By the time you read this, Microsoft will have shipped its Windows 8 Release Preview, the final publicly-available prerelease milestone for its next desktop OS. (I’ll be looking at a corresponding Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate version—don’t ask about the disparity in naming—next month.)

I’d been using several prerelease Preview builds of Windows 8—what I thought of, none too imaginatively, as “Release Preview previews”—for about a month before Microsoft finalized the set of Metro apps and capabilities that it would deliver in this milestone. One thing I came away impressed about was how much this release actually changed over that month. Not the underlying platform capabilities so much—those were finalized in early 2012, I was told—but rather the Metro-style apps that form the most obvious, user-focused aspects of the Windows 8 experience. This is a product that’s been shined, evaluated, and then shined again, over and over in the weeks building up to this release.

As such, the Windows 8 Release Preview represents not just our clearest look yet at Microsoft’s new OS but rather a version that should be largely indistinguishable from that final release. If you’ve held off evaluating this admittedly confusing and multi-focused new Windows version for some reason, now’s the time to start. The Release Preview, for all intents and purposes, is Windows 8.

With that in mind, there are two ways to approach this release. First, one might consider Windows 8 as a whole, ignoring past commentaries and opinions and using the Release Preview as the sole arbiter, for now at least, in deciding the merits of this OS. Or, one could simply list what’s changed since the Consumer Preview. Let’s split the difference.

Considering Windows 8 as a Whole

Looked at from a mile high, Windows 8 is very clearly a monumental release for Microsoft and one that will determine whether Windows will be a major player in general computing going forward or just a player. Let's be clear about where Microsoft has cast its lot: While some endlessly debate whether the Apple iPad and its Android-copycat-tablet ilk represent the computing mainstream of the future, its actions in Windows 8 prove that Microsoft has no doubts about the future of tablets.Windows 8 is its first real push in that direction and, arguably, the first time Windows has started off in the underdog position since, oh, the early 1990s.

That means that Windows 8 features a new user experience and runtime environment called Metro that's technically now the OS and was clearly designed for multi-touch tablets and other devices. Microsoft calls this experience “touch first,” while critics prefer the term “touch-centric.” No matter, it’s also perfectly serviceable with traditional mouse and keyboard interfaces. It provides full-screen apps that Microsoft says are “immersive,” while power users will grouse, for good reason, that they’re limiting, with only a passing nod to advanced multi-tasking features we’ve all come to expect. (That Metro-style apps take the “windows” out of Windows, so to speak, is difficult for some to comprehend.)

Metro is new. It’s different, it’s scary for IT pros and tech enthusiasts, and it’s only partially realized in Windows 8, to be honest. But it’s the future, for better or worse.

Of course, Microsoft is still Microsoft. And while there are absolutely some bold bets in Windows 8, the company isn’t foolhardy enough—or, shall we say, "Apple enough"—to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So Windows 8 is still Windows. It still retains the desktop environment we’ve used since Windows 95, still runs all the same Win32-type desktop applications we all know and love, still utilizes the same driver models, and so on.

The weirdness to Windows 8—and let’s be honest here, it is a weirdness—is that these two seemingly unrelated user experiences—Metro and the desktop—coexist, side-by-side. You sign in to Windows 8 and arrive at the new Metro-style Start screen (see Figure 1), an app launcher with Windows Phone–like live tiles that replaces the application launching functionality of the old Start menu (gone in this release) and taskbar (which lives on in the desktop environment).

 Thurrott Fig1 Start
Figure 1 Start screen

Getting to the desktop, which is treated conceptually as an app, works similarly to any Metro-style app: You just click (or tap) its tile.

The desktop works largely as in Windows 7, but without a Start button. That bit of extraneous UI has been replaced by a new, more consistent “Start tip,” which works in both Metro and desktop environments and is part of a series of Metro-style “edge UIs” that trigger other system wide functions. (Those using touch-less systems can utilize mouse-based “hot corners” or keyboard shortcuts to achieve the same results.)

What's Changed in Windows 8 since the Consumer Preview

Two things have changed since the release of the Consumer Preview in very late February 2012. We’ve become far more accustomed to actually using Windows 8 and can make more educated comments about how it actually works. And Microsoft has refined the overall system for the Release Preview and, more important, significantly overhauled the bundled apps—previously available in weak “app preview” form—providing us with a far more complete view of this.

With regards to usage, it’s a mixed bag. And my earlier hypothesis that users of traditional PCs (i.e., virtually every PC currently in existence) would tend to stick to the more familiar, more desktop-like environment, while those few (today) with tablets would tend towards the more immersive, full-screen world of Metro has been borne out. But that divide in users is a bit more nuanced than that.

Microsoft’s decision to fuse Metro and the desktop into a single system might be controversial, but it has certainly opened up some interesting possibilities (see Figure 2).

