Microsoft Windows 8 review
Microsoft has finally released its game-changing operating system, Windows 8. This is the biggest change to the Windows OS since the launch of Windows 95. We've already spent a lot of time using Windows 8, so keep reading to find out what we think of Microsoft's latest operating system in this Windows 8 review - it's the only Windows 8 review you need.
Windows 8 launched on the 26th October and, as usual with Microsoft operating systems - apart from a few exceptions - will be the operating system on all new PCs and laptops. It's also available on tablets, starting with Microsoft's own Surface and, Windows Phone 8 is now available smartphones. In this Windows 8 review we cover everything except Windows Phone 8, which isn't yet available to test.
Windows 8: All change please
You're probably familiar with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 since you use at least one or more of them on a daily basis. Although improvements have been made over the years, they're fundamentally the same as Windows 95. It doesn't take too much effort to switch between any of these versions, even though options have moved around a little.
With Windows 8, things change radically. The desktop, as you know it, is relegated to the side-lines to make way for the new so-called Modern UI (User Interface). This interface is designed to be used with touchscreens as well as with a mouse and keyboard, and requires programs to be written specially for it.
These Windows apps are downloaded via the new Windows Store, or from app developers' websites. The Windows Store is similar to Apple's App Store and Google's Play store. As of the October 26 launch date, there will be relatively few apps there, but the number will grow quickly as more and more people begin using Windows 8. Currently, many are free, and a small number cost a couple of pounds. Again, this is likely to change, so don't expect programs which cost, say £100 now, to be any cheaper when the Windows 8 app is released. See also: Best Windows apps: Windows 8 app group test.
You can still run programs written for older versions of Windows, but this is possible only on PCs and laptops: Windows 8 tablets (at least those which have ARM processors and run Windows 8 RT) won't have the traditional Windows desktop at all.
Windows 8: Upgrading
You don't have a buy a new laptop or PC to get Windows 8, of course. Windows XP, Vista and 7 can be upgraded to Windows 8, although there's a limit to how much you can bring with you.
If your computer runs XP with Service Pack 3, you can transfer your files. Vista users can bring files and settings, while Windows 7 owners can keep programs, settings and files. Any incompatible programs have to be uninstalled before the upgrade, but Windows 8's installer will tell you what action needs to be taken. For a step-by-step guide to the upgrade process, including how to register for the Windows 8 Upgrade Offer, see: How to upgrade to Windows 8.
Windows 8 vs Windows RT
Windows RT, in case you're confused (and we'd understand if you are), is the version of Windows which runs on tablets. It looks the same, and uses the same gestures, but there are some subtle differences.
One is that you can't buy Windows 8 RT, in the same way you can't buy Apple's iOS operating system for the iPad. It comes with the tablet when you buy it.
Windows 8 RT will run apps downloaded via the Windows Store, just like Windows 8. However, RT comes with Microsoft Office pre-installed; Windows 8 doesn't.
Windows RT doesn't have the traditional Windows desktop, and can't run legacy programs, but Windows 8 can. RT also lacks some of the other features of Windows 8 Pro: there's no Windows Media Player, or BitLocker encryption, no domain support and, although there's Remote Desktop, it works only as a client, so you can't remotely connect to a Windows 8 RT tablet. The basic version of Windows 8 also lacks these features: for more see Which version should I choose? later on.
What you will find is the same Internet Explorer 10, Office 2013, Mail, Calendar, Maps, Photos, Music, Videos, Weather, People, News, Travel, Finance and SkyDrive apps. There's also Windows Defender, Exchange ActiveSync and VPN support.
Microsoft has confirmed that IE10 on Windows 8 RT will support Flash, which is used on many websites and for a lot of internet video. Flash is also supported, as you'd expect, in the desktop version of Windows 8.
Windows 8: Modern UI Interface
Windows 8 Lock screen
In Windows 8 your computer boots straight to the lock screen, the same screen you'll see on a Windows 8 RT tablet. You swipe upwards, or click or press a key on your keyboard, to remove it and see the user accounts, as you'd see in previous versions of Windows.
The Lock screen shows the time, date and can also show more detailed information from an app of your choosing, such as Weather or Mail. Many other apps, such as Twitter clients can also show information on the Lock screen.
Windows 8 Start screen
When you've entered your password (there's also the option of a picture password), you're taken to the new Start screen, which Microsoft is now calling the Modern UI (formerly, but no longer, Metro). This is best thought of as a full-screen Start menu, since there's no longer any such menu, even on the traditional desktop.
It's at this point which many people will feel lost, but as with any new interface, it takes only a few minutes to gain your bearings and figure out where things are and how to accomplish tasks.
In fact, the Start screen is well designed and conveys much more information that it first appears. Some of the 'tiles' display live information, so you can see the current weather, for example, without launching the Weather app. Similarly, you can see the latest news headlines, emails and share prices and much more without as much as a single tap or click.
