Microsoft Windows 8 review
Microsoft has finally released its game-changing operating system, Windows 8. This is the biggest change to the Windows OS since the launch of Windows 95. We've already spent a lot of time using Windows 8, so keep reading to find out what we think of Microsoft's latest operating system in this Windows 8 review - it's the only Windows 8 review you need.
Windows 8 launched on the 26th October and, as usual with Microsoft operating systems - apart from a few exceptions - will be the operating system on all new PCs and laptops. It's also available on tablets, starting with Microsoft's own Surface and, Windows Phone 8 is now available smartphones. In this Windows 8 review we cover everything except Windows Phone 8, which isn't yet available to test.
Windows 8: All change please
You're probably familiar with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 since you use at least one or more of them on a daily basis. Although improvements have been made over the years, they're fundamentally the same as Windows 95. It doesn't take too much effort to switch between any of these versions, even though options have moved around a little.
With Windows 8, things change radically. The desktop, as you know it, is relegated to the side-lines to make way for the new so-called Modern UI (User Interface). This interface is designed to be used with touchscreens as well as with a mouse and keyboard, and requires programs to be written specially for it.
These Windows apps are downloaded via the new Windows Store, or from app developers' websites. The Windows Store is similar to Apple's App Store and Google's Play store. As of the October 26 launch date, there will be relatively few apps there, but the number will grow quickly as more and more people begin using Windows 8. Currently, many are free, and a small number cost a couple of pounds. Again, this is likely to change, so don't expect programs which cost, say £100 now, to be any cheaper when the Windows 8 app is released. See also: Best Windows apps: Windows 8 app group test.
You can still run programs written for older versions of Windows, but this is possible only on PCs and laptops: Windows 8 tablets (at least those which have ARM processors and run Windows 8 RT) won't have the traditional Windows desktop at all.
Windows 8: Upgrading
You don't have a buy a new laptop or PC to get Windows 8, of course. Windows XP, Vista and 7 can be upgraded to Windows 8, although there's a limit to how much you can bring with you.
If your computer runs XP with Service Pack 3, you can transfer your files. Vista users can bring files and settings, while Windows 7 owners can keep programs, settings and files. Any incompatible programs have to be uninstalled before the upgrade, but Windows 8's installer will tell you what action needs to be taken. For a step-by-step guide to the upgrade process, including how to register for the Windows 8 Upgrade Offer, see: How to upgrade to Windows 8.
Windows 8 vs Windows RT
Windows RT, in case you're confused (and we'd understand if you are), is the version of Windows which runs on tablets. It looks the same, and uses the same gestures, but there are some subtle differences.
One is that you can't buy Windows 8 RT, in the same way you can't buy Apple's iOS operating system for the iPad. It comes with the tablet when you buy it.
Windows 8 RT will run apps downloaded via the Windows Store, just like Windows 8. However, RT comes with Microsoft Office pre-installed; Windows 8 doesn't.
Windows RT doesn't have the traditional Windows desktop, and can't run legacy programs, but Windows 8 can. RT also lacks some of the other features of Windows 8 Pro: there's no Windows Media Player, or BitLocker encryption, no domain support and, although there's Remote Desktop, it works only as a client, so you can't remotely connect to a Windows 8 RT tablet. The basic version of Windows 8 also lacks these features: for more see Which version should I choose? later on.
What you will find is the same Internet Explorer 10, Office 2013, Mail, Calendar, Maps, Photos, Music, Videos, Weather, People, News, Travel, Finance and SkyDrive apps. There's also Windows Defender, Exchange ActiveSync and VPN support.
Microsoft has confirmed that IE10 on Windows 8 RT will support Flash, which is used on many websites and for a lot of internet video. Flash is also supported, as you'd expect, in the desktop version of Windows 8.
Windows 8: Modern UI Interface
Windows 8 Lock screen
In Windows 8 your computer boots straight to the lock screen, the same screen you'll see on a Windows 8 RT tablet. You swipe upwards, or click or press a key on your keyboard, to remove it and see the user accounts, as you'd see in previous versions of Windows.
The Lock screen shows the time, date and can also show more detailed information from an app of your choosing, such as Weather or Mail. Many other apps, such as Twitter clients can also show information on the Lock screen.
