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.

Other Updates: Bitlocker, File History, Remote Desktop, and Windows Defender Under the Hood: DirectX 11.1 and WDDM 1.2
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  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    1) We'll probably do an analysis of that with an RTM version of the OS. I wouldn't expect it to change too drastically from a patched copy of Windows 7.
    2) Not guaranteed, but probably. When 7 was released, Vista got a Platform Update that added support for DX11, some WDDM 1.1 features, and a few other things: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/971644

    Windows 7 is still in its mainstream support phase, so I'd expect those updates to be available after Windows 8 RTM.
    Reply
  • R3MF - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    many thanks Andrew. Reply
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    Welcome! :-) Reply
  • valnar - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    Isn't the fact that new Windows phone BOMBED in the marketplace enough reason not glorify this crappy GUI? The public has already spoken.

    And....what makes a good tablet or phone OS (touch screen) does not necessarily make a good desktop OS.
    Reply
  • silverblue - Saturday, March 10, 2012 - link

    True, however everybody has differing tastes. I don't mind it, personally, and it's not as if the Windows 7 desktop has gone forever.

    As for Mango, it's not on many devices and hasn't been out long. I also firmly believe that it's the first flavour (sorry) of Windows Phone that Microsoft has truly taken seriously. Give it time. Had dozens of devices been launched with Mango yet sales been poor, I'd have been more inclined to agree with you.

    Touch screen technology has been around a while and it's about time that a mainstream OS had extensive functionality in this area.
    Reply
  • Subzero0000 - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    >Isn't the fact that new Windows phone BOMBED in the marketplace enough reason not glorify this crappy GUI? The public has already spoken.

    Well, that's exactly why they have to FORCE metro to their biggest userbase (Desktop PC). They want people to get used to metro, then hopefully people get attached to it and choose to buy tablet/phone with metro.
    Reply
  • PopinFRESH007 - Sunday, April 15, 2012 - link

    +1

    This is where I think Apple's methodical, very deliberate, well thought out approach is going to win over a lot of people after Windows 8 launches. Microsoft already tried this in reverse order and it was awful until they instantly became irrelevant when the original iPhone launched. They crammed a mouse and keyboard OS into a crappy touchscreen phone and called it a day. Here they are cramming a touchscreen phone/tablet OS pasted on top of a desktop OS and figured out the least amount of work to make it possible to maneuver between the (what feels like) two OS's. When the review consistently has "There are actually two versions of..." you know you have done something wrong as an OS engineer.

    I've given Win8 a fair shake, I've really tried to give it an honest everyday usage to give it a fair comparison. I have a Lumia 900 and have been running the consumer preview since it came out. I'm really going the extra mile to give the Metro UI a shot, but it just doesn't scale to a desktop (In the way windows 8 implements it) very well at all. I've used Win8 on a very nice prerelease tablet and it works wonderfully. Microsoft should really take a step back and survey the industry and learn from what has been successful and what has had problems. The iPad is crushing the tablet market because it benefits (like many Apple products) from a halo of the iPhone, iTunes, and iCloud. Google has realized their misstep in segmenting the phone & tablet OS's and I think Microsoft will come to realize that a touchscreen tablet has more in common with a touchscreen smartphone than it does with a keyboard and mouse desktop PC.

