Is it worth your time and money? Ashton Mills asks and answers the hard question.
With Microsoft officially announcing the release date for Windows 8 as October 26, we’re finally on the home run towards the next iteration of Redmond’s 27-year-old operating system. But it is it worth your time and money? Ashton Mills asks and answers the hard question.
Windows 8 is, without doubt, one of the more significant paradigm shifts for both Windows and Microsoft in the past two decades — not since the massive jump from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 have we seen such a radical overhaul of the operating system itself.
It’s a change that, for some, may be too much. With Microsoft recognising the ever-evolving mobile space, from smartphones to tablets, and a future where this is only going to grow, the company has decided to focus Windows 8 as a mobile-centric operating system with its new interface formerly known as ‘Metro’.
On one hand, this is hard to argue against: ‘Metro’ is far better suited to devices like tablets than any current Windows version and with touch being the primary method of input, it’s fair to say ‘Metro’ does do a pretty good job of catering to this market.
But Microsoft’s vision sees ‘Metro’ as the default interface for standard desktop computers, too, and it’s here more than anywhere else that we’ve seen divisive discussion over just how genius, or crazy bad, this really is. After all, desktops aren’t primarily driven by touch; instead, mouse and keyboard reigns supreme and although the ‘traditional’ desktop can still be accessed in Windows 8, ‘Metro’ remains the default and what you’ll see when you log in.
Here’s our breakdown of the pros and cons of upgrading — or not upgrading — to Windows 8.
Reasons to upgrade
Microsoft hasn’t been idle with Windows 8. ‘Metro’ is the most prominent change, but it’s not the only one. A lot of work’s been done under the bonnet, too.
One title Windows 8 can fairly claim is that it really is the fastest Windows yet. Not just in general usage, which for the most part is slick and seamless, but also in functions such as boot time, which can be a matter of seconds depending on the hardware. Part of the reason for this has been a sustained focus on performance during development and partly due to requiring Windows 8 to be as lean as possible for fast operation when running on mobile devices like tablets. We can thank Microsoft’s mobile-focused development for the fastest desktop Windows ever.
2. Better memory management
Again, thanks to the mobile focus, Windows 8 has much improved memory management that will not only benefit ‘Metro’ apps, but the operating system as a whole. Windows 8’s memory footprint, even with ‘Metro’ and the default desktop loaded, is smaller than Windows 7. It’s good news for laptops and tablets, and good news for desktops with more memory free for the programs you run.
3. Improved power efficiency
Tablets and phones aside, Windows 8’s improved power efficiency will also see laptops last longer. Windows 8 will suspend ‘Metro’ apps and desktop programs when a PC is put into sleep mode, allowing the CPU to drop into a lower-power state and save juice. Microsoft has also added a Connected Standby mode that enables certain applications, like the ‘Metro’ email client, to receive updates even while a device is technically asleep.
4. Better tools
Along with a focus on speed, Microsoft has addressed a lot of niggling issues with previous Windows versions. These changes range from tools like the Task Manager all the way through to network settings: for example, the former is greatly improved, making it easier to identify problem programs and see what apps use what percentage of your system’s resources, while the latter sports new bandwidth counters for Wi-Fi and mobile networks, and the ability to toggle an Airplane mode (not just for flying, doing so saves power for mobile devices, too).
The new Task Manager is unequivocally sexy.
5. Enhanced Explorer
Numerous upgrades to Explorer in Windows 8 see the ability to monitor multiple file transfers from a single dialogue, as well as pause any transfer mid-copy, even over networks; greatly improved file copy dialogues, especially when it comes to overwriting similar files at the destination; a new Office 2010-inspired common function Ribbon (optional, thankfully) and the integration of new features like File History. On the whole, Explorer looks much the same, but is much more useful and functional.
Under the bonnet, many of Windows’ standard features have received an upgrade, including Explorer inheriting the Ribbon.
6. Device support
Multi-monitor support is finally improved, with the ability to extend the taskbar and desktop backgrounds across multiple monitors without the need for any third-party apps, or, alternatively, you can display the ‘Metro’ desktop on one monitor and the classic desktop on another monitor. USB 3.0 is also included natively in Windows 8, meaning you will no longer need to install after-market drives just to get your USB 3.0 devices recognised.
