Windows 8 has something of a split personality.
Microsoft's brand new operating system, unveiled to the public Thursday, may be the biggest Windows user interface change since the company made users leap from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it has generated a lot of mutterings of "huh?!", as people try to figure it out.
When you boot up, you see the tiles-based Windows 8 UI. It began life on Windows Phone 7, and is very touch-friendly. That makes it very nice on tablets, unlike older versions of the OS. That said, Windows 8 also allows you to skip over to the good old Windows 7 desktop you're familiar with, although the "desktop" is actually just an app.
That's right, the part of Windows 8 that happily runs Windows 7 programs is an app called Desktop. More on that later.
I tested Windows 8 on a laptop and a tablet, both designed for Windows 7, and it performed well on both. It really can run properly on hardware designed for Windows 7. Microsoft brags about Windows 8's practically instantaneous startup, and while it may be that fast on hardware designed for the OS, it wasn't quite as quick on my two devices. It is much faster than any other OS, no question, but not the blink-and-it's-up speedy we saw in demos.
Let's look at the Windows 8 UI first. Its design is horizontal – we scroll from side to side, rather than up and down, to see everything. The Start screen contains tiles (those coloured squares and rectangles) for all of the native Windows 8 apps, from Mail and People to the Store and Desktop, plus tiles from which you can start Desktop programs (I'll refer to software native to Windows 8 that only runs on the new OS as apps, and software that runs on the Desktop, and also on Windows 7, as programs, to differentiate them), all of which you can rearrange to suit you. But there's no apparent method of doing anything else but run apps, until you learn a few tricks.
The key is the edges of the screen (or, if you're using a mouse rather than a touchscreen, the corners). Swipe in from the right edge (or plant the mouse in a corner on the right) at any time and you get five icons known as charms: Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Swipe from the left (or put the cursor in the top left corner) to switch between open apps. Swipe from the top or bottom (or right-click) to get app-specific options, such as the address bar in IE, or the upload button in SkyDrive. To close an app, swipe from top to bottom (or grab the top edge of the app and drag to the bottom of the screen with the mouse). There are also keyboard shortcuts.
All Windows 8 native apps run in full screen, with no controls in sight. While this offers more space for content, it can be puzzling to neophytes who don't know the above navigation tricks. It pays to actually watch the little Windows 8 tutorial that plays when you first start your machine.
To use Windows 8 as Microsoft intended, it's best to sign on with a Microsoft ID (your Hotmail or Windows Live email address). That gives you access to the Windows Store, and also to the free cloud-based storage on SkyDrive. Why bother? Well, for one thing, if you use multiple devices – even a Windows Phone – and log on to all with the same Microsoft ID, you can access your cloud-based files and data on all devices. Windows 8 will also synch its settings across machines (with your permission, of course). If you like, you can even replicate your wallpaper.
Conversely, if you want to prevent users from installing apps, only give them a local ID.
Regardless of what sort of ID they have, users can opt for authenticating with a password, a PIN, or the new, fun Picture Password. Instead of having to type a password or PIN, kids of all ages can simple touch and drag in a specified way on a picture of your choice to log in. That makes it easy for kids who can't type yet to sign on and play the games you've set up on their Start screens.
New Windows 8 apps can only be obtained from the Windows Store (you'll find its icon on your Start screen). The selection is growing daily – it's heavy on games right now, although there are apps in every category from tools to entertainment. There are lots of free apps, and increasing numbers of paid ones.
By default, any user can install Windows 8 apps, unlike in older versions of Windows where you often needed Administrator rights. However, you may still need Administrator rights to install Desktop programs; whatever rights they need to install under Windows 7, they need on Windows 8.
For those of us whose systems occasionally get so messed up that there's no choice to reinstall Windows, Microsoft has added a wonderful feature called Refresh. It preserves all of your Windows 8 apps and settings and files, then reinstalls the operating system and puts everything back, all nice and tidy – and hopefully working properly again. Be aware, however, Desktop programs aren't treated to the same TLC, except in cases where a company's administrator has created a custom version of the OS including those programs.
Device support is very good. Microsoft says all printers supported by Windows 7 will work for Windows 8. I've actually had no trouble connecting any common hardware and getting it to work. The only thing I've had issues with is the touchpad. The basic drivers do work, but there are, for new systems, enhanced drivers that let you use the same swipes and other gestures on a touchpad that you would on a touchscreen, making navigation much easier. Although I got updated drivers for my older (where "older" means not designed for Windows 8) review machine, they don't work as well as I'd hoped. Some apps don't scroll well, for example. With a standard mouse with scroll wheel, there are no problems.
Overall, however, I'm relatively happy with Windows 8. Battery life on even the older laptop is a lot better (Microsoft's estimate says you'll get, on average, a 13 per cent improvement over Windows 7), boot time is significantly faster, and its memory footprint is smaller. That means you get better performance. It runs most Windows 7 software as well as its own native apps.
There is a learning curve, make no mistake, and old habits may need modification, but especially in combination with new hardware – touch-enabled devices in particular – it's worth the effort.
(Are you using Windows 8 and can't figure out how to print, e-mail, save or search? Here's our article on the new way to do that stuff.)