Although much of Windows 8 was created with mobile devices in mind, the vast majority of users will be installing the OS on traditional PCs and laptops. Think you know your way around Windows on a PC? For the most part, you still do with Windows 8, but a few changes in approach are impossible to avoid.
There’s nowhere else to begin but the Start menu. Many people complained when the Start button was absent from early builds of Windows 8, and despite much hopeful speculation, it has indeed gone for good. Instead, to open applications, find files and access system settings, you now return to the same Metro start screen that’s front and centre on tablets and touch devices.
You needn’t move in wholesale if it isn’t to your liking – pinning applications to the desktop taskbar will be the post-installation priority, and if you set up your environment correctly you can often last a day without having to see Metro.
However, you’ll inevitably find yourself there from time to time, so it’s worth getting to grips with its features.
To launch an unpinned program you tap the Windows key, type a few letters and results begin to appear ready for opening. Annoyingly, however, results are divided into Apps, Settings and Files screens, with Apps set as the default. So even if you type the precise name of a setting, you won’t be able to press Enter to open it without first selecting that option.
The Metro start screen scales reasonably well on large desktop monitors and it’s customisable to a degree, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Metro is an inefficient use of space. Its full-screen approach isn’t at all suitable for screens larger than that of a laptop, and it’s unsurprising that we settled into working routines that avoid entering Metro if possible.
The better news is that the traditional Windows desktop sees plenty of worthy improvements in Windows 8.
The styling is flatter than before, and the translucence of Aero has been largely replaced by colours of your choice to complement the look of the Metro interface. We feared this might be a step backwards, but it isn’t particularly noticeable: everything can be dragged and resized as before, and the combination of the Windows key and cursor keys still snaps windows to the edges of the display.
Explorer windows now have the ribbon interface at the top, but it can be hidden away, to be opened on demand with a click of one of the menu tabs – some of which only appear when relevant file types, such as images, are selected. SkyDrive storage is integrated directly into the file tree, so placing your documents in the cloud to share with other devices is a breeze.
You might think that the file copy and Task Manager dialogs are trivial, but it’s amazing how quickly you come to depend on their new designs. Copying a file now brings up a line graph of the transfer speed that’s updated every second, along with a generally accurate estimate of the remaining copy time. If you then start to copy a second file, its chart is neatly stacked beneath the first in the same window.
Task Manager also now provides much more detail than before, from the live CPU, memory, disk and network usage of every running process, to real-time graphs of overall system resource usage and histories of which programs have been running, and how much network data they’ve consumed. It’s graphical, well designed and a tool even non-experts may find useful.
Security and backup
Microsoft is not making a big fuss about it, but the previous standalone Microsoft Security Essentials has morphed into Windows Defender, and is preinstalled and activated on every Windows 8 system.
It isn’t exactly a feature-packed utility, but it should handle most people’s basic security needs. Interestingly, it isn’t integrated with the Windows Firewall; instead, they’re treated as two separate applications, which we suspect is a political decision taken to avoid accusations of usurping full third-party security suites.
Windows 7’s full system-imaging ability remains, but the clunky file backup software of old has thankfully been replaced by a much more flexible alternative. The new File History feature is a superb addition; it keeps multiple versions of files in your libraries, SkyDrive or desktop, so you can roll back if the latest copy of a document is corrupted or if you make changes you later regret. The backup location can be a network drive, too, for added security.
Then there are the new Storage Spaces. Multiple disks – even ones with different connectors and capacities – can be organised into one virtual storage pool, much like Microsoft’s old Home Server products.
Within this, you can create Storage Spaces that scale dynamically as files are added to the available capacity across the whole pool. You can add more disks to expand your pool, and even set it up to mirror files across different disks for added security.
It’s a potentially powerful tool for power users.
Microsoft has tweaked the multimonitor setting in Windows 8, with a quick Charm menu that pops up to offer the usual choices of duplication or extension. You can now stretch one panoramic desktop background across multiple screens, and choose which single display will host the Start screen whenever you press the Windows key.
This means that you can keep documents open on one desktop monitor while searching for files in full-screen mode on the other.
Windows 8 has a few more new features to boost your productivity too. At long last it recognises and handles ISO images natively, so you can mount and run an installer from an image, for example, without having to burn it to a disc first.
Even more handily, Windows Update will now detect any new updates but intelligently delay their installation until a convenient time – there should be no more seemingly random reboots in the middle of editing an important document, unless you ignore critical security warnings for days on end.
On the desktop side, Windows 8 feels more like a service pack than a full release. There are some great feature improvements for power users, and our test systems booted and resumed much more quickly than with previous versions, but don’t expect to see any great upheaval if you spend the majority of your time in the traditional Windows desktop.
There are some jarring interface changes, particularly the way Metro-style Charms pop up over the desktop, but at least they’re tidily designed. The replacement of the Start menu is the biggest surprise, and as long as you are prepared to spend some time pinning programs to the taskbar, even that can be largely avoided if it’s too much of a culture shock.
Windows 8 is really about bringing the OS to new devices, and traditional desktop users will simply have to accept being in the background for this release – and possibly future versions of Windows, too.
This isn’t a terrible thing – Windows 7 wasn’t exactly broken to begin with and it is going to be a viable option for some years to come – but it means that the $40 upgrade isn’t something we can definitively recommend you take advantage of.
For the mainstream user Windows 8 isn’t the must-have advance we were hoping for when development began.