Windows has changed a lot since Windows 95 ushered in the modern era of the desktop operating system almost two decades ago—the underlying technology that makes Windows what it is has completely changed since those early days to keep pace with new technologies and usage models. Despite all of those changes, though, the fundamental look and feel of Windows 7 remains remarkably similar to its hoary old predecessor.


Windows 95 and Windows 7: We're not so different, you and I

All of that's changing—the Windows 8 Consumer Preview is here, and it brings with it the biggest fundamental change to the default Windows UI since 1995. Metro is an interface designed for the modern, touch-enabled era, and when Windows 8 (and its cousin, Windows on ARM) is released, it will signify Microsoft's long-awaited entry into the tablet market that the iPad created and subsequently dominated.

The difference between Microsoft's strategy and Apple's strategy is that Microsoft is not keeping its operating systems separate—iOS and OS X are slowly blending together, but they remain discrete OSes designed for different input devices. Windows 8 and Metro, on the other hand, are one and the same: the operating system running on your desktop and the one running on your tablet are going to be the same code.

Metro tends to overshadow Windows 8 by the sheer force of its newness. Although it's one of the biggest changes to the new OS, it's certainly not the only one. Windows 8 includes a slew of other new and updated programs, utilities, services, and architectural improvements to make the operating system more useful and efficient than its predecessor—we'll be looking at the most important of those changes as well.

Will all of these new features come together to make Windows 8 a worthy upgrade to the successful Windows 7? Will the Metro interface work as well with a keyboard and mouse as it does on a tablet? For answers to those questions and more, just keep reading.

Hardware Used for this Review

For the purposes of this review, I’ve installed and run Windows 8 on a wide variety of hardware. I’ve done most of the review on a pair of machines, which I’ll spec out here:

 

Dell Latitude E6410

Dell Latitude D620

CPU 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 M540 2.00 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
GPU 512MB NVIDIA Quadro NVS 3100M Intel GMA 950
RAM 8GB DDR3 2GB DDR2
Hard drive 128GB Kingston V100 SSD 7200RPM laptop HDD
OS Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x86

I also installed and used Windows 8 on the following computers for at least a few hours each:

 

Netbook

Late 2006 20" iMac

Mid-2007 20" iMac HP Compaq C770US Late 2010 11" MacBook Air Custom-built Mini ITX desktop
CPU 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo 3.10 GHz Intel Core i3-2105
GPU Intel GMA 950 128MB ATI Radeon X1600 256MB ATI Radeon 2600 Pro Intel GMA X3100 NVIDIA GeForce 320M Intel HD Graphics 3000
RAM 1GB DDR2 2GB DDR2 4GB DDR2 2GB DDR2 4GB DDR3 8GB DDR3
Hard drive 5400RPM laptop HDD 7200RPM desktop HDD 7200RPM desktop HDD 16GB Samsung SSD 128GB Samsung SSD 64GB Crucial M4 SSD
OS Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x86 Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x64 Windows 8 x64

This broad list of hardware, most of it at least a couple of years old, should be representative of most machines that people will actually be thinking about upgrading to Windows 8—there will be people out there installing this on old Pentium IIs, I'm sure, but those who are already know that they're edge cases, and are outside the scope of this review.

Update: Hey AMD fans! A lot of you noticed that there weren't any AMD CPUs included in my test suite. This was not intentional on my part, but rather a byproduct of the fact that I have no AMD test systems on hand at present. For the purposes of this review, these specifications are provided to you only to give you an idea of how Windows 8 performs on hardware of different vintages and speeds, not to make a statement about the relative superiority of one or another CPU manufacturer. For the final, RTM version of Windows 8, we'll make an effort to include some AMD-based systems in our lineup, with especial attention paid to whether Windows 8 improves performance numbers for Bulldozer chips.

With Windows 8, Microsoft has two claims about hardware: first, that Windows 8 would run on any hardware that runs Windows 7, and second, that programs and drivers that worked under Windows 7 would largely continue to work in Windows 8. Overall, my experience on both counts was positive (excepting near-constant Flash crashes), but you can read more about my Windows 8 hardware recommendations later on in the review.

