Reviewing an operating system is an odd endeavor, because people don't really use operating systems; they use applications. The OS should be as transparent as possible, acting as a platform for applications. In today's cloud-driven world, however, the notion that your application will run in a single OS is tenuous at best. Toss in the increasing use of smart devices, whether phones or tablets, and the idea of a single-platform operating system is less relevant now than it was just a few years ago. These days we have "ecosystems"--Microsoft, Apple, or Google, take your pick.
That said, PC users still expect their Windows applications to run as before, and they want to have the same control over their laptop and desktop computers as they've always had. New software features should enable users to do more. And as the reaction to the late, unlamented Windows Vista illustrated, all the shiny new bells and whistles should not harm performance or require new hardware.
Can Windows 8 meet its goal of being one aspect of a new Microsoft ecosystem while maintaining its roots in the PC? Can existing computers run Windows 8 without the need for expensive new touch displays? Will the revamped Windows 8 user interface turn off existing Windows users or pull them into the ecosystem? I'll try to answer those questions and others as I dive deeply into Windows 8.
This review is based on the Windows 8 final release - what Microsoft calls the "release to manufacturing," or RTM, version. The final release is available to Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers. Desktop PCs, laptops, and tablets ship with Windows 8 preinstalled on the official launch day, Thursday 26 October.
We ran Windows 8 on a moderately high-end desktop system along with a standard (nontouch) monitor, mouse, and keyboard. We also used a Samsung Series 9 laptop with an Elan touchpad supporting full multitouch gestures.
The Windows 8 user interface
Windows 8 tries to get you to tie your Windows login to your Microsoft account; it's optional, but if you do link the two, the Windows login and password serve as your Microsoft account login and password. Enabling this link allows tighter integration with the remote and cloud-based features of the new OS.
As mentioned previously, Windows 8 is designed to be part of an ecosystem, alongside Windows Phone and Windows RT. Microsoft believes in this idea so strongly that it has made the Windows 8 user interface (formerly called Metro) the primary interface for Windows users. PCs with the new OS installed will boot into the Windows 8 interface; the OS offers no built-in way to set it to boot to the traditional Windows desktop.
The Windows 8 interface acts as the Start menu now. Instead of appearing as columns of small icons that pop up when you click the Start button, all your applications show up as tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen. You can also search for an application by typing its name when you're in the Start screen; the results list autosorts as you type more characters.
It's important to realize that the Start screen is no more Windows 8 than the Start menu was Windows 7 or Windows XP. The screen exists as a launchpad for applications, not as a desktop replacement. That concept is easy to forget, since the Start screen occupies the entire display. Even so, Windows 8 apps consume the entire screen, whereas desktop applications can still run in a window on the desktop.
However, not all desktop applications appear on the Start screen by default. Some accessory apps, such as Paint, live in the Apps screen. You can force these programs to appear in the Start screen by right-clicking them to select them and then clicking Pin to Start at the bottom of the screen. Nevertheless, getting to the Apps screen is simple: Right-click a blank area in the Start screen and then click the All apps icon at the lower right.