Windows 8 (for desktops and laptops) review

23 Aug 2012

It's not an essential update for most laptops and desktops, but Windows 8 delivers some subtle improvements on its predecessor

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This is an abridged version of the full nine-page review of Windows 8 that will appear in issue 217 of PC Pro, on sale 13 September

Although Windows 8 has pushed mobile and touch-enabled devices to the forefront, the vast majority of users will be installing the OS on traditional PCs and laptops. Think you know your way around Windows on a PC? For the most part, you still do with Windows 8, but a few changes in approach are impossible to avoid.

Like it or not, there’s nowhere else to begin but the Start menu. Many people complained when the Start button was absent from early builds of Windows 8, and despite much hopeful speculation, it has indeed gone for good. Instead, to open applications, find files and access system settings, you now use the same Metro Start screen that’s front and centre on tablets and touch devices.

Windows 8 - Metro Start screen

You needn’t move in wholesale if it isn’t to your liking – pinning applications to the desktop taskbar is the post-installation priority, and if you set up your environment correctly you can last the day without having to see Metro. However, you’ll inevitably find yourself there from time to time.

For unpinned programs you tap the Windows key, type a few letters and results begin to appear ready for opening. Annoyingly, however, they’re divided into application, setting and file screens, with applications set as the default. So even if you type the precise name of a setting, you won’t be able to press Enter to open it without first selecting that option.

The Metro Start screen scales reasonably well on large desktop monitors and it’s customisable to a degree, but it’s hard to shake the strong feeling that Metro – or whatever Microsoft eventually decides to name it - is an inefficient use of space. Its full-screen approach isn’t at all suitable for screens larger than around 17in, and it isn’t surprising that most of the PC Pro team have settled into routines that avoid entering Metro if at all possible.

Desktop changes

Windows 8 - Desktop

The better news is that the traditional Windows desktop sees plenty of worthy improvements in Windows 8.

First, the styling of windows is flatter than before, to complement the look of Metro. We feared it might be an unnecessary step backwards, but it isn’t particularly noticeable: everything can be dragged and resized as before, and the combination of the Windows key and cursor keys still snaps windows to the edges of the display.

Explorer windows now have the ribbon interface, but it can be hidden away to be opened on demand with a click of one of the menu tabs – some of which appear only when relevant file types, such as images, are selected. SkyDrive is integrated directly into the file tree, so placing your documents in the cloud to share with other devices is a breeze.

Windows 8 - Explorer

You might think that the file copy and Task Manager dialogs are trivial, but it’s amazing how quickly you come to rely on their new designs. Copying a file now brings up a line graph of the transfer speed that’s updated every second, along with a generally accurate estimate of the duration. If you copy a second file, it’s neatly stacked in the same window.

Task Manager now provides all sorts of detail, from the CPU, memory, disk and network usage of every running process, to live graphs of overall system resource usage and histories of which programs have been running. It’s graphical, well designed and now a tool that even non-experts may find useful.

Details

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Overall rating 4
Ease of Use rating N/A
Features & Design N/A
Value for Money N/A
Software subcategory Operating system

Requirements

Processor requirement 1GHz or higher

Operating system support

Other operating system support N/A

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