Windows 8: What you need to know

by peter.griffin / 26 October, 2012
Peter Griffin test drives Microsoft's operating system for "the post-PC world".
In the biggest overhaul of Windows since Kiwis became the first in the world to get their hands on shrink-wrapped copies of Windows 95, Microsoft has delivered an operating system for the “post PC” world it has embraced with reluctance.



Windows 8 sees Microsoft take an ambitious stab at what it thinks people want in a computer in the era of the tablet and smartphone while at the same time hedging its bets by keeping Windows largely the same.

The first impression of Windows 8’s “metro” user interface is one of looking at a large smartphone screen. Indeed, Windows 8’s look and feel comes from its existing Windows Phone operating system. Microsoft’s software engineers have bolted an alluring, tactile face plate onto Windows, one those used to swiping, pinching and tapping their way around an iPad screen will take to with ease.

You’ll also find Microsoft embracing “apps” with enthusiasm, the metro screen displaying them in a pattern of pastel-coloured tiles that update everything from calendar entries to email messages without you having you boot into them.

A Windows Store will serve up apps, much as Apple and Google do, but Microsoft has a mountain to climb in matching the choice of apps. Early offerings available with the downloadable preview of Windows 8 Pro were uninspiring, but expect a flurry of app releases in coming months.

Underneath metro lies the more familiar engine of Windows, which is closer to the hearts of Microsoft’s designers - the desktop version of the software familiar, bar a few tweaks, to the understated, dependable Windows 7.

Anticipate slightly improved performance as Microsoft has more efficiently packaged Windows to run on systems that can handle Windows 7. You’ll be spending a fair bit of time in desktop mode as older bits of software are incompatible with the metro user interface.

While swipes and clicks to left and right now activate menus, the easiest way to get what you want in the new Windows is by typing a search term into File Explorer - perfect for the generation whose first instinct is to “just Google it”.

The ease with which Windows users take to this hybrid system and the app-centric design will determine the success of Windows 8.

GETTING TO GRIPS


For many of Window’s billion-odd users, It will certainly be a steep learning curve figuring out how to organise and navigate apps and make use of the all important Charms bar on the right hand side of the screen. Good luck to corporate IT trainers demonstrating these new features.

While "metro" - the informal name for the user interface - is designed for fingers, mouse and keyboard users haven’t been excluded, though the ideal set-up will be to have a touch-enabled desktop or laptop computer to explore the best of both worlds. Such users will find themselves typing on the keyboard while taking to the screen to access menus or icons in a slightly eccentric but enjoyable new way of working.

Bearing in mind that people spend a good deal of their computing time working in a web browser, Microsoft has undertaken a radical revamp of Internet Explorer, with big chunky tabs and preview windows to make it finger-friendly. Sites can be pinned to the metro screen as yet another series of tiles.

Going hand in hand with the arrival of Windows 8 is a much overdue effort to unify the Windows experience across multiple devices. Log into a Windows 8 machine with your Windows account and all your settings, email, Twitter and Facebook profiles and address book will be automatically synced.

Microsoft’s approach to online unification is ambitious, anchored by the free cloud storage service SkyDrive and incorporating online versions of Office applications and the email suite Outlook.com.

Google users have enjoyed this for some time, and Apple’s iCloud service mirrors content across a user’s Apple gadgets. Microsoft has definitely caught up here, and overtaken its nimbler rivals in some aspects.

It all adds up to a package which delivers what’s needed to boot Microsoft into the touch-screen age. But is it enough to sustain a new generation of ultrabooks and touch-enabled desktops that incorporate aspects of tablets?

When it comes to getting work done on the computer, the combination of Windows and the Office suite is hard to beat - hence the bet-hedging move to keep the underlying Windows largely as-is. Office 2013 upgrades the popular productivity suite for touch-screens and is tailored to tablets as well.

At worst, Windows 8 is a faster version of Windows 7 with a fancy front door. At best, it will breathe life into a staid operating system and give the reigning tablet makers a run for their money. Either way, with the cost of upgrading to Windows 8 as low as $20 and with the ability to revert back to Windows 7, there’s little to lose in testing the water.

Oh, did I mention, the classic Start button is gone? Yes, this truly is the end of an era for Microsoft, and the start of an intriguing new one.

Pros: low cost to upgrade, improved performance, true touch-enabled Windows at last.

Cons: Steep learning curve, legacy software only works in desktop mode, limited range of apps.

UPGRADE OPTIONS


Discount stickers are blanketing electronics stores the length of the country as retailers try to clear out Windows 7 computers ahead of the arrival of its shiny, new successor.

That means some attractive deals on ultrabooks, laptops and all-in-one desktops that will work with Windows 8 which went on sale today (October 26).

Entry level requirements to run Windows 8 aren’t onerous - you’ll need a computer with a 1GHz (gigahertz) processor as minimum, 1GB (gigabyte) of memory and a 16GB hard drive. A graphics card that supports Microsoft’s Direct X 9 format is also a must, as is a high-resolution screen to stop those new apps pixelating.

If you buy a Windows 7 computer before January 31 - or bought one after June 1, you can upgrade to Windows 8 for $20 by registering for the download. Getting Windows 8 onto a compatible machine running Windows 7, Vista or Windows XP will cost $49.95 for a download copy - $89.95 for a shrink-wrapped copy bought in a store. Gone are the days of Windows versions costing several hundred dollars - thank Apple’s incremental operating system upgrade fees for sparking that trend. Tablets running Windows 7 should happily handle Windows 8 too.

Microsoft is desperate to avoid the debacle of 2006 when its Vista operating system caused all sorts of problems with device driver support and sluggish performance on under-powered machines, so anticipate a fairly headache-free installation. If Windows 8 plunges you into a nightmare of compatibility issues, at least you’ll be able to downgrade to Windows 7 or Vista free of charge.

The same can’t be said of Windows XP, the much-loved 11 year old operating system, which Microsoft is trying its hardest to move people from. Still, if you still have the original disks, a clean reinstall of XP isn’t out of the question.

On the web:

windowsupgradeoffer.com

microsoft.com/surface

microsoft.com/office/preview/en

IT’S RAINING TABLETS


Tablet makers are gearing up for the launch of Windows 8 and front of the queue will be Microsoft itself.



The software giant shocked the tech industry in June when it announced the Surface - a tablet that will not only run Windows, but be designed from the ground up and sold by Microsoft, much as Apple does with the iPad.

Surface launches in the US on October 26 in two flavors: Surface for Windows RT, a tablet-only version of Windows, and Surface for Windows 8 Pro, aimed at power hybrid users and featuring higher technical specifications to suit.

A New Zealand release date for Surface and pricing have yet to be announced. But the initial impression of Surface is one of stylish, minimalist device that could have second-ranked tablet maker Samsung worried.

Device makers including Asus, Acer, Toshiba and Sony unveiled new Windows 8-based touchscreen ultra books, desktops and tablets in Berlin last month. The offerings suggest Windows 8 has inspired a new wave of innovation in hardware design as computer makers attempt to make the most of touch-based interaction - and fight to stay relevant in the face of new competition from Microsoft itself.

It is unclear which models will have mass appeal and whether Microsoft’s tablet gamble will pay off. But one thing is for sure - the computer industry hasn’t generated this level of anticipation in years.
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