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Chris Zele Mar 21, 2013

Windows 8

At A Glance

Start Menu

Vastly improved boot times; excellent cloud integration; comprehensive system search; improved multi-monitor support; super-speedy installation.

Metro

Metro is too simple; jarring effect of desktop/metro switching; lacks some needed UI customizability; Metro organization is difficult.

Windows 8 Review: Microsoft straps a tablet operating system to Windows 8. Should enthusiasts make the big upgrade?

We've updated our Windows 8 Review to include tidbits on the upcoming Windows Blue update. You can jump to the last page to read about it here .

Windows 8 is not a want, it’s a necessity. Not for you, the consumer. For Microsoft .

We’d like to think that somewhere, somehow, a group of user interface experts like to meet up for lunch in one of Microsoft’s (likely) sprawling Redmond cafeterias. They talk about their days, their families, and how horrified they are at Microsoft’s decision—and need—to unify a single user experience across its entire product line.

That’s the real reason why Windows 8 looks and feels like a tablet operating system slapped overtop Windows 7 (with a few tweaks here and there). It is. Users are given no way around it—Microsoft has made sure of that fact. And, in many ways, there’s no way around it for Microsoft, either. The company has decided that users cannot have dissimilar Windows experiences across desktops, tablets, smartphones, or any other kooky gadgets on the horizon, but refuses (or can’t) cut the cord of the traditional desktop experience just yet.

Windows 8 is the natural, necessary hybrid—the last time you’re likely to see the “core” Windows experience of the last decade mashed together with the multicolored, touch-sensitive, “Metro” boxes of the future. A word on that: While Microsoft has elected to not call the tablet-ized portion of Windows 8’s user interface Metro—it’s now just called “Windows 8,” we think—we’ll keep using the old nomenclature just to make this review easier to process.

However, we’re willing to bet you’ll have many other colorful names for your experience with the new OS.

The Installation

We never thought we’d type the words, “Microsoft has made it easy to install Windows,” but there you have it. Your first introduction into Microsoft’s latest iteration of Windows comes from the previously laborious process of blanking your hard drive and playing the company’s equivalent of 20 questions to install an OS.

Assuming you have a product key—now a requirement to install Windows 8, instead of an after-the-fact input—the installation process looks identical to Windows 7’s at first. Once you’ve set the installer to copy files to your hard drive, Windows 8 is off to the races. A simple, black installation screen gives you pithy updates about what’s happening between your installation media and your hard drive. After that, only five prompts require your attention, including one for picking your PC name and your favorite color and three that relate to verifying the settings for the Windows Live ID you’ll want to link to your installation.

When Windows 8 says, “Your PC will be ready in just a moment,” it’s not kidding. This is the speediest, most annoyance-free OS installation we’ve ever experienced.

To learn how you can install Windows 8 from a USB drive, check out our " Install Windows 8 " guide. The article also addresses whether or not you should go with an upgrade or clean install.

And Then…

Welcome to Metro! Right-click tiles to select them, and then drag them around your Metro desktop to create new columns—it’s a “dumping grounds,” of sorts, for groups of programs.

Up pops Metro, the tiled-box screen that’s easily Windows 8’s most controversial feature. To discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and intricacies of Metro alone could eat up an entire multipage review. So we’ll lead with the biggie: At its core, Metro feels… undone. To put it another way, Microsoft’s treatment of its tiles, Metro’s interactions with the “normal” half of Windows 8, and the lack of customization present in this Hyde to Windows 7’s Jekyll does a disservice to those who want anything beyond an operating system set in “easy mode.”

Metro's People app is a virtual gathering place for just about every contact you'll likely ever have - pulled in from your Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft accounts, for now.


You, faithful Maximum PC readers and computing enthusiasts that you are, will hate Metro. Some developers are even working on applications that will terminate Metro altogether.

While Windows 8 has removed the traditional Start button, companies have created replacement Windows 8 Start buttons. Check out our Stardock Start8 vs. Classic Shell head-to-head story to see which new Windows 8 Start button we recommend.

Let’s start with the apps . At the time of this review, Microsoft and third-party developers worldwide have yet to jump on the app bandwagon. We can’t speak to what’s on the horizon for Metro, but we can certainly discuss the apps that come bundled with the operating system by default.

