Microsoft has put the final touches on Windows 8, and has released the RTM version of the operating system to device makers, developers, and IT pros.
That doesn't mean you can go out and buy Windows 8 right now, but it does mean there won't be any more changes to the operating system from now until its October 26 ship date. Here's what you need to know about the latest release, and what it means for the finished product:
What's New in Windows 8 RTM?
Most of the major changes for the final version of Windows 8 were revealed weeks or months ago. There's no more Aero interface, there are some new background pattern options for the Start screen, and that the desktop has received some new features, including a File History backup application and updates to the Movie Maker and Photo Gallery programs.
Engadget also notes that there's a Bing app in the final version of Windows 8, which shows search results as a horizontally-scrolling list of tiles. (This is separate from Windows 8's master search function, which looks through apps and local files as well.)
Most of the other changes are minor interface tweaks or under-the-hood improvements.
Who Has Access to Windows 8 RTM?
For now, Windows 8 is only available to third-party developers through the Microsoft Developer Network, to IT professionals through TechNet for evaluation purposes, and of course to device makers who are finalizing their Windows 8 PCs. Over the next couple weeks, it'll go out to businesses who need volume licensing, and to resellers and solution providers in the Microsoft Partner Network. Starting October 26, consumers will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows XP or higher for $40.
Is There Any Way to Try the Final Version Now?
Sort of. Microsoft is currently offering a 90-day trial of Windows 8 Enterprise, which has all the features of the final version, plus some additional tools for IT pros. It's not really meant for consumers, and there's no way to upgrade from the trial version without a clean installation, but if you want to try it, there's nothing stopping you. Alternatively, you can still try the Windows 8 Release Preview, which doesn't have all the changes listed above.
What Are the Early Reviews Saying?
Microsoft has provided copies of Windows 8 RTM to some members of the press (including PCWorld), so a few reviews are starting to roll in.
Naturally, Microsoft's hybrid desktop-tablet approach has some detractors. Computerworld's Preston Gralla, for example, thinks Windows 8 is an "excellent operating system" for tablets, but that it "doesn't work nearly so well" for desktops.
Our own Lloyd Case, however, didn't seem as bothered by that approach. "The user interface is easier to navigate than I'd feared, and the whole affair seems to hang together pretty well," he wrote.
Still, even RTM reviews feel a bit like early impressions, since no final Windows 8 hardware is available. The true test will come once devices like Microsoft's Surface tablet hit the market.