Microsoft is releasing a preview version of Windows 8 for download on Feb. 29, following an announcement at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
The software maker has said little about how fully baked this version will be, but it should provide the strongest indications yet about what consumers can expect once the final version of Windows 8 debuts, most likely later this year. Here's a look at some key areas on which Windows 8 Consumer Preview should shed some light, and where it won't.
1. Hardware requirements. Microsoft has said that Windows 8 will run just fine on PCs that run Windows 7, and that it should even do well on XP machines. The Consumer Preview will provide general computer users with their first chance to test that out.
For the record, Windows 8 needs a PC with at least a 1-GHZ processor, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB of available hard disk space, and DirectX-capable graphics.
2. No ARM preview. While much of the hype around Windows 8 has been focused on its optimization for touch-tablet computing on ARM systems, the preview version that Microsoft is releasing on Wednesday is limited to running on Intel or AMD-based PCs and slates.
Microsoft is making ARM-based tablets with Windows 8 preinstalled available for testing on Wednesday, but only to a small number of developers.
3. Legacy performance. A key point about ARM-based Windows 8 systems is that they will not run legacy Windows apps. Windows 8 on Intel and AMD chips should offer legacy support, however. At least that's the promise from Microsoft.
Windows 8 Consumer Preview will give users a chance to evaluate that pledge, while keeping in mind that the OS is still in the development stage. It could be a deal breaker for many users if Windows 8 chokes on older software.
4. Touch test. For those users who have touch-capable PCs and slates, Windows 8 CP will provide many with their first opportunity to experience touch-based computing on an operating system that was developed with such interaction in mind. Windows 7 supports touch, but the classic Windows interface it sports was really developed for the mouse and keyboard. With Windows 8, even on PCs, touch is far more than just an afterthought.
5. Don't Start me up? There have been rumors, none of them confirmed by Microsoft, about some big changes (beyond the obvious addition of the Metro interface) that are supposedly in store for Windows with the arrival of Windows 8.
One of the most talked about is that Windows 8 dispenses with the familiar Start button, and instead will feature a "hot corner", swiping or mousing over which will allow users to toggle between Metro and the standard Windows Explorer Interface. Windows 8 Consumer Preview should either confirm this rumor or put it to rest for good.
6. Logo redesigned? Ditto for the familiar, multi-colored, multi-paned Windows logo. Internet reports, mostly based on blogs originating out of Asia, suggest that Windows 8 will ditch the old logo and instead bear a monochromatic or grayscale emblem that's been streamlined considerably.
While that might be less pretty, it would be consistent with the new interface that Microsoft has developed for Visual Studio 11, which is optimized for building Windows 8 apps. (Windows 8 Consumer Preview, however, is not supported in Visual Studio 11 Beta.)
7. Apps story. Microsoft has not confirmed that any new Windows 8 Metro apps will be available for consumers to download alongside Windows 8 Consumer Preview tomorrow, but it's a good bet there will be at least some software ready for users to play around with in order to get a feel for how using tablet-style apps plays out on a PC.
At least one major newspaper publisher has confirmed that it plans to produce a Windows 8 app, national news giant USA Today.
8. Windows Store. Speaking of apps, Microsoft will also open its Windows Store application market for a preview on Wednesday. Again, it's not known if any actual apps will be there to purchase, but it should be enough to allow users to see how the store operates and compare the process to Apple's App Store or Google's Android Market.
The download and checkout process will need to be seamless, as Microsoft has said that the Windows Store will be the only source of Metro-style apps for Windows 8 PCs and tablets.
Microsoft plans to formally introduce Windows 8 Consumer Preview during an event at World Mobile Congress that starts at 9 a.m. Eastern time (3 p.m. local time in Barcelona). It should be available at some point after that, though the company has not provided an exact release time.
The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 26-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.