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Operating systems software Reviews
15,597 Reviews

Microsoft Windows 8 review

From £25 inc VAT

Manufacturer: Microsoft

Our Rating: We rate this 4.5 out of 5

Windows 8 represents the biggest change to Microsoft’s operating system since the launch of Windows 95. Here’s our Windows 8 review. It’s the only Windows 8 review you are going to need.

Read on as we continue our Windows 8 review with a look at the desktop interface, as well as security in Windows 8, and how user accounts work.

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.

Windows 8 Photo 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 Task Manager

Windows 8: Dual monitors

Devices CharmWindows 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.

NEXT PAGE: which version of Windows 8 should you buy? Plus Windows 8 pricing and our verdict >>

Microsoft Windows 8 Expert Verdict »
Microsoft Windows 8 Pro (Upgrade from Windows 7, XP, Vista) Scores 7.2 out of 10 based on 219 reviews
Any PC that can run Windows 7
Some Arm-based tablets
  • Overall: We give this item 9 of 10 overall

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.

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