Microsoft releases a slim and fast operating system that works on old machines, new ones and even on tablets. It will need a little work to learn, but it will be worth it
In pure seismic terms, Microsoft’s Windows 8 is as powerful a shock to Windows-based computers as was Apple’s switch to Apple OS X about 11 years ago. And perhaps Windows has leap-frogged Apple because Windows 8 is not merely an operating system for computers, but for other devices, especially older mouse-operated computers and tablets, which Microsoft itself is actually manufacturing; besides, Windows 8 is compatible with earlier Windows installations.
It is designed to be used either with a touch-screen or a traditional monitor. To accomplish that, Microsoft has designed a new full-screen Start menu that uses tiles instead of icons that can be touched to operate or clicked on with the traditional mouse. (Gone is the old desktop with its Start button, which will be another shock to some people.) The interface was to be called Metro, but that was dropped for copyright reasons, and though Microsoft is now referring to it as the Modern UI, nothing really satisfactory has taken its place, so I’m calling it The User Interface Formerly Known As Metro, or TUIFKAM, which is easier to pronounce than nothing.
Some of these tiles can deliver live information — if you have a weather app, for instance, its tile will show the current weather without launching the app, and the latest news headlines, from your preferred news source, will be displayed, as will email and business news. To rearrange the apps, just tap or click on a tile and drag it to your preferred place and everything else will be rearranged around it. You can shrink or enlarge some tiles. But this is where the touch-screen user will have an advantage. Playing with tiles using a mouse demonstrates some difficulties with TUIFKAM.
Many applications made for older versions of Windows will still run programs, but this is possible only on PCs and laptops. Windows XP, Vista and 7 can be upgraded to Windows 8; if your computer runs XP, you will have to transfer your files and install your apps manually. Vista users can bring in files and settings, while Windows 7 owners can keep programs, settings and files. There is one minor catch: if you have incompatible programs, you’ll have to uninstall them before the upgrade. Windows 8 will tell you what action needs to be taken.
The new search feature with the redesigned menu
The idea behind Windows 8 is that in a world in which so many new devices are running touch screens (the global market is approaching equal numbers of touch-screen portable devices and mouse-based desk-bound ones and set to surpass desktop machines in two to three years), Microsoft has decided its best strategy is to make one software package for all devices. But by rolling it all together in one package (Apple still requires a different operating system for its computers and for its tablets), Microsoft isn’t really doing anything new here — it’s simply following a strategy called Embrace and Extend, which Microsoft founder Bill Gates described as far back as 1995.
You’ll be able to run both the new tablet-type apps and your old Windows apps on the desktop. But on tablets running on the ARM processors (including the soon-to-be-released Microsoft tablet called Surface, it will not be possible to load and run traditional Windows apps. The tablet operating system, Windows RT, will come bundled with ARM-based tablets, and Microsoft intends to set up shop with an array of apps for it, like Apple’s iPad. A new version of Office will be available for Windows RT, but without Outlook. Microsoft will be releasing all-new, tablet-style apps through an online store, like Apple does.
What is really significant, at least to my mind, is that Windows 8 does not require the latest and greatest hardware, but will actually run on older machines — those who upgraded their hardware recently should find their current machines run like blazes. It requires, at a minimum, a 1 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM (only 1 GB if you’re running a 32-bit system), a DirectX 9 graphics card and a WDDM graphics driver — much like the stuff that used to be required to run Windows XP.
This should make IT departments cheer: They can upgrade operating systems without petitioning their corporate bosses for new hardware. And home users will also find it impressive for the same reasons. This is in stark contrast to Windows Vista, whose price tag groaned under the weight of the new hardware it required to run.
Microsoft has emphasized hardware acceleration in Windows 8, which is faster than the previous software-driven approach, meaning it uses chips that can take the load off the software. That makes Windows 8 machines start up and shut down, and copy files and load Web pages more quickly. Also as a result, a lot of applications, even those Microsoft Office warhorses, will appear slicker and run more responsively. There have been unchallenged reports on early releases that Windows 8 has run happily on four-year-old machines.
One caveat is that some netbooks or ultrabooks with lower screen resolutions won’t show much difference in graphics performance with a Windows 8 upgrade. There is also a need to check which drivers for older PCs that can work with Windows 8.
The installation procedure for Windows 8 has been moved to an inevitable position. When you buy it, you are given a product key, like a serial number (Microsoft calls it the “Online Upgrade Experience”), and you use your Internet connection to upgrade your current version of Windows. This has been a nightmare in the past, but Windows 8 has a well-thought-out wizard that puts your machine through an update-compatibility scan, and offers to back up anything that won't be handled by an automatic installation. Moreover, the process is sped up because it downloads only those files needed to perform the upgrade.
