This late in the development of, its major news when Microsoft adds any Metro-style apps to the core set of apps that will grace the OS in its final version. And yet Microsoft did just that with the Release Preview, which includes three impressive new Metro-style apps: News, Sports, and Travel.
Thematically, News, Sports, and Travel are clearly very much based on the app model Microsoft created for its Finance app from the Consumer Preview. Each looks and works similarly, utilizes the same sort of Bing and third party back-end services, and is targeted at a clear and useful topic that is in turn locale-specific. So where Finance was the Metro-style version of a newspaper’s business section, News is the front page and more, Sports of course covers sports specifically, and Travel is your virtual travel section.
As new apps, News, Sports, and Travel all carry the “App Preview” label, though to be fair even some apps that debuted in the Consumer Preview still bear this mark as well. But they all feel pretty mature, with gorgeous, magazine-style layouts, impressive photography, gorgeous type treatments, and nice, topic-based navigational schemes.
News and Sports, of course, are bit more timely than Travel, which reads like a casual, armchair traveler guide instead of a time-sensitive guide to what’s new and happening now. But as you can see, the apps all share a familiar look and feel.
Each, too, can be customized and navigated in familiar ways. Comparing the app bars from each app, for example, you can see the similar UIs, each tailored to the task at hand.
Three app bars, top to bottom: News, Sports, Travel
What you’ll see in each of these apps—and in the app bar-based options—will depend on where you live. Here in the US, for example, we get the full meal deal, of course, with customized news attached to your Microsoft account, news trends, and many high-quality US- and international-based news sources in the News apps, the full slate of both US and international sports choices in Sports, and some excellent travelogue-type information, flight and hotel booking, and other web-based travel articles in Travel. Elsewhere, you can expect few choices, including, in some places, I bet, the absence of one or more of these apps.
With the understanding that I can only report on the US-based experience, here’s a few notes about each of these apps.
As with the other new apps, News unfolds like a horizontally-scrolling, multi-screen, multi-section masterpiece. The default and leftmost view features a nicely illustrated top story, but off to the right are groups related to the news sections US, World, Technology, Business, Entertainment, Politics, Sports, and Health. As with other Metro-style apps that takes this multi-screen approach, News lets you dive into each section by tapping its group headline. Or you can dive into a featured story or, best of all, use the semantic zoom feature (as with the Start screen) to view all of the news sections on a single screen.
Individual articles are laid out like newspapers or magazines, with multiple columns. But there’s no way to change the font sizes or styles, which is a huge mistake (and will hopefully be corrected). Like a good Metro-style app, even article scrolling is horizontal, not vertical.
If you want to browse news only from a particular source, head over to the Sources view (via the app bar) and select the source you prefer. Sadly, you can’t use this interface to add or remove sources from the main views, which would be preferable (and could be happening later). Unfortunately, many of the articles you see here load standard web page views, not the beautiful, curated News app views.
Sports fans are going to love the new Sports app. After customizing the app for your locale (or your favorite locale, if you’ve been displaced), you can further customize it by selecting your favorites sports teams. (You can also determine whether the news stories auto-refresh and, if so, how frequently.)
As with News, Sports is a horizontally scrolling Metro-style app that features groups, this time for News, Schedule, and Favorite Teams, as well as that fun semantic zoom feature for getting to what you want more quickly. Articles are laid out similarly to News, of course. But you can also use the app bar to dive into individual sports/leagues (like NBA and MLB), and each of these sections is given the same nice graphical treatment as the main view.
You can also pin these sections to the Start screen. So if all you care about is, say, baseball, you can simply choose Pin from the app bar in that view and have a deep link to that part of the app at the ready. The tiles are even customized to the sport. Nice!
Where News and Sports are immediately obvious, the Travel app seems a bit more nebulous, at least until you dive into it a bit. Sure, it features the same layout and design as the other two new apps, but with travel stories being a bit less time sensitive and immediate than news and sports, the mission of this app is less obvious too.
The main view is of course a horizontally-scrolling Metro-style experience. It has a featured story, with an accompanying gorgeous and nearly full-screen photo, of course, and then groups for Featured Destinations, Panoramas, and Articles. Each is a bit different, and if you want to jump around more quickly, semantic view is at the ready here as well.
Featured Destinations appears to be a subset of the Destinations view that is available from the app bar. It showcases a handful of beautiful travel destinations—Machu Picchu, Tokyo, Venice, and so on—and has a link to “More,” which of course goes to the full Destinations view. Dive into a destination and you’ll find a magazine-type treatment (again, horizontally scrolling and full-screen), with another large photo feature, an overview of the destination with links to related Frommer’s articles, a map, currency conversion and weather, and a link to find flights (another feature of the app), some beautiful but tiny (and not full-screen) photos, (full-screen) panoramas, a list of the top attractions, hotels, and restaurants, according to Frommer’s, and trip planning guides. (You can also find hotels which, again, is another app feature)
(Interestingly, the destination landing pages feature semantic zoom too; here’s it’s truly useful.)
The content in Travel articles is all from Frommer’s and while they’re laid out similarly to the articles in News and Sports, they have a Frommer’s look and feel to them too. (All that’s missing is the flimsy paper Frommer’s uses in its books.)
Where the photos are nice looking, they’re tiny and don’t fill the full screen for some reason, a major letdown. And some of the choices are bizarre. In the Paris section, there isn’t a single photo of a recognizable major landmark (Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph, whatever) at all.
Curiously, the panoramas do utilize the full screen and are thus more useful and fun to look at. They also include more recognizable places, which is always a plus.
The Travel app provides Kayak-powered Flights and Hotels views, which let you find and almost purchase both from directly within the app. You can perform these searches from within any destination view or just select one from the app bar. It includes all the filtering functionality you’d expect, and when you’re ready to book, you can choose a partner and do so through Internet Explorer.
Finally, if you’re interested in Frommer’s content, the Best of Web view—available from the app bar—lets you peruse other travel related articles from around the web. This view is grouped (and can utilize semantic zoom) with such topics as Plan a Trip, Tools, Budget Travel, Road Trips, and so on. But each article opens in IE and doesn’t utilize the nice Travel layouts.
While the News, Sports, and Travel apps seem like a cheap way to reuse code from the previously available Finance app, each offers unique value and, of course, layouts that are beautiful to look at and obvious to use. They’re great examples of the types of apps that can be created in the Metro environment and should serve as inspirations for all content creators. Perhaps if we’re lucky, Microsoft will make this app style available as a template to developers.
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.