Living with Windows 8: Initial impressions

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At long last, the final version of Windows 8 is now available to MSDN/TechNet subscribers, enterprise customers, etc. Microsoft’s servers were hammered soon after the files went live yesterday morning, making it difficult to obtain product keys or initiate the download at all. Thankfully, the Redmond software giant managed to get things back in working order relatively quickly.

If you’re one of the lucky people who have managed to obtain Windows 8 before the October 26 release date, you’ve no doubt noticed quite a few improvements over the Release Preview. Aero (the semi-opaque glass that served as the application chrome on the desktop) has been replaced with something that fits better with the rest of Windows 8’s new UI. There is, however, still some transparency on the taskbar. Microsoft has also added a host of new customization options like Start screen backgrounds, desktop and lock screen wallpaper, and sound effects. Legacy desktop applications which have been pinned to the Start screen look much better as well. I’m pleased to say that the Start screen has never looked better, both in terms of the actual interface and my personal tile layout.

If you’ve been reading my previous installments of Living with Windows 8, you’ll be pleased to know that all of the minor glitches I’ve complained about have been resolved. Taskbar notifications for pinned sites using Internet Explorer have been fixed (Facebook once again shows an asterisk when there’s an update), the erroneous update notifications have disappeared, and you can once again add hyperlinks in IE.

All of the built-in apps have received a nice update too, with my favorites being People and Xbox Music. These two apps had some annoying limitations and they both often felt sluggish. The latest versions, however, truly are fast and fluid. I plan on detailing the changes in depth over the coming weeks, but suffice to say that they’re light-years better than they used to be. Of course, there’s still some work to be done. Xbox Music managed to pull in 98% of my music collection correctly, but a few albums seem to have disappeared. Although, to be fair, Microsoft still has another two months before these apps need to be ready for public consumption. And for those of you asking when Feed Reader will go live, I’m excited to say that it’s now available for download.

Believe it or not, Windows 8 is also the first version of Microsoft’s desktop OS to not come with popular games like Minesweeper, Solitaire, and Mahjong preinstalled. These free games are, however, available for download from the Windows Store. Last week I theorized that they might bring new gamers to Xbox LIVE, and I still believe that to be the case. I managed to unlock nearly all of the achievements with just a few minutes of playing. Strangely, the achievements don’t appear to have a date attached when you unlock them, so the games show up at the bottom of your Xbox LIVE activity, rather than the top. Furthermore, it looks like Microsoft has add-ons in store which will add daily challenges, personalized themes, additional achievements, and cross-platform play between PCs, tablets, and Windows Phone. We’ll have to wait a bit longer for this, though, since selecting “update now” simply brings up the game’s listing in the Windows Store.

Windows 8 is a giant leap forward for Microsoft. Sure, it’s a 1.0 product in many ways, but it’s a darn good product. The operating system may be done, but the next two months will almost certainly be filled with a steady stream of app releases and updates, paving the way for what will – hopefully – be a successful consumer launch on October 26. But more than anything, I can’t wait to get this OS on a tablet. Bring on the Surface.

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/ Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.

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