Hewlett Packard handout
Hewlett Packard's HP ENVY SpectreXT Ultrabook
I installed a copy of Windows 8 on a new HP ENVY SpectreXT Ultrabook with a 13-inch screen that is not touch-enabled; it runs on a 1.6 GHz (Core i5) CPU and 4 GB (DDR3) RAM— a very nice ultrabook that ought to serve anyone well — it’s designed for serious users, especially business users, who do not need gaming-level graphics or multimedia power or computing power to run monster databases. In other words, it’s a terrific device to test out Windows 8 to see how it would respond to people like me, who use our computers extensively on a desktop.
That ultrabook already had a (64-bit) home version of Windows 7 on it, but it leapt at the Windows 8 installation file like a trout after a fly, and a little more than 20 minutes and a few bits of routine information later (time zone, language, etc.), Windows 8 was installed. I must admit that I felt a little at sea when I was presented by a screen full of the Windows 8 tiles and no Start button, so I clutched the familiar garbage can — I mean the Recycle Bin — that was floating by, the only thing that has been carried over from previous Windows versions.
Would I survive? I played around for a couple of hours with the new system to see how it works. As the two hours progressed, I made some serious headway learning the new system, but I still didn’t really feel like I had both feet on dry land.
I concluded that the learning curve might be a little steep, but it’s also short. I was confident that it would only be a few days before I would be completely at ease with it. What helped me was that Windows 8 had inhaled the ultrabook’s Windows 7 network settings and immediately presented me my entire network using my familiar network settings. I didn’t have to do anything. That went a long way to alleviating many of my qualms. I had to hunt for ways of doing some things (shut down, system properties), but in all honesty the organization of the system is very logical, perhaps even more than Windows 7, and makes me feel more secure in the knowledge that I would soon master this system.
Windows 8’s touch features will understand “gestures,” meaning it will respond to multi-fingered touch commands — swipe from the left to switch among apps; do it in and out quickly from the left to see a list of thumbnails of running apps and in the bottom left corner, an icon that returns you to the Start screen.
Among native applications are some interesting ones. A Photos app includes your own local photos as well as those from Facebook, Flickr and Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service. A People app shows contacts, as well as social-network status updates for those contacts. The new Mail app, however, is a little thin, lacking a unified inbox, and a folder showing messages from your most important contacts, among other features.
Microsoft apparently intends Windows 8 to sell as quickly as possible. It is available in two versions – Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro (there is a Windows 8 Enterprise for large corporate customers at scalable prices). Also available today is Windows RT, including Surface, Microsoft’s tablet, which will be pre-installed on new devices. Existing Windows 7 users can upgrade for $14.99 (Canadian) with the Windows Upgrade Offer. You can also buy the retail package from Future Shop (and several other Canadian stores) for $69.99.
All the installation packages will work on both Intel and AMD processors.
Those who remember the multiple configurations of Windows in the past will find these improvements a refreshing change.
Microsoft has added a bunch of new features, such as cloud-syncing and roaming settings, and the new refresh and reset settings should prove to be a help for those who need to restore even older PCs. If you have a Windows Live Account, you can synchronize your user settings across all your devices, but will have to declare to Windows that your machine is a “Trusted PC” first. That’s because your first log-in to Windows 8 using a Windows Live account to make a connection with the cloud, you will be asked to declare your PC is ready, an act Microsoft calls “establishing trust.”
In fact, Windows Live ID plays a big part with Windows 8. It will save settings and make them available when you sign into this cloud account from any Windows PC. You can also reacquire your style apps on multiple Windows 8 PCs. The apps’ settings and last-used state are kept across all your Windows 8 PCs. It will save your sign-in and other credentials for different apps you use and Websites you visit regularly, eliminating some of the need for separate a password-keeper program.
Windows 8 also tries to keep your windows personalization across a number of PCs. Windows 8 can include settings any Windows 8 PC you sign in to with your Windows Live ID, including your log screen picture, desktop background, user tile, browser favorites and history and spell-check dictionaries, Explorer settings, mouse settings, and accessibility settings, and a number of others will be stored in the cloud, and be synced to each machine you use as they are changed or updated.
Once you’ve signed in to Windows Live, you will not need to sign in again with any other program that uses Windows Live ID, meaning you can log on to Windows Messaging without the need to sign in again. It’s also possible to browse to your Hotmail inbox without needing to enter your email address and password all over again, by default.
