Windows 8 preview

We take a look at the key features of the Windows 8 OS update.
 
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01.Ten things you should know

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Windows 8 is finally here and you may be wondering whether it’s worth upgrading. It’s the biggest change to the operating system in a very long time, and it’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s liking. 

1. It has two separate interfaces

When you start Windows 8, the start page looks like the image pictured right. That’s the new tiled Windows 8 interface (formerly called Metro). It’s based on the Windows Phone 7 OS, and looks and operates very much like a smartphone interface. 

Program-launch tiles and in-application controls are designed for touchscreen use, meaning they’re bigger (for easier targeting with a finger) and don’t assume the availability of a right-click. 

There are no windows or Task Bar in this interface, and every application runs full screen and full bleed. You can also control this tiled interface and apps with a keyboard and mouse.

Then there’s the traditional desktop interface, which looks a lot like previous versions of Windows – with a few major changes. You can switch between these interfaces at any time. Any given application will be written for one or the other interface. 

A Windows 8 app will use the tiled interface; a desktop (or legacy) application will use the desktop interface. So you’ll likely be switching between the interfaces a lot, depending on which one is used by the program you wish to launch.

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2. The Start/Windows menu is gone

This one is a biggie: there’s no longer a Start menu or button in the desktop interface – the tiled Start page is your new start menu. To launch an app, you generally have to return to the Start page. Pressing the Windows button on your keyboard will do this. 

On a touchscreen, you can also use a swipe motion to return to it, and with a keyboard and mouse you have to head to a hot corner to return to the Start page.

You don’t always have to go back to the Start page to start new apps – when using the desktop interface you can still pin them to the Task Bar or embed them on the desktop. There are also third-party apps, such as ViStart, that restore something similar to Start Menu functionality.

3. Hot corners

Windows8_Power-menuThese are a new thing in Windows 8, specifically for keyboard and mouse users, and work in both the tiled and Desktop interfaces. Moving your mouse pointer to one of the corners of the screen brings up different elements of the interface:

  • Moving it to the upper left brings up the Switch List, a set of thumbnails of your currently running apps.
  • Left-clicking on the bottom left corner of the screen switches between the desktop and Start Page. Right-clicking there brings up a power user menu, which is like a mini control panel.
  • Moving to the top or bottom right brings up the Charm bar, which has major functions such as settings and search.

4. Windows 8 apps work differently to traditional Windows apps

Very differently, actually. Applications written for the tiled interface work a lot like applications for your smartphone or tablet:

  • They run full screen. There are no windows in the tiled interface.
  • They use notifications – pop-ups on the bottom right of the screen, like on a smartphone.
  • They’re designed for touchscreen use, with large controls and an interface that can adjust to fit an on-screen keyboard.
  • They install and uninstall very quickly, usually taking only as much time as is required to copy or delete the files.
  • They also stick to one directory and run in a secure environment, so should uninstall cleanly and not be as vulnerable to problems.
  • There is generally no close button. When you switch from an application, Windows suspends it in the background. If you run out of memory, Windows closes unused apps automatically. You can also use Task Manager to close them manually.

5. There’s another version called Windows RT

RT is a version of the OS built for ARM processors – the low-power processors that many smartphones and tablets typically use. Windows RT programs aren't compatible with Windows 8 programs and vice versa, though Microsoft says it will be very easy for developers to release their software for both. Windows RT does not have a desktop interface and is only available pre-loaded.

6. Windows Store

Like Google Play and the iTunes App Store, Windows 8 gets its own market app built into the OS. Windows Store has downloadable applications for the platform. It also keeps a memory of purchased apps, much like iTunes and Google Play. If you restore your computer to factory settings, you can automatically reinstall all the apps you’ve downloaded previously from the Windows Store. Windows Store only caters to Windows 8.

7. You can use your Windows Live Login

Another feature borrowed from smartphones: you can use your Windows Live (or Hotmail) login as your Windows login. This automatically associates your computer with Microsoft’s online services, such as Messenger, SkyDrive, Windows Store accounts, Hotmail and more. When you log in to Windows, you automatically log in to all those other services as well.

8. It comes in four editions

These are Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows RT. Most consumers will buy Windows 8. 

Windows 8 Pro adds BitLocker and file system encryption, Remote Desktop, Domain support, virtualisation, and (optionally) Windows Media Center. 

Windows 8 Enterprise adds support for additional enterprise group, mobility and security features.

9. Hardware requirements are similar to Windows 7

It will actually run on relatively low-end computers, with a minimum 1GHz processor and 1GB of memory (2GB for the 64-bit version). Most people won’t need a new computer to run it.

10. There’s much more than we’ve covered here!

Windows8_Task-Manager-PerformanceSome of the many other features include:

  • A completely redesigned Task Manager, which gives much more information about running applications.
  • Internet Explorer 10 is now a Windows 8 app. It doesn't support plug-ins, though Flash is supported.
  • Windows Explorer (now File Explorer) has a context-sensitive ribbon interface á la recent versions of Microsoft Office.
  • Refresh allows you to revert to factory settings, keeping your documents and Windows Store applications; reset is a complete system wipe.
  • It has Xbox Live integration for gaming.
  • There’s a new lock screen, like on mobile devices, with multiple authentication methods.
  • Windows Defender now includes anti-virus protection (from Microsoft Security Essentials).
  • It has parental controls built in.

Should you upgrade?

Windows 8 is a hybrid between an OS designed for keyboard and mouse use and one designed for a touchscreen. You’re constantly bouncing backwards and forwards between the two very dissimilar interfaces, and neither works well with the other’s mode of control. Controlling apps with a keyboard and mouse is a little cumbersome; controlling desktop apps with a touchscreen is often tricky. 

We expect the appeal of Windows 8 will be for new devices primarily designed for touchscreen use, such as tablets and the new generation of touchscreen PCs and laptops. If you’re currently using a Windows 7 computer and are not a great fan of touch navigation, you probably won’t get much out of an upgrade to this latest version. 

But if you're looking for more consistency between your touchscreen Windows PC, tablet and smartphone, you might want to give in to the inevitable and to follow Microsoft's lead into a Windows 8 future.

For more information about office equipment, see Home office.

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