Windows 8 Start screen
When you've entered your password (there's also the option of a picture password), you're taken to the new Start screen, which Microsoft is now calling the Modern UI (formerly, but no longer, Metro). This is best thought of as a full-screen Start menu, since there's no longer any such menu, even on the traditional desktop.
It's at this point which many people will feel lost, but as with any new interface, it takes only a few minutes to gain your bearings and figure out where things are and how to accomplish tasks.
In fact, the Start screen is well designed and conveys much more information that it first appears. Some of the 'tiles' display live information, so you can see the current weather, for example, without launching the Weather app. Similarly, you can see the latest news headlines, emails and share prices and much more without as much as a single tap or click.
If you'd like things to be arranged differently, just tap (or click) on a tile and drag it to a new position. Everything else will rearrange around it, and some tiles can be shrunk or enlarged, making it easier to find the apps you use most.
As you install apps, new tiles are created, and you can also add tiles as shortcuts to programs already installed, including those that run on the traditional desktop. When there are too many to display on screen, you have to scroll right to see more. Alternatively, you can pinch to zoom out, then scroll and zoom in when you see the tile you want.
Those without a touchscreen can hold Ctrl and roll their mouse wheel to zoom in and out, while laptop owners without a scroll area or gesture support can use the keyboard shortcut, Ctrl, + or Ctrl, -. It's well worth learning the keyboard shortcuts for getting around Windows 8 as this is the only way to be as fast as if you had a touchscreen.
In the zoomed-out view, you can click on a group of tiles to select it and move it to a new position. Right-clicking on it (or dragging down on a touchscreen) gives the option to name it - the name then appears above the group. In the zoomed-in view, you can drag a tile between groups to create a new group.
When using the interface with a standard scroll mouse, the scroll wheel will default to horizontal scrolling until you click on a vertical pane of information, such as a list of emails or on a web page. Then it switches to scrolling vertically. It means you can get around the Modern UI without too much hassle, and without needing to buy any new hardware such as Microsoft's Touch Mouse.
There's no getting away from the fact that, as Microsoft freely admits, touch is a first-class citizen in Windows 8 and it's not as quick or pleasant to use it with a basic mouse and keyboard. Keyboard shortcuts, as we've said, are the next best thing.
Keyboard shortcuts for Windows 8
Windows key + Q: Search. This opens the search charm, set to whichever app you're currently using. You can quickly switch to a files search with Windows+F, or settings with Windows+W.
Windows+C: Open the Charms bar
Windows+H: Share charm
Windows+I: Settings charm
Windows+Z: Displays the app bar. This gives contextual options in each app.
Windows+X: opens the admin menu, which appears where the Start menu used to be.
Windows+D: Shows the traditional desktop. Press again to minimise all desktop windows.
Windows+L: Locks your computer and displays the Lock screen.
Alt+F4: Close current app. Also, you can use your mouse to click at the top of an app and drag it to the bottom of the screen.
Windows 8: Charms bar
The Charms bar is another brand new feature. It appears when you swipe your finger in from the right-hand edge of the screen. Those with a mouse can point the cursor to the top- or bottom-right corner of the screen (these are two of the new 'hot' corners in Windows 8).
From the top, you have Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Search is a replacement for the search box in Windows 7 and Vista, but a more capable version. The Share charm allows you to share things with people, but the options will change depending on which app is running. Extra sharing options will appear when you install apps that can share content, such as Twitter clients.
Start takes you back to the Start screen if you're in another app, or switches to the most recent app if you're on the Start screen.
Click or tap the Devices icon to show relevant connected devices. Printers, speakers, screens and network devices will be shown in a list. You can click on one to change its settings, or use any of its capabilities.
Finally, Settings gives quick access to Wi-Fi settings, volume, screen brightness and notifications options. It also provides a link to the new, streamlined control panel, simply named Settings. Clicking on the Settings charm will also show settings specific to the current app, so you might see common Help and About links for most apps, but an extra Accounts option for Mail, say.
Windows 8: Searching
For a list of all installed apps, swipe up from the bottom, or right-click, to bring up the bottom options bar, then choose All apps. A neat shortcut, if you know what you're looking for, is simply to start typing on the Start screen. This opens the search box, and you can filter results by type: Apps, Settings or Files. You can also apply that search to a particular app (Internet Explorer, for example) by clicking or tapping on it in the search box.