The single-app, full-screen Metro environment takes some getting used to . Truly, your capacity to enjoy Microsoft’s tablet treatment depends on the app: The People app is as pointless as it is cluttered. We don’t understand why one would need to have all of one’s contacts—yes, your random Twitter friends too, if you so desire—in a setting that’s hard to navigate (horizontal scroll only!), difficult to configure (one giant “news feed” for everyone, really?), and difficult to edit (merging contacts and setting “favorites” takes too long).

SkyDrive? We dare anyone to say that this Metro app is easier to navigate than a simple, Dropbox-like folder in File Explorer (Windows Explorer, no more). Video? Sure, if you like a player that’s more in touch with Microsoft’s online store than an app that can legitimately play all the files you toss its way. Messaging? Works great with Microsoft Messenger and Facebook—and that’s about it. Trillian is hardly shaking in its boots, here.

Other apps, like Weather and Maps, deliver a compelling experience within Metro. Games—and the downloadable Xbox Smartglass app—finally tie together one’s PC and one’s Xbox 360 in a better, but not ideal, fashion. News, though still annoyingly stuck to a horizontal plane, looks as wonderful as its companion app Sports.

We have you own Windows 8 app, you can read more about it here .

Mail, however, is downright laughable—especially when free alternatives like Mozilla’s Thunderbird, the web-based Gmail, or Microsoft’s own Outlook application blow its lackluster capabilities out of the water.

It’s frustrating that Windows 8’s built-in Internet Explorer 10 , an app that gets the full Metro treatment to delightful results, requires you to set the browser as your default just to play with its Metro version. Apps like Google’s Chrome browser—admittedly still in the development channel as of this article’s writing—don’t cross-pollinate between Windows Metro and Windows Desktop. Each browser is its own unique instance in this case, which couldn’t be any more frustrating for laypeople and enthusiasts.

The strength of Windows’ apps—both third-party and Microsoft-driven—are going to be the make-or-break elements for Metro. At launch, and especially on a single-screen setup, they are more novelty than necessity.

Microsoft has updated the Windows app store since launch. Check out our favorite Windows 8 apps story.

Metro’s search tool, accessible just by typing in anything when you’re staring at the main tiles screen, is one of its most compelling features. The now-lamer Windows Indexing of Windows 7 just got put to shame.

Metro Organization

It’s possible to think of Metro as simply a start menu—which it basically is, given that Microsoft has killed the traditional Start Menu in Windows 8’s desktop mode. Just ignore all the live tiles and downloadable apps and use the blocky UI as a souped-up entry to your desktop. Sort of.

Organizing tiles is as easy as dragging them around to new columns based on whatever internal organization scheme you’re going for. That said, it’s still annoying that you can’t adjust their shape at all, nor edit their size beyond one of two set limits Microsoft has put into place. Microsoft does give you the option to assign a name to columns of tiles, but you might miss this feature unless you go hunting (hint: use the lower-right-hand “minus” sign to expand your Metro UI to the full, zoomed-out view, and then right-click a column).

In Metro, a tile is often an app, or a shortcut to an app, that you’ve pinned to the “Start,” though it could also be a folder, library link, or network resource, to name just a few. For whatever reason, you can’t create tiles for important “common” files within the Metro interface, like a critical PDF or favorite song you want easy access to.

Windows 8’s biggest Metro killjoy occurs when you go to install a new app—like, say, the Combined Community Codec Pack. For Windows 8’s Metro interface is, for all intents, its start menu. And when an app like CCC comes with eight or more shortcuts that would otherwise be simple links in said menu, they transform into a whole heckuva lot of tiles within Metro. We can count on one hand the number of times we’ve needed to delete extraneous or unwanted links on a conventional Windows start menu. Within Metro, you’ll be doing this a lot, if you’re actually trying to keep your horizontal interface (ugh) clutter-free.

While Metro comes with a number of options to prettify your PC, know that its settings are a wee bit more buried than your average Control Panel—and they aren't even accessible via the Control Panel.

