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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  • rs2 - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Seriously? I do not want either of those things.

    Please tell me that these are artifacts of running Windows 8 on a system with an underpowered graphics card, or at least that the rounded corners and "glass" effects simply have not been built in to the preview version.
    Reply
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Square windows here to stay, not a big deal. Windows borders can get more or less opaque depending on your settings, just like in 7. Reply
  • rs2 - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    Maybe not a big deal, objectively speaking, but it feels like a step backwards to me. Between that and Metro I'm seriously considering just sticking with Windows 7. It does everything I need in a way that I like, with no trade-offs being made to support touch-based devices (which my desktop isn't).

    I'm starting to get the feeling that Microsoft could have another "XP vs. Vista" debacle on its hands, no? Back then I switched to Vista but never really felt that it was a significant improvement until Windows 7 came around. I didn't hate Vista or think that it was worse than XP the way a lot of people seemed to, but I wasn't really thrilled with it either. Windows 7 was an unquestionable improvement over both Vista and XP, however.

    Perhaps this time I'll stick with "legacy" Windows 7 until Windows 9 comes out.
    Reply
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    Totally possible! Especially so in businesses, which move more slowly and are only now rolling 7 out over XP.

    The rounded vs. square corners thing is a matter of taste, I guess. It does seem to be showing up everywhere - Lion killed rounded buttons in favor of squared ones too. It's not important to me, but I suppose it is a little "old-school." :-)
    Reply
  • AnnonymousCoward - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    Every new OS simply needs an option to use the old UI. That would take away the fundamental reason why users don't want newer OS's.

    I refuse to use anything beyond XP. Vista's and 7's Explorer is less functional, and other various UI functionality is different for the worse. Likewise, IE7/8/9 have a topbar that lacks real functionality and can't be customized, unlike IE6.
    Reply
  • DanaGoyette - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    Here are a couple of oddities I've noticed:
    * Start screen... If you try scrolling horizontally with a touchpad, absolutely nothing happens. In the developer preview, I had to read online to find out why the danged thing wouldn't scroll.

    * Split-up search sucks.
    Try this in Windows 7: Windows key -> "featu". So long as you don't have, say, "bluetooth feature pack" installed, you can just press enter to get to "Programs and Features".
    Try it in Windows 8: Windows key -> Featu. Down, down, enter, enter. 4 key presses required to replace the original 'enter'.

    * Start screen, another thing to try: Windows 7: search for something, then press the "context menu" key on the keyboard. You should get the right-click menu of the highlighted item. Windows 8: you get the right-click menu for the textbox you're typing in!

    * The boot process seems weird on my Intel 320 SSD. After the initial disk activity, it sits there doing apparently nothing (no disk activity) for over 30 seconds. Effective boot time is around 60 seconds, not including POST. For comparison, resuming from hibernate to the login screen takes only about 4 seconds.

    * You ever try it on a pen-only (Wacom) Tablet PC? It's worse than a mouse, because it seems to actively disable the screen corner gestures -- they don't work with the pen OR the touchpad on that system.

    Now, for a nifty thing to try: right-click in the lower-left corner of the screen.
    Reply
  • mbf - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    Fixed that error on page 3 for you:

    "..Microsoft insists that the PC is just another kind of tablet..."
    Reply
  • vivekgarg79 - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    I have x86 (32 bit) m/c. I want to develop metro UI app, using VS2011 for windows 8. Will VS 2011 (x86) work on top of Windows 8 consumer preview (x86)?? Reply
  • haplo602 - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    I read the first 3 pages, then skipped to the conclusion. I realised I don't give a damn about any new Windows/Tiles version. Happy Linux camper since Windows XP.

    The UI change will be a big jump. It will be interesting to see the outcome.
    Reply
  • iwod - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    I couldn't believe how positive this review was, from a technical user prospective.

    And it surely prove M$ has little to no understanding of how UI should be designed. There is now Metro, and a half baked Desktop environment. I can see more user jumping on to Mac platform when Windows 8 comes out.

    I think the root of all wrong doings; Tablet is just another PC. Which is where it all goes wrong.

    P.S - I have been forcing Metro on myself for week now. I can definitely say it "could" be a great Tablet OS. Desktop? I will pass.
    Reply

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