Windows 8 - features and details explained

It’s been nearly 2 years since the very successful arrival and uptake of Microsoft Windows 7. With the confident air of triumph in its lungs, the Redmond-based company has hit the world with details of its very next computer operating system under the codename, funnily enough, of Windows 8.

The question you’re asking yourself, moments before the more important “so, what is this going to cost me?”, is whether or not you should be looking forward to upgrading rather than just being inevitably forced into it over time. Although we can’t answer that part about how much money you’ll need to buy it, we can tell you what it’s all about.

At the same time, do be warned that, so far, Microsoft has only released the Developer Build, so do expect quite a few look and feel changes by the time it reaches a machine near you. That said, on with the show...

PC or tablet

You’d be forgiven for looking at the screenshots of Windows 8 and wondering whether it’s a PC or tablet OS that's in front of your eyes. The answer is both. Microsoft is trying to unify all the computing spaces within its ecosystem with this launch and, although not specified, it looks like that will stretch to its mobile phones and the Xbox too, but more on that later.



For the first time, Windows is set to be compatible with machines running ARM-architecture microprocessors as well as the more familiar x86-based ones. In other words, the sorts of things you find in tablets and phones made by Qualcomm, Nvidia and Samsung as well your laptop-style Intels and AMDs. Whether or not it becomes something that’s actually good to use on a tablet remains to be seen but Microsoft is certainly giving a decent shot with the Windows 8 and its Metro UI.

Lock Screen/Welcome Page

Before we get going with the workings of the interface and touchscreen though, the first thing that’ll greet you on Windows 8 is the revamped, remastered and re-engineered lock screen and welcome page. You can choose to gain access via a standard user name and password scenario or by having a PIN or, more interestingly with a picture lock. A picture lock consists of uploading an image of your choice which you then make three gestures upon when prompted. So, for example, you might use a photo of Steve Jobs and then draw two devil horns and tail on him and those three swipes would open up the OS to use.



Once past security, the welcome page is yours to use as you will and represents another step on in the evolution of what Microsoft has been introducing into this space since Windows XP. Now, not only do you get your avatar but also a choice of your own custom background, the time and date and a few direct links to apps such as e-mail or whatever it is you need immediate access to; in fact, you can pin whatever apps you like to the screen.

Metro UI

You’re going to hear a lot about Metro-this and Metro-that in the build up to launch, which is generally expected to be towards the end of 2012. Metro is the user-interface at the very front end of Windows 8, but is a style itself that’s actually been around in principal since the design of Microsoft Encarta 95. Metro began to develop in other products like Windows Media Center and in Zune software but most will recognise it from Windows Phone 7.

Now before you freak out and decide that you never want to upgrade, the Metro UI is just the top surface; you can choose to ignore it and head straight into the more traditional style Windows desktop like the one you find on the current version. For those who’re happy to give it a whirl, what Metro brings is a start screen UI populated by panels of tiles of either perfectly square of double the width rectangular size. Some these are said to be “live” and flow in an animated fashion with the content that lies within them, or they’re simply frozen images.



So, for example, on the image above there’s the more static apps on the left side where you’ll find access to the Control Panel, a PDF reader as well as the desktop tile and, on the right, there’s the Friends panel where the images of your nearest and dearest will cycle through those of them posted on social networks, messages they’ve sent you and any other forms of contact associated with that person.

As with Windows Phone 7, you can create whatever tiles you like, add them to your start screen and even group them and name those groups as you will. It’s effectively a combination of the old Start Menu, Taskbar and desktop in one long - and really quite pretty - strip of interactive graphics. Developers and computer manufactures will design Metro-style apps to fit and run in this framework and, naturally, there'll be a Windows Store where you can find and buy more of them - much like the Windows Marketplace found with Windows Phone 7 - and even make further in-app purchases.

Touchscreen or mouse & keyboard

It should be of little surprise that Windows 8 is designed for touchscreens. Microsoft pushed the idea out with the launch of Windows 7 and, although perhaps the hardware market wasn’t ready for it at the time, it certainly is now given that this latest OS is aimed at the tablet PC space.

From the demos at the Build conference, where the software has been shown off at its fullest so far, it’s fairly clear that touch plays a far bigger role this time and seems more or less synonymous with the idea of the Metro UI. You can use a traditional mouse and keyboard approach - and you’d probably best stick to it once you head to the old school desktop interface - but touch has been far better thought out in this version than before.

Touch in the Metro UI allows you to pinch to zoom out and see your whole Start stream of tiles and panels in one go; you can also navigate to and from different sections as you might in the propeller view that comes on several of the Android phone UIs.



You can manipulate the Metro apps, once opened, by swiping in from the edge of your screen from left, right or from the bottom in a similar way as you do on the QNX OS of the BlackBerry PlayBook. A swipe from the right, once a Metro app is open, brings up a panel of options with what Microsoft refers to as Charms. These Charms are buttons for associated searches, sharing and for other in-app and out of app settings that you might want to activate. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen brings up the App Bar, where you can add and remove content from the app and swiping from the left allows you to cycle through all the Metro apps that you have open.

The other advantage to multitasking a few of them at once is that you can either dock one app next to the other - such that one is dominant but you can still use them both - or you can share the screen equally.

Naturally, you’re going to need a little text entry here and there, so Microsoft has updated its virtual, on-screen keyboard. It’s now fitted with auto-correct for the more common spelling errors as well as a fuzzy targeting system so that it’ll automatically enter the key you meant to hit if you missed it in a predictable fashion. If you are using the system on a tablet, then you can also set the keyboard to split for you to use with both thumbs instead of fingers, in the same way as you can on the Swifktey X for tablet Android keyboard.