Multiple windows, Modern UI-style
When you tap or click on an app it opens in full-screen mode. Most apps are designed to work this way, but you can drag down from the top, then drag either left or right to resize the app to occupy a small column at either side. Three-quarters of the screen is then left for a second app (or the desktop, if you like). You can flip apps between these two positions by grabbing the black bar which separates the apps and dragging it left or right.
This 'multitasking' feels a lot more limiting than the traditional desktop where you can have many windows open at once, in whichever positions you like. However, it feels like a revelation on a Windows 8 tablet as it's the first time you can see two apps at once.
It's useful in many situations as you can put an app such as Tweetro or Mail in the small column to the left or right and use the rest of the screen for the app you're actually using. This way you can see new tweets or emails appear. The new Windows 8 notifications can also do this job, but they're shown for only a moment.
There are various ways of switching between apps in the Modern UI. The easiest is to use the Windows, Tab shortcut to bring up the new, vertical apps list. This includes the desktop, but to choose a particular app that's running on the desktop, use Alt, Tab instead, then use the cursor keys to pick the app you want.
On a touchscreen, you drag in from the left, then back to bring up the vertical list of apps, just as you get on an Android tablet. With a mouse, you point the cursor at the top or bottom corner at the left side of the screen (the other two 'hot' corners), then drag down or up to see the list.
Windows: Modern UI apps
Windows 8 comes with quite a few apps in three broad categories: media, social and search. Most feel like proper, finished apps compared with the preview versions we saw a few months ago. However, there's clear room for improvement in areas, and Microsoft is already providing regular updates.
Windows 8: Media apps
Unlike the preview versions of Windows 8, the media apps are no longer just bare bones showing what each app would eventually look like. However, they feel more like a shop front than a place to browse and play your own music and videos, not least because they're now Xbox branded.
The Music, Video and Games apps are essentially the same app, albeit with different content. In Music and Video, your own local content is 'hidden' off-screen to the left, and the apps default to a selection of new or popular songs and videos in the Xbox store. You can preview music tracks, but there are currently no trailers for most video content.
For £9 per month - £1 less than Spotify premium - you can subscribe to Xbox Music Pass (formerly Zune Music Pass) which lets you stream an unlimited number of tracks to play on your computer, Windows Phone or Xbox.
The Photos app is largely unchanged from the beta versions, and lets you view your local photos along with pictures from online services including SkyDrive, Facebook, Flickr, and other computers with SkyDrive installed.
You can set one of your photos to be the app background and the app's tile in the Start screen. The slide show button on the main page plays random photos from all connected services but you can click on one to display only local photos, for example.
The semantic zoom works in the Photos app, so just as with the Start screen you can zoom out to see smaller thumbnails or folders, making it faster to browse a large library. You can also pinch to zoom in on a thumbnail to view the photo full screen, then pinch to flip back to thumbnail view.
It's possible to import images from a USB device or memory card from within the app, and share photos via any installed app which supports photo sharing.
Videos you've uploaded to Facebook can also be viewed via the Photos app, not the Videos app. Strangely, there are no options to connect to online video services in the Videos app, such as YouTube or Vimeo.
Windows 8: Social apps
These include Mail, Calendar, Messaging and People, although Photos could arguably be a 'social' app as, like the others, it aggregates information from several services. Fire up any of these apps for the first time and you'll be prompted to sign in to services you already have a login for, including Google, Gmail, Hotmail, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and others.
With these connected, the apps quickly fill up with contact information, emails, calendar appointments and updates. There's inevitably a bit of crossover between apps – particularly People and Messaging.
In Messaging, you can add Windows Live Messenger and Facebook accounts, but when you create a new message, the People app opens so you can see who's online and choose someone. There's no list view of online contacts as you get when using Live Messenger or Facebook themselves. Plus, unlike in Live Messenger, you can send only text, not photos or files. There's no support for video or voice chats, either. Currently, the Messaging app doesn't work with any other IM clients, but that's sure to change in the future.
The People app feels more finished. You can link to Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail and Outlook accounts. Adding them all brings in rather a lot of contacts, and to remove a linked account, you have to revoke access via the web interface, which is a hassle.
As you'd expect, contacts are automatically merged from the various services, so you don't see duplicates. At the left-hand side are favourite contacts and a Social column which has links to notifications and 'What's new' which aggregates posts from your contacts via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and any other connected services.
One problem, which we're sure Microsoft will fix, is that the People app doesn't feature in the list of apps which can show notifications, so you have to open the app to see them. Notifications from other apps appear as a pop-up window at the top-right corner of your display.
