Microsoft previewed the next version of its Windows OS in June at D9 and a few more details leaked out shortly after that, but the biggest reveal came this week with Microsoft giving a preview of Windows 8 to kick off its Build conference, followed by the Developer Preview hitting Microsoft servers for anyone to download. With the surge in popularity of touchscreen devices over the past few years the new OS is designed to run on a wider variety of devices and chipsets and embraces touch and apps in a big way with the new "Metro style" interface.
Although Windows 8 has similar system requirements to Windows 7, it boots much faster by saving the kernel memory at shutdown and reloading it during startup. Borrowing from Windows Phone 7, the default Windows 8 Start screen features customizable live tiles, although users can switch to the traditional desktop interface via the desktop tile.
Microsoft has designed Windows 8 is a one-size-fits-all OS to run on everything from 10-inch tablets to 27-inch desktops so users can swipe and scroll via touchscreen, touchpad or mouse. Not one, but two virtual keyboards - one full sized and another split thumb keyboard - are on board for devices without physical keyboards.
No doubt envious of Apple raking in all that cash from its App Store, Microsoft has placed a strong emphasis on apps in Windows 8 and put the new Windows Store front and center so it's easy to buy them. Like Apple, Microsoft will screen all apps before they make it to the Windows Store. Apps can be run in full screen, work on x86, x64 and ARM platforms and adapt to different screen resolutions and device form factors. Different apps can also communicate with each other and will sync over multiple devices.
Internet Explorer 10 is onboard and has been optimized for touch browsing with gesture-based navigation and a touch-friendly navigation bar that only appears when you ask (swipe) for it. Notably, Microsoft has also followed Apple's lead and will ditch plug-ins, including Flash, in the Metro version of IE10 for use on tablets in order to improve battery life, security and reliability. However, plug-ins will still be supported in the desktop version on IE10.
Windows 8 is compatible with Windows 7 applications and Windows Explorer and Task Manager have been redesigned to bring commonly used features to the fore. Explorer will feature the controversial "ribbon" toolbar, while Task Manager is now an all-in-one dashboard to monitor and control your PC, with information tracked in real time and able to be viewed as summary graphs.
With the release of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, Microsoft will refine and update the OS using the feedback from developers. The company hasn't set a date for the finished version but isn't expected until the second half of 2012. If you want to get a taste of the new OS the Developer Preview is available for download here.
But be warned, this is an early version and is still buggy. It can only be installed as a clean install and can only be removed with a reformat so be sure to use a separate partition or spare machine because you won't be able to go crying to Microsoft if you run into any problems.