Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system is perhaps its most significant leap in the company’s history. As most readers likely know, it includes a new interface which takes queues from Windows Phone. Designed for a variety of inputs, this interface will bring Windows to devices typically out of its reach. It also changes design elements that have been a part of Windows for over two decades.
Yet that headline is only one of many changes. There’s a ton new features, and some old features have been significantly revised. Let’s dive in to the new operating system by taking a look at all the new or changed features that everyone considering Windows 8 should know about.
This is an update and replacement to the Backup & Restore functionality found in Windows 7. Microsoft has taken an approach similar to OS X Time Machine and some third-party backup solutions. Instead of only making large backups at pre-determined times, Windows 8 can create incremental backups of files stored in designated folders.
Doing this makes it possible to recover data after both major and minor disasters. You’ll be able to restore important data if your computer crashes and you’ll also be able to restore specific files and folders without impacting the rest of your system. This is a major improvement with no notable downside.
Integrated Cloud Storage / Sync
Users of Windows 8 will have the choice to log in with a Microsoft account. Doing this will end able cloud storage and sync with SkyDrive, the company’s cloud storage and sync service. Signing up is free, as is a limited amount of cloud storage. Users will also be able to save files from third-party applications directly to SkyDrive.
Integrating this functionality will make it more appealing and intuitive for many users, but signing in with a Microsoft account is likely to have less appeal. It’s far from unprecedented, however. Google Chrome and OS X already require the same.
Internet Explorer 10
Windows 8 will ship with the latest version of Internet Explorer, which comes in two versions. One is a mobile app that doesn’t have plug-in support and the other is desktop software which retains that functionality. The mobile version also has a revised interface that’s obviously geared towards touch input.
There’s also a host of minor but important feature updates including support for HTML5, hardware acceleration and CSS3. Adobe Flash will also be integrated to improve security and ensure that users keep the software up-to-date.
Windows has long used Hibernate as a quick-boot alternative. It has two major problems, however. It’s not that quick, and it requires several gigabytes of free hard drive space.
Hybrid Boot takes a different approach. It only stores information related to the Windows kernel and device drivers (as opposed to Hibernate, which stores the entire contents of a system’s RAM). This enables faster boot times but also dramatically decreases the amount of hard drive space consumed by the feature.
Microsoft is claiming that Hybrid Boot will be up to 70 percent quicker than a cold boot, and won’t use any more power than Hibernate. We’ll have to see if those claims pan out.
Virtualization in Windows Server 2008 and 2012 is handled by a technology called Hyper-V. This is now being extended to Windows 8, making it possible for users to run other operating systems within the Windows 8 environment.
Hyper-V is an advanced and powerful virtualization option. It performs well, it works with both 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems and it has a decent interface with numerous options for managing how each virtual OS works and the resources it has access to. Power users will adore it.
New multi-monitor features
Windows has included multi-monitor support for some time, but it’s also relied on a single primary display. Users could only access the task bar on that display and the wallpaper on all displays was a mirror image of that used on the primary.
Windows 8 changes this by allowing taskbars and wallpapers that span multiple monitors. Both improvements are minor, but they will be useful to enthusiasts who enjoy hooking up two or three monitors instead of one.
Windows 7 included some clever new multi-tasking features such as Aero Snap, which made it easy to “snap” two open windows into a side-by-side configuration. Microsoft is including a similar function for new Metro apps in Windows 8.
Instead of snapping into a 50/50 split, however, it will be possible to slide a background app into view and take up only a portion of the screen. That will be great if you need to take just a bit of information from another app, but it might not be great for true productivity.
It’s also a feature obviously built with touch in mind. Sliding a background app into view with touch is great, but with a mouse it feels clunky.
In addition to Hyper-V the new operating system will also support storage virtualization. This feature makes it possible to combine multiple physical hard drives into a single logical unit.
Let’s say, for example, that a PC has two 500GB hard drives. In previous versions Windows, each would have their own drive letters and their own file hierarchy. Under Windows 8 it will be possible to combine them into one drive letter with a single hierarchy.
This could be a great feature for desktops with many drives, though we do wonder what will happen if a hard drive fails.
Ribbon Interface in File Explorer
Microsoft has re-named Windows Explorer to File Explorer and slapped it with the Ribbon interface. This interface does away with rows of menu text and instead tries to prioritize the visibility of functions by how often a user might need them. It may take some getting used to, though anyone who uses Office will be accustomed to it.
This change is less dramatic than it sounds. You’ll still be moving files and folders, you’ll still be relying on context menus when interacting with specific items and you’ll still be able to jump between locations using the interface sidebar. File Explorer may even feel old school compared to other parts of the Windows 8 interface.
Revised Task Manager
Some tweaks have been made to the Windows Task Manager to make it more intuitive. For example, information in the Processes tab is now color-coded based on activity. An app currently using processor cycles will have that information appear in a slightly different hue than an app that is at idle. It’s a small tweak that makes Task Manager much easier to read.
The same praise can be heaped on the new graphs performance graphs. They’re larger and use colors that are easier to distinguish both from the background and from other graphs. It’s also possible to see your IP address without any CMD or Control Panel tricks. Finally!
Current users of Windows 7 can download a free antivirus from Microsoft known as Security Essentials. With Windows 8, the company is wrapping that functionality into the operating system under the name Windows Defender.
The anti-virus capability of Windows Defender is, as with Security Essentials, very basic. Threats can be detected, quarantined and sometimes removed – and that’s it. There’s no anti-phishing feature, no identity protection scheme and no password encryption functionality.
Still, it’s a big step up from Windows 7 and it will help reduce the vulnerability of the Windows ecosystem as a whole. It also will be light on system resources.
Yes, Microsoft will be shipping its own app store with Windows. Fortunately it is not mandatory. Users can choose to buy apps from it but will not be required to do so.
The main draw of the Windows Store is related to Windows RT. Microsoft will be including apps on the store that can work on both a Windows 8 desktop and a Windows RT tablet. The store will also be the main avenue for users to obtain “Metro-style” apps.
Windows To Go
The Enterprise version of Windows 8 includes an interesting new feature that lets users install Windows 8 directly to a portable hard drive such as a flash drive or external hard drive.
Doing this will allow users to access their Windows 8 installation from any computer that has a free USB port. Home users are unlikely to ever use this feature, but businesses travelers will love it. It will give them the opportunity to use desktop computers at different work sites instead of being chained to whatever laptop they carry.
Integration with Xbox is the newest feature that Microsoft has announced for Windows 8. Owners of an Xbox 360 with a Live account can log in to Windows with that account and use it while playing “Xbox Games on Windows.”
These games, which will be sold via an Xbox Games portion of the Windows 8 store, will be eligible for Xbox achievements and will have access to cross-platform multiplayer modes (if the game supports multiplayer).
It will also be possible to launch Xbox apps via Windows 8 device. This will let users use a computer or tablet as a remote control for their Xbox. However, not all games and apps will span the divide between the platforms – the Xbox Games section of the Windows Store will be separate from other Windows games sold there, most of which don’t support Xbox integration. For now, at least.
Windows 8 is a major departure, but it’s not all about the new interface. Many of the features here are major improvements over Windows 7. We’re particularly happy about the inclusion of Hyper-V, the anti-virus built in to Windows Defender and the new File History backup solution. All of these are significant improvements with no downside. We only wish the same could be said of the new interface.