Windows 8: The official review

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

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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