For the past 8+ months, Microsoft’s melding of the new Metro environment to Windows 8 has been, to put it gently, the leading topic of debate in tech circles. But what we need to remember, collectively, as tech enthusiasts, is that we don’t necessarily reflect mainstream views. And the story about Windows 8’s acceptance—that is, whether the Metro environment and its relationship with the desktop is a success story or a tragedy—has yet to be told. That debate is certainly worth having, but it’s sort of beside the point for purposes of this article. So for now, let’s just see what’s changed since the Consumer Preview.

Tiles

As you’ll discover throughout my Release Preview articles, the bundled apps that Microsoft has been bundling with Windows 8 since the Consumer Preview hasn’t changed much since that previous milestone, with the core selection—Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Windows Store, Bing Maps, Internet Explorer, Windows Reader, SkyDrive, Remote Desktop, Finance, Xbox LIVE Games, Weather, Video, Photos, Music, and Camera—hasn’t changed much. Well, a bit. There are three new apps: News, Sports, and Travel. And one app, Xbox Companion, isn’t installed by default.

start_cp
Start Screen: Windows 8 Consumer Preview (Ultrabook)

start_rp
Start Screen: Windows 8 Release Preview (Samsung tablet)

What has changed is the app tiles. Most of those bundled apps now have new tiles, with new colors and, in some cases, new designs. Nothing major.

The app bar-based options for tiles have not changed in any meaningful way between the Consumer Preview and Release Preview.

Background patterns

In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft provided six Start Screen background patterns (assuming you consider “no pattern” as one of the patterns). And in the Release Preview—wait for it—Microsoft also provides six background patterns. In fact, they’re the same exact patterns.

What’s changed is the order in which the patterns are presented in PC Settings, Personalize, Start Screen, and which is the default. In the Consumer Preview, the default was sort of a terrible, bubble-like design:

background_cp
Background patterns: Consumer Preview

And now in the Release Preview, it’s a nicer-looking design that takes advantage of the accent color in the color scheme (see below):

background_rp
Background patterns: Release Preview

Color schemes

When Microsoft was plotting its various Windows 8 pre-release milestones over a year ago, the plan was for each milestone—the public unveiling, the Developer Preview, the Consumer Preview, and the Release Preview—to each utilize a single color scheme that would differentiate them. So the public unveiling was purple (for “preview”), the Developer Preview was green (for “go”), and … Well, then everyone complained. So for the Consumer Preview, the software giant threw its disgruntled followers a bone and provided a measly 9 color schemes, promising more for future releases.

In the Release Preview, we now see a full 25 color schemes, which are comprised of a set of accent colors and background colors. And yes, Microsoft tells me that more are coming for the final release.

colorschemes_both
Color schemes: Consumer Preview (top) and Release Preview (bottom)

For a complete look at all of the color schemes available in the Windows 8 Release Preview, please see my Metro Color Schemes Screenshot Gallery.

Semantic zoom

Semantic zoon is one of the more esoteric Metro features, and while it’s not only used by the Start Screen—you can see this effect in Windows Store and many other Metro-style apps, too—this is perhaps one place that most users will access semantic zoom since it helps you organize the core Windows 8 user experience.

You can of course access semantic zoom fairly naturally by “pinching” the Start Screen on a touch-based system. But since most people don’t have such machines, Microsoft also added a nice mouse-based shortcut for doing so. (And it only appears, in the lower right corner of the Start screen, if you’re using a mouse with the PC/device and are moving the mouse cursor around.)

In the Consumer Preview, the semantic zoom shortcut resembled a magnifying glass and a # symbol. But in the Release Preview, this shortcut has been streamlined. Naturally, it’s no less obvious, so you’ll need to click it to see what it does:

semantic_both
Semantic zoom: Consumer Preview (left) and Release Preview (right)

App bar

If you right-click an empty area of the Start Screen or swipe from the top of bottom edge of the screen, you’ll see the Start Screen’s App Bar. In both the Consumer Preview and the Release Preview, this app bar is pretty empty, with only a single button for accessing the All Apps display. But two things have changed since the Consumer Preview: Now, the All Apps button is on the right side of the app bar, not on the left, which is more consistent with the way that Microsoft recommends developers place their app bar action buttons. And the design of the All Apps button has changed somewhat in the Release Preview

appbar_both
Start screen app bar: Consumer Preview (top) and Release Preview (bottom)

Settings

When you access the Settings charm from the Start Screen, a Settings pane appears with experience-related settings at the top and system settings at the bottom. In the Consumer Preview, Start Settings included Settings and Help links. The Release Preview makes just two minor changes: There’s now a small “Start” header to remind you what the settings are for, and the Settings link has been renamed to Tiles.

settings_both
Start Settings: Consumer Preview (left) and Release Preview (right)

The contents of the Settings/Tiles interface hasn’t changed, nor has Help, though both have been restyled a bit, again in the interest of consistency.

In the system settings section of Settings, there are a few small visual changes. The Brightness button (which previously used a number-based brightness setting as its label) is now called Screen. The Keyboard button is now labeled as such, rather than using the keyboard language (like ENG-US) as the label. And the Notifications button isn’t just a dumb on/off toggle anymore: It has a pop-up with three choices: Hide for 8 hours, Hide for 3 hours, and Hide for 1 hour:

notifcation_popup
Notifications muting pop-up

Frankly, for all the description here, the Start Screen hasn’t changed that much at all. This suggests that Microsoft’s initial vision for this user experience was a good one and that nothing major has come up in the past three months to cause the company to rethink and re-implement things.

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.