Even in the best of times, businesses don't like upgrading their PC operating systems. The process is expensive and time-consuming, and usually demands retraining a technically challenged workforce. And now Windows 8 threatens to make workplace system swaps even less attractive than before.
Between the removal of the familiar Start button and the addition of a decidedly non-intuitive tiled interface, Windows 8 has struck fear in the hearts of IT managers worldwide. As a result, few businesses appear to be planning Windows 8 upgrades.
Nevertheless, if you’re in the market for new PCs or even an operating system upgrade, there are a number of reasons why your business may benefit from accepting Windows 8. Of course, adopting any new OS imposes a learning curve on users, but once your workforce gets comfortable with Windows 8, its benefits can outweigh its drawbacks.
1. Touchscreen interface
An obvious difference between Windows 8 and its predecessors is its completely revamped interface. The Modern UI (formerly known as “Metro”) is designed first and foremost with touch input in mind.
With a tablet or touchscreen desktop monitor, Windows 8 supports cool options such as handwritten note-taking in OneNote and commenting on a Word document by hand using digital ink. Furthermore, once you get used to Windows 8's touch and swipe conventions, the touch-based controls enable you to navigate the OS very effectively. With a tap-and-drag gesture, you can use two apps simultaneously, for example, so you can check email and edit an Excel spreadsheet at the same time. (Here’s a closer look at Windows 8 gesture commands.)
From a business perspective, though, the greatest appeal of the touchscreen interface is the new possibilities it opens for Windows 8 PCs. Functions for which many businesses may currently be considering iPad or Android tablets to accomplish could be performed from a Windows 8 tablet or from a PC equipped with a touchscreen monitor. Windows 8 can be used at interactive kiosks, or to enable a salesperson in the field to collect a customer’s signature directly on the display.
One of the most common headaches for Windows users—particularly mobile users trying to work from customer sites or remote locations—is finding and connecting to a network. Microsoft has made improvements in Windows 8 that make accomplishing this task easier and more intuitive.
First, whether you tap the network icon from the Settings charm on the Modern UI charms bar or click it in the System Tray in desktop mode, it pulls up a panel that fills the right quarter of the screen top to bottom. At the top is something familiar, but new to Windows—Airplane Mode. Enabling this option shuts down all wireless communications, which comes in handy when you're using a tablet or laptop on the road.
When you join a new network, you'll find that Microsoft has simplified the dialog boxes to guide you through choosing connections to a public or a private network, and enabling sharing of data or resources between your computer and the other devices on the network.
Because Windows 8 is designed for mobility, the operating system also includes better tools for connecting to, and managing, cellular networks. And Windows 8 can track and meter data usage for 3G/4G cellular networks so you don’t exceed monthly caps.
3. Flexible hardware options
Since their inception, PCs and laptops have maintained a fairly consistent approach to form and function. Sure, they’ve gotten smaller over the years, but a desktop remained a desktop, and a laptop a laptop, more or less—until now.
Windows 8 breaks the PC and laptop molds, encouraging unique approaches that take advantage of the touchscreen elements of Windows 8, or that bridge the gap between traditional hardware and mobile devices. For example, the Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook has an innovative display that swivels so that the laptop can function as a tablet. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 delivers similar hybrid functionality in the form of a display that the user can bend all the way to the back of the unit to employ as a tablet.
Then there are devices like Microsoft’s own Surface Pro tablet. The Surface Pro is a pure tablet; but when joined with a Touch Cover or Type Cover, it transforms into something resembling an Ultrabook. The diversity of the hardware allows businesses and individuals to choose the platform that works best for their needs instead of committing to one form at the expense of the other. It can also provide the benefits of a notebook and a tablet without requiring a business to invest in two pieces of hardware.
4. Faster boot time
Though the usual waiting period is only a matter of seconds, it can feel like an eternity as a computer wakes up from a complete shutdown and finally reaches the Windows login screen—especially if you're at a meeting, where every second counts.
In tests run on the same PC, with fresh installations of each operating system, Windows 8 booted up in less than half the time that Windows 7 took. Windows 8 averaged 17 seconds, compared to 38 seconds for Windows 7.
Real-world mileage can vary significantly depending on the hardware you use. My Samsung Series 7 Slate PC with Windows 8 Pro boots in just over 11 seconds. A faster boot time means that users can get down to business faster when they show up in the morning, or when they boot up an Ultrabook or tablet to share information with a customer.
