept Exchange out of the mix, and when we took Windows 8 out of the homegroup. With the Release Preview, these beta bugs appear to have been fixed.
Also checked off Microsoft’s to-do list was a reminder to make error messages associated with apps sound something less like an edict of condemnation. Although one of Windows 8’s prominent “charms” (functional icons pulled up from the right side of the screen) is called “Share,” few Metro-style apps and no Desktop apps have been endowed with the ability to share data with other people or other apps in the network (beyond the typical Clipboard). In a previous article, for example, I showed how an attempt by a well-meaning though ill-informed user (portrayed by myself, of course) to share data with someone appearing inside the People app was met by the anti-prophecy, “People can’t share.”
That message has since been edited to read, “This app can’t share.” Elsewhere, other Windows 8 apps that lack the ability to share greet their users with more friendly-sounding messages. This doesn’t change the fundamental fact, however, that despite the undeniable prominence of a “charm” that conveys a message of sharing all-around, this feature remains a singular link to a concentration of dead-ends.
There remain two modes of operation for applications in Windows 8: the as-yet-unnamed Metro-style world of “apps,” and the conventional Desktop. Previously, I showed how this dualism leads to the confusing existence of two taskbars: one on the Desktop, and one tucked inside the left side of the screen for Metro apps. Running apps in the Consumer Preview were represented by thumbnails of the apps’ screens – which, in many cases, didn’t accurately convey their own identities.
Now in the Release Preview, we can see that these thumbnails have now been adorned by titles, making it far easier to recall which Metro apps are running. From here – just as with applications on the Desktop taskbar – you can right-click a thumbnail (assuming you’re using a mouse, which I’ve recently been told is old fashioned) and from the popup menu, select Close to make that app exit. You could do this with the Consumer Preview too, but some thumbnails didn’t make it easy for you to know which app you would be exiting. And when a Metro app hung, as a few did in our tests, exiting this way didn’t seem to work; only the Task Manager could help us there. The Task Manager, by the way, is a Desktop app, meaning you have to switch to the Desktop to manage Metro. We’ve only had the Release Preview running for a few hours, and have yet to experience a “hung” Metro app, so we don’t know yet whether this behavior persists.
As we mentioned earlier today, the Windows 8 Release Preview is being offered by Microsoft as an upgrade only. Thus, if you try to run it from Windows 7 (or Vista), it will begin assessing your existing Windows installation for an upgrade candidate. Since the Release Preview is a release candidate, we don’t recommend you do this. If you’ve never installed the Consumer Preview or the first Developer Preview, then although this may seem difficult, and you don’t have access to the Consumer Preview, then we recommend that you install Windows 7 on a separate partition of a different drive (one connected by SATA), and then immediately upgrade it to the Release Preview. It’s an extra headache, for sure, but it only lasts an hour, which is true of most reality shows anyway.
One very noteworthy addition we saw to the Windows 8 Store (which has a few dozen more items for download now) is the prominent addition of Box.net as a featured app. Windows SkyDrive already comes pre-installed on the Desktop, and is used by default by the Photo app for sharing photos through a cloud-based service. But Box is adding features to its system enabling users of tablets, including iPads, to read and even edit Microsoft Office documents. So the availability of Box as a Metro app not only is a step in the right direction for multi-device users, but a show of graciousness by Microsoft towards one of its more important competitors in the cloud storage field.
Microsoft also made available its Release Candidate for what is now being called (no surprise) Visual Studio 2012, and we’ll let you know more about how it works soon.