To Microsoft’s credit, it’s wonderful that you can now just type that which you wish to find on your system—from apps, to Windows elements, to files. Metro takes the old and familiar Windows Indexing and kicks it up about five notches. Type in—well, anything—and you’ll be able to search for apps that fit your query, Windows settings or prompts, or files. You can even get a little more specific and search within apps, like Microsoft’s Store, if you already have an idea of what you’re looking for and where it might be.
For tips on how to use and optimize Windows 8, check out our Windows 8 Tips guide . The article will help you manage your Windows 8 Start screen, show you how to uninstall Windows 8 apps, and pretty up your Windows 8 screen.
Can you ignore Windows 8’s Metro environment and instead pretend that it’s just one big, boxy Start Menu? Yes—mostly thanks to Metro’s search. However, Microsoft will still do its best to force Metro down your throat by booting to this user interface by default instead of allowing you to jump straight to your desktop. Will you still mostly miss your old Windows 7 Start Menu? We do.

The Multi-Monitor Difference

In a single-monitor environment, Metro just doesn’t make a lot of sense. As much as Microsoft tries to fit the square peg in the round hole, Metro is, at its core, an interface made for tablets , not a monitor. For a pair of monitors, however, Metro becomes a pretty ideal combination of a standard Windows 7 desktop and a big-ol’ screen that you can glance at to view useful information in a blown-up, exaggerated fashion.

In other words, Windows 8 reads a lot better in a multi-monitor setup.

We had the pleasure of being able to try out Windows 8 in such an environment. Better still, our secondary monitor was a handy-dandy ViewSonic touchscreen monitor (for the full Windows 8 Metro experience).

Setting up two monitors is just as easy to do in a Windows 8 environment as it is in Windows 7. For those rocking a touchscreen, however, you’ll have to do a bit of jumping around to ensure that your device is perfectly calibrated for your setup. And we don’t mean matching your finger-presses to where they register on the panel itself. We had to jump into Windows 8’s Tablet PC Settings—of all Control Panel options—to ensure that our finger-presses were correctly mapping to screen number two instead of the primary display. That could not be any more unintuitive on Microsoft’s part.

Metro’s new multi-monitor support means you’ll no longer need to turn to third-party apps to manage the funner parts of a dual-screen setup, like setting different wallpapers (or slide shows of wallpapers) on each screen.

It’s great that we no longer have to resort to third-party apps to stretch a single wallpaper image across two desktops—thanks, new Windows 8 personalization settings. Even better, Windows 8 now allows you to set custom backgrounds or slide-show wallpapers for each monitor, and you can even flick off the taskbar—or hide it, if no active apps are open on the display—as you see fit.

Keyboard commands allow you to flick windows back and forth between your monitors—nothing new there for Windows 7 multi-monitor enthusiasts. However, what’s lacking is a way to force Metro to pop up on a specific monitor via key press or, even better, set a single monitor as the “default” recipient of any Windows key action on your keyboard.

It gets uglier. Metro doesn’t just pop up on whatever monitor your mouse cursor happens to be hovering over—that would be too easy. Metro appears on your primary monitor by default.

To launch it on a second monitor instead, you first have to hover your mouse in the lower-left-hand corner of the target display and click. After that, Metro will “bind” to your Windows key for that monitor until you repeat the process on a different display.

That’s not so bad, right? It gets uglier. The basic Metro interface is not a unique entity; it’s attached to your normal operating system in such a way that clicking anywhere outside of the interface—like, say, on your primary display—closes Metro entirely. Huh?

You have to launch a Metro app in order for it to “stick” to your second display. After that, all’s well—dragging Metro apps back and forth between monitors is as easy as dragging conventional desktop windows to and fro. Metro’s snap feature, or the ability to stash a Metro app to a left or right sidebar while you simultaneously operate another app, stays in place when you switch between screens.

We’re not sold on Windows 8’s touchscreen controls, first and foremost because Microsoft does the barest minimum to explain what they are—and Windows 8 isn’t all that intuitive. Second, because you really have to dig into the bezel in order to activate Metro’s various “hot corners,” which include the options panel you pull up from the bottom of the screen for Metro apps, the right-hand Charms Bar, and the left-hand app‑selector sidebar. It would have been a grand gesture if Microsoft gave users the option to adjust the size or sensitivity of the hotspots on their screen. But, hey, at least Windows 8 now supports multitouch gestures on touchpads. Eh?

This image represents the ideal Metro experience: an easy-to-understand (and ideally, touch-sensitive) Metro app on one screen, combined with the standard Windows 7-ish desktop as the primary input. In other words, Metro is better as a spice than as the main ingredient of Windows 8’s dish.