The last thing I want to do before starting this review is give credit where credit is due—many readers have said in the comments that they would like multi-author reviews to include some information about what author wrote what opinions, and I agree. For your reference:

  • Brian Klug provided editing services.
  • Ryan Smith wrote about DirectX 11 and WDDM 1.2
  • Kristian Vatto wrote about the Mail, Calendar, and Photos apps.
  • Jarred Walton provided battery life statistics and analysis.
  • Andrew Cunningham wrote about everything else. You can contact him with questions or comments at andrewc@anandtech.com or using his Twitter handle, @Thomsirveaux

Now, let's begin at the very beginning: Windows Setup.

Windows Setup and OOBE
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  • Sabresiberian - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    I downloaded and installed Win 8 CP last night (on a second partition, for dual boot). I must say, my fears about how hideous Win 8 would be are gone. There are no changes that are insurmountable, or even really difficult to understand, though it takes a bit of getting used to at first - as anything new does.

    As far as looks - I was surprised to find the big squares on a solid background weren't as hideous as I thought they would be, but it hardly matters because you can pretty much live in the desktop environment, in which you can install whatever background you like, just as has always been the case with Windows. There are things you will want to do that will bring Metro up, but it was no problem for me once I monkeyed around a bit and found out what to do.

    There is a nice guide on MaximumPC for creating and installing Win 8 either dual boot or using Virtualization, if you are interested. Note: if you are installing on a RAID, you can't resize your partitions and create a new one from Vista (not sure about Win 7), you will need to use a third party app. I'll get back with the one I used, which worked nicely.

    MaximumPC has several other excellent articles about Win 8, and I recommend reading them. One article had a method for starting Win 8 in the desktop mode, not Metro, so it has less impact on your sense of beauty. (I haven't tried it.)

    Do yourself a huge favor and approach Win 8 with an open mind, and the knowledge that you WILL have to do some things differently - but it really will make sense in the end. Don't insist that things should work the old way, that just leads to frustration and deciding Win 8 is broken somehow; it is not.

    There are a couple of things I don't like, such as not being able to make the rectangles smaller (2 sizes only). It's a minor quibble though since I will hardly ever have Metro up. There's no changing the Metro background beyond some solid color changes with different textural artwork, but the shades chosen by Microsoft for background colors actually displayed nicely on my screen. I wasn't fond of some of the tile colors and didn't see a way to change them in my poking around, yet anyway. (I actually like the tile that you click - or touch, if you have the hardware - to bring up the desktop, which looks like a miniature version of the desktop complete with whatever cool background you have installed.) As I said though, the desktop can be prettied up just as Win 7 could, and that's what I'll have up when I'm doing something that isn't fullscreen (such as posting in this thread).

    Remember, too, that what we see in the Preview isn't set in stone and final; with enough constructive input, Microsoft could well change some things before release. I want to underline the "constructive" part of that, no one listens to flaming.

    Give it a shot yourself! If you have any room on your hard drive, it's not hard at all to set up dual boot.

    ;)
    Reply
  • jabber - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Oh no doubt those of us that dont like will persevere because our jobs/careers depend on being able to support it going forward.

    However, I still feel that using Metro should be a choice.

    All it needs is an option for those that want to use Metro or have a touch enabled desktop PC (yes thats you Jeff in Florida, nice to see you) to enable it and those of us that just dont have the time, inclination or need to do real work to earn a living to carry on as we were.

    It's not like 8 is a total ground up clean sheet OS. Its just Windows 7 with this dog show assault course called Metro shoehorned into it.

    If it was all new then I'd be more inclined to embrace it as it wasn't going to be able to change.

    I'll change if I really have to due to real compelling reasons or benefits, that's life but not because some bum-fluffed faced developer at MS that's main daily IT work is typing tweets tells me to, simply on the justification that "it's cool"..
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    The program I used to resize the existing partition (because I have 2 hard drives set up in a RAID 0 configuration and Vista's "Shrink" will only work properly with a single disk. It appears to work at first, but does not.) and create one for Win 8 is called "Partition Wizard 7" Very nice, and the Home Edition is completely free. Nice little video tutorials on the site if you need help.

    I've never done dual boot before, so I thought I'd add a note for others new to the system. Once Win 8 was installed, my computer didn't give me an option to start on the different logical drives like I thought it would when I pressed "F8" (may be "F12" or something else on your hardware); it booted normally, I saw the Win 8 stylized fish, and then a screen popped up to allow me to select which OS I wanted to boot. Selecting "Vista" instead got me a restart into Vista.

