May 31, 2012 -- Windows 8 -- the new operating system Microsoft has designed for tablets and touch screens as well as laptops and desktop computers -- is inching closer to reality today with an improved preview version anyone can download.
Back in February, Microsoft released a Consumer Preview version of Windows 8, and today its so-called Release Preview will be available for download in 14 languages at http://preview.windows.com.
The Release Preview is still meant for early adopters and developers, and Microsoft isn't saying exactly when the new version of Windows will be officially released for sale or in new devices, but today is a step forward.
"Ultimately, our partners will determine when their PCs are available in market," Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky said in a blog post. "If the feedback and telemetry on Windows 8 and Windows RT [the version for tablets] match our expectations ... then we are tracking to our shared goal of having PCs with Windows 8 and Windows RT available for the holidays."
The new version of the software is by and large the same as the version ABC News took a deep look at in February, but it has a number of tweaks, including improvements to the Mail, Photos, and People apps. Microsoft has also added new Bing apps for Travel, News and Sports.
New family safety features and privacy settings have also been integrated. Notably, "Do Not Track" capabilities are turned on by default in Internet Explorer 10. Microsoft has also made sure that Flash animation is supported in both the desktop and Metro versions of the browser (Metro is intended for touch screens), a change since the announcement of Windows 8 in September 2011.
Windows 8 looks entirely different from previous versions of Windows. Instead of centering everything around a Desktop with a Start Menu in the corner, Windows 8 has a home screen of live tiles or apps. Free and paid Windows 8 apps will be available in Microsoft's Windows Store.
The software lends itself to touch, but also was designed to work well with a mouse and keyboard. It is expected that a number of PC manufacturers will release different types of computers and tablets running Windows 8, including tablets with keyboards and laptops with touch screens.
While Microsoft hasn't said when you can buy devices with Windows 8 in them, it is announcing an upgrade program for those that cannot wait to buy a computer until after it comes out. Starting on June 2, any person who buys a Windows 7 PC can purchase an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $14.99.
The Release Preview step is the final stage before the operating system is released to manufacturers, which will then ship their devices with the new software.