Another not-so-insignificant annoyance related to a two-monitor setup is that there’s no way to get Windows 8 to ignore any touches during inopportune moments. Since Windows 8 treats a tap as if it was a mouse cursor, playing a game full-screen on monitor one while trying to tap your way to an email or a news item on monitor two’s Metro display minimizes your game and sends you back to the desktop on monitor uno.

Specific problem? Yes. But it’s the kind of Metro annoyance that screams for a solution..


Windows Other

While we think it’s important to dig deep into the perils and pleasures of Microsoft’s biggest change in the Windows 8 environment, that’s not to say the company left the “Windows 7” portions of the operating system out to dry.

First, and most noticeable, is Windows 8’s absurdly faster startup and shutdown times compared to any other iteration of the operating system. That’s thanks to a lesser hibernation routine that (finally) stores the operating system’s kernel session—Windows 8’s system state and memory contents—to a file on your hard drive. Windows 8 employs multicore processing to read and decompress the contents of this “hiberfile” during boot, which leads to a much speedier system launch versus Windows 7, which requires a full system initialization each time you hit the power button.

While you might notice slightly slower file transfers within Windows 8 versus Windows 7, were you to compare the two directly, it’s because Windows 8 now builds malware scanning directly into the process (helped by the integration of Windows Defender , formerly Security Essentials , into the operating system). We don’t mind that a bit, especially when it’s accompanied by Windows 8’s amazing new File Transfer feature. Not only can you now pause and cancel transfers whenever you want, but Windows 8 also gives you a throughput graph that populates your speeds in real time. It almost makes us want to forget about TeraCopy.

Windows 8’s Task Manager receives a similar face-lift, including a wonderful “historical” option that shows you just how many resources various apps have consumed over the past week—Metro-only apps, however, which dovetails nicely with the interface’s “never really closes your apps” treatment. And, heavens be praised, Windows finally integrates a “what the heck is this?” option for its Startup tab, which gives you a quick way to search for more information about various apps that run once Windows 8 boots.

The Office-like “ribbon” that now adorns the top of Window 8’s File Explorer takes a little getting used to, but it’s a great way to organize all of the most useful settings you need to access within a single window. Its available options even change dynamically depending on what you’re clicking, from applications, to pictures, to movies, etc. It’s still a shame that even File Explorer can’t escape Microsoft’s need to horizontal-ize Windows 8—you can view more files in a directory when file details are displayed at the bottom of the window, not on the right-hand side.

You can also use Windows 8 to create your own Home Server. Check out our Windows 8 Home Server guide here .

And, of course, it’s hard to overlook Microsoft’s head-nod to the cloud in all sorts of various permutations. There’s the SkyDrive app , a mini-Dropbox of sorts for 7GB of your most important or interesting files that’s wonderfully interwoven with other apps like Office 2013. There’s Window 8’s native synchronization with your Microsoft Live account (should you set up Windows 8 with one), which allows you to keep your Windows preferences, Metro app data, bookmarks, passwords—the list goes on—in sync no matter which computer you’re using Windows 8 on.

No longer will you have to manually type in strange application names to figure out just what the heck is loading when your system boots. With Windows 8, discovery is but a mouse-click away.

Though you’ll never need to use them, astute Maximum PC reader that you are, Windows 8 even tosses in some great features for restoring your system in the face of disaster (good luck finding the buried System Restore app, even if you use the Metro search tool). A “Refresh your PC” option copies your data, reinstalls Windows, and transfers your data back—the “lesser” restoration technique that just might do the trick in the face of slowness or serious error. Window 8’s more hardcore tool, the “Remove everything” option, does just that: nukes your drive, reinstalls Windows 8, and begins the initial configuration process anew.


Windows 8 Review: Our Final Thoughts

Considering that a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium costs north of $80, we think it’s completely fitting that a standard Windows 8 upgrade costs $40: Metro’s worth can be counted on one hand for a typical desktop user, but the improvements found across the “Windows 7” version of the OS are certainly worth paying for. Even with Metro’s annoyances—and we haven’t even covered the full list in this extended review of the OS—Windows 8 is a good-to-have, but not supremely necessary upgrade. Those who made the jump straight from Windows XP to Windows 7 know the feeling we’re describing here.