Mail is a good example of what can be done with a Modern UI-style app. It's split into three columns with folders on the left (Inbox, Sent, Trash etc), the list of emails in the middle, and the contents of a specific email on the right. At the bottom of the left-hand column are the names of the accounts you've set up, so it's just a case of clicking on an account name to switch to it.
Beyond this, there's not much of substance. There's no way to sort emails except chronologically, and no way to flag or mark emails. Conversations aren't shown in threads, either, so most people would be better off sticking with their webmail client for anything more complex than quickly sending or replying to an email.
One useful feature is the ability to pin a folder (such as your inbox) to the Start screen. This way you can create shortcuts to each email account and jump straight to an account from the Start screen.
The Calendar app merges all your connected accounts to display all your appointments together. Feeds are colour-coded and you can turn them on or off as you like, as well as flipping between one day, two day, weekly or monthly views.
The SkyDrive app provides a simple way to view your online files, open them for editing or download to your local hard disk. The app bar, visible when you swipe up from the bottom (or right-click) adds options to create a new folder, upload files or delete them.
WIndows 8: Search apps
Microsoft has given Bing a noticeable presence in Windows 8. It's naturally the default search engine in IE10, but there's also a Bing app, plus Maps, Travel, Sport, News, Bing Weather and Bing Finance.
The Bing app is unlikely to get used much as it's almost a direct duplication of searching in IE10, but with a fancy-looking interface. Maps is a slick but basic version of Bing maps online, but it's great on a big screen for exploring areas. It lacks the great 45-degree Bird's Eye photography from the website, though.
The Travel app delivers more eye candy, offering information and photos on a wide selection of popular destinations around the globe. It's hardly comprehensive, but does provide some nice panoramic photos and the ability to search for flights and hotels.
Sport, in the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 was a rather US-centric affair, but it's now UK-friendly and brings the same horizontal Modern UI style to football, cricket, golf and F1 fans. Swipe downwards from the top of the screen and you can pick a sport. In certain sports, football for example, you can pick a specific team to follow. The feed with then bring you news, results and photos for that team.
News is a basic-looking app, but you can create your own news feed by adding sections on subjects in which you're interested. Rather than limiting you with a few categories the app lets you type in your search term and gives you stories with those keywords. There are plenty of popular news sources to choose from.
Finally, there's Finance, which lets you keep track of stocks and shares via a configurable watchlist, and get your fix of finance-related news. Another section provides up-to-the-minute exchange rates.
Windows 8: Internet Explorer 10
IE10 is unrecognisable from IE9 in Windows 7. The default view is for a website to appear full screen, with the address bar and tab thumbnails only appearing when you right-click or swipe in from the top or bottom edges.
It means you get to see much more of a web page than before, but we're not sure why Microsoft has moved the combined search / address bar to the bottom of the screen. It seems an unnecessary change as everyone is used to it being at the top, and the tabs could just have easily appeared at the bottom instead.
IE10 keeps the odd Flip Ahead feature from IE9, which tries to predict which link you'll click on and displays an arrow to click on to go to that page.
Windows 8: Performance
Aside from some foibles, we like the full-screen mode and the fact that pages load noticeably quicker than in any Windows 7 browser. In fact, Windows 8 in general is a fast OS compared to Windows 7 on the same hardware. The whole interface is responsive, apps load quickly and, crucially, it's much fast to boot up and shut down.
On an old Sony Vaio with a Core 2 Duo processor and 3GB of RAM, Windows 8 boots in only 21 seconds, and shuts down in 20. That's a vast improvement on a relatively recent and uncluttered install of Windows 7 which took 56 and 43 seconds respectively.
Windows 8: Desktop interface
All Windows 8 devices apart from tablets with ARM processors have the traditional Windows desktop. By default, it's the tile in the bottom-left corner of the Start screen.
It will provide instant relief after the trauma of the Modern UI to start with, although the absence of the old Start menu is likely to cause some panic. However, once you've trained yourself to launch programs from the new Start screen, it's less of an issue. You can also launch applications from shortcuts on the desktop, and these appear when you install most programs.
It's slightly confusing that the new Windows 8 interface works on the desktop too, so you can invoke the Charms bar, or the running apps list from the hot corners. This is to ensure a consistent look and feel throughout Windows 8, rather than making the desktop a separate part of the OS. Now, it's easier to think of it as another app, but one in which you can run legacy Windows programs.
