Windows-8-logo-300x300The Windows 8 Consumer Preview (Beta) has finally been unveiled to us today. Of course, many of us have had the opportunity to play around with the Developer Preview of Windows 8 for a while now, but what’s new in the Consumer Preview?

As you’d expect Microsoft has worked hard to smooth out many of the bugs from the Developer Preview, in fact, they’ve changed over 100,000 lines of code for the Consumer Preview. However not only have they gotten rid of most of those bugs, but they’ve added plenty of new features as well. Microsoft has said that the Consumer Preview is much closer to the final edition of Windows 8 which will ship later this year.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

New Features In Windows 8 Beta

Picture Password

Microsoft has demonstrated the picture password feature in Windows 8 before, and they’ve also written an extensive blog post about, but they never actually included it in the developer preview. Obviously, they didn’t feel that it was ready for us to play around with at the time. Microsoft has done extensive research into passwords as of late, and they even examined things like whether or not smudge marks on screens could give away passwords. They’re obviously confident enough with this feature now that it’s been included in the Consumer Preview.

Picture Password

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the picture password, it serves as an alternative way to log in, rather than just using a traditional password. Instead, you can choose to have a picture password. It involves performing a series of gestures, drawing lines and tapping particular points on an image. You can make it as complex or simple as you like. If you get the sequence correct, Windows 8 unlocks.

Windows Store

Microsoft spoke about the Windows store before, but it was never made available to the public until the consumer preview. Now we can browse the Windows Store which has quite a large number of apps already. At the moment it only offers free apps, but in the future, it will also have paid apps. What’s cool about the Windows Store is that you will be able to trial apps before committing to buying them.

Windows Store

All you’ll need to access the Windows Store is a Windows Live ID. This will let you download all the brilliant apps that have been diligently designed by Microsoft’s college interns. There’s familiar titles like “Cut The Rope” as well as plenty of new games and apps.

New Apps – Mail, Messaging, Sky Drive, People, Music and more

The developer preview was pretty sparse when it came to apps. Microsoft really only had the bare essentials, but for the consumer preview, they’ve added in plenty more. The apps in the developer preview were apparently designed by college interns, whereas the ones in the consumer preview have been professionally developed.

The list of apps includes Mail, Photos, Weather, Finance, Maps, People, Calendar, Video, Messaging, Games, and Music. Of course, there’s plenty more available now on the Windows Store as well.

Resizable Virtual Keyboard

Since Windows 8 is going to be heavily marketed towards touchscreen devices, Microsoft have worked hard on the virtual keyboard. Windows 8 has an innovative thumb keyboard which puts letters to the far left and right of the screen for thumb typing. In the developer preview you couldn’t adjust the size of these keys, but now you can in the consumer preview.

Thumb keyboard in Windows 8

Closing Apps

Microsoft has introduced a new way to close apps that’s somewhat similar to Android. All you have to do is drag an app down to the very bottom of the screen and it will close. You can do this either with your finger or by clicking and dragging with the mouse.

Spell Check

Microsoft has now introduced spell check throughout the Windows 8 OS which is pretty handy. It’s not something that you would normally think about, but it’s essential. You will get those familiar red squiggly lines under incorrect spellings, and also the ability to ignore and add to the dictionary like in Microsoft Word.

SkyDrive

SkyDrive is basically Microsoft’s competitor to Apples iCloud. SkyDrive comes with its own Metro app which easily allows you to see all the folders and files you’ve stored on SkyDrive.com. These can be uploaded from your phone or from another Windows machine. SkyDrive is also integrated into all aspects of Windows 8 so you’ll easily be able to access it from any program.

SkyDrive

Everything is automatically synced and updated. All you have to do is log into your Windows Live account and you’ll be able to access anything synced to your SkyDrive.com account.

Improved Keyboard and Mouse Controls

One of the major complaints with the developer preview of Windows 8 was that it wasn’t very mouse and keyboard friendly. Microsoft has worked hard at this since then and it’s now easier to navigate without having a touchscreen device. You can scroll by simply scrolling the mouse wheel and by pushing the mouse pointer to the far left and right of the screen.

The Charm Bar has also moved and can be accessed by moving the mouse to the top right and down. There’s a new cool way to switch apps as well. If you move your mouse up to the top left of the screen, you’ll see a thumbnail of the last app you accessed. Clicking it will bring you to it, but if you slide the mouse down you’ll see a list of all the apps running.

Semantic Zoom

This is another new feature to help you navigate through your apps. If you’ve a large number of apps installed it can be rather tedious to go through them all by scrolling from side to side. By pinching out you will activate “Semantic Zoom” which zooms way out so you can see all the apps at once and then select which one you want.

Semantic Zoom In Windows 8

File Transfer

Microsoft spoke about the new file transfer improvements that they were making in Windows 8, but never actually included them in the developer preview. However, they have made their way into the consumer preview.

Now when you are copying files you will get a fairly detailed display that includes graphs of the transfers progress, the speed its transferring at as well as the ability to pause the transfer and prioritize another one. It’s a great little feature which I’m sure will come in very handy.

File Transfer

What’s Gone?

Bugs

Not a whole lot has really left Windows 8 since the developer preview. Instead, Microsoft has just added to the experience and refined it. Of course, they’ve gotten rid of plenty of the bugs that plagued the developer preview, but that isn’t to say that the consumer preview is free of them. Microsoft has mainly tweaked a number of features and changed the way some of the Metro UI interacts with the traditional desktop interface.

Start Button… Or is it?

Many Windows users began to despair and worry when they saw leaked screenshots from builds of Windows 8 that had no start button in them. Well, it’s not gone really, just sort of hidden from view. To access that start menu (which has now become the Metro UI) you simply have to move your mouse to the bottom left corner of the screen and click on the little Start window that pops up. Alternatively, you can press the Windows key on your keyboard.

Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Final Thoughts

Overall there’s plenty of new features in the consumer preview of Windows 8. The whole experience has been polished and refined a lot from the developer preview, but of course, that is to be expected, this is a consumer preview after all. Microsoft has said that this build is much closer to what we will actually see Windows 8 shipping as towards the end of this year. If you’re a Windows fan, I highly recommend installing it and taking it on a test drive. The next step now is to wait for the first Release Candidate which will probably be sometime towards the end of the summer.

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