Windows 8’s more advanced Storage Spaces tool allows you to add new storage sources at any time—hard drives, flash drives, or other external storage devices—to create giant storage ”pools” with redundancy policies you decide on.

The features we’ve touched upon, and some of the operating system’s more hardcore elements that we haven’t—like Windows 8’s Storage Spaces or File History feature—just about balance out the general issues you’ll deal with when confronting Microsoft’s “newbie mode” head on. It would be wrong to fear Windows 8 because of the sweeping changes (and poor follow-through) Microsoft has introduced into an otherwise fine desktop operating system. Upgrade your OS. Bask in your faster boot times. Synchronize your settings and files with Microsoft’s fluffy clouds. Heck, burn and mount ISO files—that’s a new one for Windows!

Fear Windows 9 instead. Once Microsoft cuts the cord on the classic desktop, kiss your productivity goodbye. Say hello to Microsoft marketplaces accompanying everything on the OS—much as they do now with a handful of Metro apps. Us? We plan to prepare for the desktop apocalypse by stockpiling copies of Windows ME. $100 per. Cash only.

Windows 8’s File History setting, buried deep within the Control Panel, is yet another “backup” technique that saves shadow copies of your data to other hard drives, external devices, or network-based storage.


Windows 8 VS. Windows 7: Fight!

Windows 8 haters have already labeled the new OS as the second coming of Windows Vista, but those who can contain their bile know that Win 8 is likely to be far from the performance-sucking, driver-breaking Windows Vista in its pre-SP1 days.

To find out how Windows 8 compares to the lithe Windows 7, we took an Asus P8Z77-V Premium board; inserted a Core i7-3770K, a GeForce GTX 690, 8GB of DDR3/1866, and an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD; loaded up Windows 7 Professional SP1; and ran our benchmarks. We then took an identical Vertex 4 SSD, loaded up Windows 8 Professional, and reran our benchmarks. We used the same beta 304.79 GeForce drivers for both and the latest beta drivers available from Asus for our testing.

The verdict? We expected the scores to be nearly identical, and for the most part they were. As Windows 8 is built on the foundation of Windows 7, we didn’t expect a quantum shift here, but we did see some performance differences. The most glaring difference was in PCMark 7, where Windows 8 produced significantly faster scores in the creativity and computation tests.

Why such a huge difference? We suspect it’s the result of changes to Windows Media Foundation in Win 8. Windows Media Foundation is Microsoft’s replacement for DirectShow, which was implemented in Windows Vista. 3DMark 11 also showed a difference, but in Windows 7’s favor, by a smaller percentage, in the physics and combined score. The difference there is likely due to some efficiency with the Bullet Physics engine that FutureMark uses in the test. More importantly, the graphics score is the same between operating systems, which tells us there should be no difference when gaming in Windows 7 or Windows 8—at least on Nvidia hardware.

Windows 8 includes native USB 3.0 support, and we saw it smoking the stock Windows 7 USB 3.0 performance by a hefty margin. Our Asus board, however, includes a Turbo mode, which puts it within striking range of Windows 8. USB 3.0 performance on Windows 8, for the most part, is pretty awesome, though.

The rest of our tests were mostly a wash except in two interesting instances: Cinebench 11.5 and X264 HD 5.0.1. Both are multithreaded like mad, and both show about a 5 percent advantage in Windows 8. This could quite possibly be a sign of the improved scheduler in Windows 8.

Check out what we hope to see in SP1 for Windows 8 in our " What we hope to see in Service Pack 1 " story.

To sum up, Windows 8 performance is generally the same as Windows 7, with a performance edge in anything that uses the Windows Media Foundation and likely anything that is heavily multithreaded. USB 3.0 is also markedly improved. We do note the issue with Bullet Physics in 3DMark 11, but we don’t think it’s a very serious issue. So all you haters better find something else to hate on.

Early Birds Get Preferred Pricing

Microsoft has simplified the editions and prices of Windows 8—at least compared to how the company initially segmented its first batches of Windows 7. However, folks considering an upgrade won’t want to delay for too long, as Microsoft is also offering early birds a significant discount on Windows 8.

Windows 8, in total, will arrive in four versions: Windows RT, the ARM version of the OS that comes preinstalled on supported devices; Windows 8; Windows 8 Pro; and Windows 8 Enterprise.