Point your mouse where the Start menu used to be and you'll get a thumbnail of the new Start screen. Similarly, tap the Windows button on your keyboard, and you'll be taken to the Start screen.
Right-click at the bottom-left corner (or press Windows, X) and an admin menu appears, providing quick access to many of the tools you might have used the Start menu for: File Explorer, Run, Task Manager, Control Panel, Command Prompt and more. When using Windows 8 on a laptop, there's the extra option of Mobility Center (which used to be called up using Windows, X), providing screen brightness and power options.
Another way to access settings is to call up the Charms bar from the desktop, choose Settings and there are shortcuts to the Control Panel, Personalisation and PC Info.
One change you'll notice sooner or later is that Aero has gone. No more are the transparent frames around Windows – only the taskbar retains some transparency. Everything is simplified, with square corners to windows and tabs, and a lack of shadows which makes buttons and tabs look flat. There are a few inconsistencies, though, such as the Vista-style buttons on the image previewer.
The Ribbon interface which arrived in Office 2007 has now been adopted by File Explorer, although it's hidden by default. You'll see the traditional File, View and other menu names, but clicking on one displays the Ribbon instead of a vertical menu.
The Ribbon is context sensitive, so you'll see options appropriate to the types of files you're viewing. Click on the Pictures folder, for instance, and two new tabs appear: Library Tools and Picture Tools. The former is shown whenever you're looking at a folder which is part of a library (Windows 7 introduced libraries as a way of grouping folders of similar files).
Picture Tools offers buttons for rotating images, playing a slide show, setting the currently selected image as your desktop background and a Play To menu, which lets you view the selected image on a mobile device.
In other ways, the desktop is identical to Windows 7's. Applications still have jump menus, where you right-click on the taskbar icon to see recent files, and can pin files you regularly open.
Both the file copying dialog and Task Manager have been revamped, though, with the former showing a graph of transfer speed, and the latter defaulting to a basic list of applicaions. However, a more detailed Processes view shows much more clearly than before how system resources are being used, and the list is divided into Apps, Background Processess and Windows Processes. There's also a new App history tab which charts cumulative CPU time, Network and Metered network use, plus network use for Tile updates.
Windows 8: Dual monitors
Windows 8 supports multiple monitors, just as Windows 7 does. There are differences, though. Although the clock and notification area appears only on your main monitor, programs which are pinned to the taskbar are shown on each monitor. This duplication takes a bit of getting used to, but it's a welcome change.
All monitors have 'hot' corners, which means the Charms bar also appears on both monitors, but it can be tricky to open the bar on the left-hand display when you're running an extended desktop. There are tiny six-pixel-high traps to stop the cursor simply moving across to the right-hand monitor, but you need to have the pointer hard against the top or bottom of the screen for it to be caught by them.
You can configure multiple displays by right-clicking on the desktop and choosing Screen resolution as in Windows 7, but there's also the option of clicking the Devices charm and tapping (or clicking) on the Second screen device to see options for duplicating or extending the desktop.
Despite what you might imagine, the new Start screen and Modern UI apps use only one screen. The Start screen, for example doesn't stretch across two monitors - the second one permanently displays the traditional desktop.
Windows 8: Switching between desktop and tablet
One of the great features of Windows 8 is Sync your settings. This allows you to log in to another PC, laptop or tablet running Windows 8 and it will look and behave just like your own machine.
This isn't strictly true, of course. Move from a full HD PC monitor to a tablet, for example, and the Start screen tiles will be in a different order. Oddly, tiles don't even retain their size, so it's not possible to locate an app by memorising its position.
You'll find Sync your settings, unsurprisingly, in Windows 8's Settings. Here you can choose what is synched, from the Start screen background to passwords, app settings, browser history and more. It's possible to sync passwords only when you click the 'Trust this PC' link, and then click the link in the confirmation email.
Apps themselves aren't synched, so even if the PC or tablet has the app installed in another user's account, it won't appear on your Start screen until you install it from the Windows Store. When you install an app, you've used elsewhere, your settings for it will be loaded.
You're allowed to install apps you've purchased on up to five computers, and you can log into the Store from five different computers.
Windows 8: Security and user accounts
Since Windows 8 connects to so many online accounts, it's important that you use a strong password for your user account. In addition to this, you can create a picture password, where you draw three gestures on a touchscreen or with your mouse.
