REVIEW: Microsoft Windows 8

The most significant update to the Microsoft desktop operating system in a decade, Windows 8 is quicker, better secured and more focused on the cloud than its predecessors. However, the biggest change by far has to be the side-lining of the familiar Windows desktop in favour of an all new gesture-driven interface designed, primarily, for touchscreens. Tablet and smartphone implementations will also be available and will run the same apps written for what’s now called the Modern UI (previously known as Metro), with those apps delivered via a new online Windows Store, just as with Apple and Android software.

Clearly designed to latch onto the increasing popularity of tablets and other touch-driven devices, the new Windows 8 interface takes lot of getting used to. On the plus side, the desktop is still there, plus you can use a mouse instead of a touchscreen and existing printers and other devices. Old-style Windows applications are also supported, but the learning curve is pretty steep nonetheless and businesses will want time to fully understand what Windows 8 has to offer before upgrading.

Feeds and speeds

System requirements for Windows 8 are much the same as for its predecessor, Windows 7, with 32-bit and 64-bit implementations both available. Multiple monitors are supported as before and device drivers don’t, necessarily, have to change to work with Windows 8 so hardware compatibility shouldn’t be an issue. If anything, the new OS is less resource-hungry than Windows 7 and it certainly seems quicker and slicker, although users with older Windows XP computers are advised to look at upgrading or replacing their hardware to cope with the demands of the new OS.

There will be just three versions of the desktop software, starting with a home package called, simply, “Windows 8” plus a business version, “Windows 8 Pro”, with additional encryption, network security and virtualisation capabilities. An Enterprise edition for volume deployment has also been released (the version we tested).

Another innovation is a whole new implementation of the OS, called Windows 8 RT, to run on ARM rather than x86 processors. Unlike desktop versions, however, you won’t be able to buy Windows 8 RT and install it yourself. Instead it will come pre-installed on ARM-based PCs and tablets, in much the same way as Android and Apple iOS devices. RT will only be able to run apps designed for the new Modern UI not old-style desktop applications, but there are new facilities to sync Windows 8 systems via the cloud to give users the same environment no matter what device they log onto.

Upgrades to Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro will cost £24.99 and be available via an electronic download. XP upgraders will only be able to migrate data files whereas Vista users can bring files and some Windows settings and those with Windows 7 can also migrate applications. Prices for the full package and Enterprise licensing have yet to be announced.

Touch and go

The big talking point with Windows 8 is, without doubt, the new interface. This starts up automatically and can be quite baffling to begin with, especially if you’re using a mouse rather than a touchscreen. The Start screen shows all the available apps with large tiles replacing icons and continually updated in real time, which can be a little distracting. Moreover, when selected, each new app will fill the whole screen with no facilities to size or move application windows, apart from being able to drag an open app to a smaller sidebar and start another alongside.

On a touchscreen it makes sense, but with a mouse the new GUI is clunky and the lack of pop-up menus very disorienting. The only saving grace for desktop users is a set of new keyboard shortcuts which, once learnt, make life with a mouse a great deal easier. A scroll wheel is a must here or, perhaps, a touch-enabled input device like Microsoft’s own Touch Mouse which can take full advantage of the multi-touch gesture support in Windows 8 without having to buy a new monitor.

All sorts of apps are included as standard including mail, calendar and messaging, with integration to Windows Live, Facebook and other online services sprinkled throughout. SkyDrive gets its own app, and there’s another to access the Windows Store. Other apps can then be purchased and installed from Store plus it’s possible to install software the conventional way. We installed the Office 2013 preview, for example, the setup program automatically adding tiles on the Start screen to run the component applications.

The desktop, meanwhile, gets a tile of its own. Click this and you’re returned to a much more familiar interface, albeit without a Start button and associated menus which will leave many scratching their heads at to what to do next. Fortunately desktop icons, shortcuts and mouse menus still work so you can, for example, create new documents and run applications just as in Windows 7. Added to which, put the mouse in the bottom left corner and right click and you get access to a number of Windows tools including Control Panel, File Explorer and the Command Prompt.

Behind the UI

As well as the new interface there are lots of other changes In Windows 8 including a faster boot time and enhanced download verification to block known malware sites. The built-in Windows Defender tool is also enhanced to provide the same kind of anti-malware capabilities as Windows Security Essentials, currently available as an add-on for earlier versions of the OS.

The various utilities and tools bundled with Windows 8 don’t change much, although File Explorer does get a ribbon interface and ISO disk images are now automatically mounted, making their contents available like a conventional storage device. A PDF reader is also built into this release, while Internet Explorer gets upgraded to v10 with both a conventional desktop implementation of the browser and an app to run from the Modern UI. Tools designed to run on the desktop can also be called up from the Modern UI by expanding the Start screen to show all available apps.

A matter of choice

One you’ve got to grips with the touch oriented Modern UI and how it fits with the desktop, Windows 8 and the new features that come with it, start to make a lot more sense. However, that initial learning curve will be a big issue for businesses considering upgrading and anyone planning such a move will need to factor in extra training and support costs. Some hardware upgrades may also be required, if not to touchscreens, then new mice and other input devices capable of supporting multitouch gestures.

When implemented on a tablet, however, Windows 8 takes on a whole new persona, becoming a lot easier to learn and use and offering a refreshing alternative to the current Apple/Android duopoly. And that’s something Microsoft intends to capitalise on with Windows 8 RT which will be available both on OEM tablets and its own Microsoft Surface product which gets its official launch at the same time as Windows 8 on October 26. Love it or “eight” it, Windows 8 is on its way.

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