It might not be Metro, but it is a little retro. Microsoft's Windows 8 is almost here.
Three years in the making and more than a year in beta testing, Windows 8 was released to manufacturing on Aug. 1 and will become generally available on Oct. 26.
So what does that mean for your company and customers? For a surprising many, it will finally be time to migrate from Windows XP, the operating system introduced in 2001 that unbelievably still runs more than one-third of the world's desktops. On April 8, 2014, Microsoft will end support for Windows XP and force millions to choose between Windows 7 and Windows 8.
So, which one will be best for your organisation? Assuming the target hardware isn't an issue (and for WinXP systems it likely will be), the release versions of Windows 8 no longer depart radically from Windows 7. Microsoft has obviously taken to heart some of the criticisms roundly hurled at it since its first public betas in September of last year.
Microsoft also has repaired many of the migration issues inherent in the beta versions. While testing the new versions, all of our installations and test migrations went smoothly, including one Win7-to-Win8 migration that retained all data, settings and apps.
Interestingly, a new "Refresh your PC" feature offers to replace the operating system without affecting user files, and is accessed right from within Windows. Another will perform a factory reset, and is described to allow people "to recycle your PC or start over completely."
Four versions of Windows 8
Windows RT: With Windows 8, Microsoft has thankfully slimmed down the number of SKUs to four, with only three available to most buyers. The fourth, Windows RT, runs on ARM-based systems and is available only to OEMs for preinstallation onto devices.
Not to be confused with WinRT, a nickname for the Windows Runtime application architecture of Windows 8, Windows RT is sometimes referred to as Windows on ARM, or WOA.
This edition will include touch-optimised versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Office applications as well as Mail, Calendar, and other messaging and productivity apps. Additional apps for devices running Windows RT will be available only through the Windows Store.
At the time of writing, Windows RT does not support domain joining, and will therefore be unsuitable for some organisations. However, Windows RT systems are manageable with Microsoft’s cloud-based Windows Intune management system.
Windows 8 (basic): Of the remaining three editions, the most basic is called simply Windows 8, which itself is bound to cause some "who’s on first"-style confusion. Windows 8 (basic) is targeted at consumers and most people who would otherwise purchase Windows 7 Home editions.
It's available for x86 and x64 desktops, laptops and tablets and includes the Windows 8 Start screen and Desktop environments, basic networking with connected standby, Internet Explorer 10 and support for Live Tiles. The Windows 8 basic edition will have access to the Windows Store, but it's unclear whether it will be able to download and run apps installed from elsewhere.
This edition supports multiple monitors and touch sensitivity, can integrate with a Microsoft account as well as those of social networks and operate only as a Remote Desktop client.
Windows 8 Pro: Intended for enthusiasts and business professionals, the successor to Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate is Windows 8 Pro. On top of all Windows 8 (basic) features, this edition can join a Windows Server Domain and accept Group Policies, operate only as a Remote Desktop client or host, boot from a virtual hard disk, optionally install Windows Media Centre and run Hyper-V (64-bit version only, if supported by the processor), BitLocker drive encryption and Microsoft’s file-level encryption.
Windows 8 delivers MBAM 2.0, an all-new, enterprise-ready version of Microsoft's BitLocker Administration and Monitoring drive encryption solution. Now with enterprise management capabilities, reporting and key management, MBAM 2.0 also includes compliance reporting for individual PCs and complete organisations, easier key provisioning and a self-service portal for key retrieval.
The new version also no longer requires help desk staff to have access to Active Directory for key retrieval, and implements a hard deadline for enforcement of protection policies. It's also now aware of the UEFI boot process and can force-boot a trusted, signed OS to prevent malware from getting in first. MBAM 2.0 is integrated with SCCM 2007 and 2012.
Windows 8 Enterprise: Available to Software Assurance customers, Windows 8 Enterprise adds to Windows 8 Pro the benefits of AppLocker application-level security; BranchCache WAN-connection optimisation; DirectAccess for automatic and secure VPN-enabled connections and Group Policy enforcement; and RemoteFX virtualisation capabilities for VDI deployment.
Windows 8 Enterprise also enables Windows To Go, providing not only the long-awaited ability to boot Windows from USB devices but implement the user's personalised Windows desktop with folder redirection and synchronises all changes.
Windows To Go provides tremendous flexibility to work from different places -- at airports and on airplanes, in coffee shops or hotels -- and from any number of devices. Windows To Go images are fully manageable in System Centre 2012, can be remotely wiped and can take advantage of DirectAccess for application of group policies and security updates.
Not a virtualisation solution, Windows To Go executes a full set of binaries, discovers devices and installs drivers for the host machine. It even remembers those settings to make subsequent boot-times faster but doesn't affect the host system in any way (it doesn't even allow access to the host hard drive).
Windows 8 UI issues
Chief among the complaints about Windows 8 was the extreme departure of its user interface from previous Windows norms. Windows 8 still implements the Start menu as a full screen of application tiles, but the release version is far more responsive to mouse movements in the hot corners.
And it's quick to point these out to users as well, starting at installation and repeating it later with an image. When moving the mouse pointer to a hot corner, Windows 8 quickly brings up the appropriate function.
As we'd expect, inactive features and other loose ends found in the beta versions are all tied up, but there are still a few puzzlements. For example, there are still two partially overlapping control panels: the traditional Control Panel that is accessed from the desktop, and another less powerful Settings panel that is accessed from the Charm bar. We also were disappointed to find the same mediocre networking controls.
There also are a number of important features omitted from all versions of Windows 8. For example, there's no DVD player. Windows Media Player could do that, of course, but no longer includes the codecs to do so. DVD Maker also has been removed. Windows Media Centre is now sold separately as an add-on to Windows 8 Pro, but is limited as to how it can run.
There's also no way to search for all files on a system. The Charm bar's Search function looks only for some files and apps; it can't find Outlook messages or OneNote notes. Along the Start menu, Microsoft removed "Recent Documents" and no longer tracks the most frequently used apps.
Also missing are Windows Desktop Gadgets, the Aero Glass theme and Aero Flip 3D.
We expect desktop users running Windows 8 will tolerate the Start screen for launching apps and spend most of their time in Desktop mode. It's perhaps telling to note that unlike all the betas we tested, the release version of Windows 8 contains only one version of Internet Explorer -- the desktop version.
But Windows 8 is certainly not another Vista. Microsoft's rethinking of Windows offers an adequate UI for tablets, and with changes in the release version, it's no longer so terribly different from Windows 7 as to be unusable.
The best scenario we came across for using Windows 8 in the office was to run it with two monitors, using one monitor for the Start screen and the other for the desktop. That way, live tiles continue to inform us of trending hashtags, incoming messages and upcoming appointments while we remain productive with apps on the desktop.