Why you should definitely upgrade to Windows 8 (or not)

Forget what you’ve heard. Microsoft’s most radically redesigned version of Windows is often brilliant and improves upon Windows 7--even if you don’t own a touchscreen. But, still, it’s not for everyone.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is boldly going where no operating system has gone before: combining a touch-friendly OS with the traditional PC desktop. Even if you don’t own a tablet or touchscreen monitor, there are many compelling reasons to upgrade. There are also definitely reasons to pass on Windows 8. Here’s how to decide what’s best for you.

Definitely, absolutely do not upgrade if you aren’t willing to put the time into learning a new interface. You’ll just end up frustrated. Windows 8 is a whole new game and the tile-based start screen (formerly called Metro) isn’t very intuitive to use. Who would guess that to close a Metro app you have to drag the top of the screen and drop the thumbnail at the bottom? Or that to get to a list of running apps you should hover over the top left corner of the screen with your mouse pointer and drag down when the thumbnail appears? If Microsoft put out a tutorial on all these unknown gestures and motions, new users would be better off. But as it is, you have to go find and learn them yourself. (The Windows 8 Cheat Keys app in the Windows 8 Store can help.)

If you own a tablet PC or touch-enabled monitor, the answer is fairly obvious. Windows 8 greatly enhances the tablet experience and is built for touch. I’m not a fan of the on-screen keyboard (too big for my tastes, compared to the slide-out one in Windows 7), but Windows 8 actually improved some issues I had with touch recognition on a 5-year-old tablet PC.

That brings me to another, perhaps most important point: Windows 8 offers a great performance boost over previous Windows versions. In its presentation today, Microsoft said boot times on one device became 33% faster and memory usage reduced by 42% with Windows 8. Windows uses about 281MB of RAM versus the first release of Windows 7, which used almost twice that: 540MB. Several benchmarks run by CNET, TechSpot, and Zdnet also suggest this is the faster version of Windows so far. My test Windows 8 laptop also feels zippy to me. If you have an older computer, upgrading to Windows 8 could breathe new life into it.

Some other noteworthy enhancements and improvements include:

  • The ability to easily reset or restore your PC, with just a click. The basic reset keeps all your docs and settings intact, while bringing Windows 8 back to a like-new installation.
  • Storage spaces. One of the coolest new features is Windows’ new ability to manage drives (internal and external) as if they were one. It creates redundancy and helps protect against drive failure (an all-too-common occurrence).
  • Better file copying. You can now pause and monitor file operations with much more detail.
  • File History The new file history tool saves versions of your files (everything in your Libraries, Desktop, Favorites, and Contacts folders) so you can quickly revert if needed. (This is kind of like Mac OS X’s Timeline feature.)
  • Better multi-monitor controls If you have more than one display, you can now configure each one individually.
  • Account syncing When you log on using your Windows Live account, Windows 8 can sync your settings, including app settings.
  • Security enhancements Windows 8 adds a “Secured Boot” feature which prevents malware from starting before the system has started up. It also comes with antivirus built-in.

All of these are good reasons to upgrade--particularly the performance boosts, easy reset/restore, file history and storage spaces--plus the traditional Windows 7 desktop is still there if you want it. It's just one Windows key press away.

All that said, while Windows 8 is mostly enjoyable and fast to use, it is rough around the edges. Sometimes files opened in the desktop open in their Metro-styled apps (a jarring experience). Metro apps themselves are disappointingly not nearly as powerful as their desktop counterparts (though that works in some cases where all you want in a simple screen). It takes much getting used to.

If you’re up for it, though, you can enjoy some very cool new features in Windows--while still accessing the old traditional desktop view whenever you prefer.

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