Early yesterday, Microsoft shipped the Consumer Preview for Windows 8, the drastically different refresh of the venerable operating system.
Head Windows executive Steven Sinofsky took to a stage in Barcelona, Spain to again chant the "no compromises" mantra that Microsoft has used to label Windows 8, and with help from other employees, demonstrate some of the key features.
With some experts saying Microsoft was "betting the farm" on Windows 8, it wasn't a shock that Sinofsky calling the OS a "generational change."
He wasn't joking. Microsoft has made many fundamental changes to Windows, particularly in the user interface, or UI, to drag the OS into the touch and tablet world.
That may either only temporarily stump long-time users, or send them into a spitting frenzy.
With all that on the line, plenty of people will want to try out Windows 8 themselves to decide whether it's another hit like Windows 7 or a repeat of the Vista mess.
So, where do you get it, how do you install it and who do you go to for help?
You have questions? We have the answers. Some of them, anyway.
Where do I get it? Start the download and install process at Microsoft's Consumer Preview website .
(And no, you don't have to give Microsoft your email address to grab a copy, although it may appear so.)
The result will be a 5MB setup executable that you'll run on a Windows 7, Vista or XP system, or on a PC that you earlier migrated to last year's Developer Preview. The setup file will, in turn, download the rest of the installation files and kick off the install process.
What do I need to install the preview? Microsoft has set the minimum requirements as a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory (2GB for the 64-bit version), 16GB of free hard drive space and a graphics chip set or card able to support DirectX 9 graphics.
Those specs, by the way, are identical to what Microsoft has used since 2007 for both the glad-it's-gone Vista and the uber-successful Windows 7, making good, so to speak, on its promise that Windows 8 will run on PCs able to handle either of the predecessors.
How well Windows 8 actually works on a low-powered system like that is, of course, a different matter. Let's just say, "Your mileage may vary," and leave it at that.
Are there any screen resolution requirements? Indeed.
To access Windows Store -- the sole source of Metro apps -- and to run those apps, you need a monitor with a minimum resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels. To use the "Snap" feature -- it lets you keep a Metro app visible alongside the traditional desktop or display two Metro apps simultaneously -- you must have a screen with a minimum resolution of 1,366-by-768 pixels.
About 42% of all Windows 7 users run their screens at 1,366-by-768.
Microsoft acknowledged that these hard minimums went against the grain, but said it was necessary.
"We are breaking from past practices in not providing a workaround for this, given that the main motivation is to make sure Metro style apps are designed to function fully at a specific published resolution," the company said last October .
I keep hearing Windows 8 is all about touch ... do I need a touch screen? No.
But you're right: Windows 8 works with mouse and keyboard when you're in the desktop mode, but they're second-class input citizens when it comes to navigating the Metro side of the OS.
If you want to try touch on Windows 8, Microsoft has posted a list of touch-enabled monitors, notebooks and tablets that the company used for internal testing. The list is on this page of its site.
But Microsoft qualified those recommendations, hinting that users might not be completely happy with any device designed for Windows 7 (which is really all that's out there, touch-wise).
"Our data is showing that a vast majority of Windows 7 touchscreens will perform well for Windows 8," Microsoft said on that systems requirement page. "This means that touch drivers continue to load, and you'll be able to perform basic touch interactions with a reasonable degree of success."
We don't like the sound of "reasonable degree of success."
Anything else? Yes, an optical drive able to record on DVDs or a flash drive, assuming you have multiple PCs you want to upgrade and you don't want to waste time downloading the 1.5GB-to-1.9GB installation files on every machine.
Rather than use Setup, you can download a disk image (it's an .iso file), then "burn" that to a DVD or flash drive to create bootable installation media you can use on as many machines as you want.
Links to the .iso files are here for both 32- and 64-bit editions, as are some tips on the tools you'll need to create bootable media on Windows 7, Vista and XP.
The setup executable also offers an option to create a bootable DVD or flash drive rather than install Windows 8 on a single PC.
Can I upgrade a PC or is this preview a scorched earth deal? More then former than the latter.
The preview will upgrade --meaning all programs, settings, user accounts and data files are retained -- a PC running Windows 7.
On a Vista machine, Windows 8 will bring along settings, user accounts and data files, but not applications. Call that a partial upgrade.
It's more scorched earth when moving from XP or the Windows 8 Developer Preview: In those scenarios, the Consumer Preview only migrates user accounts and files.
Do I need to do anything special to upgrade a PC to Windows 8? Yes, you must install the preview using the Setup program.
"If you create installation media, start your PC from the media, and then install Windows 8 Consumer Preview, you won't be able to keep your files, programs, or settings," Microsoft warned.
Is Microsoft limiting the preview? No, it's not. That's similar to the Developer Preview, which was available for months and to as many customers as wanted it, but a turnaround from the Windows 7 Beta, which Microsoft shut off after a month of downloads.
Do I need a product activation key? Not if you use Setup to download and install the preview.
The alternative, creating a bootable installation DVD or flash drive, does demand a key, however. Fortunately, Microsoft's come up with a generic key that works for everyone.
That 25-character key is: NF32V-Q9P3W-7DR7Y-JGWRW-JFCK8.
An alternative key that Microsoft's published elsewhere is: DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J
What languages does the Consumer Preview support? Microsoft has limited the preview to English, Chinese, French, German and Japanese.
Warning: Microsoft said that if you install the preview in a language different from the one currently on the PC, the upgrade won't migrate applications or retain user settings.
I tried the preview, but don't like it ... can I uninstall it and get back my PC? Nope.
To return the PC to its pre-Windows 8 state, you must reinstall the older operating system, and restore applications and data from a backup.
Hint: Back up the PC before trying out Windows 8.
When does the Consumer Preview expire? January 15, 2013.
On that date, users will face some serious music.
The Windows 8 end-user license agreement (EULA) puts it bluntly: "You have no right to use the software after the expiration date. Starting from the expiration date, you may not be able to access any unsaved data used with the software. Any applications you receive through the Windows Store will also cease to be available to you in future versions, unless they are made available for re-download and you re-acquire them. You may not receive any other notice."
Last year's Developer Preview was originally set to expire March 11. 2102, but two weeks ago Microsoft issued an update via Windows Update that extends that rougher-edged build until the same Jan. 15, 2013, date.
Where do I get help and support? Steer for the Consumer Preview's support forum on the Microsoft Answers website, which offers user-to-user support, with the occasional Microsoft support representative chiming in.
Can I file a bug report? No.
Microsoft is calling this the "Consumer Preview," not "Beta" for a reason: Unlike previous versions of Windows, it's not taking formal bug reports.
Instead, Microsoft encouraged users to report problems on the support forum, titling the message with "Bug Report."
"We're monitoring the Windows 8 Consumer Preview forum and might ask you to post additional information to help us improve the experience," Microsoft said.
Are there any issues with Consumer Preview? You mean, besides trying to figure out how to navigate the Start screen?
Yes, there is one that Microsoft called out yesterday: The company said it had released several updated display drivers that "may resolve a variety of known graphics issues."
You'll need to run Windows Update to grab the new drivers; Microsoft describes how here .
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com .
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