Want to try Windows 8? Consumer Preview free to download and test-drive today

We’ve already looked at the Windows 8 Developer Preview in some depth but now Microsoft’s next-gen OS has reached its pivotal pre-release step with the mainstream-targeted Consumer Preview (read: final beta polished up sufficiently for everyday folk) made available to download today following a Microsoft showcase overnight at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona led by Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.

With a heavy emphasis on Windows 8 signifying Windows “reimagined and reinvented” Microsoft is presenting the release as a ‘best of both worlds’ OS offering the contemporary bells and whistles approach of touch via the Windows Phone-like Metro interface and new Start screen but it’s also eager to assure traditional mouse-and-keyboard users that the desktop “is still around and it still runs all of your [desktop Windows] apps”. Windows 8’s future legacy will turn upon whether users come to accept this inherent duality as a successful marriage of new and traditional elements (and not as a clash of disparate UIs).

In addition to releasing the Consumer Preview Microsoft has also announced that the ‘Windows Store’ the OS’s app store for Metro apps is now open for business (in beta form) accessible exclusively from within the Consumer Preview itself. For the duration of the Preview’s availability these apps are free to try at no cost (although only a limited number are present currently). Expect a more significant commercial marketplace launch once Win 8 reaches final release.

If you’re keen to give Windows 8 a spin the Consumer Preview can be downloaded here. As part of the setup process the program will determine whether your PC is capable of running the Consumer Preview but if you’d like to do it the old-fashioned way a full list of system requirements is available in the official FAQ here. In short you’ll need a 1GHz CPU 1GB RAM (for a 32-bit install) and 16GB free hard disk space plus a minimum resolution of 1024 x 768. Obviously if you want to take advantage of any of the touch functionality built into the OS you’ll need a multi-touch monitor (or tablet).