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Windows 8 Release Preview and Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate Now Available

The "release preview" of Windows 8 and the "release candidate" (RC) of Windows Server 2012 were made available for download today by Microsoft.

These releases represent the final public testing stage before Microsoft prepares for its traditional "release-to-manufacturing" (RTM) stage. The RTM phase will mark the delivery of the finalized bits of the operating systems to Microsoft's hardware partners for imaging on new machines, leading to global product sales.

The Windows 8 release preview can be downloaded here. Those wanting to test Windows Server 2012 RC can get it at this page. Language availability is still limited at this time, but Microsoft plans to support more than 100 different languages in the final products.

Few details were announced today about the Windows Server 2012 RC. Jeffrey Snover, distinguished engineer and the lead architect for the Windows Server Division, noted in a blog post that the formerly code-named "Windows Server 8" had nearly 300,000 beta downloads and that Microsoft is still seeking user feedback to deliver a quality release. The release cycles for Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 have tended to coincide.

A lot more was said about the Windows 8 release preview, which includes some tweaks to Internet Explorer 10. Microsoft also announced the availability of the RC version of Visual Studio 2012 and the .NET 4.5 Framework on Thursday, which can be downloaded here.

Windows 8 Changes
Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows Division, described this Windows 8 release as "build 8400," which actually was compiled more than a week ago. He noted that users have already contributed "hundreds of millions of hours" of testing information to Microsoft by using the earlier beta versions of the OS. While the RC stage typically represents a fully baked OS and a time for bug fixes at Microsoft, Sinofsky said that people can expect to see some "feature changes we plan on making to the user experience" in Windows 8 by RTM time. He added that if all goes well, the RTM might happen "in about two months," which would put Windows 8 and Windows RT (also known as "Windows on ARM") on track for holiday product release this year.

In the interim, Microsoft plans to initiate an upgrade offer for those buying Windows 7 PCs, starting on June 2, 2012. This offer will give those consumers buying Windows 7-based PCs through Jan. 31, 2013 the rights to upgrade their systems to the Windows 8 Pro edition by purchasing a $14.99 upgrade option during the promotional period.

Microsoft published scant details about the new features in the Windows 8 release preview. However, the OS is arriving with some new apps included, such as apps for reading news and sports, a Bing Travel app, new games, and "Music Xbox apps that integrate with your Zune pass," according to a press release.

Many of the new Windows 8 features were previously mentioned in the "building Windows 8" blog. However, some new information is tucked away in Microsoft's Windows 8 FAQ. For instance, Windows Media Center doesn't come with Windows 8. It will be an extra expense to add it when Windows 8 is released as a final product. However, Microsoft's FAQ provides a product key that will allow release preview users to test Windows Media Center in the interim. Also, if you want to play DVDs on Windows 8, then Media Center is required or a third-party app must be used. Windows 8 doesn't include software to play DVDs, although Microsoft's OEM or system builder partners might add it.

Internet Explorer 10 Changes
Internet Explorer 10 users will encounter some new territory on Windows 8. First, the browser is supported by two user experiences -- the traditional "desktop" and the new "Metro-style" one. Microsoft had consistently said since September that it was going to deliver a plug-in-free experience on the Metro side with IE 10. However, that didn't happen with this release. Microsoft will include a "touch-friendly and power-optimized Adobe Flash Player" in IE 10. A Microsoft spokesperson clarified by e-mail that this Flash Player will be available on both the Metro side and desktop side of Windows 8.

"Starting with the Release Preview, Windows 8 will include a newly power-optimized, touch-friendly Adobe Flash Player, based on Flash Player 11.3," the spokesperson explained. "This built-in version will be used in IE10 for both the new UI experience and IE10 on the desktop."

Microsoft opted to include the Flash Player because some Web sites do not yet support native HTML 5 graphics.

"Because some popular Web sites require Adobe Flash and do not offer HTML5 alternatives, Adobe and Microsoft worked together closely to deliver a Flash Player suitable for the Metro style experience," explained Dean Hachamovitch, corporate vice president for Internet Explorer, in an IE blog post.

He added that sites have to be on a compatibility view list in order for the Flash Player on the Metro side to work. The desktop IE 10 apparently supports any browser plug-in.

The "favorites" feature in IE 10 will still work in the desktop version of the browser, but Microsoft wants you to pin your favorite Web sites to the start screen when using Metro IE 10. To use the "compatibility view" feature for viewing Web sites, users must activate it by opening the desktop IE 10, according to the FAQ. There also will be some security differences between the desktop and Metro IE 10 browsers, such as how the "enhanced protected mode" works.

Microsoft has turned on a "do not track" feature in IE 10 by default. The feature, which uses lists of URLs to permit or bar information sharing, was first introduced in IE 9 but users had to turn it on.

A few other new details are listed in the FAQ. It's now possible to close an application in Windows 8. You click the top of an app and drag it to the bottom of the screen using a mouse, or you can swipe down with your finger if using a touch screen. Windows 8 users don't need a Microsoft account to use the OS, but it's required when getting apps from the Windows Store. The Microsoft account also lets users migrate their settings across devices.

Product Keys and Setup
Microsoft released the Windows 8 release preview in 32-bit and 64-bit versions for x86- and x64-based machines, respectively. Those downloads come with a 5 MB setup file that includes the product keys. For those users that want to create installation media for the Windows 8 release preview, Microsoft provides a single product key number on its FAQ page that's required to use to get the OS running.

Microsoft states in the FAQ that the "Windows 8 Release Preview should work with the same devices and programs that work with Windows 7." The setup program for Windows 8 release preview will perform a scan the PC first to determine what is compatible, and it will provide a printable report. Microsoft recommends turning on peripheral devices plugged into the PC before running the setup program. In some cases, applications may need to be reinstalled after installing Windows 8 release preview, the FAQ advises. Microsoft has posted a "compatibility center" page that lists the products known to work with Windows 8.

It's possible to upgrade from earlier versions of Windows 8 to the release preview version, but older files will get saved in a "Windows.old" folder and no programs or settings will migrate, according to the FAQ. However, when upgrading from Windows 7 and Windows Vista, some settings and accounts will migrate to Windows 8 (see the FAQ for details).

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