Editors' note: portions of this review are based on CNET's First Takes for the three preview builds of Windows 8.
Microsoft's vision for the future of computers builds a new world for Windows. It works well with a mouse and keyboard, and it's great with touch screens. It lusts for apps, lives for sync and loves real-time updates. But you'd better believe that it'll take some time to get used to it all.
Since Microsoft debuted its vision for Windows 8 to the world at its Build 2011 conference, we have watched the themes that drive Windows 8 slowly gestate. The new operating system applies the lessons of mobile to the personal computer in a way that's absolutely innovative. Connectivity, cloud access to personal files, seamless updates and a simple interface all come together in Windows 8.
A full CNET comparison between Windows 8 and Apple's OS X Mountain Lion will be forthcoming, but for now, it's interesting to note two major differences. Apple's approach to sync integration with iCloud and app updates is much more cautious than Microsoft's cross-device Hail Mary. This isn't surprising, given that Apple is the lion's share of the tablet market, with the iPad claiming a 70 per cent share.
However, Google's clunky, robotic missteps on tablets have handed an opening to Microsoft to stomp in and grab the number two spot. The "lite" version of Windows 8, Windows RT, will come with the New Microsoft Office pre-installed, and Windows Phone 8 will offer a Windows 8-styled interface, coupled with robust sync features. And the company is pushing tablet makers with its own innovative Surface tablets. Basically, Redmond wants to build one Windows to rule them all.
There are two ways to get Windows 8 and Windows RT, which reach the public on 26 October. You can buy a new computer or tablet running it, which is an attractive option because Microsoft is mandating its strictest standards ever for hardware manufacturers. Previews of the desktops, laptops and tablets that will run Windows 8 have been, at worst, interesting curiosities, but have generally been much more than that.
However, Microsoft desperately wants people who own older Windows computers to upgrade. If you bought your Windows machine after June 2, 2012, but before January 31, 2013, you'll be able to buy an upgrade license for US$14.99. People with older Windows 7, Vista and XP computers will be able to upgrade for US$39.99. Those are effectively Mac OS X point upgrade prices for a major operating system upgrade. We can't say that it's worth holding on to your XP-running hardware, but if you've got Windows 7, US$40 for an upgrade ought to be mightily attractive. Not only that, but if you're considering buying a brand-new Windows 8 machine, this is a low-cost way to take the OS on a test run.
Windows RT will only come pre-installed on tablets. The two versions available to the public to download will be Windows 8 Basic and Windows 8 Pro, which this review is based on.
Welcome to the Windows 8 Start screen.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
The Windows 8 installation process is remarkably simple, and belies the massive changes you are about to wreak on your operating system. Run the installer, drop in the license key when asked and allow the computer to reboot.
On the Toshiba DX1215 built for Windows 7, but running the Windows 8 Release Preview that we upgraded, installation took around 10 minutes — not including the hinkiness we encountered with the Microsoft-supplied USB stick. The syncing process took longer, and getting the RTM to the same point of usability as the RP took almost another 20 minutes. Microsoft said this was longer than normal, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Microsoft documentation noted that people installing Windows 8 over Windows 7 will get to keep their Windows settings, personal files and programs.
If you have a preview version of Windows 8, you'll be able to keep your personal files, but apps will have to be downloaded again from the Windows Store. Fortunately, your previous apps should be saved in the Your Apps section, at the top edge. Settings such as picture and Facebook passwords will carry over, since they're attached to your log-in account. Google log-ins, apparently, will not and must be re-entered manually.
There's no official word on what upgrading from Vista or XP looks like, at this point in time.
Microsoft has never been accused of doing anything the easy way, and that's doubly true for navigating Windows 8. The complaints and compliments about the definitely different Windows 8 interface are varied, but basically boil down to two aesthetic sensibilities.
We believe that Windows 8's new Start screen presents apps in an elegant interface. It challenges current common wisdom about apps and their icons, and re-imagines the icon as an integrated extension of the app itself. The Windows 8 tile is a widget-esque surface that can stream real-time information from the app.
Tiles are arranged in groups on the Start screen, and you can drag them around to create new groups. You can also pinch to zoom out and get a global view of your groups, from which the groups themselves can be reorganised. This semantic zoom creates an easier way to navigate through content-rich apps, and across the dozens or hundreds of apps you're likely to install.
Furthermore, Windows 8 takes advantage of your screen's edges to stick menus in an accessible, but out of the way place. There's almost a Zen approach to it all. Everything feels connected as you flip between recently used apps, use semantic zoom to navigate above and then within an app, and as your right-edge Charms bar provides an actual unified place to tweak settings, search in-app and across Windows 8 and share content.
