Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/5630/indepth-with-the-windows-8-consumer-preview



Windows has changed a lot since Windows 95 ushered in the modern era of the desktop operating system almost two decades ago—the underlying technology that makes Windows what it is has completely changed since those early days to keep pace with new technologies and usage models. Despite all of those changes, though, the fundamental look and feel of Windows 7 remains remarkably similar to its hoary old predecessor.


Windows 95 and Windows 7: We're not so different, you and I

All of that's changing—the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is here, and it brings with it the biggest fundamental change to the default Windows UI since 1995. Metro is an interface designed for the modern, touch-enabled era, and when Windows 8 (and its cousin, Windows on ARM) is released, it will signify Microsoft's long-awaited entry into the tablet market that the iPad created and subsequently dominated.

The difference between Microsoft's strategy and Apple's strategy is that Microsoft is not keeping its operating systems separate—iOS and OS X are slowly blending together, but they remain discrete OSes designed for different input devices. Windows 8 and Metro, on the other hand, are one and the same: the operating system running on your desktop and the one running on your tablet are going to be the same code.

Metro tends to overshadow Windows 8 by the sheer force of its newness. Although it's one of the biggest changes to the new OS, it's certainly not the only one. Windows 8 includes a slew of other new and updated programs, utilities, services, and architectural improvements to make the operating system more useful and efficient than its predecessor—we'll be looking at the most important of those changes as well.

Will all of these new features come together to make Windows 8 a worthy upgrade to the successful Windows 7? Will the Metro interface work as well with a keyboard and mouse as it does on a tablet? For answers to those questions and more, just keep reading.

Hardware Used for this Review

For the purposes of this review, I’ve installed and run Windows 8 on a wide variety of hardware. I’ve done most of the review on a pair of machines, which I’ll spec out here:

 

Dell Latitude E6410

Dell Latitude D620

CPU 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 M540 2.00 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
GPU 512MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 3100M Intel GMA 950
RAM 8GB DDR3 2GB DDR2
Hard drive 128GB Kingston V100 SSD 7200RPM laptop HDD
OS Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x86

I also installed and used Windows 8 on the following computers for at least a few hours each:

 

Netbook

Late 2006 20" iMac

Mid-2007 20" iMac HP Compaq C770US Late 2010 11" MacBook Air Custom-built Mini ITX desktop
CPU 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 3.10 GHz Intel Core i3-2105
GPU Intel GMA 950 128MB ATI Radeon X1600 256MB ATI Radeon 2600 Pro Intel GMA X3100 NVIDIA GeForce 320M Intel HD Graphics 3000
RAM 1GB DDR2 2GB DDR2 4GB DDR2 2GB DDR2 4GB DDR3 8GB DDR3
Hard drive 5400RPM laptop HDD 7200RPM desktop HDD 7200RPM desktop HDD 16GB Samsung SSD 128GB Samsung SSD 64GB Crucial M4 SSD
OS Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x64

This broad list of hardware, most of it at least a couple of years old, should be representative of most machines that people will actually be thinking about upgrading to Windows 8—there will be people out there installing this on old Pentium IIs, I'm sure, but those who are already know that they're edge cases, and are outside the scope of this review.

Update: Hey AMD fans! A lot of you noticed that there weren't any AMD CPUs included in my test suite. This was not intentional on my part, but rather a byproduct of the fact that I have no AMD test systems on hand at present. For the purposes of this review, these specifications are provided to you only to give you an idea of how Windows 8 performs on hardware of different vintages and speeds, not to make a statement about the relative superiority of one or another CPU manufacturer. For the final, RTM version of Windows 8, we'll make an effort to include some AMD-based systems in our lineup, with especial attention paid to whether Windows 8 improves performance numbers for Bulldozer chips.

With Windows 8, Microsoft has two claims about hardware: first, that Windows 8 would run on any hardware that runs Windows 7, and second, that programs and drivers that worked under Windows 7 would largely continue to work in Windows 8. Overall, my experience on both counts was positive (excepting near-constant Flash crashes), but you can read more about my Windows 8 hardware recommendations later on in the review.

The last thing I want to do before starting this review is give credit where credit is due—many readers have said in the comments that they would like multi-author reviews to include some information about what author wrote what opinions, and I agree. For your reference:

  • Brian Klug provided editing services.
  • Ryan Smith wrote about DirectX 11 and WDDM 1.2
  • Kristian Vatto wrote about the Mail, Calendar, and Photos apps.
  • Jarred Walton provided battery life statistics and analysis.
  • Andrew Cunningham wrote about everything else. You can contact him with questions or comments at andrewc@anandtech.com or using his Twitter handle, @Thomsirveaux

Now, let's begin at the very beginning: Windows Setup.



Microsoft offers two different methods for installing the Consumer Preview: you can download an ISO that can then be burned to a DVD or copied to a USB stick, or you can use the new online installer to download the necessary files to any Windows Vista or Windows 7 PC. Both 32-bit and 64-bit installation versions are being offered to maintain compatibility with all hardware that can currently run Windows 7—this is likely (but not certain) to be the last 32-bit version of Windows, but we won't know that for sure until we start hearing about Windows 9.

Setup from a DVD or USB drive is virtually identical to Windows 7 Setup—you agree to the EULA, decide whether you want to do an upgrade or clean install, partition your disk how you want it, and after a couple of reboots you’re looking at a fresh copy of Windows. Windows 8 creates a 350MB system partition at startup by default, slightly larger than the 100MB partition created by Windows 7. In Windows 7, this partition was used to store some recovery tools and (if necessary) BitLocker bootstrap information, and it serves the same purpose here—one assumes the extra space is used to store the more complex recovery tools Windows 8 provides.

If you’d like to see what this process looks like, we’ve included an image gallery below.



Microsoft will surely sell physical install media for Windows 8, but they’ve also developed a new and quite excellent online installer for the new operating system. The tool combines Windows Setup along with the Windows Upgrade Advisor tool, which scans your computer for hardware and software and checks its compatibility with Windows 8, and the Windows Easy Transfer tool, which gives the user easy and granular controls for backing up and restoring files and settings—both of these tools were separate applications in Windows 7. The installer will then download a copy of the Windows install media (Microsoft says that this download can be up to 25% smaller than the ISO) and perform either an upgrade or a clean install of Windows. The amount of time this takes will vary depending on server load and connection speed, but Microsoft’s comically indecisive file copy dialog should be able to give you a ballpark estimate.

The new installer is able to upgrade OSes as old as Windows XP (which will preserve only user data), though users upgrading from Windows Vista or Windows 7 will also be given the option to preserve Windows settings and applications, respectively. The Windows 7 setup program also offered to save only user data when upgrading from XP.

Once downloaded, the installer can be used to upgrade the running copy of Windows (the “Install Now” option), but it can also be burned to a DVD drive or copied to a USB stick to create more traditional Windows install media (the “Install on another partition option”). For upgrade installs on supported operating systems, you can elect to save everything from your current installation (personal data, installed programs, Windows settings), just your personal files (most things in your user profile folder), or nothing at all. Another image gallery depicting this tool is provided below for your convenience.

Microsoft has made some additional under-the-hood changes to save time during upgrade installs—where older Windows installers would move user files to another area on the disk, perform the Windows install, and then move them back, Windows 8’s installer uses “hard links” to “move” the files on the disk without actually moving the files physically. The graph below, provided by Microsoft, shows the kind of time reductions you can expect with an upgrade install.

OOBE and Windows Live ID

The Windows 8 Out of Box Experience (OOBE) is a touch-friendly version of what it has been since Vista—it serves as a first-time setup process that makes you give your computer a name, connect to a network, and create a user account.

That last part is where Windows 8 breaks from the past: you can still create local user accounts, but Microsoft really wants you to sign in using your Windows Live ID. Windows will then create a user profile with that username (the actual user folder that was created for my Live ID used its first three letters, a period, and three zeros to make “and.000”—your mileage may vary), and can sync various settings including your lock screen picture, desktop background, bookmarks, browser history, Windows Explorer settings, and a few others to the cloud and between Windows 8 and Windows on ARM devices.

A new Control Panel gives users granular control over exactly what is synced, and IT administrators will also be able to use new group policies to determine whether their users can link their domain accounts with Windows Live IDs (and the kinds of data the users can sync). Data synced to Microsoft's servers is encrypted using SSL/TLS, and new devices associated with your Windows Live ID must be confirmed via the Windows Live web portal before they can access your sync data. If you choose not to do any of this, local and domain accounts will work pretty much as they always have. If you choose to create a local account, you can always choose to associate it with a Windows Live ID later on in the Settings menu.

Once again, we’ve included a handy screenshot gallery for Windows 8’s Out of Box Experience below.



As soon as the setup process is finished, you’re presented with your first look at Windows 8’s primary innovation: Metro. This new UI, which originated in Windows Phone 7 and has since been extended to the Xbox 360, is the Wave of the Future at Microsoft, and it’s part and parcel of Windows 8. There is no classic Start menu to fall back on. There’s nothing built-in to the OS that allows you to disable it or boot to the desktop by default (though surely various hacks will enable this if they haven’t already). Metro is here, and if you use Windows 8 you’ll have to come to terms with it.

That’s because Microsoft is going a step further than Apple with regards to its operating systems: while Apple is busy porting iOS features and characteristics to a desktop operating system that is still recognizably OS X, Microsoft insists that the tablet is just another kind of PC, and to that end is building a unified OS for both tablets and traditional PCs. Microsoft tablets (whether running Windows 8 or Windows on ARM) will run the same core software as PCs, will be able to run many of the same apps as PCs, and (most importantly for Microsoft’s ecosystem of enterprise users) can be managed using the same tools as PCs. We’ve known for years that the traditional Windows desktop doesn’t work well on tablets, but does an interface designed for touch also work with a mouse and keyboard?

Metro, with its large fonts, bold colors, and large buttons was designed to be touched, and I think once we get some tablets designed for Windows 8 people are going to warm up to it. It’s well thought-out and with a little polishing will stand up well to iOS and Android in terms of features, and in terms of aesthetics it's already there—animations are fluid and attractive, and nice touches like a volume overlay (see right—finally!) bring an extra level of modern polish to Windows.

Brian Klug and Ryan Smith talked a bit about using Metro on a tablet in their piece on September’s Windows 8 Developer Preview, a process which is more or less the same in the Consumer Preview, so what I’ll be focusing on here is the general layout and function of Metro in the Consumer Preview, and my experience using it with a keyboard and mouse.

Introducing Metro

We’ll start with the entry point: the new login/lock screen. In previous Windows versions, this screen told you nothing about the computer—it was simply a gateway, and as such it either showed you a list of user accounts on the computer or displayed a CTRL + ALT + DELETE prompt with username and password fields. In Windows 8, the lock screen shows you the date and time and your current battery life and network connectivity status, set against a user-configurable background. Other Metro apps, like Mail and Messages, can also be configured to display status and notification messages on the lock screen. The look is reminiscent of most tablets and smartphones, but its big, high-resolution, striking images reminded me more of the Kindle Fire than anything. It’s a nice effect.

Press any key on your keyboard and the login image will slide upward, revealing the traditional Windows name and password fields. Authenticate, and you’ll be looking at the Metro-style Start screen.

 

Tiles for Metro-style apps are big and colorful, and can usually be set to two sizes, a smaller square that allows for two tiles to sit side by side in a column, and a longer rectangle that spans the entire column. Metro columns on the Start screen will expand or contract to fill all of the screen resolution available to them, as evidenced in the screenshots above and below, and your mouse or trackpad’s vertical scrolling function will let you move left and right (horizontally, I know) through all of your apps. You can also scroll by grabbing the scrollbar at the bottom of the screen, or by moving your mouse pointer all the way to the left or the right of the screen.


Displays with more pixels can display more items

Above, you can see most of what constitutes a Metro page: tiles of apps lined up into neat columns. Tiles can be moved around at will, and will try their best to rearrange themselves dynamically. The wider gap between two of the columns is a divider between “pages” of apps. There is no limit to the horizontal size of pages, and you can freely drag tiles to either side of these wider divides.

