Windows 8: What to know before you upgrade

October 26, 2012

It’s a big day for Microsoft. The company is not only launching its new Surface tablet, it has also released the latest version of its operating system, Windows 8.

Upgrading your computer to Windows 8 Professional starts at $40 — or $15 if you have a qualifying Windows 7 PC. But the new system is very different, and there are a few things you should know before deciding whether to upgrade.

Windows 8 is a bold system but one that suffers from a sort of identity crisis. Part of the system is built with the company’s new, tile-based design scheme. Part of it follows along the familiar lines of Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft has taken pains to point out that these modes are two halves of the same whole. In practice, it’s a much sharper divide.

Desktop

The Desktop mode of the system should be familiar to anyone who’s used Windows in the past. There are, however, a couple of changes. The Task Manager now offers more information about which programs are taking processing power and memory, and Microsoft has applied the “ribbon” style of menus from its latest Office versions to Windows Explorer.

There are some other welcome additions to the desktop, such as the new Lock screen that shows users notifications from applications and the time they were sent. Users can also log in to their computers using their Microsoft ID — already used for SkyDrive and Hotmail — or a local ID. And users can get to the familiar desktop any time by hitting the Windows key and D.

Touch

But before you get to the Desktop mode, Windows takes you through something unlike anything Microsoft has ever offered before.

This is where the “touch” part of Windows 8 takes center stage. Microsoft has eliminated the Start button and dropped in a Start page, meant as a central hub for favorite applications, news, weather, social networking and more.

Centering the system on the Start screen requires users to rethink the way they navigate Windows.

On the positive side, the Start screen is convenient — it gives you a landing page and constantly updates that information. Begin typing on the Start screen, and Windows will automatically pull up the search function, a handy way to find files.

On the potentially negative side, the screen showcases Microsoft’s own programs with “fluid” tiles that update automatically. For example, a Microsoft news tile will flash different headlines. If you use those Microsoft products, you’ll be set. But if you use programs from other companies — Google for mail or Steam for games — the Start screen isn’t nearly as engaging. Even if you pin your favorite third-party apps to the screen, they won’t sport those tiles— at least not yet.

Multitasking is also much different experience in the new interface because so many of the apps are optimized for full-screen use. If like to have a lot of programs or windows open at the same time, you’ll have to adjust to a new type of multitasking that’s more in line with the mobile world.

You can run multiple Metro apps at the same time and even put two side-by-side, but if you want to do more, you’ll have to switch between foreground and background apps, as is required on most smartphones. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it may not be the best fit for everyone.

The switch

Like it or not, you’ll almost certainly have to switch between the two interfaces as you work — and it’s a jarring transition. Microsoft has designed the system for touch and non-touch devices, and actions that seem intuitive on one platform don’t always translate well to the other. For example, to close a full-screen app, you have to grab it at the top of the screen and drag it to the bottom — something that makes sense on a tablet but is cumbersome at best with a mouse. And some efforts are duplicated. You can change your settings, for example, by heading to your trusty Control Panel or through a redesigned menu that you access with a touch sweep from the right.

Given all that, it’s best to try it before you buy it by heading to a Microsoft store or to a retailer such as Best Buy, which has given its associates special training for handling Windows 8 questions.

If you go ahead and upgrade to Windows 8 but later change your mind later, there is some good news. Microsoft is allowing downgrades for new computers that come pre-installed with Windows 8, thought not for the retail version of the system. According to the support forums on Microsoft’s site, users can opt to downgrade their new computers to Windows 7 or Vista — but not to XP.

Users can also get their start button back with third-party applications, such as those from Samsung and Lenovo. As other companies make their own changes to Windows 8, it may smooth out some of the system’s rough edges.

The device that you use with Windows 8 is also important here. The system is really built for touch-enabled desktops, so you may want to consider getting new hardware to take full advantage of Microsoft’s grand experiment.

Related stories:

VentureBeat: Windows 8 stuns, amazes, and sometimes lets us down (review)

Microsoft Surface in stores today: what to know before you buy

Microsoft kicks off Windows 8, Surface

Microsoft Surface: Review Roundup

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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