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Windows 8: Nine unanswered questions about the new OS

Here's what we still don't know as the launch of Windows 8 approaches.

Despite the looming October 26 launch date of Windows 8, a handful of questions about Microsoft's next operating system remain. Some are big, some are small, but all should be relevant to hard-core PC users who have decided to take the Windows 8 plunge, as well as to people who plan to buy new Windows 8 hardware.

Here we'll do our best to explain nine mysteries, as well as to provide context on why you should care.

How will users sync their media with phones, including Windows Phone devices?

Until now, Windows Phone users have relied on a Zune desktop app to sync their media files from a PC to the phone. With Windows 8, the Zune brand will disappear, and we haven't yet received official word on what will replace it.

The Verge has posted a leaked screenshot of a Windows Phone companion app, but that provides only a glimpse at how syncing might work. In addition, it doesn't answer the question of whether a desktop sync application will remain available.

On a related note, we don't know whether Apple will release a version of iTunes for the Windows Store. It seems unlikely, but that would be the only way for Windows RT users to sync their content to an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. Will Apple ignore these users because they dared to choose an RT tablet over an iPad? Only time will tell.

What are the details on Xbox Music?

Although Microsoft announced Xbox Music in June, details remain murky. The service is expected to be a competitor to Pandora and Spotify, with free radio-style streaming and subscription-based music on demand, but the official word is to wait and see about specifics on pricing and packaging.

The biggest remaining question about the service is whether it will be an answer to Apple's iTunes in the Cloud, which acts as an online repository for all the music you already own. Whether Xbox Music will have a similar music-locker element is unclear. We expect answers soon, but as of press time Xbox Music remains quite mysterious.

What are the specifics on SmartGlass?

SmartGlass is a companion app for Windows 8 tabletsand eventually other mobile devicesthat lets users control and send content to the Xbox 360. It can also show additional content on the small screen while a video is playing on the television.

That sounds great, except we don't know exactly how content selection will work for third-party apps, such as Netflix. We're also uncertain about how many apps will offer second-screen content for SmartGlass. To date, Microsoft has demonstrated HBO GO and shown concepts of what Halo 4 on Smartglass might look like, but the company has released little hard information.

Will other Microsoft apps, such as Paint and Movie Maker, go modern?

Microsoft will preload Windows 8 with several of its own tablet-optimized apps, such as Bing, Sports, Finance, and Weather. Even Solitaire received a makeover for the new touch interface in Windows 8.

Still, some apps, including Paint and Movie Maker, haven't crossed over from the desktop. This is somewhat surprising, considering that Apple's content-creation apps, such as iPhoto and iMovie, have become big selling points for the iPad.

Will Microsoft port its own apps, or will it rely on third parties to fill in the gaps? That's a critical question, considering that the Windows Store, Microsoft's app portal, is woefully understocked. If Microsoft really wants consumers to take its app ecosystem seriously, it should ensure that all of its key, legacy desktop software products come in modern-style touch versions too.

What's the future for version upgrades?

By fusing tablet and desktop into a single operating system, Microsoft has created a dilemma for future upgrades: Will they be free, as they are on iOS and Android, or paid, as they have been with past versions of Windows and with Apple's OS X? And for that matter, how often will Microsoft deliver upgrades with new features, rather than simple bug fixes?

The pace of software innovation has sped up in recent years, so Microsoft's tradition of issuing three-year upgrades for Windows may no longer suffice. Is this the last of the showstopping updates for Windows, as Microsoft moves toward yearly iterations? The answer has important ramifications for anyone considering the upgrade-or-wait question with respect to Windows 8.

What will Windows 8 cost in six months?

Until January 31, upgrades to Windows 8 Professional will cost $40 for users of Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7. After that, Microsoft hasn't said what the price of Windows 8 upgrades will be. Will users have to pay for a full retail copy, rumored to cost $100 and up, or will a cheaper upgrade option remain available?

How much will Surface cost? And what are its display resolution and battery life?

Four months ago, Microsoft shocked the tech world by announcing its own Windows tablets, known as Surface. These tablets are unlike anything other manufacturers have shown so far, with integrated kickstands and magnetized screen covers that double as ultrathin keyboards.

Since the announcement, however, Microsoft has been less than forthcoming about some key Surface details, such as exact pricing, display resolution, and what type of battery life to expect.

On the pricing front, the company did say that the Windows RT version of Surface would have a price comparable to that of other tablets, while the Windows 8 Pro version would cost about the same as Ultrabooks. So that's the official word. As far as the unofficial word, at least one estimate for the full bill-of-materials cost suggests that Surface RT's actual cost is a little over $300, while Surface Pro could cost as much as $640 to build. From there, you could hazard a guess at the final retail pricing, but no one knows how much margin Microsoft wants to make on its first in-house tablet adventure.

Adding to the mystery is a rumor, reported by Engadget, that Microsoft will sell the Surface RT for just $200. Microsoft may reach that price by bundling a subscription service, such as the new Office software, as a subsidy. And as far as display specs go, Microsoft has said that the RT version will have an "HD display," while the Pro version will have a "full HD display"but those labels are just marketing terms that don't correlate to standard resolution specs. Conventional wisdom suggests that the RT version will be 1366 by 768 pixels, and that the Pro version will be 1920 by 1080, but who really knows?

The RT version of Surface is slated to launch on October 26, right alongside Windows 8, so these mysteries can't last forever. Still, Surface is a highly anticipated product, and the sooner Microsoft can answer questions, the less anxious we tech enthusiasts will be.

How will Microsoft explain the difference between Windows 8 and RT to consumers?

Techies who have followed the development of Windows 8 and Windows RT know the difference by now. The former will run on x86-based processors and will support legacy software, while the latter will run on ARM-based chips, which won't support legacy software but are likely to foster cheaper, slimmer, and lighter devices.

The challenge for Microsoft's marketing team will be to communicate this difference clearly to the average consumer, who doesn't care about processor architecture and just wants everything to work. At the moment, it's unclear how Microsoft will define Windows 8 versus Windows RT for the layperson.

How many apps will be available at or around launch?

As of October 10, Microsoft's U.S. Windows Store contained about 2400 apps. That's certainly short of the five-digit goal that Microsoft has reportedly set for itself, and we don't know whether the situation will change by the time Windows 8 ships. Only time will tell whether Microsoft can get developers on board with the Windows Store and persuade them not to merely stick with the desktop.

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