Right-clicking a Metro app will bring up a list of actions at the bottom of the screen—most Metro tiles will let you shorten or lengthen them, remove them from the Start screen, or uninstall them.

Standard desktop programs also show up on the Start screen as rather unglamorous-looking gray tiles that show the name of the program and its icon. Left clicking on it will dump you to the desktop and open the app as it would open in older versions of Windows, and right-clicking will bring up that app’s standard right-click menu in the Metro style across the bottom of the screen, with the added option to uninstall the program without going into the Programs and Features control panel.

To add and remove desktop app icons from the Start screen, right-click them and then click “pin to Start.” Desktop apps can be pinned to and unpinned from the desktop taskbar and the Start screen from the desktop or from Metro, the first of many ways in which the two interfaces are integrated.

Windows Search can be invoked automatically from the Start screen if you begin typing. In Windows 8, there are three distinct search categories: Apps, which will display most Metro and desktop programs; Settings, which will search through the Metro and desktop control panels; and Files, which is self-explanatory. You can also search through any Windows Search-enabled Metro app, which you can see listed below the three main headings. I’d love to see a unified search group like we had in the Windows 7 Start menu, especially given the sometimes-blurry line between what appears in Settings and what appears in Apps, but search in Windows 8 is powerful and it’s fast, even using slower processors and mechanical HDDs.

All Metro apps, including the desktop, can be “snapped” to the left or right edge of the screen, which lets one app use up about a fifth of the screen while another app uses the remaining space—I’ve seen this called “Metro Snap” and that’s how I’ll refer to it for the rest of the article. This is especially useful for things like Twitter or messaging clients that work well with a single vertical strip of screen space. Metro Snap will only work on panels that are 1366x768 or higher—anything smaller has too few horizontal pixels to make effective use of the feature—but the Windows desktop’s Aero Snap features will continue to work as they did in Windows 7.


Party Cat knows when it is time to party. Also, the app drawer is on the left.

Metro has a few menus that can always be brought up no matter what app you’re using: the left edge of the screen is for an application drawer (above), which serves a function similar to the application switchers in iOS and Android. It shows all of your currently running apps and allows you to either switch to them from the currently running app or close them. The desktop will show up in the application drawer as a single item regardless of how many programs you have running on it, and while you can “close” it, this only makes the tile vanish from the drawer, and won’t close any of the programs running on the desktop.

Update: Several readers have pointed out that right-clicking in the lower left corner of the screen brings up a mini-Start menu of sorts, where the Explorer, Search, the Run dialog box and several control panels can be accessed more easily. Thanks to all who sent this in!

The right edge of the screen is for Charms (above), Microsoft’s name for the buttons that let you access several high-level settings and features. The Charms are, from top to bottom:

  • Search, which brings up the Search menu (which, remember, can also be invoked by typing from the Start screen). The default search view is Apps.
  • Share. While in a Metro app like Photos, you could use this charm to send a picture to someone using another Metro app like Mail.
  • Start, which brings up the Start screen.
  • Devices, which brings up attached devices like printers and extra monitors and gives you some configuration options for them—for instance, it will allow you to change your display settings if you’ve got a second monitor or projector attached, and it will bring up a Print menu if you click an attached printer. This charm is context-sensitive—if there’s nothing in your app to print (or if the app doesn’t support it), for example, any printers attached to your computer won’t show up in the menu as a selectable option.
  • Settings. This brings up both general settings and options for the currently-running application as well as some system-wide settings like brightness, volume, notifications, language, network connectivity, and shutdown options. The “More PC Settings” link brings up the system-wide Metro control panel, where one can control things like the lock screen and Metro backgrounds, your PC’s refresh and reset functionality, and a few other settings.

 

Screen resolution requirements

As we’ve discussed, using Metro Snap requires a screen resolution of at least 1366x768, but there’s one more very important resolution requirement in Windows 8.

While working on my netbook, I quickly found that almost all Metro apps included in the Consumer Preview wouldn’t run on its 1024x600 display. After some research I found that, yes, Metro apps are only going to run on screens that are 1024x768 or higher. It’s important to give developers a minimum screen resolution to shoot for (and we may even see some tablets that use 1024x768 panels, given the precedent set by the iPad, the HP TouchPad, and others), but it means that users of PCs with smaller screens aren’t going to be able to use Windows 8’s defining feature (though the Start screen and system menus will still work just fine). This is too bad, since the limited amount of screen space on a netbook is a decent fit for Metro's simplified interface and full-screen apps.

Now that you know the basic features and layout of Metro, it’s time to teach you how to use it with a mouse and keyboard.

 



Working with a mouse

To navigate all of this with a mouse, Microsoft has introduced something it’s calling the “four corners”—each corner of your screen becomes a hot corner with a different function. Clicking repeatedly in the top-left corner will switch between all of your running Metro apps and the desktop (if it’s running), clicking in the lower-left corner will invoke the Start screen, and moving your mouse pointer along the left edge of the screen from either corner opens up the app drawer that shows all of your running apps.

Hovering in either corner on the right of the screen will bring up the Charms menu, which we discussed before, and clicking at the top of the screen and dragging to one or the other edge of the screen (while in a Metro app or sitting at the desktop, but not while running a desktop app) will invoke Metro Snap.

If this all sounds a bit confusing in concept, that’s because it kind of is—there’s no obvious indication that the four corners of the screen do anything in particular, and the “hot” areas of the screen can be easy both to miss or to activate by accident—I found the Back button in a maximized browser window to be tough to hit without invoking the app drawer. There are also some slightly misleading visual cues—for example, when invoking the Start screen from the lower-left corner, one’s impulse is to move the mouse pointer from the corner to click the thumbnail of the Start screen that appears. However, in practice, this will make the thumbnail disappear.

The four corners are especially annoying to deal with on a multi-monitor setup—since the corners are only present on your primary monitor, you’ll frequently find yourself overshooting corners on the edge of the display that is shared with other monitors. You can get accustomed to all of this with some practice, but it’s not particularly efficient, and stuff like this is usually what people are thinking of when they complain about how bad Metro will be for the desktop. It works, but it lacks precision.

Working with a Keyboard

Where Metro actually shines pretty brightly on the desktop is with a keyboard, though there’s one major caveat: if you want to make the most of Metro, you’re going to have to learn your keyboard shortcuts. It has always been true that people who know and make frequent use of keyboard shortcuts in desktop operating systems can do things much more quickly than with a mouse, but in Windows 8 knowing the keyboard shortcuts can be the difference between hating Metro and making peace with it.

In Windows 8, the Start key becomes your PCs “home” button—it will always call up the Start screen whether you’re using a Metro app or the regular desktop. Pressing it again will toggle back to the app you were using. The Windows key will be getting even more of a workout after you learn all of these convenient keystrokes.

Charms:

  • Windows + C: See the top level of the Charms menu.
  • Windows + Q: Brings up Search. This can also be invoked by typing while on the Start screen.
  • Windows + H: The Share charm.
  • Windows + K: The Devices charm.
  • Windows + I: The Settings charm.

Search:

  • Windows + Q: Brings up Search, defaults to searching Apps.
  • Windows + W: Brings up Search, defaults to searching Settings.
  • Windows + F: Brings up Search, defaults to searching Files.

Others:

  • Windows + D: Starts or switches to the Desktop.
  • Windows + L: Locks screen without signing you out.
  • Windows + Print Screen: Takes a screenshot of the screen's contents and saves it to the Pictures library in .PNG format.
  • Windows + Tab: Brings up the application drawer. This keystroke used to bring up Vista and 7’s Flip 3D, a fancy and less-useful Alt+Tab, which mercifully seems to have been killed in Windows 8.
  • Alt + Tab: Still switches between all open apps. Unlike Windows + Tab, Alt + Tab shows both individual Metro apps and individual Desktop apps.
  • Windows + Z: Brings up menus for Metro apps. In Internet Explorer, for example, this invokes the address bar and the tabbed browsing mechanism.
  • Windows + (period key): Invokes Metro Snap—by default, it snaps the currently running app to the right edge of the screen. Pressing it again will move the app to the left edge of the screen, and pressing it a third time will expand the app to take up the whole screen.
  • Windows + (plus/minus key): Invokes Magnifier, zooms in/out.
  • CTRL + (plus/minus key): Zoom in/out
  • CTRL + ALT + DEL: Brings up menu to lock the screen, switch users, sign out, open the Task Manager, or power off the computer.
  • Alt + F4: Closes Metro apps.

Metro conclusions

For most, the number one fear with Windows 8 and with Metro is that Microsoft is sacrificing current desktop and laptop users of Windows in an effort to chase the tablet market. Some may disagree with me, but I don’t think this is true. The Start menu is gone, but consider this: the best thing that Microsoft did to the Start menu came in Vista, when the new integrated search made it so that you didn’t actually have to go digging through folders and sub-folders. Not only is that search functionality alive and well in Windows 8, but the problem of folders and subfolders that it was created to avoid is also gone.

Yes, Metro is very different from what came before, and yes, Metro was clearly designed with touch in mind, but once you learn its tricks (and especially once you’ve got the new keyboard shortcuts dedicated to memory) it acquits itself as a flexible and powerful user interface. Even if you’re on a massive 2560x1440 display with multiple monitors and never, ever touch the Windows Store or a Metro app, the Start screen serves as a much more configurable and useful application launcher than the tiny Start menu ever was.

I don’t want to say that the Start screen is definitively better for PC users, especially those who rely on Windows 8's sometimes flaky mouse motions, but I strongly disagree with anyone who says that it’s worse. Microsoft has greatly improved Windows’ functionality on tablets (and if you’ve never used Windows 7 or something older on a currently available tablet PC, let me tell you: it isn’t pretty) while not greatly impacting the operating system’s usability on desktops and laptops. Metro's biggest problem right now is going to be what users bring with them: years of accumulated experience about how Windows should look and work. Windows is still Windows, but all of these changes add up to a new interface that is just different enough to spook users who rely on remembered actions to get around their computers, rather than an actual understanding of how and why things work.

Metro’s other problem (which will be a bigger problem on tablets than it is on desktops) is that too many of the more advanced configuration options kick you to the desktop—things like adding certain networked printers or VPN connections, setting fixed IP addresses, changing power settings and more all open up desktop control panels rather than integrating the functionality into Metro itself. This is OK on a PC, where many users will be spending a lot of time on the desktop anyway, but if this continues to be true of the RTM version (and if it’s also true of Windows on ARM), it could definitely be a problem. To be competitive with Android and iOS, Metro needs to be able to do at least most of the things that they can do without sending you to the Windows desktop. Not all of the desktop control panels need to be crammed into Metro, but advanced users are going to find themselves on the desktop a bit more than should be necessary in a touch-friendly OS.

Now, about the desktop...



The Desktop

If you refuse to believe that Metro can bring you anything but pain and sorrow, the good news is that the Windows desktop is still here, and it’s just as powerful and full-featured as it was in Windows 7. In fact, except for the absence of the Start button, it’s largely identical to the desktop in Windows 7—Metro is obviously where Microsoft has spent most of its development effort this cycle, but the Windows 7 desktop is still good enough that it’s not a big deal. You already know how this works if you’re a Windows user, but there have been a few useful enhancements and tweaks to give heavy desktop users some reason to upgrade.

Windows Explorer

A Windows 7 window (top) compared to a Windows 8 window (bottom). Note the very slightly narrower horizontal window borders in Windows 8.

The first thing you'll notice is that the window borders have changed slightly from those in Windows 7—corners are now squared-off, rather than rounded, and the font size in windows title bars is quite a bit larger. Window borders have also been put on a diet, though a very modest one—a Windows 8 window will use about four pixels less horizontal space than a Windows 7 window providing the same information.

