Release Date: October 26, 2012 Version Used: Professional Strengths: Performance, Security, Stability, Virtual Machine Support Weaknesses: Mobile (Modern) UI Note: A solid operating system once you learn to work around the Modern UI
After using Windows 8 for a number of weeks, I felt it was time to write a review not only sharing my personal experience with the Operating System, but also the experience of others.
To say Windows 8 has received bad press is an understatement. The Operating System has been deemed a failure by most with sales figures showing fewer sales than Vista. It’s common knowledge that Microsoft made a monumental mistake by forcing the new “mobile” UI upon desktop users. But what people do not understand is underneath the hood, Windows 8 is one of the most solid Operating Systems Microsoft has released. Make no mistake, Windows 8 is superior to Windows 7 in almost every way. It’s faster, features superior security, is the first Microsoft Client OS to support virtualization (e.g. you can install and run other operating systems within Windows 8), has enhanced multi-monitor support, and features a next generation Kernel which is shared with Windows Server 2012 (which is receiving rave reviews). Tossing the mobile/tablet UI aside for Desktop users, it is a technological feat.
The problem is the integrated mobile UI (it was codenamed Metro during development, and is now called Modern) drives the majority of potential users away, and rightly so – it’s abysmal on a PC and just gets in the way. The good news is you can work around it and toss it to the side, allowing you to capitalize on the speed, power and new features of the OS. This is in part what I am going to focus on. In addition to reviewing the OS, I will show you how to properly use Windows 8 as a Desktop Operating System and circumvent the terrible new Modern UI while embracing new and powerful features. Once you familiarize yourself with these workarounds, I believe you will come to the same conclusion that I have and upgrade to this solid operating system. Just be prepared to learn a few new features and techniques, and most importantly: how to shove the Modern UI aside and use Windows 8 just as efficiently (if not more) than Windows 7.
Under the Hood
As mentioned above, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 share the same kernel, and Windows Server 2012 is receiving excellent reviews. This reaffirms the solid nature of the underlying technology which drives Windows 8. Having said that, let’s focus on the good: why is Windows 8 is the next evolution in Operating Systems and why you should seriously consider upgrading. Here’s a list of reasons.
There have been numerous benchmarking tests pitting Windows 8 vs. Windows 7, and the general consensus is Windows 8 is faster than Windows 7 in many areas, namely: startup, shutdown, compression and decompression of files, reading files from USB devices, encoding movies & video rendering, Geekbench tests, PCMark, Sunspider, and Google V8. The only areas where it appears Win8 lags a bit is in large file group movements, and large single file movement. This may be related to the new history/recursive system built into the OS (which is covered below). The tests which shows Windows 7 are faster than Windows 8 in certain areas (such as rendering one video game vs. another) are trivial (e.g. 1% or less difference). I can say from personal experience that Windows 8 “feels” faster throughout, and I have noticed absolutely no degradation of performance anywhere; only enhancements. For reference, I felt the Kotaku performance review was one of the most accurate.
While a similar feature was included in Windows 7, File History is refined in Windows 8. This feature allows the user to define an external drive to automatically track and back up all file revisions to a remote drive (which can be a USB drive or a remote network share, such as a JungleDisk drive). The system monitors any changes in defined files, and when changes are detected, it copies those changes to the remote location. The nice thing about this feature is you don’t just have an option to restore the file, you can restore specific iterations (or versions) of the file. The system will also give you the option to share the “backup drive” with other members of your homegroup, thus enticing data integrity for all users of your network. The default timeframe for checking and backing up files is every hour.
The new task manager is slick, reports more information than its Windows 7 predecessor and allows you to show a “summary view” which monitors your CPU, Memory, Disks and Network Connection. You can also easily manage startup programs from here, and are told what sort of impact the programs have on booting the OS. The Task Manager for Windows 8 also defaults to processes; not applications as Windows 7 did. You can also monitor services, the old processes tab , the users, and “App History” which relates only to Modern/Win8 specific applications.
Windows 8 features numerous security enhancements, with the first critical one being Secure Boot. This is a security process which ensures all applications executed during the boot process are pre-signed with a valid digital certificate. This is huge. For example, if some boot loader has infected your computer and attempts to start its own process up during the boot process, Secure Boot will shut it down. This adds an extra layer of protection that is simply unavailable in Windows 7.
Windows Defender is now a full anti-virus/malware suite and can be configured through the control panel. Windows 8 also makes sure whatever anti-malware software you install (if you choose to use something other than defender) is loaded first. This is handled by the Early Launch Anti-Malware (ELAM) system, which ensures the first driver loaded into the OS is that from the anti-malware suite (Defender by default, or a chosen 3rd party tool). In Windows 7 and before, it was possible for malware to load prior to loading the anti-virus systems. No more!
SmartScreen is now a part of the Operating System. This feature monitors any file downloaded through any browser and determines if the file has a risk factor. This is done by checking a rating for the file based on its popularity and whether it is considered malicious. When users try to download a file with a low rating or considered malicious, they will be prompted with a screen that informs them of the risk, allowing the download to be avoided.
