02/03/2012 13:20 | By Matt Farrington-Smith, editor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Windows 8 Consumer Preview - what's new

Windows 8 is a different kind of operating system - it brings touch controls, Xbox LIVE, a new Start screen and an app store together to form an entirely new Windows experience.

At the time of writing the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has been downloaded over a million times. See why Microsoft is right to claim Windows 8 is "Windows reimagined".

Windows 8 - Windows reimagined. Image MSN

The newly designed Start screen.

Whether you are merely curious as to what Windows 8 Consumer Preview offers or you're unsure where to begin, our guide will bring you up to speed.

A modern way of letting go

Windows 8 is two things - on the face of it, it's the same operating system we know and love (granted with a few changes neatly hidden away under the hood). We know Windows, we can all use Windows, it shouldn't be frightening but there's enough different about it to bring it bang up to date.

Secondly (and perhaps more importantly) Windows 8 is Microsoft's bold vision for the future, a future that brings Windows into an entirely new world, a more connected world. We want to be able to use our computers everywhere, we need to be mobile and we need to be connected to the internet day and night.

Touch is an "and," and not an "or." You don't have to choose between the two.

This modern way of working also requires a modern OS, and however you choose to use Windows 8, it can adopt to suit your needs. The operating system has moved on from the standard computer, keyboard, mouse combo - if we look at how Xbox are paving the way with Kinect motion-tracking technology, you'll recognise the need for evolution (even if you haven't quite yet bought into it). As such Windows 8 caters for a wide range of different platforms and inputs, you can use it on a laptop, ultrabook, your home PC and tablet devices.

Touch vs. keyboard (and mouse)

Steven Sinofsky (President of Microsoft's Windows division) says touch is an "and," and not an "or." You don't have to choose between the two. The Windows 8 Consumer Preview is compatible with mouse and keyboard as well as touch.

Windows 8 is equally at home with a mouse and keyboard. You can choose how to interact with your PC. Plug in a keyboard and mouse and you have familiar methods of getting to your apps. People work in different ways and Windows 8 adapts to your needs.

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview includes seven key gestures and a chock load of keyboard shortcuts. Plus there are mouse equivalents for all touch commands and gestures.

Guide to installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview
Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview
In pictures: Latest Windows 8 screens

The traditional Windows desktop is still here. Image MSN

Windows 8 hasn't done away with the traditional desktop.

Metro, Apps and reinvention

You'll have heard a lot about Windows 8 new Metro design and the furore around touch navigation. Yes windows 8 supports touch and gesture controls, but no this doesn't replace the traditional Windows desktop UI (so those without tablets or touch-screens need not feel like they are missing out).

Windows 8 takes a two-pronged approach to working, Metro isn't the be all and end all, but it does add a new dimension (the likes of which we have never seen in Windows before) and introduces a new way of interacting with our PCs.

If you think you've seen Metro before, then you have. Both Microsoft's Windows Phone and the newly released Xbox dashboard update have adopted the new design and styling.

Programs in Windows 8 are called 'Apps' - Windows 8 apps sit in the new Metro environment and can be found on your Start screen.

From your first boot you'll have a set of built-in apps for the things you do most. Apps will work together so you can share information between them, e.g. send a photo in the Photos app using the Mail app. By visiting the Windows Store and adding more apps to your collection you'll also add more functionality to your Windows 8 system.

The Windows 8 Consumer Preview provides demo versions of Mail, Calendar, SkyDrive, Photos, People and Messaging apps.

You can buy all of your apps in the Windows Store. Image MSN

You can buy new apps in the Windows Store.

Window shopping

As previously mentioned, the Windows Store is the place to browse, compare and download thousands* of apps. Microsoft regularly highlight a selection of specially-chosen apps in their Spotlight section, elsewhere there are lists for Top paid, Top free and New releases.

If that doesn't satisfy you can also find apps split into a dizzying array of genres (Games, Social, Entertainment,
Photos, Music & videos, Books & reference, News & weather, Food & dining, Shopping, Travel, Finance, Productivity, Tools, and finally, Security).

You can download your apps on more than one Windows 8 PC so there's no need to buy it twice. That's because after you install an app from the Windows Store, you can sign in to the Store on up to five other PCs and see a list of all of the apps you own.

It is worth noting that during the Consumer Preview all of the apps are free, once this period is over you will still be able to trial paid apps first (if not available for free).

Longer battery life

Power requirements in Windows 8 are lower, data transfer is faster, and Bluetooth LE delivers low-power wireless
connectivity for longer battery life.

With the new class of ultrathin PCs and tablets that turn on quickly, you can run much longer on a single charge than with older hardware. That means you can stay connected so your PC is ready when you are. Battery life is longer and connections are stronger.

Microsoft tout Windows 8 as Windows 7 only better, so even if you compare the juice you get out of your existing Windows 7 laptop you are sure to notice a difference.

Guide to installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview
Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview
In pictures: Latest Windows 8 screens

Internet Explorer 10 as seen in Windows 8. Image MSN

Choose between two different versions of Internet Explorer 10.

Internet Explorer doubles up

Microsoft have reimagined the browser to create a new experience designed specifically for your Windows 8 device. Internet Explorer 10 provides an edge-to-edge, fast, and fluid experience that's all about less browser and more web.

IE10 continues the work Microsoft have put into Internet Explorer 9. Two versions of Internet Explorer 10 ship with the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. The Metro edition is plug-in free. Almost all phones and devices are already plug-in free, so many websites already run in this plug-in free fashion.

If you favour Windows 8 more traditional desktop, there is also an Internet Explorer 10 desktop application that retains plug-in support.

Take your Windows with you

Windows 8 is all about PCs without compromise. Services and software should go wherever you go on whatever product you are on. So if you want to access your emails, documents and files from anywhere in the world you can do that with SkyDrive. To put it even simpler you are always connected to your files.

You can also ask Windows 8 to mirror your personal settings/preferences across all Windows 8 PCs and devices, so your PC will be set up just the way you are used to.

You'll soon be able to enjoy Xbox LIVE in Windows 8. Image MSN

You'll soon be able to enjoy Xbox LIVE in Windows 8.

Music, video and Xbox

The entertainment apps found in Windows 8 Consumer Preview provide an opportunity to see some of what's to come for Xbox LIVE on Windows 8 including the Video, Music, Games and Xbox Companion apps.

Delve into the Music and Video apps and you'll get more than a whiff of Xbox LIVE. This is no coincidence, the apps have been built by Microsoft's Xbox team and as such share the same sleek look and feel. The apps have also clearly taken cues from Microsoft's Zune entertainment service too, Microsoft say they will be "enabling access to Zune pass at a later date".

You can browse and search the music marketplace and buy tracks or full albums. You can see the music in your local collection and play it back in a Now Playing experience with rich artist pictures and immersive details like bios and discography.

The Xbox Companion app will let you discover entertainment content from your Xbox LIVE account (buy, rent or stream videos to play on your Xbox console). You can also control your content playback via the app.

At the time of writing we were unable to sign into our Xbox LIVE account but UK support is expected soon.


Plug in your USB storage and Windows 8 will present you with several options; speed up your system with Windows ReadyBoost, configure the drive for backup, or open folder to view files. Alternatively you can choose to take no action.

Accessing your devices is quick thanks to the Devices charm (swipe from the right of your screen). From here you can do things like getting photos from a digital camera, streaming video to your TV, or sending files to a device.

Guide to installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview
Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview
In pictures: Latest Windows 8 screens

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