The next thing you'll likely notice is that Windows Explorer has picked up the Ribbon interface first introduced in Office 2007. You’ve probably already seen and formed an opinion about the Ribbon (it also found its way into some Windows 7 applications like Paint and Wordpad, and was refined for Office 2010)—it was introduced in Office to replace the arcane maze of traditional menus and expose hidden functionality that people weren’t using because it was hard to find. In the context of a feature-rich program like Office, I think it does just what it was designed to do. In a less feature-packed program like Paint, I think it’s unnecessary but inoffensive. In Windows Explorer, it falls somewhere in between.


The Explorer ribbon is minimized by default

If you’re a power user who does most Explorer tasks with keystrokes (and let’s face it, 90% of what most people do in Explorer can be accomplished with just the CTRL, C, X, V, A, and Delete keys), you might not even notice the change—the ribbon is minimized by default and this makes Explorer look more or less like it did in Windows 7. You can expand and contract the ribbon using an arrow in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, and Windows Explorer will remember this preference for future sessions.

Clicking one of the headings like “File” or “Home” will expose all of the Ribbon functionality temporarily. The File menu is usually always present, and earns its keep solely by the ability to launch Command Prompt and PowerShell windows (both as the logged in user and as Administrator) in the current path, and the Home menu contains most commonly used file tasks (copy, paste, properties, and some others). The View tab controls the view settings, obviously, and the Share tab lets you share files both via email, printing, and burning to disc, as well as handling basic file sharing. To speed up window draw time, folders no longer display small icon overlays when shared or made private—you can view these settings by turning on new “sharing status” columns in Explorer. Hovering over most buttons will reveal tooltips that describe the button’s functionality and, if applicable, a keyboard shortcut that can be used to perform the same action.


A context-sensitive Ribbon menu

Other ribbon menus are context-sensitive, and show up only when applicable files are selected: for example, the Application Tools menu shows up when highlighting an executable, the Picture Tools menu shows up when highlighting an image, the Disk Tools menu appears when working with internal or external drives, and the Disc Image Tools menu shows up when highlighting an ISO or VHD image (both of which can be quickly and seamlessly mounted into Windows Explorer without third-party tools).

Copying Files

The new file copy dialog box is focused on giving you more information and more options than the file copy dialog in Windows 7. For starters, all file copy operations now happen in one unified window, instead of opening a new window for every file copy. Most file copy conflict resolution also takes place in this window without opening separate dialog boxes, though a separate window does pop up if you need to make choices more complicated than “skip” or “replace.” In the event of conflicts that need user input, Windows queues most error messages and displays them at the end of the operation, so as not to hang up the bulk of the copy waiting for user input.

When two files in a copy operation do conflict, Windows will give you the (opt-in) option to skip files that also have the same timestamp and file size while copying over files that just have the same name as files in the target folder. This catches files with the same name that have actually been changed while skipping over files that have stayed the same.


Copy operations can be paused manually, and will automatically pause if the computer hibernates or goes to sleep

In detail view, the progress bar for the copy also serves as a graph of the copy speed over time. Copy operations can be paused mid-stream, and if the computer goes to sleep or hibernates in the middle of a copy operation, the copy will pause and can be manually canceled or restarted the next time the computer wakes up.

SmartScreen

Windows 8 also brings Internet Explorer’s SmartScreen functionality to the OS level—when running an unrecognized or known-bad executable, Windows presents a full-screen message telling you that the program is unrecognized. By default, there’s no button to tell the program to run anyway, preventing an automated “just click Yes” response from users. To run the program, you must first click “More info,” and then click “run anyway.”

Some other, smaller changes have also been made to Explorer: images will now automatically rotate based on EXIF data, a tricky navigation pane scrolling bug has been removed, folders and executables can now be added to the Start screen, and users are no longer prompted to confirm whether they really want to send files to the Recycle Bin. All of these little changes add up to an Explorer update that’s a bit more impressive and a bit more useful than the one we got moving from Vista to 7.

Multi-monitor support

There are plenty of other Desktop features that don’t have anything to do with Explorer, and the most useful of them all is improved multi-monitor support.

In Windows 7 and before, Windows’ multi-monitor implementation supported displaying the taskbar on just one screen, meaning that no matter which screen you were working on you’d always have to go back to the main monitor to manipulate it. No more in Windows 8: the taskbar can now be configured to appear on both screens. This doesn’t change how programs remember their screen location—they still open on the screen they were last launched on, regardless of which taskbar you use to open them. The taskbar can either display all of your pinned icons on both monitors, or you can display all icons on the primary monitor and just icons for open windows on the second monitor. Taskbar location/orientation can be configured independently on both monitors.

For multi-monitor users, Microsoft provides some extra-wide wallpapers that can stretch across multiple screens, but there’s still no way to use a different wallpaper for each desktop, something that OS X has supported forever. It’s not a big deal, but I’m not sure what technical hurdle it is that Microsoft can’t jump over here. Update: As several readers have pointed out, you can set separate wallpapers for different monitors by right-clicking on the wallpapers in the Personalize control panel and selecting "Set for monitor X" as shown in the screenshot below. Thanks to all who sent this in!



When using a multi-monitor setup, the start screen and Metro apps can only use the primary monitor. You can continue to watch a video or work in desktop apps on the other screen without interrupting what you’re doing in Metro, and vice versa—when not using a desktop app, the desktop and taskbar will sit on the other monitor(s) and wait for your input. Changing your primary monitor can be done in a few different ways—in the Screen Resolution control panel (as in Windows Setup), via the Metro Devices charm, and by right-clicking the taskbar on the secondary monitor and clicking “make this my primary taskbar.”

Notifications

Notifications in Windows 8 eschew desktop windows entirely, even when you’re using the desktop. When an action prompts a notification (common causes include insertion of USB drives or other media and installation of new programs, as well as those generated by installed Metro apps), it slides in from the upper-right corner of the screen. Clicking or tapping it will bring up a menu that lets you decide what you want to do.

You can control which apps send you notifications in the Settings charm, or in the Metro control panel. Like other mobile OSes, Windows lists all apps capable of sending notifications and lets you toggle them on and off with a slider.

...The More Things Stay the Same

The changes above are the most significant you'll see on the desktop—otherwise, most things have stayed the same. Things like Paint, most Control Panels, WordPad, the Event Viewer, Windows Media Player and countless other built-in Windows tools are more or less identical to their Windows 7 counterparts, often implementing a version bump from 6.1 (Windows 7) to 6.2 (Windows 8) to keep things consistent. Remember: the XP (5.1) to Vista (6.0) transition was the last major under-the-hood version jump for Windows. To maintain compatibility with programs that check the Windows version number, Windows 7 was actually Windows 6.1, and in the same spirit Windows 8 is Windows 6.2.

I don't expect most people to feel very strongly about these non-changes, but there is one that will make a small but vocal subsection of the Windows user base pretty upset: Windows Media Center is still here, and it’s... exactly the same as the Windows 7 version. I suppose that’s good news, if you’re married to Media Center or if you were worried that it would be removed, but if you’re expecting the program to continue to evolve and improve as time goes on, well, it might be time to start looking into alternatives.



Now that we’ve covered the bulk of Windows’ new UI elements, it’s time to get down to some individual apps, and there’s no app more important to Windows 8’s success than the Windows Store.

Unfortunately, at this point it's a bit difficult to tell how the store is going to work out—it seems like one of the less-finished apps provided in the Consumer Preview. There are basic categories for games, social apps, music apps, and a few others, but aside from the basic Search functionality (which is accessed from the Charms menu), there's just a sprawling "top free" list and a lot of scrolling. The Windows Store definitely shouldn't be judged on this early iteration, but a lack of polish (unlike in other Metro screens, more tiles don't show up when more screen space is available—if you look at the Store on a screen with a vertical resolution of much more than 768 pixels, you'll just see a big unused area of white space below the Store tiles) and missing features make it a rough demo at best.

As in both the Apple and Android app stores, you’ll need to sign in with a Windows Live ID to download anything from the Windows Store. If you used your Windows Live ID to create an account during Windows Setup, the OS can download and install apps without asking you for any extra information, but you can still use your Live ID even if you chose to create a local account. Once you’ve purchased an app, you’ll be able to download that app to any Windows 8 or Windows on ARM device you’ve signed into with your Windows Live ID.

All of the preview apps in the Windows Store are currently offered free of charge, but in the RTM version of the store developers will be able to offer both “Buy” and “Try” buttons for apps with demos—apps can have either timed or feature-limited demos available. Unlocking the full version of the app requires no separate download, and all of your saved data from the demo is still available. Info pages for apps also list compatible processor architectures—x86, x64, and ARM.

As seen above, when updates are available a small number will appear on the Windows Store tile. Entering the Store and clicking the "Updates" link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen will present a list of available updates, which you can install individually or all at once.

Apps submitted to the Windows Store have to make it through Microsoft’s approval process, which looks to be a more developer-friendly version of Apple's system: Windows 8 will be a curated platform, which should help curb some of the malware problems that Android is having. However, criteria for approval are clearly laid out, and developers whose apps are rejected will be given feedback on what changes they'll need to make to get approved. Microsoft is also updating its development tools to help guide developers through all the steps of the certification process.

For both advertisements and in-app purchases, Microsoft offers its own platforms but does not mandate their use. If a newspaper or magazine publisher has an existing database of its users and a pre-existing authentication system, that publisher is free to continue using them in its app. Apple began mandating the use of its systems for in-app purchases last year, meaning that all in-app purchases on iOS are subject to Apple’s 70/30 revenue split, and Google may be moving to prohibit third-party in-app purchases even as you read this.

Lastly, let’s assuage the fears of enterprise administrators: via group policies and PowerShell scripts, domain administrators can both permit and deny access to the Windows Store and to individual apps, and can also deploy Metro apps directly to PCs without using the Windows Store at all. This opens the door to volume-licensed apps, and will help IT admins to provide a consistent set of programs and features across different Windows 8 systems.

Whether the Windows Store will succeed remains to be seen—things like app discovery and user interface are important, but in the end the Windows Store is just a portal that will live or die on the quality and quantity of its apps. Those that are available are in a preview state, and while we’ll look at a few of the core Metro apps later on in this article, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to to do in-depth reviews of apps that are in beta-at-best states.

I will lay out one major concern up-front: while apps like Evernote and Cut the Rope do well on smartphones and tablets, I wonder how well more full-featured programs like Photoshop and Office will scale to Metro with their functionality intact. The Windows Store and its WinRT APIs are Microsoft’s future, but take this as a case in point: Microsoft is going to be shipping a copy of Office with every Windows on ARM tablet, but rather than providing Metro versions of Word, Office, PowerPoint, and OneNote to show developers how it’s done, it’s providing copies of those programs that will run only in the desktop environment, and it’s doing this in spite of the fact that no other developers will be able to use the Windows desktop on Windows-powered ARM tablets.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Office apps will never get Metro styling, and it doesn’t mean that developers aren’t going to make some nice, feature-rich Metro apps, but Microsoft’s refusal to eat its own dog food in this case makes me a little nervous about the kind of programs we’ll end up seeing in Metro.



Refresh and Reset

One of Windows 8’s most appealing new features for enterprises is something Microsoft calls “refresh and reset.” It adds the ability to automatically roll a busted Windows install back to a pristine state. The “refresh” functionality rolls back changes to system files and installed desktop applications (unless you create your own recovery image; more on that in a minute) but preserves user data, and the “reset” functionality reverts Windows to its freshly-installed state. This is analogous to the appliance-like “reset” or “restore factory defaults” functions present in many smartphones, tablets, MP3 players, and other electronics capable of storing customized settings and user data.

Refresh and reset, accessible from the “General” section of the Metro settings and from the WinRE recovery menu, both use the same image-based technology used by Windows Setup to do their thing. Since Vista, Windows install media has included (1) a collection of files required to enabled booting from the media and (2) a large, monolithic .WIM image file that is uncompressed and copied to the hard drive during install—this contrasts with the setup process for Windows XP and earlier versions, which expanded and copied individual files from the install media to the hard drive. Microsoft also offers a number of tools (many included in the Windows ADK) to let end users and IT admins create their own, customized .WIM images, which can be used to deploy a custom Windows installation to many computers quickly.