Picture Passwords have also been implemented into Windows 8, allowing a user to log into the Operating System by executing a combination of circles, lines and taps (using either touch or mouse). Users can also select PIN-based authentication.
AppContainer is another feature which forces a controlled sandbox environment for all Windows 8 specific apps. While this feature will hardly apply to PC users who avoid the Windows Store and Modern UI, it gives us a vision of what is to come and provides a mechanism of security for apps that are downloaded from the Microsoft Store.
Windows 8 also allows the user to optionally sign in using their Microsoft Account. This allows syncing of files and access to additional features, which includes store purchases.
Overall, the security enhancements to Windows 8 are awesome, and probably some of the best features of the Operating System.
Virtual Operating Systems (Hyper-V)
Windows 8 allows the installation of Hyper-V, thus enabling the ability to install multiple VMs (Virtual Machines). VMs allow the user to install, manage and run additional operating systems (such as XP, Windows 7, Linux) in a window within Windows 8. How cool is that? With this ability, users can create app sandboxes, run a “test machine”, and even launch a virtual hard drive (VHD) all on the same machine within their core Windows 8 installation. Note Hyper-V is not installed by default in Windows 8; you must turn it on in Windows Features. A detailed overview on how to do this can be found here.
Windows 8 multi-monitor support (when not using anything that’s Modern UI) is excellent; they’ve finally allowed for custom taskbar management per monitor without the use of a 3rd party program (before, with Windows 7, you had to use something like Ultramon). You can also put different backgrounds on different monitors. And while I stay away from the Modern UI, Windows 8 does allow one to define screen splits between the Desktop and Modern applications (such as running a Weather sidebar). You can configure the Multiple Display settings by right-clicking on your taskbar and selecting properties. The new section is at the bottom of the dialog under Multiple Displays.
Note: there is a bug here. When you run multiple monitors and have a Modern sidebar application (such as Skype or Weather) on a monitor other than your central monitor, bringing up the Modern UI (for search, etc) pops the sidebar from another monitor to your center monitor, making the feature utterly useless!
Microsoft’s answer to Google Documents and Dropbox, SkyDrive is a cloud-based file storage and sharing system which is now integrated into the Operating System. Once you log into your Microsoft Account, you can access and synch to your SkyDrive. You can also share files with others through the Skydrive web or OS UI. If you haven’t tried Skydrive yet, I recommend giving it a run. I now prefer it over other cloud-based file systems such as Google Documents and Dropbox.
Refresh your PC
With this feature, Microsoft finally acknowledges that a “fresh OS install” is often necessary in order to clean things up; and Windows 8 delivers. This feature allows the user to reinstall the OS from scratch (or a fresh start) but also backs up and restores all of your data, settings and applications! All you need is a recovery drive, and the OS takes care of the rest. A detailed walkthrough can be found here.
While this may not be too interesting to non-power users, the simple fact is the Tickless Kernel is a big deal. Windows 7 fired a kernel tick every 15.6ms to handle its “idle multitasking”. This means even when a processor was idle, it would still tick (generating a liability). This was a primitive approach to multi-tasking which has been fixed in Windows 8. Instead of indiscriminately making the ticker fire every few ms, the kernel makes a discriminate accounting of the outstanding events and adjusts the timer accordingly. This may sound trivial, but it lowers the burden on the CPU, handles timed events more efficiently, and adds that “little adjustment” that changes the speed at which most everything runs on the system.
This feature is nearly unknown to the public, yet is very powerful. It can read any text on the screen from any application, and it works very well; however, it takes some time to learn the controls and master. To bring Windows 8 Narrator up, press Windows Button + Enter. Once it’s up and running, you can press Caps Lock + F1 to see the full set of commands.
Dealing with the User Interface
The new Windows 8 user interface is called Modern (it was codenamed Metro during development). Modern was supposedly developed to allow cross-platform usability between numerous devices (e.g. computers<->mobile phones<->tablets). In other words, it was to set a standard for the future as Microsoft supposedly acts to bring all forms of devices under one method of use. What’s interesting is the Surface (Tablet) Operating system (Windows RT) is a completely different OS that can’t even run non-windows 8 applications! This means Microsoft could have simply omitted Modern from Windows 8 altogether.
Unfortunately, Modern is here to stay. Microsoft is working to try and bring this “new user experience” to the populace through multiple means, including the upcoming Windows Blue release, which is expected later this year. There is also rumor Microsoft is going to be releasing new versions of its Operating System on a yearly basis instead of every three years. You can lean more about Blue here.
Unless Microsoft suddenly goes out of business or loses their grip on the OS market, people will need to learn the new Modern UI. If users skip Windows 8, you can bet an evolved version will be a part of Windows 9. Taking the Modern UI in small bites isn’t too bad, and even though Microsoft’s forcing Modern on the public is like pushing a marshmallow through a pinhole, it’s easy to learn the basics and work around the bad parts in Windows 8. Let me show you how.
