Big changes in appearance
In RTM, the transfer from the Vista-era Aero interface to the boxy, opaque, shadowless, glowless, and shine-free flatland style pioneered in Windows 3.1 seems complete, with one small exception: I don't know why, but the desktop taskbar still shows a bit of transparency (squint at the flower stalks in screen image below).
When the window border color is set to automatic -- as is the case in the screen image, the default -- the shade of window borders and the taskbar changes, depending on the hues in the desktop background. Some people like the new layout, some don't, but Aero is gone for good, apparently a victim of its power-draining excesses.
On the other hand, the Metro Start screen offers a surfeit of choices, with 20 swirly background patterns (including, mercifully, one option with no swirls at all) and 25 predefined color combinations. The result is a Start screen that greets seasoned Windows desktop fans with all the visual subtlety of an overflowing Bass-o-Matic. (See the Windows 8 Photo Gallery.)
Bigger changes in Metro apps
Every version of Microsoft's Metro apps that we've seen to date -- Mail, People, Calendar, Messaging, SkyDrive, Weather, News, Finance, Travel, Sports, Games, Camera, Music and Video -- has been labeled Preview, for good reason. With few exceptions, the apps showed tortuous lapses and manifest bugs. That's changed a little bit.
Metro Mail brings up a yeomanly three-column display when viewed on a Metro-size 1,366-by-768 monitor, with folders, a message list, and a viewing pane that works as you would expect. There's still no ability to add new folders or to drag messages to a specific folder. (Moving a message to a folder entails a down-flick or right-click and a manual selection of the destination folder.) In a head-to-head comparison with Microsoft's Hotmail replacement, Outlook.com, Metro Mail doesn't even come close in any identifiable category. Metro Mail doesn't consolidate inboxes for multiple email accounts, but it can work in a pinch as a small, light email application.
Metro Mail can connect with Hotmail (including Outlook.com, Live.com, and MSN), Exchange (including Office 365 with EAS), and Gmail. It'll also hook into IMAP mail accounts, but it still doesn't recognize POP3. Most damning, it won't import anything from other Microsoft mail programs -- none of the stand-alone versions of Office Outlook, no Windows Live Mail, no Windows Mail, no Outlook Express.
Metro People syncs contacts with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social networking integration is one area where Windows 8 really shines.
With Metro Calendar rounding out the PIM triumvirate, connecting any of the three Metro apps -- Mail, People, Calendar -- to Hotmail (Outlook.com, Live.com, MSN), EAS, or Google will bring your mail, contacts, and calendar into the corresponding Metro app. As any database admin will tell you, the problem with consolidating diverse data sources in that way lies in sorting out overlaps, duplications, and obsolete information. While the three Metro apps make a brave stab at consolidating conflicting information, I found the whole exercise overwhelming and the automated tools inadequate, and I ultimately gave up. Of course, that isn't a Windows problem, but it's a very real headache for a lot of customers.
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