The latest incarnation of Microsoft’s flagship product aims to standardize the desk and mobile experience. Scheduled to hit retail shelves in October, Windows 8 has been available to IT professionals since August. I installed it on my home PC a few weeks ago and overall, have been pleased with the results.
I use the Office suite plus other tools on my home computer for social media and browsing, multimedia organization, and working from home. It’s a five-year-old Dell laptop but I upgraded to a $100 solid state hard drive (SSD) before making the leap. The result was stunning. With Windows 8, this old notebook runs faster than ever, completing the entire startup/login process in 15 seconds. Photoshop starts in about five. Compatibility also exceeded my expectations: Windows 8 detected all my laptop’s components without extra drivers. I was also able to reinstall and use familiar programs without any special considerations.
Win 8 has a new look and feel, unofficially called “Modern” (formerly Metro UI), which received some backlash from pundits. The prevailing criticism is that the interface is optimized for the touchscreen (tablet, phone) and does not translate well to the keyboard/video/mouse input-output used on the majority of computers. On this point, I agree. However, the new interface is mostly optional. Maybe the reviewers are irked by the fact that upon logging in, the Modern UI is always shown—but I was satisfied that one click returned me to the “desktop” interface I have 17 years of efficiency with.
Besides login, the only other part of my workflow forced to the new interface is the start menu. That’s because it no longer exists as a vertical, scrolling list. Its replacement is the start screen with a horizontally scrollable tile format. This allows for visual grouping and larger, active icons. For example, the weather icon itself is a snapshot of current conditions; the news icon reveals the top headline of the day, even without clicking. This approach works well on a small touchscreen (or even on a large screen, assuming you’re across the room on a couch). But for productivity’s sake, I’ll continue to launch my most-used apps by pinning them to the taskbar along the bottom of my desktop—a function familiar to most Windows 7 users.
One forward-thinking feature of the Modern interface is the seamless integration with Microsoft’s Live suite of online facilities, including the service formerly known as Hotmail. Together with contacts, calendar, Xbox Live, and its SkyDrive file-storage platform, Microsoft equips Windows 8 with competition for Apple’s iCloud.
Despite Microsoft’s preference of the right-angled, brightly colored Modern, the trusty desktop enjoys specific improvements with this release:
- Rounded edges and transparency have been removed, as Microsoft deemed these visual effects (Aero Glass in Windows 7) “dated and cheesy.”
- While the traditional my computer/Windows Explorer drag’n’drop interface still exists, it no longer uses drop-down menus. Instead it has “ribbons,” which provide grouping and visual representation of tasks in a format that’s similar to Office 2007 and newer.
- In a multimonitor configuration, the taskbar runs across all screens, so the secondary monitor’s taskbar collects icons to show the apps running on it.
- When you copy a file to a network share (or anywhere), the file copy progress window will show a graph of the actual transfer rate, indication of the average speed, and reliable estimated time to completion. Copying multiple files will stack jobs, allowing the user to prioritize or even pause transfers.
- Task manager has been improved to easily identify programs slowing down your computer. It keeps a long-term history of each program’s memory and network usage. This would be useful for folks who have a broadband Internet cap and want to know how many GB of HD content they’ve streamed. It also tracks how long programs take to start up—heaven forbid you install something that undermines Windows 8’s extreme speed—but if you do, task manager will help you get things back in check.
- Windows 8 supports Microsoft’s virtualization platform, Hyper-V. This means that it’s easy to run a computer within a computer, a great benefit for IT pros who want a sandbox for testing products.
Windows 7 will be officially supported (regularly receiving security updates) until 2015. All else being equal, Win 7 could remain to completely serve the needs of home and business users. Folks who want to be on the cutting edge can make the jump sooner; Windows 8’s upgrade pricing is very attractive. But with Microsoft Surface tablet, Windows Phone 8, and touch-enabled Ultrabooks around the corner, a cross-device interface for the PC could soon become a reality.