To say that the digital media apps—Camera, Photos, Music, and Video—were lackluster in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview would be an understatement. To say that these apps are now wonderful and fully redesigned in the Release Preview? Also an understatement.

I wrote about the Consumer Preview versions of these apps in the following articles:

Windows 8 Feature Focus: Camera (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Photos (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Music (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Video (App Preview)

That said, let’s just pretend that the Consumer Preview versions of these apps—well, Music and Video especially—never happened. And that’s because they’ve been so thoroughly updated in the Release Preview that they’re almost like completely different apps. So wipe that junk from my memory and pretend they never happened. Because the new versions of these apps are excellent.

Camera

Of the three digital media apps, Camera has changed the least. In fact, aside from a consistency cleanup in Settings, it hasn’t changed a bit. Moving on. :)

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Photos

In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the Photos apps was actually pretty decent. But it featured a non-standard UI, couldn’t acquire photos or videos, and couldn’t access the content on other linked PCs.

Those problems have all been addressed. :)

First, the user interface. Where the Consumer Preview version of this app featured a weird set of columnar tiles, this new version is much more attractive, with a configurable background image and more standard-looking navigational tiles.

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Dive into any photos source—which now includes your own Picture library, connected services like Facebook, Windows Live, and Flickr, but also, new to Release Preview, PCs you’ve linked through SkyDrive—and you get that old, columnar view for some reason. Likewise, the collection views and image views are identical to the Consumer Preview. That said, a new “Set As” app bar button augments the previously available Set as app tile and Set as lock screen options with a new choice, Set as app background.

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But the biggest change, perhaps, is image acquisition.

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In the Consumer Preview, you needed to use Windows’ built-in, Explorer-based photo and video acquisition tool to get content off of a digital camera or memory card. But now this functionality is built into Camera. And it works about as expected, providing a nice, full-screen experience.

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Music

In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the Music app was a mess, with a bizarre layout in which your own collection was jammed between two Marketplace tile groups, and utilizing a weird inline content pop-out effect. That’s all gone now.

In the Release Preview, Music is an attractive looking app with a darker background, far better local playback controls, and a much nicer user experience. It works with Zune Music Pass as well, though you can expect the name of that service to change in the days ahead as Microsoft reveals its new Xbox-based digital media strategy (perhaps as soon as next week at E3).

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Navigationally, there is one weirdism: While your own local PC’s music collection is no longer jammed between two Marketplace groups, it’s offscreen, to the left, which is a bit odd. But the presumption here, I think, is that most people using this app will be accessing online music collections through Microsoft’s as-yet unbranded Marketplace or via SkyDrive. So this, too, could be changing a bit in the days ahead.

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In any event, the app now starts off with a Now Playing group, missing in the previous release, followed by tile groups for New Releases and Popular. Frankly, this front-end of the Marketplace is next to worthless, though it’s nice look, so most people will want to dive in a bit deeper. To do so, you can click the New Releases or Popular headings, upon which you’ll finally arrived at something resembling a well-stocked store. That said, I am surprised there isn’t a basic top-end Marketplace entry point.

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Given the limitations of the store interface, you’re best off searching for content. This works consistently with other Metro apps, using the system-wide Search functionality (WINKEY + Q), and it provides a new little interface.

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Also nice are the Artist Details pages, which are also horizontally-scrolling Metro experiences.

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But the best feature, perhaps, is Zune Music Pass, which now works seamlessly with Music. Simply find a selection you wish to listen to, press the Play button, and away you go. As before, the Now Playing functionality is available via the app bar.

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But if you navigate back to the app’s main landing page, you’ll see that the Now Playing group provides an inline, Zune-like playback experience.

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Click that and you can view the attractive full-screen Now Playing experience, again very Zune-like.

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And while this isn’t new to the Release Preview per se, it’s worth pointing out that Music supports both Play To (DLNA-compliant media streaming) and Play on Xbox, which pushes the Now Playing list to the video game console (and, in most cases, to a nice home theatre system).  Play On Xbox, as before, requires the Xbox Companion app, but is a more seamless experience.

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And let’s not forget the dynamic Music tile, which provides playback information.

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And, best of all, a new media playback overlay that appears when you tap any hardware volume button. This overlay appears over the Lock Screen too. Windows Phone fans will recognize this interface immediately. It’s all coming together, baby.

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Video

Where the Release Preview version of Music settings things right for audio playback, so too does the Release Preview version of Video, which does the same for TV show and movie discovery, purchasing, and playback. And as with Music, the interface here has been completely overhauled and all of the expected online services connections—with the Marketplace again—have been made. In other words, it just works.

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As with music, Microsoft presents some Marketplace views up front and center—Spotlight (now untitled), Movies Marketplace, and TV Marketplace—while shuttling your own content off to the left, offscreen. This again makes some sense. I’m guessing few people have actually purchased any TV shows or movies from Microsoft’s now defunct Zune Marketplace, but if you did, it’s all there. And you can download or stream it all through the Video app.

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As with music content, there is relevant information attached to each video. You can play (on the local device), get more information (in this case about a TV show or movie, not an artist), play the trailer (for movies), or Play on Xbox (again, requires Xbox Companion).

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The video playback experience hasn’t changed much since the Consumer Preview, but it’s as attractive as ever.

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Also attractive are the content landing pages, which are similar to the Artist information in Music.

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Video purchasing and rental continues to be as odd as ever. Some content is available only in SD, while others let you choose between SD and HD, and the choices can differ between rental and purchasing. Some rental content can be streamed or downloaded, but some only one or the other.

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There are nice bits throughout. In TV shows, for example, you can filter by “last night’s shows,” a nice touch. And Movies has filters for genres as well as studios, for you movie buffs.

Final thoughts

Overall, Windows 8’s digital media capabilities just took a major leap in the right direction. In fact, they’re pretty damn good.

But wait, there’s more!

Discover much, much more about the Windows 8 Release Preview in Windows 8 Release Preview: The Ultimate Delta Guide, a guide to all of the articles I’ve published about this milestone build of Microsoft’s next OS.