Windows 8: The official review

Microsoft's efforts to woo mobile-device users may leave traditional desktop PC owners feeling abandoned.

Reviewing an operating system is an odd endeavor, because people don't really use operating systems; they use applications. The OS should be as transparent as possible, acting as a platform for applications. In today's cloud-driven world, however, the notion that your application will run in a single OS is tenuous at best. Toss in the increasing use of smart devices, whether phones or tablets, and the idea of a single-platform operating system is less relevant now than it was just a few years ago. These days we have "ecosystems"--Microsoft, Apple, or Google, take your pick.

That said, PC users still expect their Windows applications to run as before, and they want to have the same control over their laptop and desktop computers as they've always had. New software features should enable users to do more. And as the reaction to the late, unlamented Windows Vista illustrated, all the shiny new bells and whistles should not harm performance or require new hardware.

Can Windows 8 meet its goal of being one aspect of a new Microsoft ecosystem while maintaining its roots in the PC? Can existing computers run Windows 8 without the need for expensive new touch displays? Will the revamped Windows 8 user interface turn off existing Windows users or pull them into the ecosystem? I'll try to answer those questions and others as I dive deeply into Windows 8.

This review is based on the Windows 8 final release--what Microsoft calls the "release to manufacturing," or RTM, version. The final release is available to Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers. Desktop PCs, laptops, and tablets ship with Windows 8 preinstalled on the official launch day, October 26.

We ran Windows 8 on a moderately high-end desktop system along with a standard (nontouch) monitor, mouse, and keyboard. We also used a Samsung Series 9 laptop with an Elan touchpad supporting full multitouch gestures.

The Windows 8 user interface

Windows 8 tries to get you to tie your Windows login to your Microsoft account; it's optional, but if you do link the two, the Windows login and password serve as your Microsoft account login and password. Enabling this link allows tighter integration with the remote and cloud-based features of the new OS.

As mentioned previously, Windows 8 is designed to be part of an ecosystem, alongside Windows Phone and Windows RT. Microsoft believes in this idea so strongly that it has made the Windows 8 user interface (formerly called Metro) the primary interface for Windows users. PCs with the new OS installed will boot into the Windows 8 interface; the OS offers no built-in way to set it to boot to the traditional Windows desktop.

The Windows 8 interface acts as the Start menu now. Instead of appearing as columns of small icons that pop up when you click the Start button, all your applications show up as tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen. You can also search for an application by typing its name when you're in the Start screen; the results list autosorts as you type more characters.

It's important to realize that the Start screen is no more Windows 8 than the Start menu was Windows 7 or Windows XP. The screen exists as a launchpad for applications, not as a desktop replacement. That concept is easy to forget, since the Start screen occupies the entire display. Even so, Windows 8 apps consume the entire screen, whereas desktop applications can still run in a window on the desktop.

However, not all desktop applications appear on the Start screen by default. Some accessory apps, such as Paint, live in the Apps screen. You can force these programs to appear in the Start screen by right-clicking them to select them and then clicking Pin to Start at the bottom of the screen. Nevertheless, getting to the Apps screen is simple: Right-click a blank area in the Start screen and then click the All apps icon at the lower right.

This is where you'll run into a fundamental change in how you interact with Windows. Previously, right-clicking an object on the desktop always brought up a context menu, giving you a choice of actions to take. In the Windows 8 interface (but not the desktop), right-clicking now produces a bar at the bottom of the screen containing assorted context-sensitive items. It's a jarring change, but the arrangement makes sense within the context (no pun intended) of a touch-based display such as a tablet's. (Context-clicking still works the same way when you're in the Windows desktop.)

Live tiles are among the key features of the Windows 8 Start screen. While normal (non-live) tiles measure 150 by 150 pixels, most live tiles are double-wide (310 by 150 pixels) and display dynamic information. The People tile, for instance, shows you tweets and Facebook posts from your feeds, assuming that you've set them up. As you install apps from the Microsoft Store, more dynamic tiles may appear. Live tiles first appeared in a broad fashion in Windows Phone 7 and Xbox 360 updates, but will exist across all Microsoft platforms going forward.

