The operating system
Three shades of eight
By now, chances are you've caught a glimpse of Windows 8—especially if you read the previous page. Several of the systems pictured there are flaunting the newfangled Start screen.
Windows 8 is the next version of Windows. It offers all of the same functionality as Windows 7, but it also attempts to bridge the gap between conventional PCs and tablets. In Windows 8, the regular desktop interface coexists with another interface dubbed "Modern UI Style," which features big, colorful rectangular tiles and a strong emphasis on touch input. Upon starting up a Windows 8 PC, your first brush with Modern UI is going to be the new Start screen:
The Start screen is your gateway to Modern UI apps, which all run in full-screen mode and all have the same chunky, colorful look. Interestingly, Microsoft presents the regular desktop—i.e. the classic Windows interface—as just another tile on this screen. The same goes for regular desktop applications. They're all tiles. Once you click through to the desktop, though, everything looks the way it used to in Windows 7—or close enough, anyhow.
This arrangement has some interesting side effects. If you're inside the desktop environment, for instance, launching software will often involve a trip through the Start screen, which will then snap you back to the desktop once you've found the right application. (Mercifully, that behavior doesn't apply if you're launching apps pinned to the taskbar.) Modern UI rears its head in other ways, as well. For example, you'll have to use the new Charms bar, activated by pointing your cursor to the top right or bottom right corner of the screen, to access the traditional desktop Control Panel. Some settings have migrated from there to the Modern UI PC Settings screen, which is accessible by performing the same maneuver from the Modern UI Start screen.
Getting used to these changes doesn't take long, but is it worthwhile? Modern UI apps don't seem to have much appeal for a desktop user, after all. They only run in full-screen mode, and they tend to be simplified versions of their desktop counterparts with larger fonts, bigger widgets, and fewer features. That might be great on a tablet, but it doesn't make much sense when you have the power of a mouse, keyboard, and large display.
Well, it so happens Windows 8 also includes a number of improvements to the desktop. Among those are a better, more powerful version of Windows Explorer, which is now dubbed File Explorer and features a ribbon toolbar and fancy real-time activity graphs for file operations. The Task Manager has also gotten a makeover and a whole boatload of functionality. Microsoft has even enhanced multi-monitor support. The taskbar now shows up on multiple screens, and it can be configured to show only icons for apps running on a given display. Then there's the fact that Windows 8 boots noticeably quicker than Windows 7, and it seems to feel generally snappier, as well.
All things considered, we recommend that you take the plunge and grab Microsoft's latest OS. If you spend most of your time in the desktop environment, the Modern UI tomfoolery doesn't really matter much. Heck, you might go a whole day without seeing the Modern UI Start screen more than once. However, the desktop improvements will be front and center, and we rather like those.
Now, which Windows 8 edition should you get? There are three of them: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT. Here's how they stack up, based on what we've been able to glean from the official Windows 8 blog and website:
|Windows 8||Windows 8 Pro||Windows RT|
|Support for x86 and x64 software||X||X|
|Windows Media Player||X||X|
|BitLocker and BitLocker To Go||X|
|Boot from VHD||X|
|Encrypting File System||X|
|Remote Desktop host||X|
|Microsoft Office Home & Student RT built in||X|
|Price – upgrade from Win7, Vista, or XP||—||$199.99||—|
|Price – upgrade from Windows 8 (non-Pro)||—||$99.99||—|
|Price – OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||—|
|Price – OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||—|
Right away, we can rule out Windows RT. This version of the new OS is designed for ARM-powered tablets, and it's not available as a standalone product. Even if it were and we had specced out an ARM-powered DIY build, the lack of support for x86 and x64 software is pretty much a deal-breaker. Who wants to run Windows without all the software?
That leaves Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The features in the Pro version mostly cater to professional users, so you might not need them. However, things like the ability to host Remote Desktop sessions may be helpful.
Otherwise, you'll want to buy a stand-alone, OEM copy of either Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro. (As far as we can see, Microsoft doesn't offer retail-packaged, non-upgrade editions of either one.) The good news here is that OEM copies of Windows 8 are covered under a new Personal Use License, which means you have Microsoft's blessing to install them on a home-built PC for personal use—and to transfer them to a new PC the next time you upgrade. Using OEM copies of Win8 in a virtual machine is okay, too, if you're into that. The only caveat is that Microsoft won't provide customer support, so if anything goes awry, you'll have to rely on either your wits or help from Internet forums. Good thing we have some forums of our own right here.
You're also going to have to choose whether to install a 32-bit or 64-bit version of the operating system. There, the choice is pretty straightforward. A 64-bit version of Windows is required to utilize 4GB (or more) of system memory fully, and all of our builds have at least 8GB of RAM. The only downsides with 64-bit Windows are spotty driver availability for really old hardware and a lack of 16-bit application support. However, you'll be hard-pressed to find a modern consumer device without solid 64-bit drivers nowadays. And 16-bit apps shouldn't matter unless you need to travel back in time to 1985.
A final addendum before we move on: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT all ship without Windows Media Center. However, Microsoft offers Media Center as a free add-on to Windows 8 Pro here. Just enter your e-mail address in the box, and you'll get an upgrade key you can enter in the "Add features to Windows 8" control panel.