The Charms bar on the right side of the screen lets you navigate through Windows 8.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
You navigate Windows 8 through the Charms bar, which has no true analog in Windows 7. It's the navigation bar that lives at the right edge of the screen and intertwines OS navigation with OS functionality. From the Charms bar, you can search apps, files, and settings; share content across apps; jump to the Start screen; configure external device,s such as multiple monitors; and change settings, both for Windows 8 itself and any app that you're in at the moment.
By putting these five key features all in one place, Microsoft has supplanted the catchall Start menu of previous Windows editions with something more nuanced, but also with a broader mandate. All apps have settings, goes the logic — therefore, you should be able to access those settings in the same place, regardless of app.
In practice, this is generally smooth with moments of clunkiness. No matter what app you're in, your Windows 8 settings are always accessible from the bottom of the Settings sidebar. However, the specifics of an app naturally are left to the app maker. In Microsoft's Weather app, your toggle from Fahrenheit to Celsius lives not in the Settings sidebar, but in the also-hidden bottom edge options.
The left edge allows you to swipe through your previously used app, although you can turn this off if you'd like. Swiping in from the left edge and then making a quick U-turn back to the edge reveals a sidebar of thumbnails of your previously used apps, including the Start screen. You can cycle very quickly through previous apps, making this one of Windows 8's better navigation options.
So, while it's logical of Microsoft to restrict the side edges to the operating system, and the top and bottom edges to the app, the practice is not intuitive in all cases. Microsoft provides a helpful and necessary tutorial when you first install Windows 8 that demonstrates this, but it doesn't show you the top and bottom edges, or the left edge.
Because Windows 8 is intended as a unified system for both PC and tablet, it works almost as well with a keyboard and mouse as it does with touch. While the mouse may eventually go the way of the fax machine, it's doubtful that Microsoft intends to kill it off while encouraging so many non-touch-screen owners to upgrade to Windows 8. It's much more likely that Microsoft sees an immediate future for touch and keyboard/mouse, not touch or keyboard/mouse.
So, as with seemingly everything in Windows 8, this, too, serves two masters. Sure, it gives you the precision required for image editing, but it's also Microsoft proclaiming Windows 8's usefulness. Windows 8 can do it all, Microsoft says: you get touch, mouse-like precision and keyboard hot keys. While the tiles are clearly designed for touch, they are not irritatingly large for mouse work.
Meanwhile, all the major hot keys in Windows 7 perform the same functions in Windows 8, and there are some new ones, too. These include Win+Print Screen to take a screenshot, which then gets automatically saved to your Photos app, or using the Windows key to switch between the Start screen and your last-used app.
One of the best keyboard functions is that you can pull up an app from the Start screen just by beginning to type. It's ridiculously simple and effective: type "cal" when on the Start screen, and a list of apps with "cal" in their name appear in the centre of the screen, but on the right, you can flip from Apps to Settings and Files that have the same "cal" string.
Not much will happen when you first connect a mouse to Windows 8. As soon as you move the mouse, though, a scroll bar will appear along the bottom edge of the Start screen. You can then use the scroll bar to navigate through your groups, or you can use the scroll wheel for that — so the vertical motion is interpreted by Windows 8 as a horizontal scroll.
Move the mouse to the lower-left corner to reveal your Start screen, or the upper-left corner for your most recently visited app. If you then move the mouse alongside the left edge, it will reveal your other most recently used apps.
The Metro version of Internet Explorer 10 has a unique interface.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
One of the big new features is that Windows 8 will allow multi-touch gestures on touch pads. Macs have had multi-touch touch-pad drivers for a few years, while Windows touch pads have been awkwardly attempting a facsimile, with multi-touch not working that well in a number of circumstances. The blame for that can sit at the feet of Microsoft, just as easily as you can point a finger at the hardware manufacturers. The point is now, with Windows 8 forcing dramatic hardware upgrades to accompany it, Windows touch pads are finally moving forward.
Three default gestures will come with all laptops that have touch pads: pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scroll along the X and Y axes and edge swiping. That last one is important because it will give you an easier way to activate the edges on non-touch-screen Windows 8 computers, besides using the mouse.
The mouse has been enabled for apps, too. So in Internet Explorer, for example, a back navigation arrow appears on the left, and a forward nav arrow appears on the right edge. Mouse to the lower-right corner to see the navigation Charms, and then mouse up along the edge to use them.
