Windows 8: The official review

At a Glance
  • 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...

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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.

Sony
Sony Tap 20 All-in-One

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.

Microsoft's Surface comes in Pro and RT models.
Microsoft's Surface comes in Pro and RT models.

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.

In addition to playing tunes, the Xbox Music app sells songs.
In addition to playing tunes, the Xbox Music app sells songs.

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.

The tile-based app store offers both free and paid items.
The tile-based app store offers both free and paid items.

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.

At a Glance
  • 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. Read the full review

    Pros

    • New, improved file system
    • Easier recovery from system problems
    • Better integration with the cloud

    Cons

    • The missing Start menu will drive some people nuts
    • Overly aggressive when it comes to selling apps and content
    • Some aspects of the OS are unnecessarily confusing
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