Microsoft has spent so much time at the BUILD conference this week talking about how Windows 8 will operate like a tablet OS that you might feel left out if you plan to continue working on a desktop or laptop. But whether you’re an IT manager, PC enthusiast, or professional just trying to get some work done, Windows 8 will have enough new features to make it worth your interest.
First, there’s performance. Microsoft promises that Windows 8 will run on every machine Windows 7 runs on, but if our early demos are any indication, it should actually run better. A clean boot of Windows 8 should use less RAM and CPU resources than Windows 7 currently does. The new Metro-style, full-screen, immersive applications suspend themselves when you can’t see them, consuming no CPU cycles (though they still occupy some RAM).
Boot-up times are fantastic. The increased speed is most noticeable on new systems with the optimized UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface); but even if you have an existing system with no special hardware, you should see a massive reduction in the time it takes to go from pressing the power button to getting up and running.
Though the Start Screen is made for touch, it works just fine for keyboard-and-mouse users whose PCs lack touchscreens. Just start typing, and it instantly brings up the search interface, looking for applications as you type. The Windows key brings you back to the Start Screen from wherever you are, and keyboard shortcuts abound. Windows-D, for example, opens the traditional desktop interface. Move the mouse to the lower-left corner of the screen, and the five “Charms” of Windows 8 (Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings) pop up. The scrollwheel moves you left and right through your screens of tiles, but scrollbars also appear along the side and bottom when necessary.
I’ve used a keyboard and mouse with the Samsung test device, and while the arrangement certainly takes some getting used to, it doesn’t feel like a slow, cumbersome way to operate a Windows 8 PC. The best results come from a combination of using the touchscreen when it is most efficient and turning to the keyboard and mouse when that’s the quickest and most precise way to get things done.
We’ve all had to spend hours at some point reinstalling Windows, and then reinstalling all of our applications and user data, just to eliminate the malware, toolbars, messed-up file associations, and other junk that has filled our machines (or our parents’, kids’, or coworkers’ machines). The new Reset and Refresh features in Windows 8 should eliminate much of that pain.
Reset obliterates all data on your system and returns the computer to its out-of-the-box state in about 10 or 15 minutes. Refresh is even better, though--it preserves your user data (including the Metro apps you’ve downloaded from the online Windows Store) and clears out everything else. So you get a “fresh” PC, but you don’t have to copy your pictures, music, and documents to external storage and then back to your system. By default, Refresh won’t restore your standard desktop Win32 applications, but power users can modify its behavior: You install your core applications, getting your machine to the condition you want it, and then you use a command-line tool to ensure that when you use Refresh, the system will return to that state.
Tinkerers will love the new Task Manager, too. It’s cleaner and more attractive, providing a simpler look into how your system resources are being consumed. It also builds in some additional functionality that you used to find in other applications, such as real-time resource-use charts (as in Resource Monitor) and control over startup applications (as you would find in Msconfig).
Have other PCs to manage, or just like to log on to your home or work PC remotely? The new remote-desktop Metro-style application supports multitouch and multiple simultaneous remote desktops. If you prefer the traditional windowed remote-desktop tool, it will still be available.
If you want to test software on various Windows installations, or maybe try out some beta programs without messing up your machine, Windows 8 gives you a way to do it: Hyper-V virtualization will be built into the Windows client.
The basic shell and Explorer will undergo several improvements, though we’re told that the standard desktop interface is by no means complete. Explorer’s new Ribbon interface is a contentious issue, but it certainly brings a lot of functionality to the surface. And everyone can appreciate little tweaks such as the Up button to the left of the location bar: It takes you to the folder one step higher in the hierarchy. (As opposed to the back button in the current version of Explorer, which takes you to the last folder you viewed.) You can directly mount ISO and VHD files from within Explorer, too. Double-clicking a virtual hard disk (VHD) file mounts it as a hard disk with a new drive letter, while doing the same to an ISO treats it as a new optical drive.
If you have multiple monitors, you’ll be happy to know that Microsoft is doing more to make your life easy. Windows 8 will finally enable desktop backgrounds that properly span multiple monitors. You can also fine-tune how the taskbar behaves. For instance, you can set up your taskbar so that the Internet Explorer icon moves from monitor to monitor as you move the app, meaning that the icon will always be right below the application window.
Some changes are purely under the hood, but should make significant differences in how snappy the OS feels. For example, apps should take up less memory, thanks to changes that handle RAM more efficiently. The memory manager uses a new “page combining” technique that will collapse identical 4K memory pages in use by multiple applications into a single page, until they are altered. If one of the apps changes its version of the memory page, it splits off into another page. This means that multiple applications loading the same resources will no longer duplicate data in memory.
Microsoft isn’t done talking about features for enthusiasts, business, and IT. The focus here at the BUILD conference is on the dramatically new Start Screen and Metro applications and their development, but we’ll hear more about PC fundamentals and features for power users over the coming months.