These can be dots, lines or circles and you can pick your own photo or picture as the background. Setting a picture password means you don't have to enter a complicated password every time you switch your computer on or resume from standby.
Importantly, though, the way Windows 8 works makes it the most secure version of Windows yet. In order to synch passwords between Windows 8 devices, you must go through a two-step authentication process to 'trust' the computer.
Also, only the first account you create on a Windows 8 computer has administrator privileges. Only the administrator account can create new users and install and remove programs. This is a sensible setup in most situations.
We found that some applications could still be installed by a standard user account, such as Google's Chrome web browser, but others such as Skype required the administrator password. Windows 8 uses a new feature, SmartScreen, to help ensure you don't inadvertently install a program from the internet which includes malware.
It does this by checking the programs hash value against a database. If a program looks legitimate but its hash value doesn't match, you'll get a warning. Along with Windows Defender, Microsoft's antivirus app, it should increase your chances of avoiding viruses and other malware including phishing.
Any malware that does manage to get through these defences will have to contend with the fact that Windows 8 has better protection for its core files, and a new memory management system that's harder to attack. Modern UI apps are sandboxed, too, which means they're isolated from other apps. They also have fewer privileges, only getting access to your files and location, for example, when you grant permission.
There are many other security features, too. Windows 8 is the first OS to use the secure boot feature on motherboards with UEFI to prevent rootkits from messing with your computer. It will also take advantage of TPMs (Trusted Platform Modules) which are becoming more common in laptops and PCs. TPMs can be used to verify your computer is trusted when making online transactions, for example.
We complete our in-depth Windows 8 review with a look at the touch interface, and examination of Windows 8 versions and which you should buy, plus our expert verdict on Microsoft's revolutionary operating system.
Windows 8: No touchscreen? Use a touch mouse
Microsoft's Touch Mouse has been available for a while and was designed to make it easier to use Windows 7. It's buttons form a sort of touchpad, and it supports gestures using up to three fingers.
Connect it to a computer running Windows 8 and, along with the latest software, it can be used to show the Charms bar and flip between open apps. Other gestures show the app bars (the equivalent of swiping in from the top or bottom on a touchscreen), and zoom in and out wherever semantic zoom is supported by apps.
All the Windows 7 gestures can be used in Windows 8, too. This means you can scroll and flick both horizontally and vertically to navigate around documents and web pages. You can also manage windows on the desktop, snapping them to the left or right, minimising and maximising them and hiding or showing all running programs.
Since there's no scroll wheel, there's no middle click, but you can assign new gestures to add this feature. It can take a while to get used to swiping instead of rolling a scroll wheel, but once you've mastered all the gestures you'll wonder how you lived without them. Although not cheap at around £70, it's considerably cheaper than buying a touchscreen.
Windows 8: what about Windows Phone?
We were fully expecting that the final version of Windows 8 would have built-in, native support for Windows Phone 7 (and, when it launches, Windows Phone 8) handsets. However, although there's still time before Windows 8 officially launches, there is currently no native support at all. Connect a Windows Phone 7.5 handset such as the Nokia Lumia 800, for example, and the drivers will be installed automatically.
Next, you'll be prompted to download the Zune software, just as you have to do in Windows 7 or earlier. This doesn't run in the Modern interface, so the experience of using Windows Phone 7 in Windows 8 is no different to using it with Windows 7.
Rumours suggest that the Windows Phone companion app will be available in the Windows store when Windows 8 launches on October 26th, and this will run in the new interface and provide the sort of integration you'd expect with the Modern UI apps. We'll have to wait and see, but we'll update this section as and when the app becomes available.
Windows 8: Which version should you buy?
Things are a lot simpler than previous versions of Windows. There are just two versions you might consider for a PC or laptop: Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. Both have the Modern UI interface and the traditional desktop, but their features differ.
Windows 8 is the equivalent of Windows 7 Home Premium, and lacks Windows Media Player. This isn't too much of an issue as the Modern UI apps take up the slack.
What you do get is the ability to connect to another PC using Remote Desktop (but you can't remotely connect to a Windows 8 system), and Storage Spaces to combine several hard disks into a 'Storage Pool' which can have RAID-like redundancy for better file protection. There's built in support for ISO and VHD images too, which means you can 'mount' them as virtual hard drives or optical discs.
