Windows 8: 13 Features Worth Knowing About
ARM processor support
Windows has traditionally run on x86-based processors from Intel and AMD. If you buy, say, a ViewSonic or Asus tablet that runs Windows today, it will probably use an Intel processor. But Apple's iPad and most Android tablets run on ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) processors, which are designed for fast processing and long battery life on mobile devices.
With the Metro UI's finger-touch control and swipe gestures, Windows 8 has clearly been built with tablets in mind. It's not surprising, then, that the new OS operates on ARM as well as x86 processors.
Rob Enderle, the principal analyst at Enderle Group, says ARM support is the most important feature in Windows 8. It means a new market for Microsoft, consisting of ultra-thin tablets with long-lasting batteries.
Silver agrees that ARM processor support is good news if it means tablets get cheaper and batteries last longer. However, he doubts that legacy Windows applications will run on these new tablets -- a charge that Intel has brought against ARM-based tablets -- which may limit their usefulness for businesses. For its part, Microsoft called Intel's statements "factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading," but Microsoft has so far declined to provide details about what software will and won't run on the devices.
Verdict: ARM tablets that run Windows will benefit consumers, but businesses that need to run legacy software may need to stick with x86-based devices.
Windows Live SkyDrive integration
Wait, is SkyDrive still around? Most of us were too busy using Dropbox to notice. But Microsoft's free cloud storage service just got a little more interesting: The company has said that SkyDrive will be integrated directly into Windows 8. That means when you use the Metro interface to browse photos, you can quickly view the images you have stored on SkyDrive without starting a browser.
"SkyDrive is not new, but the connection to Windows is," says Silver. "Windows 8 can have your settings follow you from the cloud."
Both Silver and King noted that SkyDrive is designed for consumers rather than businesses. Microsoft's more mature cloud offering, called Windows Azure, has the robust security features that companies require.
Verdict: Offering slick integration between phones, tablets and computers, the enhanced SkyDrive is a plus for home users.
Hyper-V, Microsoft's enterprise virtualization tool, has been available to IT administrators in recent versions of Windows Server, but Windows 8 brings it to the client OS. This will help end users run other operating systems, including older versions of Windows, inside a virtual machine -- a boon for companies that need to run legacy apps.
Hyper-V will replace Windows 7's more rudimentary Virtual PC component and add a management layer so admins can tweak options for storage drives and VM settings when a client uses the virtual machine. It's an important addition to Windows 8, King says, but he warns that many end users will find Hyper-V too complex and that technical staff may find more value in it.
On the server side, Windows Server 8 includes a new Hyper-V live migration feature that makes it easier to deploy virtual instances to clients. These client and server options give IT the flexibility to provide some users with ready-to-go virtual machines while allowing more tech-savvy users to deploy their own.
Microsoft says these and other enhancements to Hyper-V will put it on par with its more well-established virtualization competitor, VMware. Businesses will have to decide between paying for the mature features of VMware and using Hyper-V, which is included with Windows 8 client and server licenses. Of course, for those IT managers who are more familiar with VMware, there may be hidden costs in learning the Microsoft tool, supporting it and training end users.
Verdict: Built-in virtualization technology in Windows 8 is a big win for companies that have not widely deployed VMware.
A beefed-up Task Manager
One of the most improved features in Windows 8 is the redesigned Task Manager, which is both simpler and more detailed than before. Instead of a cryptic list of processes and stats, the default screen shows just the names of running applications and lets you quickly kill any that aren't responding.
Clicking the "More details" button brings up the advanced Task Manager, which reveals a wealth of information including total CPU usage time for each app, a CPU performance graph and more details about the memory and other system resources each app is using.
The graphs that show CPU performance also allow you to view disk performance by clicking on a tile. You can even view a history of your wireless networking speed, and monitor send-and-receive rates.
Verdict: A handy improvement for beginners and power users alike.
John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.