So, to continue the Windows Setup analogy, “refreshing” the PC acts as an upgrade install, replacing the operating system while preserving user data. Metro-style apps will also be preserved, but installed desktop apps will be removed and a list of them will be placed on your desktop in HTML format for reference—Microsoft’s reasoning for this behavior is that malicious desktop apps are more likely to be the cause of serious problems than are Metro apps from the Windows Store’s “walled garden”.

“Resetting” the PC acts as a clean install that blows away all user data, especially useful if a PC is being repurposed or sold or otherwise transferred from one party to another. The reset option also gives you the option of erasing the hard drive securely so that sensitive data won’t be at risk.

Recimg: Creating Custom Recovery Images

There’s one more major component to the refresh feature, and it’s probably the most interesting one—using the Recimg command-line tool, users can create snapshots of their systems to use as the reference point for a refresh. These snapshots, which are really just the same .WIM images used by Windows Setup, will store settings, drivers, and both Metro and desktop applications, and can be created at any time and stored basically anywhere, including the Windows partition.

These recovery images can even be used to replace factory restore partitions—suppose that you buy a cheap Windows 8 PC, as many people will do, and it comes with the requisite sea of crapware and no recovery DVDs or USB sticks. Thanks to Recimg, you can uninstall that crapware, update drivers, install programs you actually want, capture an updated crapware-free image, and then delete the old recovery image/partition from your hard drive to save the space. Relatives who have broken their PCs can then use the recovery image to revert their PCs to an unbroken state without losing their personal data.

Sounds useful, right? Let’s talk a bit more about how to use recimg.

First, you’ll need to run the Command Prompt as an administrator—otherwise, Recimg won’t run. From here, you can launch recimg with one of five different switches:

  • Recimg /createimage <directory> will create a new install.WIM image containing your installed drivers and programs to a directory you specify. The easiest way to do this is to store it on a local hard drive, but an external drive will also work as long as the external drive is plugged in when you initiate the refresh). The size of the .WIM file will vary based on what you’ve got installed, but images usually start at 3 or 4 GB and work their way up from there.
  • Recimg /setcurrent <directory> will set the install.WIM image in the specified directory as the one Windows will use when refreshing your PC. If you run Recimg /createimage but don’t use /setcurrent afterward, Windows won’t know to use your image.
  • Recimg /deregister will deregister the currently set recovery image. If a previously-created recovery image exists, Windows will revert to using it. If no image exists, Windows will ask for you to insert install media when you try to refresh the PC.
  • Recimg /showcurrent tells you where your current recovery image is stored.
  • Recimg /? tells you all of the stuff I just told you.

The primary downside of Recimg is that it can’t be used to reset a PC, only to refresh. My test PCs always asked me to insert Windows install media to use the reset functionality—OEM PCs that ship with Windows 8 may behave differently, but we’ll have to wait and see.

That aside, Recimg and the refresh/reset functionality do a solid job of making OS reinstallation a bit simpler—Windows Setup isn’t very hard now but it, combined with the challenge of reinstalling apps and drivers, has made reinstalling a fresh copy of Windows more of a pain than it needs to be.

Storage Spaces

Windows 8's new Storage Spaces functionality allows users to pool different physical drives together into one large logical drive, not unlike the now-discontinued Windows Home Server Drive Extender. You can pool drives connected by just about any common interface, including USB, SATA, and SAS.

Once you've created a storage pool using two or more drives, you can then set up one or more "spaces" that will be seen by the operating system as a logical drive which can be formatted, partitioned, and used just as a physical disk would be. To provide redundancy, you can either apply the "mirrored" attribute to your pool, which makes sure that a copy of every file in the pool is stored on at least two different physical drives, or the "parity" attribute, which uses some drive space to store redundancy information—in the event of drive failure, this information is used to rebuild your pool and enforce mirroring. Microsoft notes that while the two redundancy options are similar, the "parity" attribute is best used for large sequential files or less-frequently-accessed content, since it has a higher random I/O overhead. As with any redundancy technology, you'll give up maximum drive capacity in exchange for data integrity, so weigh your priorities carefully when you create your pool.

When creating a new Storage Space, you can specify a maximum size larger than the amount of available physical space—the system will prompt you when the storage pool needs more drives to work with. Microsoft calls this "thin provisioning," which means that drive capacity is only reserved as you store data to the drive rather than all at once. You can also expand the maximum size of the Storage Space at a later point if necessary. Creation of these spaces can be scripted using PowerShell.

My experience with Storage Spaces was a bit spotty—it didn't seem to want to recognize some of the USB sticks I plugged into my computer, and it wasn't clear why. It may be that there are some unspoken speed or hardware requirements that a couple of my drives just weren't meeting. Once I did get it working, though, it worked as designed—as you can see in the screenshot above, I unplugged one of the drives from the pool I had configured to simulate what would happen in the event of drive failure, and the redundancy features ensured that I was still able to access all files I had copied to the pool. One could then reconnect the drive or add a new one to the pool to restore redundancy.



Task manager

For the first time in memory, the Windows Task Manager has gotten a significant overhaul, and that doesn’t just refer to its new Metro-esque styling—Task Manager now combines functions from the old Task Manager, the Windows Resource Monitor, and MSConfig into a new, more useful app that provides a lot of information in a clean and simple way.

Open up the Task Manager and click “More Details” and the first thing you’ll see is the Processes tab, which gives you a clean list of all Metro and desktop apps running on your system and the resources they’re using—the new Task Manager tracks CPU, RAM, disk, and network bandwidth usage. You can see both absolute values (Firefox is using 164.7 MB of RAM) or in percentages (Firefox is using 8.9% of your RAM), and you can spot resource hogs at a glance—as you can see in the screenshot above, the colors in the Task Manager vary based on how much of a given resource a process is consuming. Apps, background processes, and Windows/system processes are each displayed under their own subheadings.

The Performance tab now tracks CPU, RAM, disk, and network usage, and it tracks each network interface separately for your convenience. The CPU graph can be configured to show activity on all cores combined or separately. You can view both graphs and hard numbers for each resource, and you can also see different information about your computer’s hardware—the current clock speed of your CPU, the number of RAM slots you have and how many are occupied, your current IPv4 and IPv6 addresses, and more. The Resource Monitor is still available if you need a more advanced view, but this tab alone drastically increases the Task Manager’s usefulness.

Next up, the App History tab shows statistics for resource usage over time. It’s mostly geared toward network usage, breaking out stats for how much data an app has used on both metered and non-metered networks, as well as how much bandwidth has been spent on keeping Metro live tiles up to date. It also gives you statistics for CPU time. App usage history can be deleted at any time if you’d like a fresh start.

The other tabs are pretty self-explanatory, so we’ll go through them quickly: the Startup tab shows a list of programs that launch when your computer starts. This functionality used to be handled by a combination of the “Startup” folder in the Start menu and a tab in the MSConfig.exe utility (which still exists, but is no longer used to control startup items). The Users tab shows resource usage broken out by logged-in users, much like in the old Task Manager, and will also allow administrators to disconnect users. The Details tab gives a complete unadorned list of all processes and their resource usage, while the Services tab shows all services on your computer whether they’re running or not—you can start, stop, or restart services from this tab, but you’ll have to go into the Services utility for more options.



There are two versions of Internet Explorer 10 in Windows 8—a Metro app and a desktop app. Both share the same rendering engine and, unsurprisingly, perform identically on the same hardware. The only difference is UI, and the fact that Metro’s IE will not run plug-ins like Adobe Flash or Microsoft’s own Silverlight.

To reflect the distinction between the Metro version of IE and the desktop version, both Metro and the desktop retain separate default browser settings—you can run Firefox or Chrome as your default browser on the desktop and stick with IE in Metro, but you can also specify desktop browsers as the default Metro browser, meaning that links clicked in Metro apps like Mail will dump you to the desktop to open rather than stay in the Metro interface. Oddly, if you decide not to use IE as your default Metro browser, the IE completely disappears from Metro, and it takes a trip into the desktop Internet Settings control panel to re-enable it.

The Metro version of IE is a minimalist, touch-centric affair—the address bar is located at the bottom of the screen, and will disappear from view when it’s not being used. While typing in the address bar, IE will display a tiled list of your most frequently visited sites, as well as sites that you have “pinned” using the address bar’s pin button—these pinned sites will also show up on the Start screen. The address bar also has the requisite Back, Forward, and Refresh buttons, as well as a Tools button that will let you search the current page or open the page in the desktop version of IE (the desktop version contains no such button to open pages in Metro mode, at least for now).

The most consistent way to bring up the address bar on a PC is by using the Windows + Z keyboard shortcut that we discussed earlier, which will also bring up Metro IE’s tab interface, which displays big, clickable thumbnails of all your open tabs. You can also open new tabs, clean up your tabs (which closes all but the active tab), or open a new InPrivate browsing tab, which is clearly marked with a blue “InPrivate” icon.

The desktop version of IE looks more or less like IE9, though of course the UI hasn’t necessarily been finalized at this point. One of the only noticeable differences is the presence of a Metro-style scrollbar on pages that require one. Also new is an “Install new versions automatically” checkbox in the About Internet Explorer page, reinforcing Microsoft’s desire to get and keep Windows users on the most current IE version their operating system supports. There’s no evidence that Microsoft plans to move to the rapid-release cycle that Google and Mozilla have both adopted (such a decision would give enterprise IT managers apoplexy), but this sort of functionality would theoretically make it possible.

Benchmarks

Now, let’s peek under the hood and get a few performance numbers. According to these basic tests, IE10 is faster than IE9 by a noticeable margin, but it can’t quite catch up to the current versions of Firefox or Chrome. These benchmarks were all run on the Dell Latitude E6410 that served as my main Windows 8 machine for this review.

Kraken JavaScript Benchmark 1.1

v8 JavaScript Benchmark v6

Interestingly, all browsers performed the v8 benchmark slightly faster in Windows 8. The difference isn’t huge—just a few hundred points in both cases—but it is both consistent and measureable, and I thought it interesting that the OS update slightly improved the performance of these third-party programs. Kraken scores were consistent across Windows 7 and Windows 8.



Windows Recovery Environment

The Windows Recovery Environment, or WinRE, has actually been around for awhile. It was first introduced in Windows Vista as a basic boot environment from which users could run tools like System Restore, Startup Repair, and the Command Prompt, and it could also restore a complete OS image created by Windows Backup.

This menu remained basically unchanged in Windows 7, but in Windows 8 it picks up Metro styling and also replaces the text-based menu that appears when you press F8 at Windows startup, one of the last bastions of the Windows 9x/NT era to make it into 2012 relatively unchanged.

The new graphical menu presents all of the same options as the old WinRE, as well as access to the new Refresh and Reset functionality—the main difference is that options for booting into Safe Mode are buried in the Advanced Options rather than coming up right when you press F8. When you choose a function like System Restore, the desktop-style tools included in Windows Vista and Windows 7 will pop up and walk you the rest of the way through the process. Most of the troubleshooting options require you to input the name and password for an administrator on the computer, to prevent tampering.

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the Metro styling is functional and attractive. See the screenshot gallery below for more.

Secure Boot and UEFI Support

After Metro, this is probably one of Windows 8's more misunderstood features, so let's try to break it down and demystify it: UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) is a replacement for the legacy BIOS found in most PCs. UEFI support has been around in the 64-bit versions of Windows since Vista, but it has only recently started to see wider adoption in PCs. In addition to being more modern and flexible than BIOS, UEFI supports a feature called Secure Boot, which can compare signatures in drivers, OS loaders, and other things against security certificates stored in firmware to verify that your computer is using a known safe bootloader rather than a malware bootloader. On both ARM and x64 computers certified for Windows 8, Secure Boot will be enabled by default to prevent these potential exploits. Note that this is an extremely brief overview of the functionality—you can read more on the Building Windows 8 blog if you’re interested.