    The thing about Metro is that it is very simplistic and *could* scale easily. Look at a Windows Phone 7 next to a Windows 8 Tablet and it's ability to scale is obvious. I think the real problem here is Microsoft is taking a Bold, half hearted, All-in, keep some chips in reserve, Go for the gusto, partially move to Metro. They cram it down your throat but don't believe in it enough to completely re-think the OS an move to it. I would like Windows 8 a whole lot more if it was a unified experience with Metro at it's center. The half ***ed cramming of two OS's with different UI's into one cup of tea is what really pushes me away from Windows 8. If they left the core of windows 7 under the hood so any windows 7 app's would run, and provide a simple framework for developers to create "live tile" shortcuts that plugin to the new services that Windows 8 will bring this would be a much better OS. If this is the future, GO FOR IT!! There should not be a control panel for "desktop" and a settings for Metro. There should not be Metro IE 10 and IE 10 for Desktop. If they built API's and service frameworks for developers to bridge Metro UI to C++ code and let developers design their software the best way that suits their needs there would be far better support. The Metro UI as a launcher for native C++ app's and HTML5 Metro apps would be great. This would be especially true if developers could push notifications and information to the live tiles for their app's. Imagine a multiplayer game like Battlefield 3 on Windows 8. On the Metro UI "Start" screen the Live Tile for BF3 would be alive with info from battlelog. So you could easily see if some friends are playing the game, or if there is new content/updates, etc... It would be like having the community features of Steam, without ever having to "Launch" anything. A quick glance at your games area of your Live Tiles and you could see who is online playing what games and quickly join in. The same thing would be true for a more professional app like Photoshop. Imaging if Adobe, using these types of API's could build in collaboration features tied into the Live Tiles & using SkyDrive. You could save an image in your skydive and share it to your fellow team members, then if there are changes and edits all of those peoples Live Tiles for Photoshop would reflect that new information. They have so much potential and are at a solid time to make the leap, the real leap to Metro with less risk. They have a solid "traditional" OS in Windows 7 that they could continue to sell. They also have the ability to really bring a new level of integration that has been absent from Microsoft products. Tie in Xbox Live like they did on Windows Phone 7, and integrate voice chat, the friend list, messaging, etc as system wide services. The list goes on and on with the amount of potential they have to make a seamless experience across all of their platforms from phone, to xbox to tablet to PC. It's sad to see this is the best they can do.

    As mentioned above, I think Apples approach of using services like iCloud to bridge your data from a mobile platform to a desktop platform is a better strategy. Really looking at each element of a mobile OS and thinking how that will work on a desktop with a mouse and keyboard; working to merge what makes sense and leaving out what doesn't. I think Apple is also failing at this to some extent as well. They should be working on unifying their "Store's" so I could make an app that when loaded on an iPhone would have the iPhone UI, when loaded on the iPad would have the iPad UI and when loaded on a Mac would have a windowed UI, and the store would serve up the correct parts of the binary depending on if it's on a mobile device like iPhone/iPad or Mac.

    /END RANT.
    Reply
  • jabber - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    The feedback has been 100% negative. Really really bad. No question I haven't seen a normal PC user yet that likes it or wants to use it.

    The feedback for Windows 7 was 90% positive.

    Not looking good MS.
    Reply
  • futurepastnow - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    The feedback from the two "normal" non-technical computer users I showed it to was very negative. I let them play with it with no instructions or advice, and they couldn't do anything. It's the least intuitive interface ever.

    Oddly (or not oddly), the most computer-literate person I showed it to figured he could get used to it, since he uses keyboard commands for everything and they still work. He thinks Microsoft are out of their minds, though.

    Perhaps that is Microsoft's problem, I wonder? All of their engineers, testers and QA people know all of the keyboard commands, which puts them in the 1% of computer users. Perhaps if they created a special version of Win8 for interface testing, which *required* mouse input for all actions, they'd seriously reconsider Metro.
    Reply
  • Exodite - Saturday, March 10, 2012 - link

    I don't know, I'm a software engineer myself and I wouldn't touch W8 with a 10ft pole.

    I like the minor underlying enhancements to things like the Task Manager and File Transfer dialog, though nothing of that can even begin to make up for the UI clusterfuck.

    I run a multiple-display desktop system.

    I _like_ nestled folder structures and rely on it to organize.

    I prefer minimal clutter on the desktop, to the point the only application icons there are Chrome and MPC-HC, and half a dozen project folders. I also use minimal size icons.

    Huge icons in listings, and the enormous amount of whitespace they add, is wasteful and inefficient.

    I can't stand that good and intuitive UI elements like radiobuttons and checkboxes are giving way to touch-oriented dragbars, it just underlines wha ta gigantic step backwards the entire Metro experience represents.

    Perhaps you're right about technical and professional users being less impacted by the horrors of W8 due to being more comfortable with keyboard shortcuts than users in general, my personal experience isn't enough to say one way or another.

    On the other hand I'd argue that that particular group of people are least inclined to accept the changes because they very rarely have to. I don't have to use Windows as a development platform, I could quite trivially move to any *NIX platform of choice.

    And if Microsoft doesn't see the light before Windows 7 hits EOL I might as well migrate platform, at least I can set up the UI as I prefer that way.
    Reply

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