From an apps perspective, the Live apps--Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging, Windows Reader, and SkyDrive—are core to Windows 8, the productivity-based solutions that most users will use on a daily basis. In the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, these apps were available in various stages of completion in App Preview form. But in the Release Preview, most have been substantially updated, and while they’re still not done—indeed, many still carry the App Preview tag—they’re now ready for regular use.

I’ve already written about each of these apps in their Consumer Preview/App Preview guise: Please refer tothe following articles, respectively, for more information.

Windows 8 Feature Focus: Mail (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Calendar (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: People (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Messaging (App Preview)
Windows 8 Feature Focus: Windows Reader
Windows 8 Feature Focus: SkyDrive (App Preview)

Mail

As a fan of the Live mobile apps on Windows Phone and of Windows Live Essentials on the PC, I was most curious to see where Microsoft would take these productivity solutions on Windows 8. And the BUILD conference last fall, it was perhaps Chris Jones’ demonstration of the new Mail app, and the other new Live apps, that really got my attention. Of course, we had to wait until the Consumer Preview to actually use the apps: At the time of BUILD, they existed in prototype only form. And when we finally did get to use Mail … well, it was pretty good. Not great, but you could see where things were heading.

Mail has been significantly enhanced in the Release Preview. The whole thing has been tweaked and streamlined, and it now looks and works more like a real day-to-day email client. Yes, it still features the same three column view. And yes, you can’t really link inboxes, as you can on Windows Phone. But everything else is better.

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First, email accounts now show folders by default: You don’t have to engage the app bar to turn on a folders view. Account management has been moved to Settings, where it belongs. And now Mail lets you pin individual email folders to Start, a feature of Windows 8 called deep linking, so you can have a tile on the Start screen that takes you exactly where you want to go.

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The message interface has been updated nicely, too, whether you’re creating a new message or replying or forwarding an email. Attachments are available without selecting the message body (or otherwise enabling the app bar), and a new Details link adds BCC and priority options. And because the app bar isn’t automatically available as before, options like Paste now appear there, rather than in a pop-up menu as in the Consumer Preview.

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Mail also supports notifications now, so when new email comes in, you can get a heads-up.

There are other tweaks—the Account Settings interface and the warning about making the PC more secure when you add an Exchange account are now is now normal Metro standard-type interfaces, for example—but the overall effect is one of refinement. It may not be “done,” but Mail is getting pretty close to an email solution almost anyone could use.

Calendar

To say that Calendar was incomplete in the Consumer Preview would be an understatement. Sure, the basic Month, Week, and Day views were all present and, yes, each calendar was color-coded. But in the Release Preview, Calendar finally picks up an all-new Options interface that lets you toggle the display and color of individual calendars, just like in Windows Phone.

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That one change alone makes Calendar suddenly worthwhile. But what puts it over the top, of course, is full support for notifications.

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People

Speaking of unfinished, the Consumer Preview version of Windows 8’s contacts solution, People, wasn’t particularly inspiring. The What’s New view featured space-hogging columns of updates that didn’t conform to any Metro guidelines and the app was so lackluster there was almost never a reason to even visit it directly. Now, that’s changed.

First, the People app now has a dynamic tile, like that on Windows Phone, that rotates through photos of your contacts, a nice touch.

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Second, there are small tweaks all over. All has been renamed to People, you can easily toggle the contacts list to only online contacts, and so on. But dive into What’s new—the real point of this app, to provide a front-end to your contacts’ activities on various social networks—and you’ll see something wonderful. This previously space-hogging UI now uses a more efficient and attractive UI.

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Best of all, you can filter it to show content only from specific networks. Nice!

The Me view has been likewise been revamped to be more attractive and useable, with a better use of the available space and a separate UI for seeing all of your own updates in one place.

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Messaging

Messaging was the only Metro-style app to effectively use notifications in the Consumer Preview and as we move forward to the Release Preview version, the differences are minimal. You get a color change from blue to purple, and the Appear Offline option is now called Invisible.

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But there’s also a new Invite button in the app bar, which has Add a Friend and View Invites options in a pop-up menu. Both annoyingly navigate to IE pages where you can perform these actions. Perhaps that will change in the future.

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Windows Reader

Of all the productivity apps in Windows 8, Windows Reader has changed the least. There are no major changes, at all, in fact, just a tiny series of barely perceptible differences that don’t change the overall look and feel of this app. In the opening screen, for example, the Recent Files list from the Consumer Preview has been renamed to Recent. And Reader’s app bar is now black, and not dark gray, with some new button icon treatments. But that’s about it: The actual app bar buttons remain unchanged, as does the functionality of the app.

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OK, there is one semi-major change. You can now close a PDF or XPS document, using the new Close File menu item.

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SkyDrive

The SkyDrive app curiously drops the “App Preview” labeling, but gets only small tweaks from the Consumer Preview. There are some pretty significant app bar additions, for example: In a folder view, there are now new Details/Thumbnails and Select All buttons in addition to Feedback (which is temporary), Refresh, and Add, plus a few new button icon designs.

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The Details button works like a toggle. When you enable this, the view changes and the button changes to Thumbnails so you can get back to the previous view style. And this toggle works across SkyDrive, and retains its setting.

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When you select a photo, there are far more app bar buttons available as well. In addition to Save Local, Feedback, Refresh, and Add from the Consumer Preview, we now see Clear, Manage, Details, and Select All. (Mange provides a Delete option via a pop-up menu. It also appears when you’re viewing a photo.)

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When you select an appropriate document type, the expected Office Web App (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) loads. But select a PDF file and you can view the cover sheet in a screen that looks like (but isn’t) Windows Reader; you need to download the file locally to view it.

Of course, SkyDrive exists mostly so you can browse its file system from other apps using the File Picker. This works largely as before.

Final thoughts

While it’s fair to say that the Windows 8 “Live” apps will never be done in the sense that they’ll be updated over time past the Release Preview and RTM milestones of the OS in which they’re installed, most of these apps have been updated in a meaningful way since the Consumer Preview. And certainly all of them are closer to what one might expect of a shipping, useful mobile app. 

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.