Now, the problem people have with this new feature is that it can potentially be used to block any non-Windows bootloader from functioning, including those used in operating systems like Linux. By default, this is true, but you’ve got an out: in all x86-based Windows systems that ship with Windows 8, you should be able to add and remove security certificates from UEFI as needed (thus adding certificates that Linux needs to be recognized as a trusted operating system) or disabling secure boot entirely (making the Windows 8 PC act more or less like most Windows 7 PCs do now).

This will be slightly different for Windows on ARM—WOA systems will also support UEFI and thus the Secure Boot feature, but users won’t be allowed to add certificates or disable the feature, and OEMs will be disallowed from shipping updates or tools that unlock the bootloader (as some Android tablet makers have been known to do). You might not like this behavior, but the fact remains that this is how the vast majority of ARM devices work today. Linux advocates act as though Microsoft has taken something away in disallowing third-party OSes on WOA devices, when in fact they’re disabling nothing that hasn’t already been disabled on most competing tablets.



When it released the Consumer Preview, Microsoft published a supplemental PDF highlighting some of Windows 8's potential benefits for enterprises, a demographic whose importance to Microsoft's business and historic reluctance to upgrade make it an important but tricky group to target. Many of the items in the PDF were either features introduced in Windows 7 (like the DirectAccess software), things that we've already covered (Metro, IE10), and things that pertain more to Windows Server 8 (BranchCache, AppLocker), but there were a couple of interesting new features I wanted to take a look at.

Windows To Go

This new features allows a copy of Windows to be installed to an external USB drive, but its functionality is somewhat limited—Microsoft intends it to be used in “alternate workplace scenarios” where a copy of Windows installed to a computer’s hard drive wouldn’t be appropriate, such as for a temporary worker or an employee who roams between multiple machines. As such, the software has some limitations compared to a locally-installed copy of Windows.

  • First, for security purposes, access to the computer’s internal drives is disabled when booted into Windows To Go.
  • Hibernation and Sleep are disabled by default to prevent data corruption, though they can be re-enabled from the Control Panel.
  • While BitLocker can be used to encrypt a Windows To Go drive, it will require a password, and won’t be able to take advantage of any installed TPMs.
  • The Windows Recovery Environment isn’t available.
  • Windows 8’s “refresh and reset” functionality isn’t available.

Assuming none of these limitations dim your enthusiasm for the feature, a Windows To Go drive can be created by the Portable Workspace Creator included in Windows 8. Once created, the drive can easily be moved from computer to computer—at first boot on a new system, Windows will scan the computer’s hardware and install drivers as it does at first install. The drive can then be moved from computer to computer quickly and easily.

We don’t know anything about the Windows 8’s licensing situation yet, but given this feature’s enterprise-centric nature, I’d expect it to be included only in the higher-end product tiers—if Windows 8 product editions are similar to Windows 7 editions, I’d say this would be one restricted to the Ultimate/Enterprise SKUs.

The Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK)

The Windows ADK is Microsoft’s suite of Windows 8 deployment tools, and it takes the place of the old Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK) and Windows OEM Preinstallation Kit (OPK). These tools are typically used in conjunction with Windows Server roles like Windows Deployment Services to create and deploy customized OS images to large numbers of PCs, but savvy home users who can wrap their heads around the tools can also use them to create customized install and diagnostic media—for the purposes of this review, I won’t get very far into what these tools do or how to use them, but if there's sufficient interest I would definitely consider writing up a guide for novice-to-intermediate users once we get to the RTM version of Windows 8.

The software, which can be downloaded for free from Microsoft, requires .NET Framework version 4.0 and can be installed on computers running Windows 8, 7, Vista, or any of their corresponding server versions.

The Business Perspective

Having worked in a few IT shops, I'd like to think that I have a modicum of insight into how they think. Let’s look at Windows 8 from the perspective of a business: many of them skipped deploying Windows Vista entirely, which means that many of them have replaced, are replacing, or will soon replace the decade-old Windows XP on their systems with the well-regarded Windows 7 before XP’s security patches and support dries up in 2014. An operating system rollout like this requires a lot of effort, both on the technical side (testing application compatibility, replacing or upgrading equipment) and the “people” side (convincing management of the benefits of upgrading and the pitfalls of failing to, soothing and possibly retraining nervous users). It’s a process that makes IT managers skittish, and this is exacerbated by the long period of stability provided by XP’s long shelf life.

When comparing Windows 7 to Windows XP, the benefits were (are) numerous and fairly obvious: a newer, more secure operating system with plenty of new features to please both users and system administrators. A more aesthetically pleasing OS that is more modern under the hood, but is sufficiently similar to XP in look and feel that most users won’t need a substantial degree of retraining (not like the jump from, say, Office 2003 to Office 2007). When comparing Windows 8 to Windows 7, you do see some underlying technical benefits, but the gap is not nearly as wide, and the risks associated with moving to the brand-new interface will scare people. Add to this the fact that Windows 7 will be receiving security patches until well after the release of Windows 9 (or even Windows 10, assuming Microsoft sticks to both its three-year development cycle and its 2020 end-date for Windows 7 extended support), and I think we'll be seeing quite a few businesses sit this one out.

Now, none of this is to say that this is the best or correct way to evaluate Windows 8 in your business, but it’s certainly representative of the way that many IT managers and administrators think, and a lot of them are going to see sticking with Windows 7 on their desktops and laptops as a way to stay reasonably current while not shocking their users with a brand-new interface—it offers most of the technological benefits without any of the potential user-facing headaches.



Bitlocker drive encryption

The new Bitlocker is largely similar to the version included in Windows 7—it can be used to encrypt both internal hard drives and removable storage.The main difference is that Bitlocker will now offer to encrypt only the used portion of your hard disk, rather than the entire voume—as in Windows Vista and Windows 7, encrypting your laptop’s hard drive doesn’t require a TPM module, but it does work best with one. Bitlocker will also offer to save your hard drive’s recovery key to SkyDrive.

I'm really hoping that Windows 8's emphasis on security and mobile computing devices means that Bitlocker is extended to more Windows editions—in both Vista and 7, it was available only in the top-tier Ultimate edition and the volume licensed Enterprise edition. We don't know anything about Windows 8 editions yet, but the responsible thing for Microsoft to do would be to make drive encryption available for more of its users.

File History

Windows Backup as it existed in Windows 7 is now called “Windows 7 File Transfer,” and is used to restore backups and files created with the Windows 7 Backup control panel. You can still create backups of Windows 8 with this tool if you want, including file backups and full system images, but the new Windows 8 tool designed to keep your data safe is called File History (and, if you needed more proof that File History is intended to replace Windows Backup, the feature won’t work if you have Windows Backup configured).

File History combines the old Windows Backup functionality with the Time Machine-like ability to keep and easily restore multiple versions of old files. Using either an external hard drive or a network share (at least, in the Consumer Preview—home versions of Windows 7 were unable to use network shares for Windows Backup, and a similar limitation may apply here depending on how the Windows 8 product editions shake out), you can backup copies of files in your document, picture, music, and video libraries, as well as your favorites, contacts, and items on your desktop.

If you save your files to a network drive, you can also “recommend” that drive for use to other members of any homegroup that your computer belongs to.

Remote Desktop

There are actually two versions of the Remote Desktop client in Windows 8—the first is a new Metro-style app, pictured above, that can connect to any Remote Desktop host but is optimized especially for Windows 8 and Metro. The second is the classic Remote Desktop client, which despite being updated to version 6.2 is hidden away in a system folder (the exact path is C:\Windows\System32\mstsc.exe) and is not present either on the Start screen or in any of the Windows Search sections—its operation is basically the same as in previous Windows versions, and it doesn't include the special Metro-centric controls of the Metro-style Remote Desktop app. Take note of this if you need (or prefer) to use the older client.

Windows Defender

Windows Defender, a lightweight anti-malware product first integrated into Windows Vista, has also been given an upgrade. Older versions of the program scanned only for spyware, but the Windows 8 revision picks up the anti-virus engine from the Microsoft Security Essentials product that XP, Vista, and 7 users must download and install separately. Microsoft Security Essentials is my anti-virus product of choice for my computers at home, and it's nice to see this basic level of protection (finally) make it into a default Windows install. Anti-virus companies like Symantec and McAfee may cry foul, but this is a net gain for users and for the state of security in Windows.



Networking improvements

The widespread adoption of cellular connectivity in an increasing number of laptops and tablets have made our computing devices more mobile than ever before, but it has also given rise to an age of data caps, bandwidth throttling, and exorbitant prices from carriers. In the United States, unlimited data plans are a thing of the past, and as such any operating system worth its salt is going to have to be more careful about what, where, when, and how it sends and receives data.

To that end, Microsoft has instituted several features in Windows 8 that both users and developers can utilize to measure data usage and keep it in check.

Thanks to class drivers (which we'll discuss in just a minute), mobile broadband chips are treated as first-class devices in Windows 8—the same as wi-fi, ethernet, Bluetooth, and USB 3.0, among others—which means that broadband adapters can be turned on and off through the Windows GUI in the same way that wi-fi and Bluetooth now are, and there's also an Airplane Mode can turn all of it off in one swoop, just like on a smartphone (see above). As on phones, Windows will automatically prioritize wi-fi networks when both wi-fi and cellular are available.

This increased integration into Windows has many benefits: if your laptop or tablet has a SIM card installed, Windows can automatically detect which carrier it's associated with and download any available mobile broadband app from the Windows store, and carrier-unlocked laptops and tablets can choose between multiple cellular carriers if the hardware supports it. Windows also offers estimated data usage figures when connected to cellular networks, and when connected to a cellular network the OS will adjust its default behaviors to conserve bandwidth (for example, deferring the automatic downloading and installation of Windows updates until wi-fi is available).

Though it is off by default, these bandwidth conservation features can also be enabled for traditional wired and wireless network connections by right-clicking the name of the network you're connected to. While on a metered network, apps can now use new APIs to force network-aware Metro apps to use less data when possible (another example: using a low-bandwidth movie stream rather than a high bandwidth one). Network-aware Metro apps are required to use these APIs, and users can check how much bandwidth apps are using (both on metered and non-metered networks) in the new Task Manager.

Improvements to networking in Windows also extend to file copying, namely the SMB networked file sharing protocol. In Windows 8, the protocol can now shift dynamically between different network adapters during copy operations so that it always uses the fastest possible connection to transfer files. To demonstrate, I began copying a few gigabytes of data to a fileserver on my home network using a slow wireless G connection:

Then, without pausing the file copy operation or disabling my wireless card, I plugged the laptop into the network with a gigabit ethernet cable:

As you can see, as soon as Windows detected a faster network interface, it without complaint began copying the files using the faster connection. I then unplugged the laptop from the ethernet cable:

Again without issue, it switched back to the slower connection and continued copying the files. While this flexibility is impressive, it should be noted that it can only kick in for file transfers between two Windows 8 (or Windows Server 8) computers.

Drivers

Windows Vista broke a lot of things when it launched, and drivers was a big one—at least part of Vista’s caustic reputation was earned because third-party drivers made the platform so unstable. Since then, Microsoft has been committed to maintaining driver compatibility between Windows versions. During my testing, I found that the vast majority of drivers certified for Windows Vista and Windows 7 worked without issue in Windows 8, lending credence to Microsoft’s assertion that Windows 8 will be able to run on anything that could run Windows 7.

Windows 8’s main innovation is the sheer number of class drivers it introduces. For the un-indoctrinated, class drivers target defined specifications rather than specific hardware. Class drivers are the reason you don’t need to install specific software to run things like mice, keyboards, or USB 2.0 controllers.

Windows 8 adds new class drivers for things like USB 3.0 controllers, printers, motion sensors, mobile broadband cards, and a few others, all of which should be very useful on modern systems running Windows 8 or Windows on ARM. My personal experience extends to the USB 3.0 driver, which worked just fine for the oddball Fresco controller in my Intel desktop board, and the printer drivers, which worked well for a variety of local and networked printers I connected to from my various Windows 8 testbeds.