Windows 8's new Charms, which are like the old Gadgets
Another departure is the introduction of “charms,” so called because they resemble the gewgaws on a charm bracelet (and thankfully not like that sugary breakfast cereal). They act much like the Gadgets did on earlier versions of Windows. They include Search (a desktop search engine, replacing and improving the search feature on Windows Vista and 7), Share (for sharing content), Start (the Windows key), Devices (which is like Devices from the Control Panel) and Settings (a global and context-sensitive system-wide settings, including a link to the Control Panel itself). The Shut Down option is in the Settings charm, as well as sound volume, network, screen brightness, language, and notifications.
The system is also friendly to social communications, including Mail, Calendar, Messaging and People … and perhaps Photos, since photos can be shared. Open any one of these the first time and Windows 8 will prompt you to sign in to whatever services you belong to (among them Google, Gmail, Hotmail, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook), and Windows 8 will populate them with contact information, email, calendar appointments and updates.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10 bears very little resemblance to what we knew of the original product
A word about Internet Explorer 10 is necessary here. This new version of Microsoft’s browser bears little resemblance to IE9, which you got with Windows 7. Websites open in full-screen mode by default and the address bar and tab thumbnails appearing only by right-clicking or swiping in from the top or bottom edges.
Oddly, not long before Windows 8 arrived, I had already turned off the rest of those cool special effects available through Windows 7’s Aero interface. So when I installed Windows 8, I barely noticed that Aero had flown south. Forget transparent frames around windows and windows and tabs have square corners and a lack of shadows. Considering how much Aero sucked system resources, this is a welcome relief.
A word about how Windows 8 handles storage: Fans of Windows Home Server, originally released in 2007, went wild about a feature called Drive Extender, which created a storage pool using a number of drives. When Windows Home Server 2011 was released, Microsoft then yanked Drive Extender from Windows Home Server 2011, and mumbled lame excuses about drives being so cheap these days that Drive Extender was no longer needed. Phooey. But it was obvious Drive Extender would survive, and it did in Windows 8, now called Storage Spaces.
The Storage Pool becomes a virtual disk, usable just like a regular physical disk – you can partition it, format it, and start copying data to it. It has a mirrored attribute, meaning that there are at least two copies of all data contained within the space on at least two different physical disks. Because it is mirrored, it will continue to work even if one of the physical disks within the pool fails.
Another cool thing about Storage Spaces is that even if you have two 2-TB hard drives, you can create a virtual Storage Pool from those drives that amounts to 10 TB.
Welcome back, Drive Extender. Your fans missed ya.
Should you upgrade, or wait until you get a touch-enabled device? Much of the answer depends on what you use a computer for. As Apple's iPad has shown, you can make users decide which camp they belong to: Those with a more passive use of the Internet end up with tablets, and more active users will stick with computers.
And as to whether you should replace your current Windows installation with Windows 8, I'd say that if you're using Windows XP or Vista, you have little choice but to do it. If you're running Windows 7, you should first calculate how much time you're willing to invest in learning the new system.
Beware of trying out Windows 8 in a store — your first impulse will be to reject it flatly. It takes longer to get used to Windows 8 than earlier versions. At first sight, the tiles will be disconcerting. And it will take some effort to get the hang of scrolling left and right instead of up and down. And it will be hard to working with the universal search command instead of a Start menu. And I can’t guarantee that Windows 8 will do things better than Windows 7 — that’s too dependent on personal preferences anyway.
But consider some of its less-visible features, such as its speed (you won’t have to use a stopwatch before you notice the improvement over Windows 7, even with old hardware). Start up and shut down are really fast, and it’s also faster at copying files and loading Web pages. It's more secure, and if you want you can still install a different security suite.
Another deal-maker is its efficiency with power. Laptop and ultrabook users will be able to work longer between charges.
Considering all these benefits, Windows 8 is really impressive. There will be no more excuses for sticking with Windows XP or Vista. Windows 7 is still be a good operating system if you’re happy with it and don’t want the hassle of learning something new.
Microsoft will undoubtedly sell millions of copies of Windows 8 beginning today, but some people might hold back and wait for touch-enabled hardware. It will be interesting to see how touch-oriented people and mousers react and take sides in the inevitable debate.
In a world stampeding to touch-based gadgets,
Microsoft is trying to keep both groups happy by having all its bases covered.That’s a big gamble, and Microsoft can’t afford to bungle this bundle. So I suspect the Redmond giant has been very careful with this product, hoping early adopters will spread their raves by word of mouth and pump up sales by persuading people to move to Windows 8. Moreover, Intel, the CPU processor giant, has announced about 140 new Ultrabooks offered by various manufacturers, all based on Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip, and more than 40 of those new models will be touch-sensitive.
There’s a lot riding on this, much of which is unfamiliar territory that has not yet stood the test of the marketplace. And that would be an argument for waiting to buy a tablet. But I can’t see much of a downside to simply upgrading your desktop machine.