Navigating the Start screen is easy. If you're using a mouse with a wheel, moving the wheel scrolls left and right. If you're using a touchpad, swiping left and right (with one finger) scrolls the tile list. You can drag individual tiles to any location.

Navigating the desktop

Microsoft now partitions applications into "Windows 8" apps (formerly known as "Metro" apps) and desktop applications. The latter are those programs we all know and love from previous versions of Windows, including Microsoft Office.

You cannot boot directly into the desktop, since Microsoft wants the Start screen to be users' initial experience with Windows 8. For most people, this restriction may not be an issue, but certain vertical applications (specialized programs, such as those for point-of-sale PCs) need to boot directly into a desktop environment. Until Windows 8 versions of such programs become available, users requiring vertical applications should stick with earlier versions of Windows.

If all you need to do is launch an application, you can simply click its tile in the Start screen. If you need robust file management and navigation features, you have to access the desktop. After you boot the machine, pressing the Windows key sends you to the desktop. Unfortunately, the Windows key isn't consistent in this behavior: If you're in an app, pressing the Windows key always returns you to the Start screen. Press it again, and you're in the most recent Windows 8 app. Instead, to move to the desktop consistently, you need to be in the habit of pressing Windows-D. Another option is to move the pointer to the lower left of the screen and click there (though this method works only if you have used no other app recently).

Except for the omission of a Start menu, the desktop mostly behaves the same in Windows 8 as it did in Windows 7. So how do you reach com­monly used features such as the Control Panel, the file explorer, and the Run command? Move your pointer to the lower-left corner and right-click, ignoring the Start-screen peek that pops up. This is the simplified Start menu; you can also bring it up by pressing Windows-X. Or you might prefer to use the search function, entering "Control Panel" or "Run" as the search terms.

Microsoft has chosen to leave the Windows 8 desktop bare, as it did with Windows 7. Given the absence of the old-style Start menu, you may wish to add the system and user-file icons by right-clicking the desktop and selecting the Personalize menu. After you have added those two icons, you can pin them to the Windows 8 Start screen.

Connecting to networks is easier than ever, once you have installed the right drivers. Windows 8 enumerates and displays all of your networked devices--including DLNA devices, network folders you've set up, and other computers residing on the network--in any file manager window.

The appearance of individual windows has changed. Gone are the faux transparency and the fake beveled edges, replaced by a completely flat appearance. If you click one of the menu items (such as 'File'), each window will show a Ribbon similar to the Office 2010 Ribbon. (The Ribbon isn't sticky, though; it shows up only when you click one of the top-menu items.) The Ribbon contains, in one location, all the information that previous versions displayed in a series of menus and submenus.

Ultimately, navigating the new desktop is similar to getting around the old version, but the absence of a full Start menu may throw you off at first. Using hotkeys, and customizing the desktop and Start screen, might help you become more comfortable in the short run. Once you get used to navigating the system, it's as transparent as the old one--just different.

The touch experience

The PC you own today almost certainly lacks a touchscreen. You may have a laptop with a touchpad, but most existing touchpads can't take full advantage of the touch capabilities inherent in Windows 8, since they lack the edge detection that is built into recent touchpad hardware.

On the other hand, your next PC may very well have full ten-point multitouch support, even if it's a stock desktop PC. Manufacturers are starting to ship desktop displays with touch capability; the first touch-enabled displays have built-in capacitive touch sensors, which work via a USB connection to the PC. Future touch displays might communicate through some flavor of wireless, including Bluetooth.

More likely candidates for built-in touch are mobile PCs, including traditional clamshell laptops and convertible units that you can transform into tablets, either by concealing the keyboard or by detaching the display, which can act independently as a tablet.

Windows 8 is a different experience with a touch-enabled display, even if you're using such a display with a stock desktop system. At first, you don't think you'll use the touch capabilities. But then your kids come up and start touching the screen--after all, these days young users are growing up expecting displays to be touch-enabled. I've been running Windows 8 on a desktop PC equipped with an Acer T232HL touchscreen display, and although I use the mouse some of the time, I find myself reaching out to use gestures on the screen at other times.