If you’re already running Windows XP, Vista, or 7, you can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $39 until January 31, 2013. That’s just for a digital download; retail copies will cost $69 until the deadline, when the Pro price will then bump to $199. There’s no word, as of this article’s writing, how much Windows 8 (standard version) might cost.

Still, compare that to the pricing scheme for the three major versions of Windows 7 currently on the market: $119 for Home Premium, $199 for Professional, and $219 for Ultimate. To Microsoft’s credit, the company did offer similar discount pricing for Windows users shortly after Windows 7’s 2009 launch—a final cost of $50, $100, and $219, respectively.

Playing on price is Microsoft’s answer to the inexpensive upgrades Apple enthusiasts have enjoyed for years now. It also might just be Windows 8’s ticket to increased adoption rates in the face of Metro’s heavier criticisms.

Minimize Metro’s Annoyances

As mentioned, Windows 8’s Metro isn’t the simplest of interfaces to navigate—especially if you’re stuck on a good-ol’ keyboard and mouse. However, there are still a few tricks you can use to streamline and customize your way through (or around) Microsoft’s “tablet” portion of the OS.

For starters, make sure you fire up Windows’ Default Programs app—found by typing “default” into the Metro UI—and use it to set Windows Photo Viewer and Windows Media Player as the default apps for all file types they can open. This allows you to bypass the annoyance of jumping into Metro Photos or Video whenever you click on a related file in File Explorer.

If you want to avoid Windows 8’s app management entirely, don’t pin your most-used apps as Metro tiles; pin them to your taskbar. The bottom of your desktop screen might get a little cluttered, but at least you won’t have to hunt down your apps within Metro.

One of our favorite tricks allows you to bypass having to jump into Metro from the desktop to run Metro apps. Make a shortcut on your desktop and type this in for the item location: %windir%\explorer.exe shell:::{4234d49b-0245-4df3-b780-3893943456e1}

Your shortcut will pull up Windows 8’s Applications window, which will let you launch Metro apps directly from the desktop.

For a more intense Metro transformation, check out the third-party app Classic Shell (classicshell.sourceforge.net). Not only can you bring the long-lost Start Menu back into Windows 8, but you’ll also be able to boot directly to Windows 8’s desktop instead of its Metro UI. Additionally, you can also completely disable a number of portions of the Windows 8 Metro UI: Hotspots, the Charms Bar, etc.

Windows 8 also includes a number of useful tweaks within its Group Policy Editor, including the ability to bypass Windows 8’s lock screen for faster logging-on. It won’t spare you from Metro, but it’ll at least help you get to your safe and friendly desktop even faster.

Windows 8's Applications window is the sure-fire way to launch Metro apps without first haivng to jump into Metro

Windows 8: Under the Hood

While the new Metro UI will be what catches your attention in Microsoft’s latest OS, there’s actually far more under the hood that offers tangible performance benefits.

USB 3.0 Native Drivers

Windows 8 brings native USB 3.0 drivers to the mix, so no longer will you have to hunt for USB 3.0 drivers after your clean install. Even better, USB 3.0 performance is greatly increased with the native Microsoft drivers, too.

Windows Acceleration

Windows 8’s implementation of Direct2D—the API for hardware-accelerating text, bitmaps, and other UI elements—offers a huge leap in performance over Windows 7 by relying on DirectX 11.1 to accelerate 2D graphics. Other improvements include 60 percent faster decompression of JPEGs and PNGs and techniques to make graphically intense chores drink less power.

DirectX11.1/WDM1.2

DX11.1 offers fairly innocuous changes from DX11, with the most noticeable being support for enhanced 2D graphics acceleration. DX11.1 also officially adds stereoscopic support, improved memory management, and better management of tile-based rendering for low-power applications.

Improved Scheduler

We already know that AMD says Windows 8 will give its Bulldozer cores an uptick in performance, thanks to an improved scheduler that can deal with AMD’s core design, but it’s apparently also a bit faster on Intel parts. See our performance analysis on page 32 for more info.

App Suspension

This applies more to the Metro side of the fence, but instead of Metro apps staying open and sucking up RAM, Windows 8 will suspend the applications to disk when not in use and also let the OS reclaim RAM easily. Even desktop apps, though, can be individually suspended or have components suspended when physical memory is running low.