If you'd like things to be arranged differently, just tap (or click) on a tile and drag it to a new position. Everything else will rearrange around it, and some tiles can be shrunk or enlarged, making it easier to find the apps you use most.
As you install apps, new tiles are created, and you can also add tiles as shortcuts to programs already installed, including those that run on the traditional desktop. When there are too many to display on screen, you have to scroll right to see more. Alternatively, you can pinch to zoom out, then scroll and zoom in when you see the tile you want.
Those without a touchscreen can hold Ctrl and roll their mouse wheel to zoom in and out, while laptop owners without a scroll area or gesture support can use the keyboard shortcut, Ctrl, + or Ctrl, -. It's well worth learning the keyboard shortcuts for getting around Windows 8 as this is the only way to be as fast as if you had a touchscreen.
In the zoomed-out view, you can click on a group of tiles to select it and move it to a new position. Right-clicking on it (or dragging down on a touchscreen) gives the option to name it - the name then appears above the group. In the zoomed-in view, you can drag a tile between groups to create a new group.
When using the interface with a standard scroll mouse, the scroll wheel will default to horizontal scrolling until you click on a vertical pane of information, such as a list of emails or on a web page. Then it switches to scrolling vertically. It means you can get around the Modern UI without too much hassle, and without needing to buy any new hardware such as Microsoft's Touch Mouse.
There's no getting away from the fact that, as Microsoft freely admits, touch is a first-class citizen in Windows 8 and it's not as quick or pleasant to use it with a basic mouse and keyboard. Keyboard shortcuts, as we've said, are the next best thing.
Keyboard shortcuts for Windows 8
Windows key + Q: Search. This opens the search charm, set to whichever app you're currently using. You can quickly switch to a files search with Windows+F, or settings with Windows+W.
Windows+C: Open the Charms bar
Windows+H: Share charm
Windows+I: Settings charm
Windows+Z: Displays the app bar. This gives contextual options in each app.
Windows+X: opens the admin menu, which appears where the Start menu used to be.
Windows+D: Shows the traditional desktop. Press again to minimise all desktop windows.
Windows+L: Locks your computer and displays the Lock screen.
Alt+F4: Close current app. Also, you can use your mouse to click at the top of an app and drag it to the bottom of the screen.
Windows 8: Charms bar
The Charms bar is another brand new feature. It appears when you swipe your finger in from the right-hand edge of the screen. Those with a mouse can point the cursor to the top- or bottom-right corner of the screen (these are two of the new 'hot' corners in Windows 8).
From the top, you have Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Search is a replacement for the search box in Windows 7 and Vista, but a more capable version. The Share charm allows you to share things with people, but the options will change depending on which app is running. Extra sharing options will appear when you install apps that can share content, such as Twitter clients.
Start takes you back to the Start screen if you're in another app, or switches to the most recent app if you're on the Start screen.
Click or tap the Devices icon to show relevant connected devices. Printers, speakers, screens and network devices will be shown in a list. You can click on one to change its settings, or use any of its capabilities.
Finally, Settings gives quick access to Wi-Fi settings, volume, screen brightness and notifications options. It also provides a link to the new, streamlined control panel, simply named Settings. Clicking on the Settings charm will also show settings specific to the current app, so you might see common Help and About links for most apps, but an extra Accounts option for Mail, say.
Windows 8: Searching
For a list of all installed apps, swipe up from the bottom, or right-click, to bring up the bottom options bar, then choose All apps. A neat shortcut, if you know what you're looking for, is simply to start typing on the Start screen. This opens the search box, and you can filter results by type: Apps, Settings or Files. You can also apply that search to a particular app (Internet Explorer, for example) by clicking or tapping on it in the search box.
Multiple windows, Modern UI-style
When you tap or click on an app it opens in full-screen mode. Most apps are designed to work this way, but you can drag down from the top, then drag either left or right to resize the app to occupy a small column at either side. Three-quarters of the screen is then left for a second app (or the desktop, if you like). You can flip apps between these two positions by grabbing the black bar which separates the apps and dragging it left or right.
This 'multitasking' feels a lot more limiting than the traditional desktop where you can have many windows open at once, in whichever positions you like. However, it feels like a revelation on a Windows 8 tablet as it's the first time you can see two apps at once.
It's useful in many situations as you can put an app such as Tweetro or Mail in the small column to the left or right and use the rest of the screen for the app you're actually using. This way you can see new tweets or emails appear. The new Windows 8 notifications can also do this job, but they're shown for only a moment.
There are various ways of switching between apps in the Modern UI. The easiest is to use the Windows, Tab shortcut to bring up the new, vertical apps list. This includes the desktop, but to choose a particular app that's running on the desktop, use Alt, Tab instead, then use the cursor keys to pick the app you want.
On a touchscreen, you drag in from the left, then back to bring up the vertical list of apps, just as you get on an Android tablet. With a mouse, you point the cursor at the top or bottom corner at the left side of the screen (the other two 'hot' corners), then drag down or up to see the list.