Microsoft also provides a new basic display driver in Windows 8. While the old generic display driver ran using the Aero Basic theme, the new driver appears to have basic support for Aero effects and transparencies. Among the systems that I tested, only a few had GPU-specific graphics drivers that installed from the DVD. While this may not be true of the RTM version of Windows 8, it looks like Microsoft is scaling back on the number of included graphics drivers to save space—you’d best check Windows Update or your manufacturer’s web site for updated graphics drivers, if they’re not included.



Starting with Windows Vista, Microsoft began the first steps of what was to be a long campaign to change how Windows would interact with GPUs. XP, itself based on Windows 2000, used a driver model that predated the term “GPU” itself. While graphics rendering was near and dear to the Windows kernel for performance reasons, Windows still treated the video card as more of a peripheral than a processing device. And as time went on that peripheral model became increasingly bogged down as GPUs became more advanced in features, and more important altogether.

With Vista the GPU became a second-class device, behind only the CPU itself. Windows made significant use of the GPU from the moment you turned it on due to the GPU acceleration of Aero, and under the hood things were even more complex. At the API level Microsoft added Direct3D 10, a major shift in the graphics API that greatly simplified the process of handing work off to the GPU and at the same time exposed the programmability of GPUs like never before. Finally, at the lowest levels of the operating system Microsoft completely overhauled how Windows interacts with GPUs by implementing the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) 1.0, which is still the basis of how Windows interacts with modern GPUs.

One of the big goals of WDDM was that it would be extensible, so that Microsoft and GPU vendors could add features over time in a reasonable way. WDDM 1.0 brought sweeping changes that among other things took most GPU management away from games and put the OS in charge of it, greatly improving support for and the performance of running multiple 3D applications at once. In 2009, Windows 7 brought WDDM 1.1, which focused on reducing system memory usage by removing redundant data, and support for heterogeneous GPU configurations, a change that precluded modern iGPU + dGPU technologies such as NVIDIA’s Optimus. Finally, with Windows 8, Microsoft will be introducing the next iteration of WDDM, WDDM 1.2.

So what does WDDM 1.2 bring to the table? Besides underlying support for Direct3D 11.1 (more on that in a bit), it has several features that for the sake of brevity we’ll reduce to three major features. The first is power management, through a driver feature Microsoft calls DirectFlip. DirectFlip is a change in the Aero composition model that reduces the amount of memory bandwidth used when playing videos back in full screen and thereby reducing memory power consumption, as power consumption there has become a larger piece of total system power consumption in the age of GPU video decoders. At the same time WDDM 1.2 will also introduce a new overarching GPU power management model that will see video drivers work with the operating system to better utilize F-states and P-states to keep the GPU asleep more often.

The second major feature of WDDM 1.2 is GPU preemption. As of WDDM 1.1, applications effectively use a cooperative multitasking model to share the GPU; this model makes sharing the GPU entirely reliant on well-behaved applications and can break down in the face of complex GPU computing uses. With WDDM 1.2, Windows will be introducing a new pre-emptive multitasking model, which will have Windows preemptively switching out GPU tasks in order to ensure that every application gets its fair share of execution time and that the amount of time any application spends waiting for GPU access (access latency) is kept low. The latter is particularly important for a touch environment, where a high access latency can render a device unresponsive. Overall this is a shift that is very similar to how Windows itself evolved from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95, as Microsoft moved from a cooperative multitasking to a preemptive multitasking scheduling system for scheduling applications on the CPU.

The final major feature of WDDM 1.2 is improved fault tolerance, which goes hand in hand with GPU preemption. With WDDM 1.0 Microsoft introduced the GPU Timeout and Detection Recovery (TDR) mechanism, which caught the GPU if it hung and reset it, thereby providing a basic framework to keep GPU hangs from bringing down the entire system. TDR itself isn’t perfect however; the reset mechanism requires resetting the whole GPU, and given the use of cooperative multitasking, TDR cannot tell the difference between a hung application and one that is not yet ready to yield. To solve the former, Microsoft will be breaking down GPUs on a logical level – MS calls these GPU engines – with WDDM 1.2 being able to do a per-engine reset to fix the affected engine, rather than needing to reset the entire GPU. As for unyielding programs, this is largely solved as a consequence of pre-emption: unyielding programs can choose to opt-out of TDR so long as they make themselves capable of being quickly preempted, which will allow those programs full access to the GPU while not preventing the OS and other applications from using the GPU for their own needs. All of these features will be available for GPUs implementing WDDM 1.2.

And what will be implementing WDDM 1.2? While it’s still unclear at this time where SoC GPUs will stand, so far all Direct3D 11 compliant GPUs will be implementing WDDM 1.2 support; so this means the GeForce 400 series and better, the Radeon HD 5000 series and better, and the forthcoming Intel HD Graphics 4000 that will debut with Ivy Bridge later this year. This is consistent with how WDDM has been developed, which has been to target features that were added in previous generations of GPUs in order let a large hardware base build up before the software begins using it. WDDM 1.0 and 1.1 drivers and GPUs will still continue to work in Windows 8, they just won't support the new features in WDDM 1.2.

Direct3D 11.1

Now that we’ve had a chance to take a look at the underpinnings of Windows 8’s graphical stack, how will things be changing at the API layer? As many of our readers are well aware, Windows 8 will be introducing the next version of Direct3D, Direct3D 11.1. As the name implies, D3D 11.1 is a relatively minor update to Direct3D similar in scope to Direct3D 10.1 in 2008, and will focus on adding a few features to Direct3D rather than bringing in any kind of sweeping change.

So what can we look forward to in Direct3D 11.1? The biggest end user feature is going to be the formalization of Stereo 3D support into the D3D API. Currently S3D is achieved by either partially going around D3D to present a quad buffer to games and applications that directly support S3D, or in the case of driver/middleware enhancement manipulating the rendering process itself to get the desired results. Formalizing S3D won’t remove the need for middleware to enable S3D on games that choose not to implement it, but for games that do choose to directly implement it such as Deus Ex, it will now be possible to do this through Direct3D and to do so more easily.


AMD’s Radeon HD 7970: The First Direct3D 11.1 Compliant Video Card

The rest of the D3D11.1 feature set otherwise isn’t going to be nearly as visible, but it will still be important for various uses. Interoperability between graphics, video, and compute is going to be greatly improved, allowing video via Media Foundation to be sent through pixel and compute shaders, among other things. Meanwhile Target Independent Rasterization will provide high performance, high quality GPU based anti-aliasing for Direct2D, allowing rasterization to move from the CPU to the GPU. Elsewhere developers will be getting some new tools: some new buffer commands should give developers a few more tricks to work with, shader tracing will enable developers to better trace shader performance through Direct3D itself, and double precision (FP64) support will be coming to pixel shaders on hardware that has FP64 support, allowing developers to use higher precision shaders.

Many of these features should be available on existing Direct3D11 compliant GPUs in some manner, particularly S3D support. The only thing we’re aware of that absolutely requires new hardware support is Target Independent Rasterization; for that you will need the latest generation of GPUs such as the Radeon HD 7000 series, or as widely expected, the Kepler generation of GeForces.



Technically, everything in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is in a non-final preview, but some things obviously need a bit more work than the others—one of these areas is the core set of Metro apps included with the Consumer Preview, all of which carry a prominent APP PREVIEW label. For this reason, we're just taking a limited look at just a few of Microsoft's core Metro apps for now—we'll do a deeper dive when they're finished, but at least for now it doesn't make a lot of sense to do a head-to-head comparison with their counterparts in iOS and Android. That said, let's continue:

Mail

Metro’s Mail uses a design that’s very common in email clients: You have accounts/folders in the left, emails in the middle and the selected email in the right-hand-side. The overall design is extremely bare, something you’re not used to in a desktop email client. There aren’t any visible buttons when in accounts/folders view but when you select a certain account or folder, you get buttons for new email, respond and delete. The respond button holds reply, reply all and forward functions inside it. Right-clicking fires up the so-called menu, which allows switching between accounts and folders view, as well as options to move or mark the email or sync your accounts.

The actual text editor offers a bit more power than the rest of the mail client. Once again, the tools are a right-click away but fortunately, the text editor isn’t as limited as other parts of the app. The basic text editing features are present along with some additional email tools. One should also note that the default signature is “Sent from my Windows 8 PC”, which is more or less a direct copy of Apple’s “Sent from my iPhone/iPad” signatures.

What about supported services and protocols? First and foremost, Metro’s Mail client only supports Hotmail, Gmail and Exchange accounts. Yes, you read it right, there is no support for 3rd party POP or IMAP services as of this writing. This is a huge drawback if you use any other services. For example, our AnandTech mail server is IMAP, which means I can’t use my work email with Metro’s Mail client. Of course, it’s possible to auto-forward emails from other services to Hotmail/Gmail, but that’s not a very convenient solution—hopefully this will change in the final version of the app.

Overall, Metro’s Mail client is fairly awkward for desktop use. It makes sense on a tablet with limited screen estate, but even a free email client like Windows Live Mail is way more powerful and usable in desktop environment. It doesn’t seem logical to be constantly right-clicking in order to access the menu when regular desktop email clients have the menu visible at all times. Even simple commands like reply and syncing are buried under a second click, which is just illogical.

Calendar

Metro’s Calendar is similar to Mail: It’s a very scarce app with not much extra. In Mail, this was a bigger issue but a calendar app doesn’t need to be filled with features to do its job.

The design is very basic. The background is grey and event tiles are in bright colors. Weekends show up in darker grey in day and week views, distinguishing them from weekdays.

Navigation is once again hidden behind a right-click, which brings up options for alternating between day, week and month views, as well as option to navigate to today or add a new event. Adding an event can also be done by clicking a tile where you want to schedule the event to. Navigating between days/weeks/months is done by bringing your mouse close to the upper corners and clicking an arrow.

Adding an event has the common tools which are used by many other services. You can add a location, message, reminder and so on. There is an option to select the calendar where you want the event to be added, which is useful if you use different calendars/services for home and work purposes for example.

Service support is the same as Mail’s: Google, Microsoft (via Windows Live), and Exchange. I quickly tried Google and Microsoft and they synced fine. There is a slight delay in Metro’s Calendar so it takes a while before an event shows up. Different colors in the calendar stand for different services – in this case Google is in blue and Microsoft is in green.

Again, it feels odd to be constantly right-clicking in order to navigate in the user interface. There is definitely enough space for day/week/month buttons and personally I would prefer having them visible rather than right-click to access them. Moreover, the lack of list view can be a con if you’re used to using Apple’s calendar applications. Overall the calendar app is alright – there is no yippee effect but it’s mostly functional.

Messaging

Like the other apps we've looked at, Messaging can only access a couple of services at present—Windows Messenger and Facebook, so again it's really best looked at as a demo or proof-of-concept than as a replacement for whatever your favorite IM program is. Messages between parties are laid out in a standard "speech bubble" format, with different colors and arrows to differentiate the parties who are sending messages.

As a side note, Messaging is actually a really good example of the kind of app that works really well with Metro Snap—it takes up just the right amount of space on the side of your screen, and even on a 1366x768 display you still have enough room to use desktop apps comfortably. Someone make a Twitter client that works like this soon, OK?

People

 

The Metro People app serves more or less as an aggregator for all of your contacts from different services, including Facebook, Hotmail, Twitter, Google, Exchange, and others. You can tie People to these accounts directly from the app, and it will also pull data from accounts you've set up through other apps (like Messaging, Mail, and etc.). It can also aggregate status updates from various social networking services under its "What's new" heading.

Photos

There is a very basic photo viewer included in Metro. Don’t expect anything fancy, all it does is view your photos. Supported services are the local pictures folder (obviously), Facebook, SkyDrive and Flickr. Once you enter your credentials, all of the photos show up in the now-familiar Metro-style grid of tiles [Editor's note: Kristian had problems getting SkyDrive and Flickr working, but this may be due to his geographical location—both services work fine for me here in the US].

The menu has four tiles, one for each service. Click a tile and the selected service opens. Right-clicking doesn’t bring any extra features here in the main menu.

Once you open a service, it shows you the photos and possible folders. I created a test Facebook account and uploaded a few pics from our recent reviews, and they all show up fine. Unfortunately, Photos doesn’t show Facebook photos where you were tagged, so it’s limited to photos uploaded to your account.