Windows RT: What is it?

Even though Microsoft is planning to put the full version of Windows 8 onto its upcoming Surface tablet, the company realized it would also need a stripped-down version to run on ARM tablets and cell phones, so it has created Windows RT to handle those duties. Windows RT, which stands for Windows Runtime (we know, the name is horrible) is designed to run one thing and one thing only—apps from the Microsoft store. That’s all it will do, just like how an iPad or Android tablet only lets you add or remove applications. There will be no desktop, no file explorer, or any other trappings of a traditional Windows environment. Think of it this way: Imagine if Microsoft yanked Metro’s tile-based interface out of Windows 8 and created an operating system out of it; that’s Windows RT in a nutshell.

Now before you go getting your jimmies rustled, consider this: Using apps is all a tablet is designed to do. You’ll have an app for your email, web browsing, e-books, and so forth, so you should be able to accomplish most of what you can do on today’s tablets on a Windows RT device. You’ll even be able to be mildly productive, as Microsoft is bundling a free version of its ubiquitous office suite, tentatively named Office RT. And though you’ll surely be able to download some sort of media player, Windows Media Player will not be bundled with Windows RT. Hopefully, VLC will come to the rescue.

What can’t you do in Windows RT? You won’t be able to install whatever Windows software you have lying around, so put that USB key away for now. If it’s not in the Windows 8 store, you can’t install it. Good news, though—Maximum PC will have an app, so you can read all about the latest hardware anywhere you take your tablet (we won’t ask where that is).


UPDATE (March 14, 2013): Windows 8 Getting an Update in the form of Windows Blue

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect that Microsoft’s flagship operating system has some kinks to work out. In its defense, Windows XP was arguably in worse shape when it debuted in October 2001. And Vista had just a few issues to work out, as well. What’s unexpected is the extent of this new update, dubbed Windows Blue (which will apparently get a public preview in mid-summer before a full release in August). What’s more, it’s reported to be the beginning of an annual update process, similar to OS X’s—but without a price tag. It took nearly two years for Microsoft to release Windows 7’s Service Pack 1, and it was mostly bug fixes. But while Microsoft won’t officially confirm the contents of Windows Blue or discuss its long-term strategy with it, its existence is practically a forgone conclusion. Let’s draw a sketch of where MS is reportedly going with Blue.

Power Play

Windows 8 is actually a pretty snappy operating system. It boots quickly, programs open and close without unusual delay, and it’s a generally stable experience. However, battery life could be better, particularly for the Intel-based Surface tablet. In the three and a half years since Windows 7 came out, mobile computing has driven a deep wedge into the front line of desktop computing. Apple came out with a popular tablet, and Samsung et al followed suit with Android-based competitors. Microsoft and its traditional x86 partners weren’t able to adapt quickly enough (though Haswell may change things). Windows Blue will apparently tweak Windows 8’s energy consumption to compete with platforms that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Finders Keepers

Another issue is the Modern UI’s Search function, which has a habit of not finding things that it should. The search function in Start button replacements like Classic Shell seem to work as well as before, so the problem probably doesn’t run too deep. Windows 8’s Search mainly has problems detecting data that’s linked to Modern apps (which are kind of a big deal). We expect MS to fix this issue, plus improve integration with Bing Search (which is actually a pretty good service for hunting down particular images and video clips). You’ll probably get a shortlist of recommended programs when you search for media.

But Wait, There’s More

The new features don’t stop there. We’re told that MS will also bundle Internet Explorer 11. But other than its version number, we know nothing about it. It would be nice to see an extensions/add-ons library, though. Windows Live Mail, MS’s free desktop email client, is expected to get an update. The other programs in MS’s downloadable “Windows Essentials” package, like Messenger, Writer, and Movie Maker, will probably also get some polish.

All in the Family

If the rumors are to be believed, this plan doesn’t end with Windows 8. We’ve heard that MS intends to extend this annual update initiative to Windows Server 2012, Microsoft Office, Outlook.com , and possibly other large projects. Corporate IT tends to want a less-frequent release cycle because that makes things easier to maintain and troubleshoot. So, it’s unclear how a relatively fast schedule will play out in the business sector, whose support contracts and bulk licensing earn MS billions of dollars per year.

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