With Windows 8, Microsoft has taken a radical departure from its previous desktop OS mould. Windows is no longer solely a 'desktop' OS, but one that's also optimised for tablets, with fingertip-based input.
The main interface is the new 'Metro' workspace, which borrows heavily from Windows Phone 7 with large tiles that contain information updated in real time. Metro is optimised for touchscreens, but you can still operate it using a mouse. For pure keyboard-and-mouse-driven input, though, the 'Classic' desktop is tucked away and accessible via what used to be the Start button. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.)
More than 10,000 changes are reported to have been made since the first public demo of Windows 8 in September 2011. At press time, Microsoft is offering consumers the chance to preview and try out the new features for free.
The process for installing the full version will be the same, in essence – but you'll have to be sure before you make the shift. We advise against overwriting your existing system. If you do that and decide the OS isn't for you, you'll need to reinstall your previous OS from a recovery DVD and will lose all your installed programs, settings, documents, photos, video and music. You might prefer to install the Consumer Preview on a separate drive partition or a second hard disk, or run it as a virtual PC within Windows 7. See also: Install Windows 8 Release Preview.
(Note that once the final version of Windows 8 is released the Consumer Preview will end. You will either need to buy a licence for the new OS, reinstall your previous copy of Windows or delete the partition.) See also: How to upgrade to Windows 8.
Windows 8 downloads:
How to install Windows 8
1 Browse to microsoft.com and click the link to its Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Click the 'Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview' button to download the 5MB file, then allow it to run. The program will probe your machine and determine whether your hard- and software are compatible.
2 Return to the Consumer Preview area of Microsoft's website and click the 'ISO format' link below the 'Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview' button. Most people will be able to run the 64bit version and should do so, but anyone wanting to run 32bit programs can plump for 32bit.
3 Next, you need somewhere to install the Consumer Preview. If you don't have a spare hard disk, create a partition of at least 4GB for a dual-boot system. In Windows XP, Vista or 7, go to Start, Control Panel and choose Disk Management to check how much free space is available.
4 Right-click the drive you want to partition, then choose Shrink volume and Windows will determine how much unallocated space is available. Right-click on the free space and choose 'Create new simple volume'. Next, follow the setup wizard's prompts to create a new partition.
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5 Burn to a DVD the ISO image you downloaded in Step 2. If you're running Windows 7, you simply need to double-click the file to launch the Windows Disc Image Burner tool. If you're running Windows Vista or XP, we recommend downloading the free CDBurnerXP.
6 Reboot your PC, leaving the DVD in the drive (or insert it into the drive of the computer you want to install the OS on). If your PC doesn't boot from the disc, reboot again and enter the BIOS. Look for a 'boot priority' menu and make the CD/DVD drive the first boot device.
7 Next, follow the instructions and enter the product key when prompted – it's DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J for the Consumer Preview. Click Install Now to proceed. Choose Custom install, then select the new partition you created or you will overwrite your existing installation.
8 During the installation process your computer will reboot itself several times. Eventually, the machine will boot into Windows' new Metro user interface, pictured above. For a guide on navigating this new and unfamiliar desktop, see Windows 8: the complete guide.