Inside an actual photo folder, you can play a regular slide show of the pictures or view them separately. Pictures library allows deletion and browsing by date as well, and Facebook has an option to view the photo in Facebook.

Metro’s Photos is very tablet-like and once again screams for touch input. It’s usable with a mouse but there are better photo viewing applications which are a lot more powerful as well in terms of features (editing, organizing, etc.). This time the service support is at least decent and Photos is indeed more than just a shortcut to your pictures folder.

Camera

Windows 8 includes a basic camera app that can be used to take pictures with your device's built-in camera—snapshots are saved in your Pictures library by default. The app has basic settings for setting camera resolution, controlling brightness, and other settings—it’s not going to turn a crappy webcam into an SLR, but it’s nice to see Windows finally get a functional native camera app.

Conclusions

The finished versions of these apps may be entirely different than the evaluation versions that Microsoft is showing off in the Consumer Preview, but even in their current form they give us an idea of how Windows 8 is going to approach the problem of vendor lock-in.

It seems like all of the major players in the tablet market—Google, Apple, and most recently Amazon—are using their hardware and software to lock the user into their respective ecosystems. Apple's iCloud offers easy setup and syncing for Apple mail, calendar, and other services; Google has built everything from an email service to a social network in an effort to get you to spend all of your time on its pages; and the Kindle Fire is purpose-built to purchase items from Amazon's stores. It can make interoperability difficult, and the longer you live in a given ecosystem, the more painful it can be to jump ship.

This is not to say that Microsoft doesn't offer you the option of lock-in: all settings are synced via your Windows Live ID, which is also needed to download apps, and it can also tie you to Hotmail, SkyDrive, Messenger, and any number of Microsoft-hosted services—they are trying to run a business here. The difference in Windows 8 is that you can also access data on the services that you're already using, and have data from those services treated the same way as data hosted by Microsoft. It's convenient and, most importantly, it presents a consistent user experience no matter where your stuff is coming from.



To test claims of faster booting and lower memory usage in Windows 8, I installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 on each of three different computers of varying vintages—a Dell Latitude E6410 with 8GB of RAM and an SSD, a Dell Latitude D620 with 2GB of RAM and an HDD, and a lowly netbook with 1GB of RAM and an HDD. More complete specs for these systems can be found on this page, in which I discuss the computers on which I’ve been running Windows 8. Each computer had the most recent drivers for all of its hardware installed.

Startup time is defined as the amount of time between when the power button is pressed and when the Windows login screen is ready for input. POST time is defined as the amount of time between when the power button is pressed and when the “Starting Windows” boot screen first appears. After measuring all times in Windows 7, I reformatted the hard drives, installed Windows 8 and any needed drivers, and measured boot times in the same way.

Windows Cold Boot Times

Microsoft claimed that Windows 8 featured improved boot times, and that claim is definitely true—boot times vs. Windows 7 are down across the board. These reductions are due to some architectural changes that Microsoft has made—a Windows 7 shutdown would completely purge the OS and all running programs and user sessions from memory and then re-load a fresh copy at next boot. Windows 8 unloads the user session and running programs from memory, but saves the core OS to disk from RAM as it would do if the OS were hibernating. The result is a much faster startup time all around, even on mechanical HDDs. If, for whatever reason, your system doesn’t support hibernation (or if you’ve turned it off), these boot time advantages will evaporate.

But what's that, you say? How is a netbook that barely meets the minimum system requirements booting more quickly than a late-model Dell Latitude? Perhaps these numbers will clear things up:

Test System POST Times

This is one of the instances where hardware designed for Windows 8 will probably have an advantage over older hardware that has been upgraded—as you can see here, a computer’s time to POST is a larger than ever percentage of total boot time. Thanks to its newer hardware and SSD, the Latitude E6410 only takes four or five seconds (!) to boot to the login screen in Windows 8, but its nearly 22 second POST time means that both the Latitude D620 and the lowly netbook are ready to use more quickly. Systems designed for Windows 8, especially those configured to use UEFI instead of legacy BIOSes, can have drastically shorter POST times, and new computers equipped with SSDs may well go from powered-off to ready-for-input in just a few seconds.

To test claims of reduced memory usage, I took the same machines and let them idle at the desktop with only the Task Manager running. Both the Windows 7 and Windows 8 installs used the same drivers, so any background processes running on one OS were also running on the other OS.

Memory Usage

We see marginally lower base memory usage in Windows 8 compared to Windows 7 on the two Dell laptops by a noticeable but not staggering amount. The netbook, with its 1GB of RAM, sees about the same base memory usage under both operating systems—because of the extra caching and preloading that's going on under the hood, my experience has been that Windows 6.x's memory usage increases when you give it more RAM to work with. That computers with 2GB and 8GB of RAM would have a higher base memory usage than a machine with 1GB of RAM shouldn't be surprising.

These slight savings won’t keep you from needing to upgrade your RAM if you’ve been thinking about it, but it’s impressive that Microsoft has been able to hold steady or slightly decrease the amount of RAM used in spite of the additional features (and remember, since Windows 8 includes both anti-virus and anti-spyware protection built in, these numbers should look even better after an install of Microsoft Security Essentials or another anti-virus package on the Windows 7 machines).

 



Battery Life Explored

Last week I did a quick preview article showing some initial battery life results for Windows 8 Consumer Preview. What started as just one set of results from one battery life test quickly ballooned into more in-depth testing, as the first results were rather shocking. Eventually, I added a second laptop to the list and started running additional tests on both laptops. Below you can see the full set of results, but let me preface the charts with some additional information that may help to explain any discrepancies between our results and those you might find elsewhere.

My initial test was done after performing an in-place upgrade to Windows 8 CP on a laptop that had been used on and off for the past year. The laptop was the original quad-core Sandy Bridge sample that Intel shipped out to various sites last year; to the best of my knowledge, the laptop was never actually sold at retail, though it’s similar to older Gateway NV7x models and sports a “Packard Bell” logo on the touchpad buttons. Quite a few games and applications had been installed (and uninstalled) during previous benchmarking, but I figured an in-place upgrade would be representative of what many will do. I had hoped to return and do a completely clean install as well, but that eventually proved unnecessary (and I didn’t have enough time). What I do know is that I ran the Internet Explorer 10 CP test three times on that initial upgrade, and outside of the first run (240 minutes), the other two results were virtually identical (262 and 263 minutes).

For some reason, doing an upgrade to Win8CP with a “well worn” installation of Windows 7 appears to have the potential to seriously impact battery life. After doing a clean install of Windows 7 and re-testing all battery life results (to ensure battery degradation wasn’t penalizing the Win8 scores relative to our original Win7 results), I then performed a second upgrade to Win8CP. This time, the results were far better on the IE10CP test, but other than installing all the drivers and Windows Updates, the only applications on the laptop outside of the standard Windows install are Chrome 17, 7-Zip, and a few other small apps like MPC-HC and VLC. So basically, the second Win8CP upgrade appears to be analogous to a clean install of Windows 8.

In order to have a second set of data, I did perform a completely clean install of Windows 8 CP on a second laptop, the ASUS K53E (which also came to us via Intel last year). I did a clean Windows 7 install on a 64GB Kingston V100 SSDNow, ran all our tests (again to verify that battery degradation isn’t playing a role), switched to a second V100 SSD and did a clean install of Windows 8 CP, and then ran all the tests again. Given the time constraints, I was not able to run all of the tests multiple times, so the margin of error is perhaps as much as 5%, but I did run several of the tests more than once and variation between runs was typically less than 1%. Note that the hardware used for the battery life testing is completely separate from all the other tests; below are the brief specs tables for the two test laptops:

ASUS K53E Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2520M
(2x2.50GHz + HTT, 3.2GHz Turbo, 32nm, 3MB L3, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 1x4GB + 1x2GB DDR3-1333 CL9 (Max 8GB)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 Graphics (Sandy Bridge)
12 EUs, 650-1300MHz Core
Display 15.6" WLED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
(AU Optronics B156XW02 v6)
Hard Drive(s) 64GB SSD
(Kingston SSDNow V100)
Optical Drive DVDRW (Matshita UJ8A0ASW)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8151)
802.11bgn (Intel Advanced-N 6230, 300Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (Intel 6230)
Battery 6-Cell, 10.8V, 5.2Ah, 56Wh

 

Compal Sandy Bridge Notebook Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2820QM
(4x2.30GHz, 32nm, 8MB L3, Turbo to 3.40GHz, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1600 (Max 8GB)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
12 EUs, 650-1300MHz Core/Shader clocks
Display 17.3" LED Glossy 16:9 HD+ (1600x900)
(Seiko Epson 173KT)
Hard Drive(s) 160GB SSD (Intel X25-M G2 SA2M160G2GC)
Optical Drive BD-ROM/DVDRW Combo (HL-DT-ST CT21N)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8151 PCIe)
802.11n (Centrino Wireless-N 1030)
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Battery 8-Cell, 14.8V, 4.8Ah, 71Wh

With two laptops running clean installs of Windows 7 and Windows 8 Consumer Preview, I think it’s safe to say that our tests are representative of what you can expect from the current release. However, that doesn’t mean the results are what we can expect when Windows 8 finally ships. Drivers and optimizations from laptop manufacturers can certainly improve the results. Beyond the clean installs, to make sure that we’re doing an apples to apples comparison, I configured all of the power settings identically between the two OSes. We’re using the Power Saver profile, with the following settings (the one difference being the display brightness, which was calibrated to 100nits on both laptops—50% brightness on the K53E and 40% on the Compal):

The laptops being tested have been running battery life tests (or recharging) pretty much constantly for the past week, and I’ve only just completed the results for both OSes using one set of power settings. There are low-level differences between the Power Saver and Balanced profiles that can and will impact both performance and battery life. Previous testing has shown that Power Saver typically improves battery life by a few percent, even with all other settings identical, and the CPU performance appears to vary quite a bit depending on the workload. I also disabled Intel’s Display Power Saving Technology for both laptops in Windows 7 (I can’t seem to find a way to check this in Windows 8 right now); when enabled, DPST will adjust contrast and brightness to try and improve battery life, but there is a loss in image quality and it has the potential to introduce more variation between runs.

So with that out of the way, we now have a full suite of battery life results from Windows 7 and Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Again, the early nature of the OS and drivers mean that these results can and very likely will change by the time Windows 8 ships later this year. We could also look at using the Metro version of IE10CP on Windows 8, but that would entail tweaking our tests to get it to work so we’ll save that for another day. Here are the full details of our test settings/scripts:

Idle Battery Life: We start a timer that outputs the current time to a text file every minute, then unplug the laptop. WiFi is disabled and audio is muted for this test.

Heavy Web Browsing: We start a script that outputs the current time to a text file each minute, and it also launches the web browser, kills it after 55 seconds, and relaunches it 5 seconds later. We load up four web pages with Flash content (mostly advertisements) in the test browser—IE9, IE10CP, and Chrome 17 for this article. WiFi is enabled and audio is muted for this test.

H.264 Video: We use the same timer script as the idle test, but this time we launch a video player with an H.264 encoded HD video right after unplugging the laptop. We tested with Media Player Classic Home Cinema x64 (version 1.6.0.4014) and VLC (version 2.0.0). The video used for these tests is a 720p High profile 5.1 encode with a 5.56 Kbps video stream and 6-channel DTS 1.5 Kbps audio bitstream. We set the video player to loop, disable WiFi, unmute audio, plug in a set of headphones, and set the volume to 40%.

Battery Life—Idle

Battery Life—Heavy Web Browsing

Battery Life—Heavy Web Browsing

Battery Life—H.264 Video

Battery Life—H.264 Video

The overall results with our current test laptops have Windows 7 delivering better battery life in most instances. On the ASUS K53E, the advantage ranges from 4% in VLC to as much as 15% in Internet Explorer, but the comparison between IE9 and IE10CP could skew that result more than in other tests. Chrome 17 gives Win7 a 10% advantage, idle battery life is 10.5% better, and MPC-HC battery life is 8% better.