As for other desktop-PC options, look to the emerging generation of all-in-one PCs, such as Sony's 20-inch Tap 20 and the updated version of Lenovo's A720, which are shipping with Windows 8. The Tap 20 is unusual in that it has a built-in battery, which allows you to move it around the home easily and use it as an oversize tablet.

With any touch display, you tap app tiles to launch software, swipe the display to access other features, and use multitouch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom to enlarge or shrink what's on the screen. Touch support makes the Start screen more usable, though the user interface still has some rough spots. For example, if you swipe your finger in from the left just a little, you get thumbnails of currently running or suspended applications. But slide it a bit too far, and one of those apps takes over the screen. You need to develop a delicate touch (no pun intended) to take full advantage of the interface.

Despite Windows 8's new features, performance tweaks, and improvements over Windows 7, its touch support will likely be the defining factor. And despite some imperfections, the touch interface works smoothly. After you use it for a few days, the old way of using Windows will start to seem slightly cumbersome.

Windows 8 on tablets

One of the big reasons for the creation of Windows 8's new Start screen is the emergence of tablets. Microsoft has tried and failed on several occasions to create a market for tablet PCs, but the models released during those attempts have always been clunky and difficult to use. The gargantuan success of Apple's iPad--with its streamlined interface and its relentless focus on encouraging content consumption instead of serving as a general-purpose tool--seems to have clarified Microsoft's goals.

Even so, Microsoft is planning to support two types of tablets. The first type, which resembles the company's original Tablet PC concept, consists of convertible laptops running Windows 8. Even Microsoft's Surface Pro is just a thinly disguised laptop that emphasizes touch interaction over keyboard input.

The second type will carry a slightly different flavor of Windows 8, dubbed Windows RT. This version runs only on tablets using ARM processors, rather than Intel or AMD processors. ARM doesn't make its own hardware, but licenses its processor technology to other companies such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments. These companies design system-on-chip (SoC) products, which typically consume very little power relative to their performance. (The iPad, for example, uses an ARM-based SoC that Apple designs and builds.)

Windows RT tablets will have a restricted version of Windows 8. Although such tablets will include the traditional desktop, you will have access to the desktop only on a limited basis, to run preinstalled applications such as Office. You will not be able to install desktop programs; instead, RT tablets will focus on the Windows 8 apps you buy through Microsoft's Store.

In contrast, tablets with Intel-compatible processors can run the full PC version of Windows 8, and offer complete access to the desktop. They'll probably cost more than RT tablets, too, as they'll need broader expansion options, bigger batteries, and more memory. Intel-based tablets will almost certainly be heavier and bulkier, as well: For example, Surface Pro, which has an Intel Core i5 CPU, weighs about a half-pound more than Surface RT does.

The existence of two types of tablets on the market may end up confusing consumers, though the differences in price will likely drive shoppers in one direction or the other.

The Microsoft Store

Late to the game, Microsoft is adding a store to Windows, much like the marketplaces for Mac OS X, iOS, and Android. If you want to buy apps from the Microsoft Store, you need to create a Microsoft account.

Perhaps I should say stores, since you'll find more than one store within Windows 8. You buy Windows 8 apps by clicking the Store tile--but you purchase music by launching the Music app, and you buy videos by launching the Video app.

Even more confusing, the app store is called just the "Store" while the music and video stores are named Xbox Music and Xbox Video. (Of course, both the Music app and the Video app are media playback tools as well, though they are less robust compared with Windows Media Player or the likes of iTunes. The new operating system's lack of a unified Windows 8--style media player is a pretty significant hole.)

Navigating the Microsoft Store is similar to navigating the Start screen. Featured apps come in individual tiles, and are sorted by groups; each group also has a 'Top Free' tile and a 'New releases' tile. As of this writing, however, the Store listed only about 1000 apps, so Microsoft has a little catching up to do. The number of apps available at the official Windows 8 launch on October 26 will be more telling.