Right-clicking reveals the "app edges", the app-specific options from the top and bottom screen edges, while a button denoted by a magnifying glass on the far right of the scroll bar zooms you in and out of your groups.
It's impressive how well Microsoft has been able to replicate the touch workflow with the mouse and keyboard. We've never seen the two integrated quite like this before. The multiple ways to interface with it will also go a long way toward convincing previous Windows owners, and perhaps even sceptics, that Windows 8 is all that and a bag of chips. Most importantly, though, both work well with your apps.
Detractors will rightly criticise Microsoft for many of the same things that we like about Windows 8. It opens to an entirely new desktop called the Start screen, with the Start menu and Start button effectively evaporated into the history books. Confusingly, there's a Windows 7-styled "Desktop" mode for legacy programs and some core Windows advanced configuration tools.
The tiles for non-Metro apps look funny on the Start screen, with traditional icons placed against relatively enormous square tiles. Oh, and Microsoft doesn't want you to call it Metro anymore, but we're going to, in an effort to keep the review clear.
The Windows 7-style desktop has all the familiar features of Microsoft's previous OS, while making it easy to jump back and forth.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
The Desktop tile will jump you directly into a Windows 7-style desktop, complete with Recycle Bin, traditional Internet Explorer, File Explorer and taskbar. After almost 20 years, the Windows Explorer file management tool has been rebranded File Explorer, and it offers much more robust file-tweaking options. A keyboard icon next to the system tray forces the Windows 8 soft keyboard to appear, with options for splitting it for vertical orientation or using a stylus for handwriting recognition.
There's no doubt that Desktop mode is a visually jarring jump from Metro, as are the design rules that govern in-app styles between the two. Apps that open in Desktop mode have dropped the translucent Aero borders that debuted in Vista, replaced with the solid colours of the background tiles in the Start screen, so there are some attempts to make them less dissimilar.
It's hard to imagine many people giving Windows 8 a fair shot if Microsoft had completely abandoned the previous design scheme and, so, the Desktop mode remains an uneven compromise. To its credit, the active left and right edges go a long way to making Desktop mode feel less like an alternate mode and more like an app, even though it is clearly so much more than a mere Metro app.
Also worth noting is that Microsoft is pushing all of its apps toward a unified aesthetic. This doesn't just include the apps that come with Windows 8, such as Mail or Music, the new Microsoft Office is part of this, as is the new Outlook.com. Microsoft may be late to this game, but it's come through with a strong, clean look that's eminently usable.
Features and support
While the seams between the ghosts of Windows past are sometimes visible when critiquing the Windows 8 interface, they are far less apparent when it comes to its features. What you can do with the operating system focuses heavily on the future of computing, and Microsoft has wisely put them into the peculiarly named Charms bar (it apparently resembles a charms bracelet).
Search is global, and includes data from all your apps that have activated the search hooks. This being Windows, you could tweak those settings, but most people will see a unified search for across the OS, the apps and your personal files to be a boon.
The Share Charm lets you share content in between apps. It's as much a benefit for developers as it is for the rest of us. Developers only have to code their app to connect to the Share Charm, instead of having to code to have their app "talk" to another specific app. The end result in Windows 8 is that apps share content effortlessly — much like Android's Share mechanism.
The Devices Charm places secondary devices only a touch away. This may seem odd to many people, but it's a nod to the fact that Windows 8 must serve both PCs and tablets. No matter the Windows 8 device, managing a second monitor will be as simple as managing an external drive.
We discussed some of the limitations of the Settings Charm, as they relate to navigating Windows 8, but overall, those problems are another twist on the learning curve. The new OS eliminates the requirement to sift through multiple drop-down menus when looking for the right way to access the Power Management.
One notable frustration is that it's not immediately apparent which controls are available from the Settings sidebar's More PC Settings, and which controls must be accessed through the traditional Control Panel. A good rule of thumb would be that if you're looking for a configuration related to Metro, start with the Metro settings, but unfortunately, that doesn't always play out.
There's more to Windows 8 than just its charming approach to search and socialisation. For one thing, it offers some cool log-in options. You can choose to create a local account, but the OS becomes infinitely more useful when you use a Microsoft account. You'll be able to synchronise Windows 8 settings, including Internet Explorer 10 history and preferences. This means that when you use any other Windows 8 machine with that account, your data will sync, including background settings, address book and other accounts like Facebook and Twitter, email and instant messaging. App syncing is done through the Windows Store, while the 7GB of free SkyDrive storage and integration with the SkyDrive app can be used to sync personal files.