 Thurrott Fig2 Desktop
Figure 2 Desktop

That is, while traditional PC users have indeed stuck to the desktop by and large, nothing is stopping them from using the occasional Metro-style app or enjoying the live updating capabilities of the new lock screen and Start screen. Likewise, while tablet users will find the Metro experience more tailored to their device type, the ability to drop into the desktop and use a true Windows application like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop is unparalleled in the tablet world. These machines could truly be a major leap forward compared to the iPad, which is limited by both its unyielding single form factor and Apple’s relatively immature APIs. Windows-based tablets can do it all.

Looking at the Release Preview specifically, we see changes across the board. The system-level changes are minor, and evolutionary, as they should be at this stage of development. Microsoft has cleaned up Explorer to more closely resemble the UI it previously provided in the Aero Basic theme—sorry, folks, it’s not Metro-like at all—and has made multi-monitor support smarter around Metro edge UIs and hot corners.

Look at the apps, however, and things get very interesting.

First, and most broadly, the apps are more intelligent and utilize more system capabilities. That means that all of the major productivity apps—Mail, Calendar, Internet Explorer, Messaging—now fully support the new Windows 8 notification system. Likewise, more of these bundled apps can participate in another new Windows 8 feature, the Share contract—think “copy and paste” on steroids—so you can now do such things as share a photo from the Photos app via email by using the Mail app, or share a web page from IE via Facebook or Twitter by using the People app. With the Release Preview, Windows 8 is suddenly a nicely rounded system.

Apps are now colored-coded differently, so that the app tile color is used as the accent color in the app as well. Although my initial reaction is that Microsoft should provide a way for users to customize each app’s color—some will surely decry the use of teal in, say Mail, or other colors—I think there’s a method to the madness: As you flip between the running apps, the accent color gives you a quick visual cue about which app is which, aiding your memory and letting you multi-task a bit more efficiently. It’s just a theory.

Looking at individual apps, you’ll find that virtually all of them have been overhauled in some way.

The Mail app has gotten a nice visual refresh (see Figure 3), and more options bubble to the surface—well, to the app’s app bar, anyway—in appropriate ways.

 Thurrott Fig3 Mail
Figure 3 Mail

For example, you can pin individual email folders (like your work Inbox) to the Start screen and access them individually. (This “deep linking” capability debuted previously in Windows Phone.) My only complaint here is that there’s no drag and drop at all: If you want to move a message to a new folder, for example, you have to use a Metro-style selection, then access the Move command from the app bar. That’s not very efficient.

Calendar retains the three view styles we saw in the Consumer Preview—Day, Week, Month—but picks up a much-needed, Windows Phone–like way to determine which individual calendars are displayed from each calendar source (Microsoft Exchange/Office 365, Microsoft Hotmail, Google Calendar).You can also determine which color is used to denote individual calendars.

People, Windows 8’s contacts management solution, has gotten a major overhaul this time around and now works much like the excellent People hub in Windows Phone. Its live tile animates a grid of contact pictures, which is pleasant, and inside the app you’ll find useful lists for People (a list of contacts, which can be filtered to show only online contacts now), What’s new (social networking updates from your contacts, now nicely laid out), and Me, similar to the Me app in Windows Phone, which displays your own social networking updates, your (social networking) notifications, and posted photos. The Windows 8 IM app, Messaging, works with both Windows Live and Facebook Chat and can now hold messages for later delivery if a contact is offline.

Internet Explorer (IE) 10 has received a surprisingly major update, with a new feature called Flip Ahead that examines a site’s paging structure and provides a way to easily move forward to the next “page” in a multi-page article. IE 10 also picks up a UI refresh, with a simpler app bar button structure and nicer in-place site search results. But the biggest change is that IE 10—get this—actually includes native Adobe Flash support. So much for embracing the standards-based web, Microsoft.

All of the other apps we know from the Consumer Preview, including Windows Reader, Finance, Bing Maps, Windows Store, Camera, SkyDrive, Photos, Music, and Video, have been updated as well. And surprisingly, Microsoft is shipping several new Metro-style apps in the Windows 8 Release Preview, though they’re all very similar RSS-like apps that resemble Finance.

The new News app provides a gorgeous and locale-specific take on, yes, the news, with sources such as The New York Times, Reuters, CNET, the Los Angeles Times, and more. The new Sports app provides the same functionality—and look and feel—for sports, and it, too, supports many locales as well as an auto-refresh mode to keep the content up-to-date. Finally, there’s a new Travel app, too, though I’m not quite clear on the point of it. It appears to simply offer basic information, in a pretty layout and presentation, about a handful of locations. In fact, it’s almost a tech demo: Look, developers, at how pretty your apps can be!

The Final Analysis of Windows 8 Rests with You

Put this all together and you can now judge for yourself whether Windows 8 is the next Vista or the next Windows 7. I’m leaning towards the latter, but I can see why those who support Windows for a living are a bit more tentative. Windows 8 is a big leap. Your job is to determine if it’s a leap forward for your business or just a leap sideways.