Personalizing Windows

If you don't like Windows 8 out of the box, you can customize it, with some exceptions. Perhaps the most controversial exception (as mentioned earlier) is the fact that you can't set Windows to boot directly to the desktop, though third-party utilities promise to enable this.

Since the Start screen consists of groups of tiles, moving your favorite or most commonly used tiles to the left side of the screen is pretty easy. You can also specify the tile size (normal or double-wide) and turn off live-tile updates if you find them distracting. In addition, you can group tiles by program type, such as business applications, games, and so on.

One configuration option that Microsoft has buried in the past is the startup configuration. In older versions of Windows, customizing which applications launched on startup required entering the Msconfig system-configuration utility. In Windows 8, you can select which applications launch at boot-up with the new Startup tab in Task Manager, which you can easily launch in the simplified Start menu.

Some customization configurations are less obvious. One example concerns the games you might buy from Valve Software's Steam download service. When you install a game from Steam, the procedure asks you whether to create a desktop shortcut. But that shortcut isn't an application shortcut; it's actually a URL, which points to the local Steamapps folder where the game is installed. If you right-click a URL shortcut, you'll find no option to pin it to the Start screen. Instead, you have to copy the shortcut to the Start Menu folder (yes, it's still called the 'Start Menu' folder), typically in C:\Users\user folder\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu.

Desktop customization is also available, except for the obvious lack of Start-menu tweaks. The taskbar is present, as it was in Windows 7, and you can pin applications to it as before.

Graphics improvements

Nearly all of the desktop and Start-screen functionality now relies on acceleration from your machine's graphics processing unit. Many of Windows 8's windows subsystems use the DirectX API. HTML5 and SVG (scalable vector graphics) also depend on GPU acceleration, in the form of enhanced 2D geometry rendering. Applications tell Direct2D what to draw in the form of 2D objects, such as circles and rectangles, plus additional features such as color and style. The API converts the instructions into a format suitable for Direct3D, which passes the instructions to the GPU. As a result, normal desktop windows will likely see substantial performance increases.

On top of that, Microsoft has added a new programming interface, DirectText, which offloads text rendering to the GPU. Text-rendering performance in desktop programs and in Windows 8 apps is double that of Windows 7--often better than double.

Why, then, did Microsoft return to "flat" windows, eliminating the transparency and other 3D effects it used in previous editions of the OS? Direct2D and Direct3D will also work with Windows RT and Windows Phone 8, and removing the eye candy will help Windows perform equally well across diverse platforms.

Storage and file system

Windows 8 includes a new file system called ReFS (Resilient File System). It's compatible with most NTFS file features, and, as the name suggests, it adds features to improve data integrity. Features left out include BitLocker, compression, and 8.3-format short filenames. What ReFS brings to the table is improved data verification and auto-correction: ReFS continually scans the file system, including rarely used older files, to ensure they haven't become corrupted, repairing bad disk clusters and moving data as necessary. Note, however, that ReFS works only on secondary drives, not boot drives. Your boot drive will still be NTFS.

If you're worried about encountering a problem that may force you to reinstall Windows, you'll be pleased to learn that reinstalling Windows is now much easier; in fact, Windows 8 provides multiple levels of system repair.

The Reset option nukes the hard drive and reinstalls Windows from scratch. You can use this option to get the machine back to a factory-fresh Windows install, without the need for a new Windows key or the Windows setup disk.

If you prefer something less drastic, the Refresh option resets important Windows settings but maintains your personal files and installed Windows 8 apps. Note, though, that it doesn't keep desktop applications, so you might wish to first uninstall or deregister software that will need reinstallation and activation.

Finally, you can customize the refresh process by using the "recimg" command-line tool. Using recimg makes an image of your current version of Windows--including installed desktop applications--and makes that the default image when you refresh your PC. Then, when you run Refresh, you'll still reinstall Windows from scratch, but you'll also retain your desktop applications. You will need to run recimg occasionally if you have desktop programs that you don't want to reinstall all over again.

