A bit over two months ago, an SSD on my primary desktop PC failed, and after futzing around with it a bit, I replaced the drive and installed the Windows 8 Developer Preview instead of Windows 7. This was, of course, what I had intended to do upon seeing the Developer Preview for the first time back in September. But I was delayed because of other, unrelated hardware issues on this increasingly aging desktop computer.

As I noted in the first article in this series, using the Windows 8 Developer Preview as a daily workhorse isn't a great experience, but then it's not supposed to be: This build exists solely so developers can get up to speed with the new Windows Runtime, WinRT, and the Metro-style apps you can build using an amazing variety of technologies, including C#/XAML or even JavaScript/HTML/CSS.

But the Developer Preview is more than that. It's also the first, public, usable version of Windows 8 I've gotten my hands on. And while there are certainly some issues and glitches, it's been a largely trouble-free experience. In fact, that's part of the problem: Since there are currently no Metro-style apps to speak of, using Windows 8 today does not resemble the final vision of this OS, almost at all. So I've been relegated largely to using the legacy Windows desktop and the apps that run within that. It's like running Windows 7, with some differences.

Those differences are fairly obvious, and some are good, some are bad. On the good news front, I'd argue that even the desktop-only improvements in Windows 8 are as much a leap over Windows 7 as was Windows 7 over Windows Vista. And that's neat because that stuff is just the tip of the iceberg. Key differentiators in the Developer Preview include:

New Explorer. Windows Explorer has been overhauled with a ribbon-based UI that makes all of the available file management tools and tasks readily available. It's not perfect--some of the View styles I use frequently are doubly hidden on the View tab and then not visible by default in the Layout picker--but come on, it's a big improvement. Don't like it? Just hide the ribbon. It's a win-win.

Start Screen Search. One of the best things about Windows 7 is the Start Menu Search feature. But in Windows 8, this gets even better with what I call Start Screen Search, since the interface appears on the Start Screen in full-screen mode, not within a relatively confined menu. Why is it better? Because it searches so much more than was possible in Windows 7, and your search results are filtered for Apps, Settings, and Files, and for specific Metro-style apps. It's all integrated now.

Task Manager. For the first time in, oh, forever, the Task Manager has been thoroughly overhauled in a way that is reminiscent of Mark Russinovich's Wininternals tools. Now, you can very easily see (and if needed, kill) running applications, of course, but also background processes and Windows processes and services. The sheer amount of information in this interface is amazing. It's great stuff.

Logon. Thanks to the simplified new Welcome screen, you can choose to logon more simply with either a four-digit PIN, which I prefer, or a set of three touch gestures, which requires makes more sense with a touch-screen of course. Awesome.

Fast boot and reboot. I don't reboot Windows 8 very often, but when I do, it's back up and running in less than 20 seconds. That's amazing, and much better than Windows 7.

Built-in anti-virus. When I installed Windows 7, I would install Microsoft Security Essentials first. Now, I don't have to: It's built in, as part of Windows Defender. Bravo. And on a related note, by adding SmartScreen to Windows Explorer, I can be safe no matter which browser I use. Smart. (I wrote about Windows 8's security features in 8 Is Enough: Keeping The PC Safe.)

Of course, it's not all good. While virtually all Windows-compatible applications run fine in Windows 8, a few have coughed up the proverbial hair ball. (Like Microsoft's ancient Digital Image Suite 2006, which I've stopped using.) I still keep hitting that damned Start button in order to access slightly-less-frequently-needed apps, and I'm still aggravated every time it loads the Start Screen, which I almost never want.

But whatever. These are early days. And the Beta is coming soon.

The Beta will be better, I suspect. It will be feature complete, or at least "more feature complete," if you will, than the Developer Preview. By that I mean more of the vision for what Windows 8 is supposed to be will be readily apparent in that build. 

More important--in fact, this is way more important--Microsoft will open up a beta version of the Windows Store at this time as well. This means that anyone using the Windows 8 Beta will also be able to find Microsoft and third party Metro-style apps, and experience a lot more of the "true" Windows 8 experience. At this early stage, only free apps will be made available through the Windows Store. But I'm sure paid apps will arrive well before Windows 8 launches.

So, here we sit in a weird middle area between the Developer Preview, which is magnificent but flawed, and the Beta release, which is mysterious and exciting, but still an unknown quantity. I'll continue using Windows 8 as my daily use OS, will continue working on Windows 8 Secrets, and will continue writing about my experiences doing both. But as I look forward over the coming year, the one thing I'm most excited to experience is the full-blown, no-compromises version of Windows 8 that's on the way. And it all starts with the Beta, expected in late February.

I can't wait.