    Your computer might do something different, my mainboard is an Asus Rampage II Extreme, with Vista 64 Ultimate and now the Win 8 CP installed.

    ;)
    Reply
  • klmccaughey - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Well I have had it installed for a few days now, and as a power user, multimonitor, DESKTOP user, I find it is all but unusable.

    The reason for having multiple monitors and desktops is to make use of that space.... SPATIALLY and not have all this crap getting in the way. It takes ages to find things you need to use, it is ANTI-productivity and a total DISASTER for business and power users.

    It's basically a very smooth running piece of shit (POS).

    Surely they could create a business version where we can continue to have a desktop and easy ways to jump from one activity to another.

    As it is you have a tablet interface that gets RIGHT IN THE WAY of trying to do what you want.

    How much money were Anand given not to give it a bad review is what I am wondering. You cannot seriously tell me people in business, programmers etc are going to be able to use this POS?
    Reply
  • B3an - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Just STFU and go back to Windows 95 then.

    And oh no you have to learn new things with a new OS? Who would have thought!! Thats just shocking.

    It takes about an hour at most to learn the new stuff, then maybe a week to get used to it. After that... you dont have to learn it again! And you'll find that most things are actually FASTER to do if you use the new OS the way it's intended.
    Reply
  • jabber - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Yeah you've never worked for a company with 10000+ staff have you? Ranging from Brandi in HR to Steve in Accounts etc.

    Corporations dont have that amount of time and productivity to lose to an OS designed to run fart apps and Angry Birds.

    It's a grown up world out there. It's not just about catering to skinny jeaned hipsters who only use Twitter and Facebook while sitting in Starbucks.

    Business as usual rules.
    Reply
  • noname3 - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Nobody has problems learning new things; the only person with learning difficulties seems to be you, based on your language.

    Learning new OSes is something some of us do for a living, but to do so we need to be rewarded with increased productivity. Metro UI kills productivity and it sucks, you want to learn something useful, go learn foresting or something.
    Reply
  • klmccaughey - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    At a guess I would say I am able to learn substantially more than you would be able to. It is not a matter of learning something new, it is a matter of the interface, as is, getting in the way of productivity.

    I can see how it would be great on a tablet, but for me working it is a nightmare. Judging by the reaction worldwide it seems that other professionals are seeing the same iceberg.

    I like the spanglies, and I am delighted for MS that they have caught up in this respect. But someone has dropped the design ball when it comes to productivity and any vision of workflow for the average person.

    Hopefully there will be a bit of a rethink on the interface so that I can continue to program in Windows (tm) using "Windows", with easy access using mouse and screens. I want to upgrade, and I have spent hours enjoying Windows 8 on my tablet, but it isn't even close to usable for my day job. That is a real shame in my opinion.
    Reply
  • Valahano - Friday, March 16, 2012 - link

    Judging from your other posts on this article, I take it that you are some kind of a big Metro zealot. It's very hip, congratulations.

    However, this does not change the fact that this new interface is a major step back in usability on a desktop for anything beyond viewing lolcat pictures.

    But don't worry, Win 8 is really great OS in at least one aspect - the Up button is back (Ctrl + Up still doesn't work though).
    Reply
  • BehindEnemyLines - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    I think it's still the same Windows with all the desktop. In a multimonitor environment, you can have all your screens to be the desktop. The Start Screen is nothing more than a fullscreen start menu, and I actually find it more useful. The primary monitor will always be the screen with the Start Screen, so you can just click on the Desktop tile and use the desktop as it has always been. You can also access all of the power user resources by right-clicking on the bottom-left corner hot spot.

    And for a multimonitor setup, I suggest that you offset your left & right monitors slightly away from the bottom-left and top-right corners. That solved most of my problems.

    I understand that businesses don't want to retrain employees, which is why all businesses should have an upgrade cycle and plan. Most businesses are NOT going to touch a new operating system at initial release. There's a ton of testing before deployment.

    I had initially the same reaction with Windows 7 superbar. I thought MS was insane to remove the names from the taskbar and replace with just icons. And yet, I was amazed how much BETTER it's once I've learned it. I am just saying most things in life require some learning.
    Reply

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