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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  • RavnosCC - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    Very annoying till I went through Microsoft Help and discovered I will not be able to "snap" apps with my standard 4:3, 1280x1024 screen. boo Reply
  • fRESHOiL - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    This time around they added a great setting "Make Everything on my Screen Bigger".

    I didn't have to mess with loading my custom fonts, sizes, DPI, etc. to make my system visible from my couch on my 56" DLP. It did seem to make Metro Apps bigger but not desktop apps or the desktop experience.

    Also, I've gone through a ton of small media keyboards and none are as easy as my remote. Since Metro, and all tablet/phone OSes are more geared towards consuming media/data rather than creating it... not saying they can't, but they do better at consuming, I thought for sure they would have accepted windows remote control commands in all the Metro Apps, to my surprise not one does. Of course the arrow keys and OK/Enter key work, but Info, Back, etc have no function in Metro Apps. Just a few changes and Metro becomes the best 10' full OS ever, mainly that it needs to work with remotes. Also, Media Center hasn't changed at all... I think it could use a little Metro and hope it does get it in the final product.
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    I wonder how your video playback batter test would perform with well encoded HD videos with hardware-accelerated playback...

    I'm sure most of you guys know all about video encoding and decoding... GPU video decoding (my personal experience) consumes a LOT less power than software decoding done on the CPU. Yes, GPUs generally consume more power than the CPU, but it's a lot easier for the GPU to decode Full-HD videos than it is for the CPU (by an order of magnitude), also arguably more efficient.

    We all know that hardware-accelerated video players (MPC-HC and Windows Media Player included) support that feature. But you never mentioned if it was enabled in your setup. So I'm assuming you didn't use any sort of HW Acceleration, and therefore, you had 2 or more cores of your test setups running in each test for decoding the video while playing the videos.

    On my HP DV6 Core2Due T6400 laptop, properly encoded MP4 videos run with almost 0% of CPU utilization, and with the right codec (I use the FFDShow with DirectX Video Acceleration) even high profile MKV files run with 5-15% cpu utilization (otherwise 50-100% of CPU utilization. I use Windows Media Player since it doesn't utilize as much CPU power as MPC-HC.

    My laptop stays 2-2.5 hours on battery if i'm using software decoding, but lasts well above 3.5 hours with HW-Acceleration enabled... I wonder how that will affect your setup?
    Reply
  • mutatio - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    I'm glad the reviewers found some redeeming qualities to the OS. All I can say is that I was not impressed with MS' mobile OS. It's strong in concept but just tacky in appearance, like some city traffic symbol maker was in charge of the design. Windows 8 does no better IMHO and this honestly looks like a crap sandwich waiting to blow up in MS' face. Serious? "It's very useful once you learn all of the 50+ new keyboard commands!" You have to be kidding me. I know you all are hardcore nerds here working at Anandtech but there is a reason W8 is getting slapped silly in the consumer oriented reviews. I saw a review the other day that quite literally said, "I enjoyed the review of Windows 8 so much I order a 21" iMac." Tempered indeed. Reply
  • FuzzDad - Monday, March 12, 2012 - link

    No issues with SLI, my watercooling programs...my configs for gaming...the install went solid. I have a mouse locking problem with Logitech keyboards but there's a work-around until they fix it. I didn't like the interface at first (it isn't intuitive) but once you get to the point where you accept Metro=Start Button it all kinda makes sense. I think the GUI is snappy and smooth and it grows on you. I also think they're probably writing off Windows 8 for the desktop/business use...unless they throw the start button on there...and only after that would there be any talk of it going widespread on desktops that have not yet moved to Win7.

    I think their strategy is simply get back to a three-year release schedule and into the tablet space as quickly as they can. TBH...this OS is as good as Win7 w/new interface...if they had offered the start button as a hard-core option I think all the howling winds we hear now would have been a soft sea breeze.
    Reply
  • jabber - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    ...who exactly is going to buy a Windows based Tablet?

    It's way too late surely? It's the Zune all over again.

    The Corp bosses will all have iPads so will be pushing to use them in their work surely? The iPhone through this method is now becoming the standard corp phone of choice at the cost of BB.

    MS isnt going to get a look in on this one.

    I am a Zune Mk1 owner, just in case.
    Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    you'll be surprised how many people there are who didn't go with the hype and rejected iPads and Android tablets just because they're not "Windows"....

    What's amazing about this release is the first impression i heard from lots of people who saw it on my laptop. Lots of them said the very same thing: "Wow, Windows now has *windows*! Everything is in front of me an I don't have to look for anything!"... i haven't noticed that myself, but surely, what they said was true.
    Reply
  • jabber - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    "you'll be surprised how many people there are who didn't go with the hype and rejected iPads and Android tablets just because they're not "Windows"...."

    Well good luck to the three of you I say.
    Reply
  • somedude1234 - Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - link

    Great article, the efforts of the whole team come through in the depth and quality of the report and I'm looking forward to reading the follow-up articles.

    I use Windows 7 every day to get real work done.

    I'd appreciate any feedback from the team (or other AT readers) on the following question: Will the UI enhancements in Windows 8 offer any benefit to me? Specifically, is there anything in Win8 that will help me be more productive in my daily use cases?

    On my multi-monitor primary workstation I have the Win7 start menu running vertically on the side of one of my monitors. I often have 3 "pages" on my taskbar of windows open between: outlook, word, excel, powerpoint, firefox, PDF files, text files, explorer windows, putty sessions, and skype or MSN chat windows.

    In other words, I am doing a lot of multi-tasking and waste a lot of time doing context switches as needed. Even with 2 or more monitors available, I never have enough screen real estate to have all of the various applications and windows open without ever needing to re-arrange all of the windows.

    Win7 provided marginal improvements over XP, I especially like the ability to quickly snap a window to the left or right half of a given monitor. I wish MS would have expanded on this to allow me to snap to the top and bottom halves as well.

    I've used a number of 3rd party applications over the years to enhance window management, but invariably they end up either being clunky, unstable or requiring so much additional effort to negate the goal of improving productivity.

    Does Windows 8 actually add anything to make window management better/easier/faster/more powerful for those of us that are really multi-tasking all day? Metro seems to be completely consumer focused, what about the professional users?
    Reply
  • Th-z - Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - link

    I've tested it, I don't think you'll find improvement for your usage scenario. In fact it can actually slow you down because they remove Start button. If you want to launch normal desktop apps quickly, you basically have to pin them to taskbar from Metro UI, or use the same enabling-Quick Launch bar trick that people use when they went from XP/Vista to Win 7. There are also third party programs such as Start8 that can bring the Start button back.

    I find it ironic that people have to use third party program for basic functions to circumvent Microsoft's devolution in UI scheme or stubbornness. I have to use a third party program to enable hovering scrolling in different panes in Windows Explorer (it's still not there in Windows 8).

    There are so many ways they can improve desktop UI that I can list that would put OS X to shame, and you even suggest the horizontal snap that can improve desktop usage that many people would probably use. Unfortunately, they're too busy toying with Metro UI. I've always thought Microsoft is a company good at software engineering, but bad at user interface.
    Reply

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