5. Dual-monitor support
It’s not exactly mainstream in most fields of business, but using multiple monitors can greatly improve productivity, and Windows 8 comes with a number of enhancements to simplify managing and using such setups. Using multiple displays is like magnifying the productivity benefits of the Windows 7 Aero Snap feature. Instead of splitting the workspace in half on one display, you can extend your Windows desktop across more than one monitor.
When it comes to handling multiple displays, Windows 8 significantly improves on Windows 7's capabilities. You can configure the taskbar for each display to make it easier and more efficient to get to the applications you want on each display. Windows 8 also treats the corners and sides of each monitor as active hot zones for accessing things like the charms bar and the app switcher.
6. Better security
Windows 8 introduces some security tricks to help protect data and let IT managers sleep at night. First, Microsoft takes advantage of the Secure Boot feature of UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). Secure Boot allows only software signed by authorized certificates to boot up, which prevents BIOS- or kernel-level malware from sneaking in.
With Windows 8, Microsoft has also incorporated the antimalware capabilities of Microsoft Security Essentials into Windows Defender, so Windows 8 provides more-comprehensive protection against malware right out of the box.
Microsoft has expanded the scope of its SmartScreen technology, too. Previous versions were limited to protecting Internet Explorer from malicious sites and rogue downloads. With Windows 8, SmartScreen applies to all network traffic, meaning that it provides the same security whether you’re using Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome—or if you’re just downloading files across the network.
7. Storage Spaces
Hard drives keep getting larger and cheaper, but newer hardware such as Ultrabooks and tablets tend to rely on smaller-capacity solid-state drives for storage. Windows 8's Storage Spaces feature lets you expand your storage without replacing your drive, and without having to add new drive letters and then try to manage which applications or data get stored on which drive.
Storage Spaces lets you create a pool of storage that can span internal and external drives, and combine storage using different interfaces so that the operating system views and treats everything as being on one large drive. Storage Spaces also uses data mirroring across the drives so that, even if one of the drives in the pool crashes, the data will remain available.
8. SkyDrive integration
As great as Storage Spaces can be, it works only if the various drives in the pool are connected to the Windows 8 PC. When you’re on the go, using the cloud to expand your storage options makes more sense. Microsoft has woven access to its cloud storage service, SkyDrive, throughout Windows 8.
The SkyDrive app on the Windows 8 Start screen provides quick access to data stored in the cloud. You can easily add files to SkyDrive from the Share charm in the Windows 8 charms bar, and data stored in SkyDrive is available from virtually anywhere, over just about any Web-connected device.
Businesses that subscribe to Office 365 Small Business Premium get a more robust approach to cloud storage. The SkyDrive Pro app provides essentially the same benefits and functionality as SkyDrive, but it ties back to SharePoint and delivers more collaborative tools and better IT management for data than the personal SkyDrive account does.
9. New Task Manager
The Task Manager has always been a powerful but underused tool in Windows. In Windows 8, though, it receives a complete makeover that makes it both easier to use, and more valuable than ever.
The new Task Manager is more polished, presenting information in a more coherent and visually appealing way. Microsoft has enhanced familiar tabs such as Processes and Performance to include more detail—for instance, enabling you to drill down and see the resources in use for each separate tab or window for apps that have multiple instances. A new tab called Startup lets you view and manage applications that load automatically when Windows boots up.
10. Windows to Go
You’ll have to use Windows 8 Enterprise in order to take advantage of Windows to Go, but for many businesses, that version of Windows is worth its higher price. Windows to Go lets you store an entire Windows 8 environment on a bootable USB thumb drive or other removable media.
Using Windows to Go has some tremendous benefits. IT admins or tech support personnel can carry their Windows 8 PC with them in their pocket. The feature also supports BYOD (bring your own device) scenarios: Users can boot to a managed Windows 8 environment via Windows to Go so that their work environment doesn’t interfere with their personal profile; and the business can protect itself from rogue, unpatched systems.
Windows 8 dramatically overhauls the aesthetics and interface—as well as the features and functionality—of the traditional Windows operating system. It's unlikely that all ten of these beneficial aspects of Windows 8 will apply to your business, but even if only a few do, they could yield a difference in efficiency or productivity for an edge over the competition.