For Microsoft, 2012 is the Year of New Releases. Major releases of Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012, and SQL Server are all due. Not to be left out, Visual Studio (VS) 2012 will also be released this year, and Microsoft recently made the Visual Studio 2012 Release Candidate (RC) available. You can download it from the Visual Studio 2012 RC downloads page. Here are some of the most important new features in this VS 2012 release.

Revamped UI

The UI is probably the first thing you’ll notice about VS 2012 RC. The monochrome scheme in earlier versions of VS 2012 was met with a bitter backlash as developers took an instant dislike to it. In fairness, the idea was to deemphasize the UI and make the code stand out more. However, that was a bad idea. VS 2012 RC reintroduces color, and once again you can tell the difference between the icons on the toolbars. That said, personally, I prefer the VS 2010 UI and colors (except for the cool game-like installer in VS 2012 RC).

Ability to Build Metro-style Applications

Without a doubt this is the most important new feature in VS 2012. VS 2012 lets you build Metro apps using HTML, JavaScript or XAML and VB, C# or C++, and it includes a new set of Metro-style app templates. It also supports building Windows Phone applications.

Related: Visual Studio 2012 Editions

Microsoft.NET Framework 4.5

While it’s not technically a part of VS 2012, every new release of Visual Studio is accompanied by a new release of the .NET Framework. In this case, it's the new .NET Framework 4.5. Its big changes include improved support for parallelism and IPv6, support for zip compression, HTML 5, WebSockets, and WPF Ribbon bar support. ASP.NET Web Forms has been updated to support the asynchronous modules and handles, lots more.

LightSwitch

In earlier releases of Visual Studio, LightSwitch was a separately purchased product. The VS 2012 release includes LightSwitch in the VS 2012 Professional editions and above. I always said LightSwitch was a developer tool and not a user tool, and it seems that Microsoft now agrees. The VS 2012 LightSwitch has a new theme, support for branding, and improved performance.

IIS Express

Visual Studio used to use its own ASP.NET Development Server as the default web server for locally running and testing web applications. However, that meant you often ran into a variety of differences and incompatibilities when you went to deploy your applications on IIS. VS 2012 solves this problem by using IIS Express as the default local web server. IIS Express is a lightweight, self-contained version of IIS. It has all of the core capabilities of the full-fledged IIS, but it doesn't run as a service.

Support for WinRT

In conjunction with the new support for Windows 8 and Metro, VS 2012 also includes support for the new WinRT subsystem. WinRT (Windows RunTime) is the new programming model used by Metro. VS 2012 supports WinRT development in C++, C#, VB, and JavaScript. Programs written using WinRT should run on both Intel and ARM processors.

New Solution Explorer

As you begin to use VS 2012, you’ll definitely notice the new Solution Explorer. It's like a cross between the old Object Browser and Class View. You can navigate your project’s objects and drill down into methods and properties. It also enables you to search and preview file, objects and external items.

New SQL Server Object Explorer

Visual Studio has always been weak in the area of SQL Server navigation. VS 2012 improves its SQL Server integration with the new SQL Server Object Explorer, which is more like SQL Server Management Studio than the old Server Explorer. The new SQL Server Object Explorer shows column data types as well as primary and foreign keys.

Related: Visual Studio 2012's New Database Features