Windows 8 Consumer Preview: A First Look at Microsoft's New Operating System

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Every day billions of people in the world boot up their computers and are brought into the world of Microsoft Windows. Whether they're using Windows XP or Windows 7, the layout is similar and has become familiar -- a desktop with icons, a Start button in the corner, and lots of windows.

Today, Microsoft is pulling the curtain off of its next version of Windows -- Windows 8 -- and it looks entirely different from what those billions of people are used to seeing every day.

The Seattle-based company has designed Windows 8 not only for laptops and desktops, but also for tablets. It was built from the ground up with your fingers in mind. It is meant as much for a touch screen as for a laptop.

Microsoft will offer a public pre-release or beta version of the operating system, called the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, starting today for all to download and try, but it won't start shipping on tablets, laptops, or desktops you can purchase until later. (Microsoft isn't giving a definitive date yet, but it's been heavily rumored for a launch close to the holiday season.)

PHOTOS: Take a tour of Windows 8

Also, check out some of the new apps in Windows 8

For the last week, I have been testing the new operating system on a Samsung tablet I was given by Microsoft, and I've been impressed with the entire experience. It is, however, a very big change.

Is it one you will want to make? Or at least try? Has Microsoft come up with something that can finally compete with the iPad? Below you'll find a guide to the new features and what I like and don't like about some of them.

Start Screen

From the second you turn on the tablet, Windows 8 looks dramatically different from Windows of the past.

The entire experience is centered on the Start screen, which is home to colorful "live tiles" or apps. The tiles themselves are a lot like the ones on Microsoft's Windows Phone; they will refresh with content from within the app. For instance, if you are connected to the Internet, the weather tile will display the current temperature.

While the tiles on the screen may look like firmly grounded stepping stones, they're entirely customizable. You can hold down and drag each tile and group them into different categories. Pinch the entire screen and you get a view of all the tiles and the ability to name a group of them (e.g. news, social apps, games).

You can also change the color of the background. While you can't add a picture, you can replace the picture on the lock screen, which also populates with different notifications, for instance, the number of emails waiting for you.

So, what about the desktop you've known for years and years? While it's not the centerpiece of Windows anymore, you can get to it by tapping the Desktop app on the Start screen.

You can always get back to the Start screen by swiping your finger from the right edge towards the middle of the screen. This reveals what Microsoft calls "charms," which include Search, Share, Devices, Settings, and Start shortcuts.

The Start screen and the charms are some of my favorite parts of the operating system; everything works extremely fluidly, touch or taps register immediately, and organizing apps is very easy.

Microsoft has also added "picture passwords." Instead of typing out a secret password, you can choose an image and draw a pattern on top of it to unlock. I like the idea in theory, but I found that it doesn't always recognize my gestures. I've opted to use a text and number based password.

There are Finally Apps for That

If the Start screen is the heart of Windows 8, the apps are the blood to keep it pumping. Microsoft will be rolling out its store for purchasing apps with the beta version of the operating system, but it wasn't available as I was writing this review. (Update: The Store is now available in the Consumer Preview. Take a look at some of the new apps here.)

The Consumer Preview does come with 19 core Microsoft apps, most of which have been totally reimagined. Mail, Messaging, Bing Maps, People, Photos, Music and Weather are just a few that decorate the Start screen. All the apps have been designed with Microsoft's "Metro UI" design language, which give them a new clean and polished look. Similar to the iPad, the apps take up the full screen.

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