Windows 8 also has the option to switch not only the keyboard language, but also the Windows interface as well – handy if you speak more than one language.
Windows 8 Pro
Pro is aimed at business users and enthusiasts, and replaces the Professional and Ultimate verisons of Windows 7. It has all the features in Windows 8, plus some extras.
With Pro you get the ability to connect remotely from another computer, join a domain and encrypt the contents of your disk with BitLocker so someone can't remove your hard drive and access its contents on another computer.
Strangely, Windows Media Player is an optional add-on for Windows 8 Pro, but the pricing hasn't yet been fixed for this.
For most people using a laptop or PC at home, the basic version of Windows 8 will suffice. You're unlikely to miss any of the features in the Pro version, but enthusiasts who regularly use Remote Desktop might want to opt for Pro.
Windows 8: Pricing
If you buy a PC, laptop or tablet running Windows 8, the cost of the OS is included in the price. It's the upgrade price which is important and Microsoft has followed Apple's lead in drastically reducing the price compared to Windows 7.
As long as your computer is running Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7, you can upgrade to Windows 8 for just £25. If you happen to need to buy a new computer right now, you should be able to upgrade for just £15. These prices are unlikely to last for long, though, and everything points to a price increase in January 2013.
The price for Windows 8 Pro hasn't been decided for the UK.
Windows 8: verdict
Use Windows 8 for a few minutes and chances are you'll hate it. It takes a lot longer than this to get used to the Modern UI and the way that most things scroll left and right instead of up and down.
It's easy to dismiss the Windows 8 apps as gimmicks, as many are shallow and lack features. However, we're certain that this will change as the core apps are developed and as third-party apps for well-known brands begin to appear in the Store.
It's also questionable whether the new Modern UI is even necessary or useful on a PC or laptop. You can go for days without ever seeing it as Windows 8 returns to the app you were using when put the computer to sleep. If you were running apps on the desktop, that's what you'll see after typing in your password on the Lock screen.
When you do use the new Start screen, the live tiles can become rather overwhelming as they all flash information at you. Some are arguably pointless, as there's little value in seeing faces from random contacts appear on the People tile, for example.
It's hard to get used to working on the desktop without a Start menu, but the universal search is a great tool for quickly finding apps, files, settings and even searching the web.
In fact, there's a lot to like about Windows 8. It's noticeably faster than Windows 7, yet its hardware requirements are no more demanding – it runs fine even on older machines. Not only does it start up and shut down quicker, but it's also faster at copying files and loading web pages. More than ever before is hardware accelerated, so even something as basic as word processing is slicker and more responsive.
It's also more secure, which is an important benefit these days. Yes, you can install a different security suite if you want to, but there's decent protection out of the box.
As it's more efficient with power, you'll be able to work longer on your laptop between charges.
The fact that it's the first OS that integrates the online services we all use every day means the information you want is easily available without having to open a browser and go to a website. Whether you want to see what people are up to, send someone a message or check your own personalised news feed, it's all built-in.
We understand that Microsoft needs to get the Windows Store on as many devices as possible in order to persuade developers to build apps, but it makes it feel like the Modern UI exists for laptops and PCs just for that reason. That said, Windows has had to modernise in order to avoid being left behind and we can see many people loving the new simplified apps.
Although we're yet to get our hands on a Surface tablet, the fact that it will have Office pre-loaded and a built-in keyboard makes it a more compelling productivity tool than an iPad. The fact that you can have two apps on screen at once also helps.
As we've said, you really need a touchscreen to get the most from Windows 8, but with the right hardware, it's quick and even fun to use with a keyboard and (touch) mouse.
It's important to remember that Windows 8 is effectively a brand new operating system. Yes, it will run your old Windows programs, but as far as Modern UI apps are concerned (and Windows RT tablets), this is just the beginning.
Combining the interface, performance, security and new features, Windows 8 leaves us impressed. For just £25, it's a no-brainer upgrade from Windows XP or Vista, and even for Windows 7 users, it's a worthwhile purchase.
Microsoft Windows 8: Specs
- Any PC that can run Windows 7
- Some Arm-based tablets
- Any PC that can run Windows 7
- Some Arm-based tablets
Combining the interface, performance, security and new features, Windows 8 leaves us impressed. For just £25, it's a no-brainer upgrade from Windows XP or Vista, and even for Windows 7 users, it's a worthwhile purchase.