7. Better recovery options
Perhaps an admission with how regularly Windows users need to reinstall Windows, Windows 8 comes with improved recovery options including restoring a PC to a clean install state, or performing the equivalent of a factory reset, but keeping all your installed apps and preferences. And both of these can be done from a recovery menu built into Windows 8 — no more searching for or creating a bootable OS disc. Fixing your Windows installation has never been easier.
A testament to how frequently Windows users need to reset their machines, Windows 8 now makes it easier than ever.
8. Better backup
Gone is the kludgy, basic Windows backup tool and in its place is an advanced, Microsoft version of Apple’s Time Machine: File History with its continuous backup and ability to revert to file versions through a variety of snapshots in time. Not only is it a fire-and-forget solution, but restoring files is a breeze with an intuitive interface that lets you view snapshots and the contents of files before you restore them. Further, it can work with external drives, network devices and the new Windows 8 Storage Spaces feature.
9. Innovative new technologies
NTFS finally has a successor in ReFS, the Resilient File System. While initially intended for server platforms, Microsoft has stated that in time it will eventually become the de facto standard for Windows across the board. Storage Spaces allow you to take advantage of a variety of media from internal hard drives to external USB devices to create a single ‘storage pool’ for your system, a great way to put old drives and disparate storage devices to good use. The new Picture Password unlocking system allows you to draw on a photo as a means to prove your identity.
Storage Spaces make it easy to create your own pool of central storage from disparate devices.
What a charmer! Picture passwords are a new way to identify yourself, by drawing on an image. Oh, the possibilities for this picture…
10. Windows Store
Microsoft has learnt from Apple and now has its own store. Like it or not, there’s heavy emphasis for developers to write programs that will sell via the store and while this is something we definitely like, it’s worth remembering that only ‘Metro’ apps will be available via the Store. Over time, this will cement ‘Metro’ as the de facto platform for Windows programs. That should be interesting, as not all programs would be clearly ideal using a ‘Metro’-style interface. But if you like the purchase-and-download paradigm, it’s finally here for Windows.
The Windows Store will make it easy to purchase and download programs, but only for ‘Metro’.
If you like using Windows and plan to get a Windows tablet and/or smartphone, there’s something to be said for using the same interface across your desktop, phone and tablet. Furthermore, with Microsoft’s integrated cloud support elements, like your browsing favourites, settings, preferences and apps can be synced across all three for a consistent experience.
We think we saw pigs flying (or perhaps penguins, foreshadowing that ‘other’ operating system) when Microsoft announced the pricing structure for Windows 8 — for the first time in Microsoft’s history, the latest flagship Windows appears to be reasonably priced. Pay hundreds of dollars no more: users of Windows XP, Vista and 7 (ie. everyone) can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for just $39.99. And, to ensure those who are currently in the market to buy a new PC don’t miss out, any PCs purchased in the next few months with Windows 7 will be entitled to a Windows 8 Pro upgrade for just $14.99. Nice one, Microsoft.
Let’s face it: like it or not, this is Microsoft’s latest Windows. It will be bundled on all new PCs and over time will become the dominant platform. You can probably get away with using Windows 7 for a few more years yet, but over time, more and more programs will be built for Windows 8 as a base platform.
Reasons to hold off
There are some compelling reasons to upgrade to Windows 8, but there are some equally compelling reasons not to.
1. ‘Metro’ for desktop
‘Metro’’s Start screen is the default ‘desktop’ for Windows 8 and this currently can’t be changed. If you prefer the classic Windows desktop — at least for your desktop PC — you’re pretty much out of luck. There are hacks to try and forcibly boot into the classic desktop, but these are exactly that: hacks. Right now, Microsoft wants you to use ‘Metro’, whether you want to or not.
The user interface formerly known as ‘Metro’ is perfect for touch-based devices like tablets, but what about desktop PCs?
2. No ‘Start’ menu.
Not only is the classic Windows desktop hidden as an ‘app’ in Windows 8, but even when you jump it into it you’ll find the classic ‘Start’ menu is no more, making it a little more fiddly to find and launch your programs. According to Microsoft, the ‘Start’ menu — which has been with us since Windows 95 — was killed not to force a focus on ‘Metro’, but by its own metrics people weren’t using it as much as, for example, pinning their popular programs to the taskbar. Whatever the reason, if you prefer the classic Windows desktop and think you’ll be able to upgrade to Windows 8 and continue using it, you’ll be in for a rude shock.
