By Steve Morris, 6 Nov 2012, last updated 19 Oct 2013
Windows 8 is more than just an updated version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. It's a huge leap into the world of tablets and touchscreen devices.
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Update (19 Oct 2013): Windows Phone 8.1 has now been released. The update restores the start button and allows a computer to boot up with a traditional desktop interface. A number of other minor updates are included.
Switch on a Windows 8 device for the first time and you'll notice a big difference to previous versions of the OS. Where is the Start button and the familiar desktop environment? They're gone, and in their place is the Start screen, filled with a colourful grid of tiles. Each tile is "live", which means that it's an interactive icon, displaying new data as it arrives. The mail tile displays incoming messages, the Twitter tile updates with the latest tweets, the weather tile shows the current forecast, etc.
The Start screen can easily be customised by dragging tiles into position. Since each tile represents an app, you can easily place your most commonly-used apps within easy reach, and position tiles that display key information just where you need them. By swiping to the side, you can view more tiles.
The second big change is that these tiles respond when you touch them. That's right - Windows 8 is touch-based. Microsoft are clearly targeting the tablet market here, but laptops and desktops can also support the touchscreen user interface.
As well as touching a tile to open an app, touch controls are used throughout the user interface. Pinch and stretch to zoom in and out. Instead of the old Windows taskbar, you need to swipe in from the left to switch between recently used apps. Swipe in from the right to access the Charm bar, where you can perform common tasks like getting back to the Start screen, searching or changing settings. Swipe in from the bottom to see navigation controls for any app you're in.
You can still use your mouse and keyboard instead of using the touch interface. In this case, mouse actions replace swiping and there are keyboard shortcuts to all the common actions. The Start button toggles between the Start screen and the current app. Position your mouse in a corner of the screen to replicate the swipe-in action.
The touch interface can be a big benefit in some cases. For tablets, obviously it's a no-brainer that touch is the way to go. For laptops, touch is certainly preferable to using a trackpad, but it can sometimes be fiddly on a small screen trying to touch the right bit of text. On a desktop, the case for touchscreen seems least secure, as the ergonomics simply aren't right. I can imagine a lot more back problems at work thanks to people hunched over their desks, stabbing at their screens (and probably spilling their coffee as a result).
The core apps that come bundled with Windows 8 include:
- Windows Mail and Messaging
- Internet Explorer 10
- Bing Apps (content-delivery apps)
These core apps are fully Windows 8 compatible, so they make good use of the new touch interface, including the "charm" options (search, share, etc) that you access by swiping from the right or moving your mouse into the right corner.
The Bing apps are there to deliver content, including Sport, Finance, Weather and Music.
Social media are built into the heart of Windows 8. If you want to share a photo or video, just swipe in from the right to access the Charm bar and tap or click "Share" to immediately post it to Facebook or send by email.
Older programs not written for Windows 8 should still run, but they may run in a "Desktop" environment, similar to the old Windows look and feel. This Desktop environment is a halfway house - pragmatic, yet leaving legacy software with an inconsistent feel. Old programs feel like ancient DOS command lines running under Windows NT. It will be up to developers to update their software to take advantage of the new user interface.
Windows 8 runs faster than Windows 7. The new OS makes use of more hardware graphics acceleration and is designed to shut down and boot up much faster. You'll notice it each time you start up your computer and perhaps even when running apps, especially when web browsing with Internet Explorer 10.
Laptops, desktops, tablets
A new range of computers has been launched to take advantage of the Windows 8 touch interface. The new laptops are ultra-lightweight with extended battery life. Some laptops feature innovative designs and are convertible into tablets. Then there's Microsoft's own foray into the world of hardware - its very own tablet, the Microsoft Surface.
Windows RT is a reduced version of Windows 8, designed for use with tablets. RT shares most of the features of Windows 8, but significantly it supports only those apps available from the Windows Store. Windows RT also has limited networking, security and IT management options.
The number of apps available from the Windows Store is very limited at launch, and restricted mostly to "fun" apps typically found on tablets. There is little in the way of any power software that serious users will need. This will hopefully change as developers release more apps for the new OS.
Windows 8 Pro & Windows 8 N
Windows 8 Pro includes everything in Windows 8 plus added data protection, Remote Desktop Connection and the ability to connect to a corporate network.
Windows 8 N includes the same functionality as Windows 8, except that it doesn't include certain media related technologies (Windows Media Player, Camera, Music, Video). As a result, you'll need software from Microsoft or a third party to play or create audio CDs, media files and video DVDs, stream music, take and store pictures, and use a webcam.
Users of Windows 7, Vista or XP can download an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for £24.99 until the end of January 2013.
Upgrading from Windows 7 is easy. Upgrading from Vista or XP is harder - you'll have to reinstall software and possibly reconfigure settings.
Conclusion - a bold step, but too bold or not bold enough?
Windows 8 is a radical departure from previous versions of Windows. The challenge was clear - to create a version of Windows that could run on tablets as well as laptops and desktops. But has it worked?
Windows 8 runs best on a tablet. Here, the touch-based user interface feels completely natural, and issues of backwards compatibility aren't an issue. Windows Store offers a small but growing array of apps that are easily accessible and easily installed. The only limitation is Windows RT, which restricts apps to those available from the Windows Store.
On a laptop or desktop, the problems begin to appear. Firstly the ergonomics are less compelling, especially on a desktop, where Windows 8 might actually be less easy to use than previous versions. Secondly, the issue of legacy software is important, and while most old software should run under Windows 8, it may run in Desktop mode, which seems to be a fudge. On the positive side, security, performance and battery life are all improved, and if you mainly use MS Office, you'll probably be happy.
It could be that Microsoft has been too radical with its touch-based OS, but at the same time hasn't gone far enough, leaving desktop users suspended in a halfway house: forced to use the new interface for common tasks, yet stuck in a different environment when it comes to running legacy software. Paradoxically, could it be that Windows 8 actually accelerates the demise of the desktop?
On balance, we're happy with Windows 8. Not everyone will be queuing to upgrade immediately. There will be die-hards who stick with Windows 7 (or older). Having to reinstall all your desktop software could be a hassle if you're upgrading from Vista or XP. Yet if you're willing to embrace change, there's a lot to like. The new range of hardware made for Windows 8 looks fantastic. The upgrade offer to Windows 8 is good value. And for most users the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
We certainly expect to see a continuing evolution of Windows 8, and also a lot of change as developers work to fully integrate their software with the new user interface and get their apps into Windows Store. As Churchill once said, this is not the end, not even the beginning of the end; but it is the end of the beginning.
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Comment by Wayne from U.K on 23rd Nov 2012
I've just upgraded from windows 7 and so far I'm loving windows 8. The upgrade process was simple, effortless and very smooth. If your ready for quite a major change then take advantage of the low price and upgrade :).