In many ways the launch of a new version of Windows comes at the end of a long period of public evaluation.
Thanks to the way in which Microsoft works, Windows 8 has been available in an almost final form since August. We've now had many months to get used to the new way of doing things.
While we have been using it for work since reviewing it in November, it wasn’t until Windows 8 hit retail availability that we made the ultimate plunge – upgrading our beloved home desktop.
In many ways this has been the real litmus test for living with Windows 8. Work systems are one thing, but home systems are more personal, and used for a much wider variety of tasks.
Once upon a time the notion of running an upgrade installation of a new version of Windows made us cringe. Back in the bad old days of Windows XP, for example, a clean install every six months to a year was almost mandatory for clearing out the accumulated software detritus.
Running an upgrade over the top of this was a recipe for disaster, compounding existing problems and creating a scenario where the new OS was hobbled from the outset.
With Windows 8 this has changed. Microsoft has focused heavily on upgrading – the boxed version of Windows 8 Pro can’t even be used for a clean install. When you go to install Windows 8 the first thing it does is run a system scan, which then flags changes needed and software incompatibilities.
For example, during some recent tinkering we’d disabled support for our CPU’s No Execute flag, and the pre-install routine advised us that we needed to turn it back on to run Windows 8. It also flagged drivers that were incompatible and wouldn’t install until we’d rectified these issues.
Once this was completed, the process was smooth. The key needs to be input at the start of the installation procedure, and once this was done the only other input needed was selecting region. A few reboots later and Windows 8 was ready to go, complete with our existing programs and data.
We also tried running the boxed copy of Windows over the top of a fresh install of Windows Vista Ultimate (finally, a use for that piece of software). With this we deliberately avoided entering the key for Vista, and hence activating the OS. Windows 8 installed fine, and activated without a hitch, so for those with older operating system licenses going to waste, this is a perfectly feasible path to build a new system without needing to spend $160 on an OEM version of Windows 8.
It is also worth noting that the upgrade process creates archived folders of your previous Windows installation, data, and program files (these are named with (old) at the end). For those with ample hard drive space this isn’t an issue, but they can quickly choke up a smaller capacity boot SSD.
With this in mind you might want to delete the folders once you are comfortable that your upgrade has worked.
Say hello, and goodbye, to the ‘Modern UI’
Our biggest gripe with Windows 8 on traditional PCs is Microsoft’s stubborn insistence on forcing use of the tile-based interface formerly known as Metro. We quite like this on touch devices, but make no bones about it, it is designed for small screens and feels out of place on a large, high resolution monitor.
This isn’t just stubborn clinging to the past, either. From our experience most applications designed for this modern UI are image rich and information poor, designed to work best on the 11–15in screens found on the vast majority of tablets and laptops. This is especially evident in the news app, with large black text and an overabundance of white space making for a sloppy looking product on a 27in monitor.
The good news is that we’ve only ended up back in the modern UI a couple of times in the month since we started using the retail version of Windows 8 at home. You’ll end up there after a reboot, as well as when you hit the Windows key out of habit.
As long as you train yourself to do a few things, you can avoid the modern UI entirely. Failing that, there are already several software packages out there that replicate the functionality of the old Start menu.
What we do suggest is getting into the habit of pinning commonly used programs to the taskbar. The Windows 8 desktop is heavily reliant on this behaviour, and you’ll be surprised how much of a difference having your commonly used programs pinned there makes.
It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up with a cluttered bar if you are smart about it – for example we found that having our game collection tied to Steam meant we only needed to pin it in order to be a couple of clicks away from any game.
Life after Windows+X
Microsoft has added a bunch of keyboard shortcuts to Windows 8 that make life easier, but by far the most important of these is Windows+X. In fact, alongside the new task manager and unified copy window, this is the one Windows 8 feature we miss when we go back to using Windows 7 machines. It is in many ways more useful to power users than the start menu ever was.
Hitting Windows+X while in the desktop opens up a small list of options. Not only does it provide quick access to things like the control panel and device manager, but it even makes getting to more deeply hidden functions like Disk Manager a breeze. Think of it as your one stop shop for tinkering with settings, and learning to use it has been a revelation for us, and one of the main ways we’ve been able to avoid the parts of Windows 8 that we find painful.
While Windows+X is, to our mind, the most important shortcut to know, it is worth learning the others that Microsoft has included. As time passes we are finding ourselves relying on keyboard shortcuts more and more. We do this because the operating system has been designed around touch gestures that move inwards from the screen borders. This can be replicated with the mouse, but it feels odd, especially on the large screen (or screens) that are plugged into most desktop systems.
Once you’ve trained yourself to live inside the Desktop App in Windows 8, the benefits of the new OS start becoming clear. We’ve already mentioned the much improved task manager, and the little touches like the much improved support for multiple file copies in Windows Explorer.
On the whole we have found the desktop experience to be slick and smooth, with no major compatibility issues with the software we use everyday.
For those used to Windows, there is no doubt that transitioning to Windows 8 will be a bit of a shock to the system. If you are currently running Windows 7 there isn’t really any burning need to upgrade to the new OS, but for those still running on Vista or XP, it is well worth the move (remembering that extended support for the 11 year old Windows XP ends in 2014).
As long as you train yourself to avoid the Modern UI, the desktop experience in Windows 8 is surprisingly good. It looks and feels solid, and there are a host of little improvements to pretty much every aspect of the experience that make it in many ways a better solution than Windows 7.
It does feel strange neglecting what is obviously a large part of Microsoft’s intended Windows 8 experience, but apart from some experimenting with the free on PC Xbox Music service (which is surprisingly comprehensive for a free streaming offering), we haven’t encountered any compelling reason to leave the desktop.
Ultimately this is the one thing that has redeemed Windows 8 in our eyes, and for those with desktops still running Windows XP, we really do see it as time to upgrade.