The Windows 8 Start Screen
The Windows 8 Start Screen (which is what Windows 8 boots to as default) really isn’t that bad, I just don’t find it useful or productive at all. The big bulky icons take up too much space, it’s disorganized and hard to visually categorize groups of icons, and the sliding nature (left to right) to compensate for the bulky icons shows it was not designed for PC users. Even though you can Ctrl-Mousewheel to adjust the “size” of the icons, it’s still cumbersome. Fear not. In the lower left corner is the “Desktop” button. Click that (or press +D) and you’re back in normal desktop mode. There is a way to adjust the operating system to auto-boot to desktop mode and avoid the Windows 8 start screen entirely, but it takes numerous adjustments and to be honest, all one needs to do is simply click the Desktop button or press the Desktop keys and they’re back into an environment which is usable on the PC.
Corners, Charms & Shortcuts
Once we’ve escaped the Modern Start Screen, we’re now in familiar territory; however, this isn’t Windows 7. There is no start button! So how do we get links on the screen, get access to the control panel, and engage in other actions we’re accustomed to? I’ll cover all of that here.
First, one must understand the Windows 8 Corners system. Move the mouse to the lower left corner of your screen and the Windows 8 Modern Start icon pops up, allowing you to bring the Modern Start UI up. Move it to the upper left and you’ll get an icon for all the Windows 8 Applications which are currently running. Move the mouse to the upper or lower right side, and the Charms bar comes up, which has 5 key options: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Once you get these movements down, it all comes together. One final action is moving your mouse to the top center of the screen. When it turns into a hand, drag it. This brings up the Modern UI and allows you to dock a non-windows application on any screen (for multiple screen systems) via the Modern UI system. Personally, I find this useless with a desktop system, but on a tablet, I can see it being useful.
Below is a list of the key shortcuts which make navigating Windows 8 a whole lot easier:
+D: Shows the traditional desktop. Press again to minimize all desktop windows.
+Q: Search. This opens the search charm, set to whichever app you’re currently using. You can quickly switch to a files search with Windows+F, or settings with Windows+W.
+C: Open the Charms bar
+H: Share charm
+I: Settings charm
+Z: Displays the app bar. This gives contextual options in each app.
+X: opens the admin menu, which appears where the Start menu used to be.
+L: Locks your computer and displays the Lock screen.
+F: Search, default to Files Category
Memorize these shortcuts and you’ll be good to go. For a complete list of shortcuts, look here.
Desktop Icons (My Computer, etc)
One of the first things I do when installing a new OS is to put the “My Computer” and other important icons on my desktop. This is very easy to do in Windows 8.
Right-click the desktop background (press +D first if you’re in a Modern UI)
In the upper Left Corner of the dialogue box, select “Change Desktop Icons”
Select the icons you want to display and press OK.
While searching in Windows 8 must be conducted through the Modern UI, it is fast, efficient, and works well. Hit Ctrl-ESC and start typing. You can then click on either Apps, Files or Settings in the upper right to refine where you want your search to take you. Use +F to default to a “file search”.
Press ESC to exit the Search window and return to the Desktop.
Creating Desktop Icons
One of the most frustrating things in Windows 8 is figuring out how to place application icons on your desktop. Installing Visual Studio 2012? It won’t place an icon on your desktop by default; you have to use the Windows 8 search feature to access it. But fear not, here’s the steps to place any application shortcut on your desktop:
Find your application, and right-click on it – select “pin to taskbar”
Find the icon in your taskbar, and while holding down SHIFT right-click on the icon and select “Send to -> Desktop”
Un-pin it from the task bar (only if you want to clean the taskbar up)
When you install Windows 8 and run it for the first time you will want to install all available updates. Once the OS is updated, you will then want to install all of your applications and run it again to have the applications updated (such as Microsoft Office, Visual Studio, etc). How do you get to the Windows Updates section?
Select Settings from the Charms Bar
At the bottom of the panel, select “Change your PC Settings”
Windows Update is at the bottom of the screen
Note: ESC does not exit this screen! You must either press +D or click on the lower left corner Start->Desktop to return to the desktop
Staying Away from Windows 8 Specific Applications
I hate to say this, but I recommend all PC users of Windows 8 stay away from Windows 8 specific applications, especially Skype. They’re just terrible and should not exist on any medium other than a mobile device or tablet.
Don’t let the Modern UI drive you away from Windows 8. Yes, it’s cumbersome and in my opinion mainly useless for Desktop users, but as you can see in here, it’s the only bad thing about Windows 8 and it can easily be avoided.
After using Windows 8 and learning how to avoid its pitfalls while embracing its strengths, I recommend people upgrade. The security enhancements alone are worth it, especially with all the malware saturating the internet and constantly blasting Windows 7 which has fundamental design flaws that Windows 8 does not. The speed boosts are also quite noticeable.
Once you learn how to navigate around the Modern UI and embrace the core of Windows 8, you’ll find it’s it’s a fast, solid, robust, reliable, and more advanced Operating System than Windows 7.