Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: What's the difference?

Windows 10 has been officially unleashed on the world. For many people, it is a free upgrade. But should you get it? We compare old and new Windows OSes and explain what is the difference between Windows 8 and Windows 10. Here's our Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison review.

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: UK price and availability

Buy a new PC or laptop and it will almost certainly come pre-installed with Windows 10 so the situation is more likely to be whether you should upgrade from Windows 8 (actually Windows 8.1 these days). As an end user you will not know the cost of Windows 8 to your PC's manufacturer, but if you pay for an upgrade or to buy a licence outright you will have to shell out. A standard Windows 8.1 upgrade licence will cost you around £79, a Windows 8.1 Pro licence £189.

Compare that to Windows 10 which is a free upgrade for existing Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and (some) Windows Phone users. At least for the first year, anyway. So if you are a Windows Vista or -XP user, you may want to think about upgrading now.

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: devices

Right now there are three different types of operating system that could reasonably be called 'Windows 8'. Four, if you count 64- and 32-bit versions. Windows 8 itself is x86 software built for use with PCs and laptops, as well as some tablets. Then there is Windows RT, which is for use on other tablets, primarily Microsoft's own Surface and Surface 2. Finally, there is Windows Phone 8 (which explains itself). Windows 10 does away with these divisions.

Microsoft has done away with Windows RT. That's good news in some respects, because RT was undoubtedly the runt of the Windows litter. The bad news is that Surface and Surface 2 owners face a dead-end: there's no upgrade to Windows 10 for them.

This means Microsoft's bold claim that Windows 10 would run on all Windows PCs, laptops, tablets and phones isn't completely true. Plus, only some phones running Windows Phone 8 are updateable to Windows 10 Mobile. After delays, Windows 10 has finally launched as a upgrade for existing Windows Phone 8 users.

See also: Windows 10 launch event as it happened.

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: Start Menu

The return of the Start Menu is a key change to Windows 10 on the desktop. Here's Windows 8's Start Screen:

Windows 8 Start screen

And here's how it looks in Windows 10:

Windows 10 vs Windows 8

Some people are moaning that Microsoft hasn't listed to their pleas to bring back the Windows 7 Start menu as-is, but the Start Menu is improved in such a way that it may make Windows apps useful. The Windows 10 Start Menu includes a list of frequently used apps and shortcuts to PC settings. Here you will also find documents and pictures folders. At the bottom there is an ‘All apps’ shortcut.

And Microsoft has retained the functionality of the Windows 8 Start screen over on the right, with resizable Live Tiles, so that you can immediately check unread mail or Calendar appointments.

The Start Menu is customisable - you can resize it, and rearrange the tabs. The menu can even be run in full-screen mode if you're so inclined. (See also: How to install Windows 10 now.)

Windows 8 vs Windows 10: Universal Apps and Continuum

These are two big and important features of Windows 10, which will make most Windows 8 users want to upgrade.

The first does what it says on the tin and means that a Universal App (incuding things like Outlook and Word) will provide the same experience across any device running the OS - whether it's a PC, laptop, tablet or even a phone. The interface, of course, will simply adjust to the screen you're using, but more importantly your data is synched across all your devices so you can finish something you started somewhere else. 

Continuum is similar but different and is specifically the ability to run a desktop-like PC experience from a Windows 10 Mobile device. You'll typically do this with the Microsoft Display dock, which connects your phone to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. This way you can get a decent amount of productivity from just a smartphone. Not every app will run in Continuum, though, so it does have limitations.

Windows 10 Continuum

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: Cortana

Another key new feature of Windows 10 not available in Windows 8 is Cortana – Microsoft’s semantic digital assistant. A kind of super-Siri, which can engage you in conversation. More than simple speech recognition, Cortana constantly scours the web for information to inform its interactions with you. And it learns from your behaviour, contacts and so on, in order to better serve your needs. Cortana on Windows Phone is pretty great. And it improves with use. So the inclusion of Microsoft’s digital assistant is a big boost over Windows 8.

