You’ve waited, you’ve wondered, you’ve suspected … and now it’s finally here: The Windows 8 Release Preview, Microsoft’s new, near-final look at its next operating system. As expected, the Release Candidate represents a major new milestone towards the release of Windows 8. And if you’ve got questions about what’s changed, good news: I have the answers. And I like to share.

This article can be considered the front-end to what you will soon discover is the start of a wave of Windows 8 Release Preview coverage that will occur over the next few days. As I did with the Consumer Preview (in Welcome to the Windows 8 Consumer Preview), I’m breaking down what I’ve learned into multiple articles, over multiple days, so you can more easily find what you’re looking for. So consider this discussion a high level overview where I’ll link to other articles where you can find more information.

And then come back tomorrow. There will be more. :)

Mile-high stuff

First, be sure to check out my Windows 8 Release Preview commentary, It’s Here! The Windows 8 Release Preview Arrives. Given the crazy opinions and pontifications we’ve seen since the Consumer Preview, I thought it was time to step back, take a deep breath, and start evaluating Windows 8 on its own merits. More opinion than review, this article speaks to the emotional side of the technology we all love so much.

Screenshot Galleries

While my many Release Preview articles are peppered with screenshots that show off individual features, I know that many readers are eager for higher resolution, higher quality shots as well. So here’s a heaping helping of what the Windows 8 Release Preview looks like, something to gaze at while you download this latest milestone build: Windows 8 Release Preview: Screenshot Gallery.

I’ve also prepared a second screenshot gallery showing off all 25 new Metro-style color schemes. Check out Windows 8 Release Preview: Metro Color Schemes Screenshot Gallery for the full scoop.

Windows Setup

As the most mature aspect of Windows 8, you won’t be surprised to discover that Windows Setup hasn’t changed much since the Consumer Preview. But there are many small change changes plus one notable addition: You can now choose from far more Metro color schemes than was possible in the Consumer Preview. (Building up to the Release Candidate, Microsoft had added a helpful if short video at the end of the Out of Box Experience, or OOBE, which was aimed at helping new users get up to speed on interacting with the hidden Metro interfaces. This was removed for the Release Preview, however.)

You can find out more about the differences in Changes to Windows Setup.

New navigation choices

This isn’t a Release Preview feature per se, but I’ve been sitting on this information for week and now have actual hardware to test: In addition to supporting traditional mouse and keyboard interfaces, multi-touch, and of course style/pen input types in Windows 8, Microsoft is also working with major trackpad vendors to support indirect gesture support in its next operating system. This means that all Windows 8-based PCs that ship with trackpads will include the ability to use gestures on the device’s trackpad, giving them a subset of the functionality one would get with a multi-touch screen. Curious how this works? I’ve got the full rundown in New Trackpad Gesture Support.

Adding new features to Windows 8

Since releasing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft revealed the various product editions it would provide as well as its plan to replace the Windows Anytime Upgrade functionality from previous versions with a new feature called Add Features to Windows 8 that will let users of the base Windows 8 version upgrade in-place to Windows 8 Pro and other functionality. I show you how this new type of upgrade works in Add Features to Windows 8.

Start Screen

As the most prominent of the new Metro-style user experiences, the Start Screen is also the most hotly debated among the tech illuminati. But let’s not forget who this experience is aimed at—typical users—and at least give Microsoft a bit of credit for not changing the Start screen all that much since the Consumer Preview. In Changes to the Start Screen, I describe the changes that are present, however, including those to the tiles, background patterns, color schemes, semantic zoom, app bar, and settings. (And if you’re looking for a more visual guide, be sure to check out my Metro Color Schemes Screenshot Gallery, where you can see and compare all 25 of the new color schemes present in this release.)

Introducing the new Metro-style apps: News, Sports and Travel

While I had previously teased the fact that Microsoft would include three new Metro-style apps in the Windows 8 Release Preview—News, Sports, and Travel—in Yes, There Are Three New Apps In The Windows 8 Release Preview and Windows 8 Secrets: News App, it’s time to take a slight deeper dive into these three interesting new additions. At first glance, News, Sports, and Travel are nothing more than glorified RSS reader apps that are based on the design and functionality of the Finance app that debuted in the Consumer Preview. While accurate enough, that description does nothing to explain why these apps are, in fact, pretty special and, as important, wonderful templates for what truly beautiful and immersive Metro-style apps can look like. You can find out more about these intriguing new apps in New Metro-Style Apps.

Metro-style digital media apps

While the Camera, Photos, Music, and Video apps in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview were mostly terrible—especially Music and Video—they’ve been nicely fine-tuned—even overhauled—for the Release Preview. So this time around you can expect a much, much better experience, including a new UI and photo/video acquisition features in Photos, new user experiences and online Marketplace and, yes, Zune Music Pass compatibility in Music and Videos, and more. It’s all there in Changes to the Digital Media Apps if you want to know more.

Metro-style productivity apps

At the BUILD conference in late 2011, Microsoft previewed its plans to replace the desktop-based Windows Live Essentials applications with new Metro-style apps that were clearly modeled on the similar apps in Windows Phone. With the Windows 8 Release Preview, we finally get nearly complete versions of these apps—which include Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Reader, and SkyDrive—and they’re all in great shape. See what’s new in Changes to the Live Apps.

Metro-style Bing apps

Microsoft’s core Bing apps, Maps, Weather, and Finance, have all been updated in the Release Preview as you’d expect. And while the big news is that Microsoft has bolstered these apps with three new additions (News, Sports, and Travel, as noted above), you can find out what’s changed in the core Bings apps in my article, Changes to the Bing Apps too!

Internet Explorer 10

One of the big questions I’ve had about Windows 8 as we’ve moved beyond the Consumer Preview is whether Microsoft’s strange new browser—which comes in both Metro and desktop variants in this release—would be changing more, from both user experience and functionality standpoints. And it is, though not in ways I expected. First, IE is picking up integrated Adobe Flash functionality—as Rafael and I discussed briefly, previously, in Windows 8 Secrets: Internet Explorer 10 Will Ship With Adobe Flash—as well as a new feature called Flip Forward (which Raf and I were sitting on, waiting for someone to leak it so we could write about that as well). Second, the desktop version of IE isn’t changing further: So the IE9-like UI you’re seeing in IE 10 on the desktop is it for this release. But you can find out more about these developments in Changes to Internet Explorer 10.

Windows Desktop

Microsoft has made a number of changes to the Windows 8 desktop in the Release Preview, though this new is somewhat undercut by the fact that the Aero desktop theme will soon be replaced, post-Release Preview, with a modern, Metro-like theme. There are of course a few changes, and you can read all about them in Changes to the Windows Desktop.

PC Settings

In Windows 8, the new PC Settings interface provides a partial replacement to the old Control Panel, though that older interface continues in the new OS for more advanced configuration settings. Not surprisingly, PC Settings has gotten the once over in the Windows 8 Release Preview. Discover what’s new in Changes to PC Settings.

More tomorrow!

Article list

Windows 8 Release Preview: The Ultimate Delta Guide

It’s Here! The Windows 8 Release Preview Arrives

Windows 8 Release Preview: Screenshot Gallery

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to Windows Setup

Windows 8 Release Preview: New Trackpad Gesture Support

Windows 8 Release Preview: Add Features to Windows 8

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to the Digital Media Apps

Windows 8 Release Preview: New Metro-Style Apps

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to the Start Screen

Windows 8 Release Preview: Metro Color Schemes Screenshot Gallery

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to the Live Apps

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to the Bing Apps

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to Internet Explorer 10

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to the Windows Desktop

Windows 8 Release Preview: Changes to PC Settings