3. Immature ‘Metro’ apps
Microsoft has made a big fanfare over the ‘Metro’ versions of its apps, but they’re not without problems: Video can’t play formats Media Player can, ‘Metro’ Mail seemingly can’t connect Microsoft’s own Exchange servers, Messaging is limited to Windows Messenger and Facebook only, and Internet Explorer 10 is hobbled with no Flash support (let alone how ugly IE10 ‘Metro’ is regardless) due to its no-plug-ins design — you have to jump into the classic desktop, breaking the mould from ‘Metro’, and launch the IE10 ‘desktop’ version just to watch YouTube videos.
4. You’re an ad target
You’d think your operating system would put you first, but this isn’t the case with Windows 8. Launch the ‘Metro’ Video app, for example, and you’re bombarded with paid products from Microsoft, not your collection of videos or a dialogue asking where to find them. It’s the same experience for the Music app, where you have to scroll past the ads to find any option to open your own. It would seem you’re just a vehicle to be advertised to. Further, and for reasons known only to Microsoft’s clearly confused management, you need to create an Xbox Live account just to access the app. What the? What if I don’t care for or use Xbox Live for anything? Can I please just play my videos? Surprisingly, the Photos app doesn’t include a cavalcade of Steve Ballmer pictures — surely that’s a missed opportunity for Microsoft.
Apparently misnamed, the Video app is there to push purchasable content on you.
5. Confusing consistency
Undoubtedly, the majority of users will be sticking with their familiar desktop programs. While in time some of those preferred programs could get a ‘Metro’ equivalent, while many may take some time to appear — if they appear at all. Users running ‘desktop’ apps on Windows 8 will find themselves flicking between the classic desktop and the new ‘Metro’ ‘Start’ screen, two completely different-looking and -operating interfaces. Additionally, even some of Microsoft’s own tools don’t remain consistent; for example, there are now two Control Panels and to confuse things further, the desktop version can be launched from the ‘Metro’ version, but not vice versa. Some settings can also be found in both, while others are only found in one or the other.
There are now two Control Panels: one for ‘Metro’ and one for desktop Windows, but no central place to manage everything.
6. UEFI lockdown
The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, successor to the aging BIOS that most computers have, allows for an operating system to tie directly into the hardware firmware. One of the exploits of this for Windows 8 is to try and prevent malware that runs at boot time, thereby aiding security. However, the flip side is that UEFI can be configured to not boot any operating system that hasn’t been signed — this directly impacts Linux, which due to its open-source nature, can appear in many forms and usually doesn’t have a central body that’s willing to pay to have signatures added to UEFI firmware. Red Hat and Canonical (makers of Ubuntu) are working on a solution for this, but it still leaves many other distributions out in the cold. If Linux is your main operating system, it may be wise to avoid UEFI and Windows 8 for the moment.
7. Not essential
Ultimately, the most compelling reason not to upgrade from Windows 7 is the simplest: Windows 8 doesn’t do anything for you that the current version of Windows 7 you already have can’t already do. Regardless of whether you’re using Windows on your office computer, as a desktop computer at home, for gaming, or when you’re on the go on a laptop, Windows 8 really doesn’t offer much incentive. The exception is for tablets, where clearly Windows 7 isn’t right for the job anyway and Windows 8 is ideal. So if you’re in the market for a Windows tablet, we’d suggest that you definitely get one based on Windows 8. For everything else... well, do you think you really need it — and now?
It’s up to you
Invariably, Microsoft is stuck between a rock and the giant raging steel bull of progress. If Microsoft didn’t try for the mobile market with Windows 8, it would die a slow death left behind Apple and Google. At the same time jumping completely onto the mobile bandwagon, and the new interface it requires, when the whole world is used to the traditional Windows design would also be suicide as it would cannibalise the current market. The result is that Windows 8 is a confused twisted twin of the two, more resembling a Frankensteinian creation that isn’t quite fully one way or the other than a cohesive whole. Be that as it may, there’s one thing we can acknowledge Microsoft for: at least it’s innovating again.