The finished version of Windows 8 may not be out until the second half of 2012, but if you're curious about what's coming next then there's no need to wait. Microsoft has released a Windows 8 Developer Preview that's free for everyone to try.

You can check out our Windows 8 video preview - and see all of the key features on display below:

You may need some courage and Windows experience, though, because this is a very early version: buggy; incomplete; only supports clean installs (that is, it can't upgrade an existing version of Windows); can't be removed other than by reformatting; and isn't supported by Microsoft.

Still, if you've a spare laptop or PC with nothing you need on the hard drive, then installing Windows 8 Developer Preview will at least let you see how it performs. It should run on just about any modern system; if a computer supports Windows 7, it should run Windows 8 as well. And this will let you experience some impressive features, like the super-fast boot time.

You've no spare hardware? An even more convenient route is to use the free VirtualBox, which allows you to run Windows 8 in a window on your current system's desktop. It's quick, and easy - here's how to install and run Windows 8.

1. Downloading Windows 8

The Developer Preview is a huge download, a minimum of 2.8GB, so you'll want to get that underway first. Head along to Microsoft's Dev Centre and grab the version you need. (If in doubt, opt for the 32-bit file.)

For more, read our guide How to download Windows 8 today.

If you're going to install Windows 8 on a laptop or PC then you'll want to burn the ISO file to disc. Windows 7 can do this itself, but if you're running XP or Vista, grab a third-party tool like ImgBurn to create it for you.

ImgBurn

If you're taking the simpler virtual machine route, though, VirtualBox provides everything you need. Head over to its website and download a copy of the latest version.

2. Installing Windows 8

Installing the Developer Preview on a physical PC should be straightforward: just burn your ISO image to a disc, boot your system from it, and follow the instructions (it's just like installing previous versions of Windows).

VirtualBox, however, requires a little more work.

Launch the program, click New > Next. Give the virtual machine a name, like Windows 8, select Microsoft Windows as the operating system, Other Windows as the version.

Click Next and choose how much RAM you'd like the virtual machine to have. Give it 1024MB, then keep clicking Next, accepting the default settings until the wizard is complete.

Now right-click the new virtual machine, and click Settings > Storage. Right-click "IDE Controller", click "Add CD/DVD" > Choose Disk, point the program at your Developer Preview ISO file and click Open.

Right-click the other CD icon, labelled "Empty", and click Remove > OK.

Double-click the new virtual machine to launch it, click OK to clear the mouse capture message, press a key when you're prompted to boot from the disc, and the installation process will begin.

(Keep in mind that the Windows 8 window will by default capture your mouse once you click inside it. Just press the right Ctrl key if you want to return to your regular desktop and do something else.)

VirtualBox

EASY: Straightforward wizards make it quick and easy to set up VirtualBox

3. First steps in Windows 8

Once setup is complete, your PC will reboot to launch Windows 8 for the first time. The installation disc will ask you to "press any key" to boot from it, but don't, otherwise you'll start the installation again.

Remove the disc from your PC once Windows 8 has loaded; or, in VirtualBox, return to the virtual machine's Storage settings when you've next closed it down, right-click the ISO file (under the IDE Controller) and select Remove.

Back at Windows 8, you'll open on the lock screen. Hold down the left mouse button and drag upwards, or just use the mouse scroll wheel to reveal the logon window. Enter the password you created earlier and click Submit.

In just a few seconds you'll see the Metro interface appear, with tiles for Explorer, IE, Control Panel and more. But before you use those, click Desktop to see the old-style Windows desktop. Right-click this, select Screen Resolution, and make sure you're using the highest resolution available on your system (it needs a vertical resolution of 768 or better for the Metro applications to work).

Windows 8 desktop

VIEW DESKTOP: The traditional desktop is still available - just click the Desktop tile to launch it

When you're done, move your mouse to the bottom-left corner and click the Start button. This won't launch the Start menu - that's gone now - but instead displays the main screen. You can also press the Windows key on your keyboard to return here at any time.

Windows 8

START AGAIN: Lost? Move your mouse cursor to the bottom-left and click Start to return to your home page

And now, start exploring.

Scroll to the right to see all the Metro apps. Click one of the app tiles to launch it.

Drag and drop the tiles to rearrange them. Right-click these for more options.

Try the Internet Explorer app to get online with IE10.

Move the mouse cursor to the bottom-left of the screen for more options.

If you get lost at any point, press the Windows key to return to your home screen.

And to finish, click your user name, top-right; select Log Off; use the mouse scroll wheel to reveal the log on screen again, click the icon to the bottom right of the screen and click Shut Down.

Not everything is as simple as we'd like, then, but these are very early days: some elements of the Developer Preview will change before final release, others will disappear altogether. Still, there's a lot to like here, and it's interesting to get a feel for what the next generation of Windows might offer.

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Liked this? Then check out our Hands on: Windows 8 review

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