Here's a guide on how Cortana works in Windows 10.

Windows 10 vs Windows 8

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: search improvements

Universal search in Windows 8 is a much-undervalued feature. It's been in Windows since Vista, but came to maturity in Windows 8. Searching to load up apps and files is much more efficient than navigating via apps and file systems. And because Cortana is woven into Windows and search, the new search box next to the Start button is extremely useful indeed.

As well as typing you can talk to Windows 10. Whether that's searching for something stored locally or something online, it's all done from the same search box. You can type or say the name of a file you want, or ask Cortana to launch Photoshop. You can even 'search' for a weather forecast or an appointment in your calendar.

On top of this, File Explorer has been updated with a Quick Access section which replaces the old Favourites. This automatically displays your recent files and frequently visited folders and makes finding files you've worked on faster and easier. (See also: 10 best new features in Windows 10.)

Windows 10 vs Windows 8

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: Windowed modern apps and Snap Assist

Every app in Windows 10 can be dynamically resized in a window. That includes modern apps, so unlike in Windows 8 - where modern apps can only run full screen or snapped next to one other app - you can run as many as you like simultaneously in Windows 10.

A new Snap Assist feature means up to four apps can be snapped per screen. This has the potential to be a killer productivity app - true multitasking on a single screen without the hassle of manually resizing apps so they fit without wasting any precious pixels.

Windows 10 vs Windows 8

Even better, Snap a document to one side or one quarter of the screen, and Snap Assist displays other running apps which you can snap to another area on the screen, and this continues until the screen is full. The feature is intended to save you the hassle of Alt-tabbing through all your open apps to arrange a desktop.

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: Task View and virtual desktops

When you click the Task View button, you get a new version of the thumbnails you get in Windows 8 (or 8.1) when you press Alt-Tab.

However, this is yet another useful and visual productivity enhancer: Task View allows you to create a kind of multi-monitor setup within a single monitor. It's basically the virtual desktops which Mac users have enjoyed for years.

Windows 10 vs Windows 8

As with previous versions of Windows you can use Alt-Tab to quickly shuffle between windows. When you click the new Task View button there's an Add desktop button in the bottom-right corner. On each desktop you can snap apps or run them in whatever size windows you like. So you could keep your email and web browser on one Desktop that you hide away when you are working on an Excel spreadsheet.

Windows 8 vs Windows 10 comparison: Xbox

Finally Microsoft is attempting to make use of the awesomeness that is Xbox, within the dreary world of Windows. Whereas Windows 8 users can install an Xbox app on to Windows PCs, it really doesn't offer much of the true Xbox experience. In Windows 10 Microsoft aims to change that.

With Xbox on Windows 10, Microsoft is attempting to bring into Windows 10 the best features from Xbox Live and the Xbox console. Windows 10 comes with its own built-in Xbox app, offering a unified view of your games, the activity of your friends, and your own gaming activities. Windows 10 also bakes in Xbox Live, so that the more than 50 million Xbox Live members can connect across multiple devices in new ways.

Plus, you'll be able to stream games from an Xbox One to your Windows 10 tablet (such as the Surface 3 Pro below), laptop or PC: a literal game changer. And a massive improvement over Windows 8. (See also: Windows 10 screenshots.)

Microsoft Surface tablet

. (See also: Windows 10 vs OS X 10.10 Yosemite comparison.)

Windows 10: Specs

  • Windows capable PC and web connection
  • membership of Windows Insider Program
  • Windows capable PC and web connection
  • membership of Windows Insider Program

OUR VERDICT

With Windows 8 being so poorly received (despite being a pretty decent OS underneath) Windows 10 is certainly a step in the right direction. If you're eligible for the free upgrade, there's really no reason not to get it for features like Universal Apps and Continuum. It's a harder decision if you have to pay. For some, it will make more sense to buy a new laptop, PC or tablet with Windows 10 already installed, as machines running XP or Vista are already long in the tooth.

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