Search

Search is a key area and, mercifully, not something that’s disappeared along with the Start Menu. Search is very much integrated into the Metro experience of Windows 8 and you can activate it from your keyboard by hitting the Start key. Search results come up for apps, files and for settings too and you can also search within apps; specifically including Internet Explorer will then, itself, begin to search using Bing.

Once you have your results, you can choose to share what you’ve found via a share charm.

Syncing

This is obviously going to be an area that we hear more and more about in the run up to launch and, indeed, as other Microsoft OS-based hardware steps in line. Even before we get an updated Xbox 360 dashboard to match though, there’s still plenty you can co-ordinate.



From the very first time you run the software, you can choose to tie it in with a Windows Live ID that you probably already have. That will become your log in and any computer that you sign into using it will automatically sync up with you preferences. These include: wallpapers, lock screen choices, your passwords, browsing history, IE favourites and what you’ve got pinned to your welcome page. You’ll also be able to download any apps you’ve already bought from the Windows Store.

Probably the more interesting part of the link up is with Microsoft’s cloud locker, SkyDrive. You’ll be able to access SkyDrive directly from your machine as well as whatever’s on your other computers via the service as well. Your Metro apps will also be able to access the SkyDrive data themselves, but you’ll be prompted before they do so in case you’d rather they didn’t fill the tiny hard drive on one laptop you own with the piles of data stored on another.

Connectivity

Fully aware of the need for mobile computing, Windows 8 will come packed with a set of drivers for mobile broadband dongles. With these, your machine will be able to keep track of how much traffic you’ve used while online, on the move, and even equate this to how much you’ve spent if you’re more PAYG conscious. On top of that, the system will also recognise that you’re not on a fixed line connection and so won’t try to download any hefty Windows updates. It’ll also make sure to tailor any bandwidth demands for media, accordingly. Think low-res photos and video clips when possible.

Multiscreen

Multiscreen users should be happy with the improvements included in Windows 8. You’ll be able to have a copy of your task bar on both screens rather than having to run all the way back over to the bottom left to get what you’re after. Better still, you’ll be able to have the Start screen on one of your displays, with the Metro interface, while having a normal desktop view on the other. And at the most basic level, you’ll also be able to have two separate wallpapers for the screens rather than the same one repeated.

Internet Explorer 10

IE 10 will come as a Metro style app as well as a standard desktop version. Apart from the quick access and Bing search interest, it does give your browsing a rather fresh look with a frameless approach; taking the same design as the other Metro software. The idea of the strip down is to make it faster and more immersive. In the same way, you’ll still be able to interact with it by swiping from the edges, but how convenient it will be for in-depth internet use without a keyboard remains to be seen.

Super-fast boot

There’s been a fair bit of noise about just how quickly Microsoft Windows 8 can boot up even without a SSD, but the proof of the pudding will require eating once the final release has hit our machines. All the same, the technology behind the advance is down to some coding in the system that saves the OS’s kernel memory to the disk on shutdown so that it can be reloaded much faster from the same place. It’s essentially a similar way to which the hibernation system works. We can only hope that it works more reliably once your PC starts getting old.

Refresh & reset

The Metro UI now includes apps for refreshing or resetting your version of Windows 8 making the idea of wiping for a clean start increasingly simple. Refreshing means you get a clean installation of the software while keeping your files, preferences, apps and pinned choices; a reset is a full format and new beginning which removes everything in the process. Naturally both require admin access to do so.

Sensors

As well as the usual crop of light and location sensors, Microsoft has added a couple of others specially for Windows 8. The OS will now support pressure, temperature and even blood pressure as well - the latter presumably for use in health and medical centres. There’s also built-in NFC compatibility.

Minimum hardware specs

If you want your machine to run Windows 8, then, at the very least, it will have to have a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage space. That’s for the 32-bit version. For the 64-bit variant, you’ll need to double the memory, up the installation space to 20GB and make sure that your chip is 64-bit compatible.

Blue Screen of Death

Yes, the scary old Blue Screen of Death is getting a friendly face to be the bearer of bad tidings. No longer will people with old, knackered PCs get slapped in the face with that shock that your machine is past its prime, or that your very new one has been under the spell of the world's largest spamming botnet for the last year.

It’s not called Windows 8

Let’s get one thing straight first. Windows 8 is only a codename at present. Now, we’re being a little facetious here but if Ladbrokes took bets on these kinds of things - and, who knows, maybe it does - the launch name of Windows 8 would be the odds-on favourite by a very long way indeed.

Microsoft has been very pleased with the way Windows 7 has gone down and the best way to give your product a good start would be by cashing in on the same name as the one before. All the same, don’t spit you tea all over your VDU if the company decides to call it Windows Metro or Windows Computer or something along those lines.

Availability

Well, for now, no one’s quite sure. You can head over and download the 4GB Developer Build as we speak for a taster of what it’s like. Otherwise, if Steve Ballmer’s slip at the Tokyo developer forum is to be believed, then launch will be some time next year - most likely the autumn or beyond. Before that time, though, there will be a release candidate version for anyone to try for free and that’ll be an excellent way to get an early go of what’ll appear very much like the finished article.

As for upgrading from your old system, there’s no word whether that will be possible from Vista but it’s certainly an option from Windows 7. The release candidate will have to be a re-install though.

Like the look of Microsoft's latest OS? Let us know in the comments.



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