Google accounts appeared not to sync at the time of writing.
The People app is where all your contacts will integrate from across multiple services.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
Beyond sync, once you've logged on for the first time, you can change your log-in to a Personal Identification Number or a picture log-in. The picture log-in is neat, and lets you set a photo as your log-in background. You can then customise a quick series of drawings on the picture, made up of a line, a circle and a dot, to log you in. It ought to provide a much faster log-in process for tablets than a PIN.
If you're on the lock screen, you click and drag it up to reveal the password dialog. It may sound like a lot that's different from the touch workflow, but it's actually quite simple. You can even use the mouse for your picture log-in.
One of Windows 7's better interface features was a split-screen view that you could initiate just by dragging one program's Title Bar to the left or right side of the screen. This has been updated for Windows 8 when you drag an app from the left edge. Once the split bar appears, release the app and it will "snap" to the edge. The screen will be split, with one-third for the app you just dragged over, and two-thirds for the previous app. The benefits to multitasking in multiple apps are readily apparent.
There's a lot of debate about how restrictive Microsoft might be making Windows 8 to other browsers, but that's a question that will take more time to resolve.
IE 10 is the most standards-compliant versions of Internet Explorer yet, as well as recognised by several sources as extremely good at blocking malware and phishing.
Windows 8 is also, by far, the safest version of Windows yet. Although there's no such thing as a foolproof system, these features greatly reduce the parts of Windows that are vulnerable. There's the Trusted Boot for double-checking system integrity before Windows loads and the SmartScreen in IE 10 to protect you from phishing and malware.
Windows 8 has even more features. This is the first version of Windows with dedicated parental control features, called Family Safety; there's support for games through the Xbox app and streaming content from Xbox with the SmartGlass app; and the Desktop apps, such as File Explorer, works amazingly well with touch and their new layouts.
Meanwhile, in the PC Settings, you can now handle poorly performing Windows 8 computers with the Refresh option, for reinstalling the OS without affecting your personal settings and files; or Remove everything and reinstall a fresh version of Windows, without having to use any external installation discs. If they work as advertised, they'll negate one of the biggest complaints about Windows over time: that the operating system performance degrades and reinstalling is a unmitigated painful hassle.
The Windows Store is where you'll go to get the new Metro-style apps.
(Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)
There's no question that Windows 8 is a faster operating system. In the time that Windows 7 boots to the log-in screen, it feels like Windows 8 boots and gets you through your log-in. Repeated shutdown and cold boot tests on our Toshiba gave Windows 8 an average of 24.7 seconds to go from off to the Start screen, including picture log-in. Windows 8 wakes from hibernation rapidly — not quite as quick as Chrome OS's instant on, but significantly faster than Windows 7 and the closest to "instant on" that Microsoft has ever been.
Microsoft is claiming some bold numbers for Windows 8 performance, including a 35 per cent performance boost when waking from hibernation, better battery management, and better disk I/O that can result in faster program install times — the company says that installing Office 2010 on Windows 8 is 10 to 20 per cent faster than on Windows 7.
Windows 8 will work on the same hardware as Windows 7: a minimum of a 1GHz or faster processor, 1GB of RAM and a 16GB hard drive for an x86 computer, or 2GB of RAM and 20GB hard drive for an x64, and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9 with the WDDM driver. A screen resolution of 1,024x768 pixels is required to run Metro apps and use the Windows Store, while "snapping" apps requires at least 1366x768 pixels.
We're giving Windows 8 a strong recommendation, in no small part because of its value. If you're running a Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 computer, upgrading will cost you US$40. That's worth it alone for the security and speed enhancements, not to mention the better driver and utility support. That price point is almost US$100 cheaper than upgrading from XP or Vista to Windows 7 was.
Windows 8 has more going for it, of course. It's the first serious attempt to unify computing across disparate devices and accounts in a way that looks and feels cohesive. It's stunningly fast, it presents apps in a new way that avoids the repetitiveness of Android and iOS, and it feels connected to your life and the internet.
We've based our conclusions on weeks with prior versions and 24 hours with this one, and we will continue evaluating and benchmarking to update, as needed.
One big question remains: does the learning curve make it worth strongly considering other operating systems? We think not. There are more than enough similarities between Windows 7 and Windows 8 that, while the incline is aggressive, it's far easier than learning an entirely new set of hot keys and workflow. We think that it's worth seriously considering the upgrade, especially from older systems, but it's not yet the one operating system (to rule them all) that Microsoft wants it to be.