Hands on with Windows 8 RTM
On August 1, Microsoft released Windows 8 to PC manufacturers. Starting August 15, developers can download this final build of the operating system from TechNet or MSDN and reviewers like me are finally allowed to write about the near-final version of Microsoft's big gamble for the future of Windows. The public release of the operating system and PCs running it won't happen until its General Availability on October 26. I got an early look, and tested the latest version of the OS by upgrading an Intel-based Windows 8 Samsung tablet to RTM. The public can still get a pretty close idea of what Microsoft's re-imagining of Windows is like by downloading the Release Preview and installing it on any Windows 7–capable hardware.
Never has there been a more apt application of the acronym FUD—fear, uncertainty, and doubt—when it came to an approaching operating system. Uncertainty can certainly characterize a lot of people's thoughts about Windows 8, and one of the main uncertainties is that they're not sure whether it's a tablet operating system or a desktop one…because it's both. And that, for some reason, confuses people. Microsoft has often used the phrase "no compromises," meaning you get the best of both worlds, but a lot of desktop users will feel that their Windows 8 interface is compromised in favor of touch tablets.
Anyone following the computer industry knows that Microsoft would have been foolish to carry on producing only a desktop-centric OS that ignores the sea surge moving computing to the tablet format, with Apple's iPad in the vanguard. Microsoft made the bold choice of deciding to build one OS to rule them all, offering more than just a tablet OS as the iPad does. People clearly want tablets, but they also want PCs: Since its launch in 2009, Windows 7 has sold over 630 million licenses, compared with 84 million total iPads sold since its launch in 2010. Why not offer an OS for both platforms in one shot?
The tablet and touch friendly face of the OS, formerly called Metro, and now called simply Windows 8-style (and which I'll call new-style to avoid confusion), can be used to launch the new set of Windows 8-style apps, which run full-screen and are designed for touch with simple and consisent interfaces. But it can also serve as a launcher for the desktop-style apps that Windows users have been accustomed to. In RTM, the Start screen tiles for desktop apps get a slight face-lift, with larger and in some cases redesigned icons.
Before delving into an analysis of Windows 8 RTM, which I've had just a day with at this point, let's take a moment to enumerate what the new OS brings to the party for everyone:
- Much faster startup. Let's be honest, there's no comparison with the time it takes to start using an iPad versus a Windows 7 laptop. Windows 8 makes great strides towards eliminating this difference.
- New Start screen with live tiles that update with app info such as arriving emails, news items, weather, and stock tickers. Default apps are included that provide all this.
- Syncing with all your PCs through Microsoft account sign in. This capability syncs personalization preferences, Internet Explorer favorites, backgrounds, WiFi passwords and more with cloud-connected accounts.
- New App Store. The apps sold here will run on both Windows 8 tablets and full PCs. The apps will have to pass standards, and can be updated and installed on multiple PCs in your account (just as with the Mac App Store). They'll also get the ability to connect with other apps for services like email or social network updating.
- Improved battery life for laptops as well as tablets.
- Faster Wi-Fi reconnect times.
- Faster graphics and text performance, thanks to hardware acceleration.
- A much improved Internet Explorer 10, with far better support for the new HTML5 standards and faster performance.
- New file folder window choices.
- New Task Manager
- Trusted Boot. This prevents malware from loading before the OS, on systems with UEFI boot. In general, security is much tighter in Windows 8 than in Windows 7 (though we've heard that song before).
- Built in Consumer apps—People, for social network contacts; Photos, Mail, Messaging, Calendar, Video,
- ISO mounting. The OS can now make a disc image file appear as a drive.
You'll get all this and more for a mere $39.99 upgrade from Windows XP and later. And don't forget that Windows 8 runs on any hardware that can runs Windows 7. It will also be able to run any programs that run under Windows 7, unless you opt for a Windows RT tablet, which will only run new-style Windows 8 apps.
What's New in Windows 8 RTM vs. Release Preview?
Very little changes from Windows 8 Release Preview to RTM. Microsoft has mostly squashed bugs and made performance improvements. But there are a few visual differences you'll notice right after upgrading to RTM: The default lock screen now shows the Seattle Space Needle, with mountains in the background and a green hill that evokes the original Windows XP default desktop. And in the desktop view, we can finally see the "flattened" look of the new windows borders, which do away with the glassy transparency of Windows 7 interface elements.
Something I consider extremely important for new Windows 8 users debuts in RTM the first time you log in: You're now treated to a mini-tutorial on using Windows 8 during initial setup: Simple text and diagrams show you how to swipe in from the sides of the screen (if you're on a tablet) or to move the mouse pointer to the corners of the screen if you're using mouse and keyboard. Once users digest these two simple gesture types, they've got a lot of what's needed to operate Windows 8 under their belts.
In another instance of new eye candy, 14 new personalization "tattoos" have been added for the Start screen. To choose one of these, head to PC Settings > Personalize > Start screen. These tattoos are variants on the background swirls behind the tiles of the Windows 8 Start screen. The new ones range from discreet brush strokes to some that are more colorful and elaborate than any we've seen up to now. Each tattoo is customized to match the basic color scheme you chose from the 25 options.
A new app-switching option has also been introduced in Windows 8 RTM: Instead of always having your last app pop in to take over the screen when you swipe in from the left, you can now set this action to just bring up the list of recently used apps in a left panel. These tiles formerly only appeared when you swiped in and out—a gesture that took me some time to discover. Changing the setting makes the full app list display whenever you swipe in from the left.
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