On Wednesday, Microsoft released an early preview version of its next operating system, Windows 8 over the Web.

The new system has been out in developer previews since the fall, sporting the tiled “Metro” design, but this is the first time an average user will be able to play around with the new system. Promising that the new system is “fast and fluid,” Microsoft highlighted several features of the new system in a news release.

The five features that Microsoft has called out are: Integration of touch, keyboard and mouse control; the Windows app store; cloud services that link PCs and Windows Phone; Internet Explorer 10; and new hardware capabilities.

Touch is a huge part of Windows 8, as Microsoft is using the system on both its tablets and computers, and has built touch capability into every part of Windows 8. Still, Microsoft has been careful to note that users who prefer their mouse or keyboard won’t have to compromise because of the touch system.

To run Windows 8, users will need a computer with the same specs required to run Windows 7. According to Microsoft, that means at least a 1GHz (or faster) processor, 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB or hard drive space, and a Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device.

Windows 8 may be one of the most important launches in Microsoft’s history, as the company doubles down to keep its core business successful. The system’s introduction reinforces Microsoft’s commitment to mobile, with its Windows Phone integration and moves to unify the tablet/PC ecosystem. That way Microsoft keeps one foot in its core business, PCs, while moving ahead into the more portable device market.

The Metro interface is another obvious move toward that unified vision of the future, since the elements of the design are already central to Windows Phone as well as the latest Xbox Live interface. And if you step into one of Microsoft’s retail stores, the first thing you notice — apart from the space’s striking similarity to Apple stores — is the company’s attempt to translate the Metro look to the store’s decor.

While Windows 8 is being marketed as a friendlier, more general system, the consumer preview comes with some caveats. Microsoft recommends that only “experienced PC users” who feel comfortable using experimental software and backing up their data try out the early build.

Microsoft didn’t offer a set timeline for the final release of Windows 8, though it’s expected to land something this fall.

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