Microsoft Windows 8 is almost ready to be released into the wild. Every launch of a new operating system inevitably leaves users with many questions. Are there any reasons for me to upgrade? What am I missing out on if I don’t? Will making the leap leave me with a computer I don’t know how to use?
These questions never receive a definitive answer because there isn’t one. The answer depends on you, and how you use your computer. A casual PC user is different from an enthusiast, who is different from a gamer, and so on.
With that in mind, we’ve broken down the upgrade question by types of users. Even if you find yourself straddling more than one category, we’ll help you figure out what your plan should be when Windows 8 finally arrives.
If you’re a casual home user…
Windows 8 is aimed at the everyday user who doesn’t identify as a geek. It’s built to provide support for a wider variety of devices and, by doing so, makes it easier for those devices to interact. Currently, Apple is the only company offering a similar ecosystem of products, but its devices are too expensive for many to buy. Microsoft is bringing the same concept to everyone with a simple, inviting interface that works on everything from tablets to desktops.
There are also new features of note for home users. Windows 8 ships with stock anti-virus protection based off Microsoft Security Essentials. It also includes built-in cloud storage and synchronization support. Users can pool hard drive storage instead of chopping it into different drives. New file history features will make backing up and restoring data easier than ever before. And much more.
That said, previous Windows users will at first be turned off by the new interface. It’s a radical departure from previous versions of Windows. Upgrading will be similar to learning a new operating system, and it may take a few months to feel comfortable with what has changed. However, we think the many new and improved features are worth the price of feeling temporarily lost at first.
Speaking of price, you don’t need to part way with much cash to obtain the new version. Microsoft will be selling upgrades for $70 in stores or $40 online (until the end of January, 2013). The low price will make Windows 8 much easier for the average home user to accept.
If you’re a traveler…
Frequent fliers will find the cloud features mentioned above useful. Microsoft’s baked-in SkyDrive service will be able to store between 7GB and 25GB of data for free (new users get less, previous users more) and will also be able to save files from third-party applications directly to SkyDrive. The service also syncs data, so users will be able to easily keep files in sync across several devices.
Windows 8 Enterprise users will have access to a handy new feature called Windows To Go. This installs Windows 8 to a bootable USB drive, making it possible for users to enjoy their personal version of the operating system, with all of its settings and preferences, on any machine with a USB port. This could be awesome for travelers who don’t want to be stuck on a cramped ultraportable when larger systems are available.
These features are nice, but we think Microsoft’s new operating system offers more for travelers who want a new device than for travelers happy with what they already have. The cloud storage features, though useful, are not hard to replicate on a Windows 7 computer. The touch-friendly interface is the big draw, but most people don’t have touch-capable devices to take advantage of it. Windows 8 may be a reason to buy a new tablet or convertible, but there’s not a lot to entice consumers happy with their current laptops.
If you’re a geek…
Geeks have been unimpressed by Windows 8 so far, and some have been downright hostile. Microsoft’s new Modern (formerly known as Metro) user interface is clearly a compromise. It makes sense on touch devices and computers with small displays, like Ultrabooks. But it’s also a radical departure from the traditional desktop, and seems like a downgrade for desktop users with spacious displays.
There are a few features enthusiasts might be interested in, however. Chief among these is Hyper-V, a powerful virtualization tool previously available only on the Windows Server operating system. This should make it much easier for users to run other operating systems alongside Windows.
Enthusiasts will also tend to use multiple monitors, so they’ll appreciate the improvements made in this area. It’s now possible to extend the taskbar and wallpaper across monitors, eliminating the need for third-party solutions like UltraMon.
Windows 8 also improves search. Many tech enthusiasts store a lot of files, which makes navigating folders and files cumbersome, so search is important. Windows 8 tweaks this feature for speed and accuracy and gives it space in the Modern UI interface. Other additions include filters and in-app search support.
Geeks have a tendency to focus on the new interface and forget the other benefits, some of which are convenient. If you’re an enthusiast, you likely have no problem dual-booting your PC, so give the release preview a try and see if you want to spend your hard-earned cash.
If you’re a gamer….
Users who primarily see their PC as a gaming rig will want to know about anything that improves the performance of games, adds new graphical features or makes new games easier to find. Unfortunately, Windows 8 doesn’t offer much in these areas.
There’s just one feature that gamers might like, and that’s integration with Xbox Live and the Xbox 360. This will be a great feature for people dedicated to, and familiar with, the Xbox environment. You’ll be able to see Xbox Live friends from your Windows PC and even earn achievements in select games sold through the Xbox store in Windows 8. It’s also possible to launch 360 apps and games via your Windows 8 device.
However, gamers will have to own a 360 and have an Xbox Live subscription to use these features to their fullest, neither of which is free. This also builds a walled garden that not all gamers will enjoy. If you’re a Nintendo, Sony or Steam fan, or you’re a multi-platform gamer, these features aren’t of much use.
Microsoft hasn’t announced anything else of relevance to gamers. There’s no new version of DirectX, nor have there been any gaming-specific performance improvements. Microsoft will sell games via the Windows 8 store, but digital distribution of games isn’t exactly a new thing. Most gamers won’t find a compelling reason to rush out and buy Windows 8.
Our recommendations for all four perspectives illustrate why Microsoft may catch flak for Windows 8. Its new features are great for the average user, but they come inseparably paired with a dramatically different interface that will take time to learn. Some users will no doubt wonder why they have to re-learn how to navigate a computer they’ve owned for years.
With that said, it remains to be seen if Windows 8 will become another Vista. Many of the complaints about Vista were related to large changes in the core of the operating system, which confused users and broke compatibility with older software and hardware. Windows 8 looks much different on the surface, but it’s similar to Windows 7 underneath. Hopefully the same problems will not be an issue.