It’s not often we get excited about a new version of Windows, but Windows 8 is a real departure. It's the first desktop operating system Microsoft has created with touchscreen input as the focus. It's true that previous versions of Windows supported touch input, but these were intended for use with a stylus, not fingertips.
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We tested out some of the powerful but ungainly convertible laptops and 'slate' PCs that ran Windows XP Tablet Edition and - latterly - Windows 7, but their use was limited to vertical markets such as engineers and medical establishments. For everyday business or home use, their clunkiness and expense were compromises too far.
Windows 8 is different. It's designed to work on tablets, laptops and PCs and essentially has two interfaces. The main interface, and the one you see first, is the new 'Metro' interface. Its large icons are optimised for touchscreens, but you can still control it with a mouse. The Classic desktop is hidden away and no longer has a Start menu. It's there so you can run programs written for older versions of Windows. Again, this can be controlled by touch, but it's best to revert to a keyboard and mouse for most tasks.
The initial public demonstration of Windows 8 back in September 2011 allowed Microsoft to stress-test the OS and to make important changes based on developer feedback. More than 100,000 changes were made, we’re told.
Windows 8 is now almost ready for its commercial launch. In preparation, Microsoft is offering anyone who wishes to, the chance to preview it and try out its features for the next few months. Known as the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, the trial operating system is best experienced as a secondary OS.
We strongly advise you against overwriting your existing version of Windows as you’ll be stuck if you decide Windows 8 isn’t for you or has compatibility issues with programs you run. We say this because you won't be able to use any system restore options that your computer may offer. Your only option will be to reinstall the original operating system from a recovery DVD, but this will remove all programs, settings and documents that you've put on your computer.
Instead, we suggest you install Windows 8 Consumer Preview to a separate hard drive or a separate partition on your existing hard drive. Alternatively, it's possible to run it within Windows 7 as a 'virtual PC'. This can also be done on non-Windows computers: we successfully installed and ran it on a MacBook Pro using Parallels. If you want to give it a try on a Windows machine, download and install Microsoft's free Virtual PC.
You’ll need to buy a full copy when Microsoft eventually releases Windows 8 as the Consumer Preview will stop working when that happens.
Installing Windows 8 Consumer Preview
1. Browse to Microsoft's website (www.microsoft.com) and click on the Consumer Preview link. Click the 'Download Windows 8 Consumer Preview' button. A 5MB file is downloaded which you need to run. The Setup program will analyse your computer and tell you if your computer and programs are compatible.
2. Return to the same page on Microsoft's website and click on the 'ISO format' link below the big blue button. Choose the 32bit or 64bit version depending on your requirements. Most people should opt for 64bit, but choose 32bit if you want to be able to run old 32bit programs or don't have a 64bit processor.
3. Next, you need somewhere to install Windows 8 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 you’ve got.
4. Right-click on the drive you want to partition. Windows will determine how much unallocated space is available. If there’s very little, you could shrink the current partition, but space can be freed up using Disk Cleanup. We gained a further 1.5GB of drive space using this tool. Choose Create new simple volume.
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5. Follow the wizard’s prompts. You can choose between FAT and NTFS drive types. Stick with the latter and click Next to proceed. Either accept the default drive name or type in your own. You’ll need to allow the drive to be formatted too.
6. Burn the ISO image you downloaded in step 2 to a DVD. If you're running Windows 7, it's simply a case of double-clicking on it to launch the Windows Disc Image Burner tool. If you have Vista or XP, we recommend CDBurnerXP from cdburnerxp.de.
7. Reboot your PC and leave the DVD in the drive (or insert it into the drive of the computer onto which you want to install Windows 8). If your computer doesn't boot from the disc, reboot again and enter the Bios. Look for a 'boot priority' menu and put the CD/DVD drive at the top of the list.
8. When the PC has booted from the DVD, follow the instructions and enter the product key DNJXJ-7XBW8-2378T-X22TX-BKG7J when prompted. Click Install Now to proceed. Don't choose Upgrade installation but click Custom install. Make sure you choose the new partition you created, so you don't overwrite your existing Windows setup.
9. The installation process will reboot your PC several times and will eventually boot into the new Metro user interface with its colourful tiles. For a guide on navigating around this new and unfamiliar desktop, see our complete guide to Windows 8.