Switch to the Compal notebook and we actually get one discipline where Windows 8 CP comes out ahead: video playback. It’s not exactly clear why the quad-core laptop does better under Win8 in this area, but both VLC and MPC-HC last longer than on Win7—3% longer with VLC and 6% longer with MPC-HC. Elsewhere, however, the lead for Win7 over Win8CP continues. Idle battery life is 6% better, Chrome 17 is 4% better, and in IE9 vs. IE10CP Win7 leads by 14%.

Given that there’s always slight variation between battery life runs, anything less than 3% is probably nothing to worry about, especially considering the early nature of the Win8CP release. Microsoft could easily close the gap by the time the OS ships, and with additional optimizations Windows 8 could even take the lead in most of our benchmarks. Even a 15-20% deficit with IE10CP could disappear by the time the application and OS are fully optimized, and hopefully our earlier experience where Internet battery life for a "well used" Win7 to Win8 upgrades dropped an additional 25% will get worked out.

I should also point out that the use of Flash in the browser battery life tests could be having a very significant impact on IE10CP. I noticed during the tests that the browser loads the pages much more slowly than in IE9 at times—e.g. sometimes it will take upwards of 20 seconds for the main page (a cached version of AnandTech.com) to load, where most other times the page will load in less than five seconds.

Relative Battery Life—Idle

Relative Battery Life—Heavy Web Browsing

Relative Battery Life—Heavy Web Browsing

Relative Battery Life—H.264 Video

Relative Battery Life—H.264 Video

Along with our pure battery life results, we also calculated normalized battery life for the same tests. The ASUS K53E has a 56Wh battery and the Compal notebook has a 71Wh battery, so we simply divide the number of minutes by battery capacity. As expected, the K53E takes the lead over the Compal in all of the normalized battery life results. It has a smaller LCD (and a lower resolution), giving it a particularly large advantage in things like full screen video.

Obviously, we’re still only looking at two laptops, and there are many types of laptop that we haven’t been able to test with Windows 8 CP. Just to list a few items that we can’t comment on right now, we didn’t look at battery life with discrete GPUs from AMD or NVIDIA. Drivers and WDDM1.2 have the potential to change things even more for such laptops. Likewise, we didn’t look at any switchable graphics laptops (NVIDIA Optimus or AMD Dynamic/Manual Switchable). I don't have any AMD-based laptops right now that I can test Win8 on, so the two laptops are relatively recent Sandy Bridge models. All of our current test results also come from laptops with SSDs; my experience in the past two years is that SSD vs. HDD doesn’t make much of a difference for battery life unless you’re specifically placing a moderate to large load on the storage subsystem, but there’s still a chance for something to change.

Long story short [Ed: Too late!], Windows 8 Consumer Preview currently shows slightly lower battery life in most of our tests compared to Windows 7, and Internet Explorer 10 CP shows quite a bit worse battery life than IE9. We wouldn’t worry too much about the drop at this point, though again it’s worth noting that certain combinations of hardware and software could show a larger change than what we experienced—for better or for worse. If you need every last bit of battery life, we’d recommend keeping a backup of your Windows 7 installation handy in case things go wrong with Windows 8 CP, but for typical users and those interested in checking out how Windows 8 is shaping up, factors other than battery life are likely going to be more important to your overall experience.

If there’s any specific type of laptop you’d still like to see us test with Win8CP that we haven’t covered with these two laptops, let us know and we’ll see what we can do, but no promises—we’ve probably already gone overboard with battery life testing on a beta OS! Likewise, if there are other battery life tests you’d like us to run on these two laptops, we can look at that as well. Just let us know what you’d like to see and we’ll try to make it happen.



One of Microsoft’s stated goals for Windows 8 (and the only reason, really, why there continues to be a 32-bit version of the operating system) was to maintain compatibility with any system that could run Windows 7, so the official system requirements for the OS are going to be the same: a 1GHz processor, 1GB (x86) or 2GB (x64) of RAM, a DirectX 9.0 compatible graphics card with WDDM drivers, and a dozen or so gigabytes of hard drive space.

Under the terms of these requirements, Windows 8 could run on an old Pentium III equipped with an old ATI Radeon 9600 and a gigabyte of SDRAM (and, knowing computer enthusiasts, it probably will), but what are the actual minimum requirements that will yield a usable machine? Will Windows 8 actually run well on anything Windows 7 ran on? And, most importantly, is it a good idea for you to upgrade your old system? To help you out, I've put together a list of specs that I think will get you an acceptable Windows 8 experience (for the purposes of this review, I assume you meet the hard drive requirements already).

 

Microsoft minimum system requirements

AnandTech minimum system requirements

CPU 1 GHz or better Dual-core processor or better
GPU DirectX 9.0-capable with WDDM driver 256MB DirectX 10.0-capable GPU or IGP
x86 RAM (x64 RAM) 1GB (2GB) 2GB (4GB)

As you can see from the Hardware Used in This Review page, I’ve put Windows 8 through its paces on a fairly wide array of hardware both old and new, fast and slow. The good news is that Microsoft’s claims are true, and that Windows 8 runs ably on hardware that ran Windows 7, even netbooks that flirt with Microsoft's minimum system requirements. In some cases, as in boot speed, Windows 8 actually performs substantially better than its predecessor, but it’s not going to make old hardware new again—if your poky processor or low RAM impacted your PC’s performance under Windows 7, Windows 8 isn’t a magic bullet that’s going to make those problems go away.

One thing to pay especial attention to as you evaluate whether to upgrade a computer to Windows 8 is its GPU. In my experience with testing, Metro was surprisingly fluid even on an old Intel GMA 950, which is just about the weakest, oldest GPU that still meets the minimum system requirements. You won’t want to use it to push multiple monitors, but for basic Metro and Aero usage it performed reasonably well on the laptop’s 1440x900 display. The same goes for the Intel GMA X3100 and ATI Radeon X1600, the two other DirectX9 GPUs in my lineup of test machines.

Where things start to fall apart is in Metro apps—basic ones like Mail and Photos work fine, but things that are even modestly graphically demanding are going to choke on these old DirectX 9-class graphics chips. Even plain old Solitaire suffered from input lag and poor performance on these GPUs.

For gaming and other purposes, Microsoft recommends you use a DirectX10 or better GPU in Windows 8, and I agree—for anything more than basic Start screen functionality, you’ll want a dedicated DirectX10 or 11 GPU, or IGPs starting with Intel’s 4-series GPU, AMD’s Radeon 3200, or NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400—stuff that was current right around when Windows 7 was launching. The stronger the GPU the better, of course, but after evaluating performance on quite a few different machines I’d say that this is probably the minimum you’ll want for a consistent Windows 8 experience, especially if you’re using multiple monitors.

The other problem with DirectX9 GPUs, of course, is driver support—while Intel appears to be issuing new Windows 8 drivers for all of its WDDM-supported products (Windows 8’s driver for the GMA 950 is version 8.15.10.2548 dated 10/4/2011, compared to Windows 7’s version 8.15.10.1930 dated 9/23/2009) and NVIDIA offers current drivers for its GeForce 6000 and 7000 series cards, neither AMD or NVIDIA offer drivers for DirectX9 laptop GPUs, and AMD stopped offering new drivers for DirectX9 cards in early 2010.

It goes without saying that computers being sold today, namely Sandy Bridge CPUs and anything branded as a part of AMD’s Fusion platform, run all of Metro’s flair just great, and the Ivy Bridge chips that will be current when Windows 8 lands in stores later this year will be even better.

My last note on system requirements involves hard drives—while Windows 8 ran pretty well even on cheap 5400 RPM mechanical HDDs, we here at AnandTech are huge advocates of using solid-state drives in just about any computer physically capable of using one. No matter what OS you use, a good SSD is the best upgrade you can buy to speed up your computer and make performance more consistent, and Windows 8 is no exception.

 



What comes next?

Microsoft released the beta version of Windows 7 to the public in January of 2009. At the time, it was basically feature-complete, but Microsoft made some tweaks and incorporated them into a release candidate build that it released in early May. The OS was then released to manufacturing in July, and public availability followed in October.

Microsoft’s stated goal for Windows 8 is to ship later this year, and using Windows 7’s timeline as a reference we can see that they’re still more or less on track for that. What we don’t really know is whether Windows 8 is as far along in the Consumer Preview as Windows 7 was in its beta—that will be the main factor in determining how quickly the rest of the development process goes by.

We also know nothing about product editions or cost at this point. Now, we didn’t know these details at this point in Windows 7’s cycle either, but if you’ll recall, the evaluation copy of Windows 7 offered in the beta and release candidate stages was clearly branded as “Windows 7 Ultimate,” suggesting that the multiple product tiers introduced in Vista would stick around to at least some degree. Everything in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is branded as, well, a Consumer Preview, meaning that Microsoft could really go anywhere with respect to product editions at this point.

In an ideal world, I’d love to see the company sell one edition of Windows that did everything Windows was capable of doing, but in our flawed reality I would settle for the death of the Ultimate edition, which has always had trouble justifying its existence (remember Ultimate Extras? Neither does anyone else). The few extra features it does offer (Bitlocker, primarily) would roll nicely into the Professional edition, and would be a suitable answer to the new version of FileVault introduced in Lion last year.

Unfortunately, I think Microsoft is all-too-likely to maintain the status quo in this case. People who do apples-to-apples comparisons of the OS X and Windows pricing structures are missing the point a bit—Apple has a nice high-margin hardware business that helps to subsidize its software development, which means it can more easily offer upgrades where $29 gets you a new OS that you can use for every computer in your house. Microsoft is a software company, and its bottom line depends on Windows—drastic price cuts would be awesome, but I don't think they're in the cards.

Conclusions

I was a huge advocate of Windows 7 when it came out, both personally and professionally. I immediately upgraded all of my systems just after release, and shortly after I started pushing it on my friends and family (I spent most of Thanksgiving 2009 upgrading systems). I spearheaded a migration from Windows XP to Windows 7 where I worked at the time, a small shop hesitant to change and frightened of the new. I thought it was a great upgrade—it provided a host of much-needed updates with few of Vista’s real or imagined shortcomings—and I thought that any computer that could be upgraded to run Windows 7 should be upgraded to run Windows 7, from the fastest multi-core desktop workstation to the lowliest netbook.

My reaction to Windows 8 is more tempered, assuming that what we see here in the Consumer Preview is more or less representative of the final product. I think it has the potential to be a killer tablet operating system, and for my part I think it’s quite usable on a laptop and desktop, but I have my doubts that more skittish users and businesses are going to be able to see past the newness of Metro.

The other problem Windows 8 is going to have is that, while it offers some nice under-the-hood updates, and while Metro is much more usable with a mouse and keyboard than some pessimists will lead you to believe, it’s not the essential upgrade for PCs that Windows 7 was. Thanks in part to the user-facing and under-the-hood improvements in Windows 7, desktops and laptops don’t need a new operating system like they did three years ago when their only options were the aging XP, the flawed Vista, or the alien landscape of Linux.

If you’re reading this, the chances are good that you’re a technology enthusiast with a decent system, and you’re the ones to whom Windows 8’s under-the-hood enhancements will appeal the most. Give the preview a test drive, evaluate whether you’ll use the new features, and give Metro a fair shake—like it or not, it’s the future of the platform, and it’s well-implemented here. If you’re happy with Windows 7, though, this isn’t the must-have upgrade that its predecessor was, and Microsoft’s long-term support cycle—mainstream support until 2015, extended support until 2020—means that you’ll still get significant software updates (new DirectX and IE versions and a handful of other backported features) for awhile and security updates for even longer. You’ve got time to wait for Windows 9.

We'll continue to cover changes in Windows 8 as it progresses toward its eventual release, at which point I'd like to post an updated version of this article covering new stuff and any features we missed this time around. If there's something missing in this review that you'd like to see covered, you can contact me at andrewc@anandtech.com, or find me on Twitter (I'm @Thomsirveaux).

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