Windows 8 and SkyDrive

The new operating system ships with a Windows 8 app for the SkyDrive cloud-storage service. If you have a Microsoft account, you begin with 5GB of SkyDrive space.

Out of the box, SkyDrive shows up as a Windows 8 app, but it does not appear in the file manager on the desktop; to make that happen, you need to download and install the SkyDrive desktop application. Once you download the application, install it, and link it to your Microsoft account, both the Start screen and desktop become coupled to your SkyDrive.

Assuming that you're logged in to your Microsoft account, SkyDrive is available as the default storage for many applications, but you can change that on a per-application basis. Of course, that default setting could cause you to consume your 5GB allotment of free storage pretty quickly. An additional 20GB costs $10 per year, while 100GB costs $50 per year.

SkyDrive has several important drawbacks that for many users may make it less viable than local hard-drive storage or competing cloud services. First, it imposes a 2GB limit on individual files, so the high-definition video you took of, say, your child's soccer match might not copy to your SkyDrive if it's bigger than 2GB. Second, Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.

Microsoft has been vague when asked for the specifics of how it defines and detects prohibited content. Although it's understandable that the company would ban the uploading of illegal content, Microsoft's decision to serve as a moral authority on prohibited private material seems excessive.

Microsoft Office integration

Microsoft Office 2013, still in beta at this writing, is more tightly tied to Windows 8 than any previous version of Office was to any older OS. Like Windows 8, Office 2013 is closely coupled with SkyDrive: If you sign in with Office to your Microsoft account, you can specify SkyDrive as Office's default storage location. This arrangement is handy if you're constantly moving between a home system, a laptop, and a work computer.

In addition, Office 2013 seems to perform better on Windows 8 than on Windows 7, most likely because the new Office takes full advantage of the GPU acceleration built into Windows 8. The overall look of Office 2013 also matches that of the new OS, mimicking the Windows 8 look and feel.

Bottom line

Windows 8 is almost here, and system makers are readying new models. Some will be touch enabled or otherwise optimized for Windows 8, while others will be similar to existing PCs. For some time, PC sales have been down, partly because everyone has been waiting to see what Windows 8 will be like on new systems. Although we've delved into the RTM version, and we like what we see, the success of Windows 8 will depend on how rapidly customers adopt the new user interface and the hardware to support it.

Under the hood, Windows 8 offers performance improvements, a new file system, easier recovery from system problems, better cloud integration, and numerous minor enhancements. However, the Start screen seems to overshadow all the cool new stuff. Although admittedly the original Start menu created some controversy when it launched years ago, Windows 8's Start screen seems much more polarizing. Toss in Microsoft's overly aggressive stance in trying to sell apps and content, and some users will likely rebel. Of course, you can avoid much of that hard sell simply by using a local account rather than tying your Windows account to a Microsoft account. But in doing that, you'd miss a lot of what's intriguing about Windows 8.

In some ways, Windows 8 also highlights Microsoft's tribal nature; for example, "Xbox Music" stands alone as its own thing, rather than as part of the Microsoft Store. Internal company differences shouldn't confuse users, as some of these moves probably will.

Love it or hate it, Windows 8 is ushering in a new era of cloud-connected Microsoft services, a unified user interface, and more-robust social media interaction. Younger users may find Windows 8 more attractive than some old-school computer users will. It's a risk that Microsoft needed to take to try to remain relevant in today's connected, mobile world. Only time will tell whether it's the right risk at the right time.

Windows 8 isn't for everyone. If you're mostly a desktop PC user comfortable with Windows 7, upgrading to Windows 8 is probably not worthwhile. If you're a mobile user who needs easy access to the complete Microsoft ecosystem, including SkyDrive, Windows 8 is definitely a good fit. If your needs lie somewhere between those two extremes, give Windows 8 a close look; the cost is low, but you'll need to learn your way around the new Start screen and make sure that your existing software runs well in the new OS.

This story, "Windows 8: The official review" was originally published by PCWorld.

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