Windows 8 review: Aggressively innovative Windows 8 forces a steep learning curve

There's no doubt that Desktop mode is a visually jarring jump from Metro, as are the design rules that govern in-app styles between the two. Apps that open in Desktop mode have dropped the translucent Aero borders that debuted in Vista, replaced with the solid colors that background tiles in the Start screen, so there are some attempts to make them less dissimilar.

It's hard to imagine many people giving Windows 8 a fair shot if Microsoft had completely abandoned the previous design scheme, and so the Desktop mode remains an uneven compromise. To its credit, the active left and right edges go a long way to making Desktop mode feel less like an alternate mode and more like an app, even though it is clearly so much more than a mere Metro app.

Also worth noting is that Microsoft is pushing all of its apps toward a unified aesthetic. This doesn't just include the apps that come with Windows 8, such as Mail or Music. The New Microsoft Office is part of this, as is the new Outlook.com. Microsoft may be late to this game, but it's come through with a strong, clean look that's eminently usable.

Features and support
While the seams between the ghosts of Windows past are sometimes visible when critiquing the Windows 8 interface, they are far less apparent when it comes to its features. What you can do with the operating system focuses heavily on the future of computing, and Microsoft has wisely put them into the peculiarly named Charms bar. (It apparently resembles a charms bracelet. We'll leave the connection between that and Windows up to you.)

Search is global, and includes data from all your apps that have activated the search hooks. This being Windows, you could tweak those settings, but most people will see a unified search for across the OS, the apps, and your personal files to be a boon.

The Share Charm lets you share content in between apps. It's as much a benefit for developers as it is for the rest of us. Developers only have to code their app to connect to the Share charm, instead of having to code to have their app "talk" to another specific app. The end result in Windows 8 is that apps share content effortlessly -- much like Android's Share mechanism.

The Devices Charm places secondary devices only a touch away. This may seem odd to many people, but it's a nod to the fact that Windows 8 must serve both PCs and tablets. No matter the Windows 8 device, managing a second monitor will be as simple as managing an external drive. Because of our limited review period, we were not able to see how Devices worked with more than a second monitor, and we'll update this section soon.

We discussed some the limitations of the Settings Charm as they relate to navigating Windows 8, but overall those problems are another twist in the learning process. The new OS eliminates the requirement to sift through multiple drop-down menus looking for the right way to access the Power Management.

One notable frustration is that it's not immediately apparent which settings controls are available from the Settings sidebar's More PC Settings, and which must be accessed through the traditional Control Panel. A good rule of thumb would be that if you're looking for a configuration related to Metro, start with the Metro settings, but unfortunately that doesn't always pan out.

There's more to Windows 8 than just its charming approach to search and socialization. For one thing, it offers some cool log-in options. You can choose to create a local account, but the OS becomes infinitely more useful when you use a Microsoft account. You'll be able to synchronize Windows 8 settings, including Internet Explorer 10 history and preferences. This means that when you log in to any other Windows 8 machine with that account, your data will sync, including background settings, address book, and other accounts like Facebook and Twitter, e-mail, and instant messaging. App syncing is done through the Windows Store, while the 7GB of free SkyDrive storage and integration with the SkyDrive app can be used to sync personal files.

Google accounts appeared not to sync at the time of writing.

The People app is where all your contacts will integrate from across multiple services. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Beyond sync, once you've logged on for the first time you can change your log-in to a Personal Identification Number or a picture log-in . The picture log-in is neat, and lets you set a photo as your log-in background. You can then customize a quick series of drawings on the picture, made up of a line, a circle, and a dot, to log you in. It ought to provide a much faster log-in process for tablets than a PIN.

If you're on the lock screen, you click and drag it up to reveal the password dialog. It may sound like a lot that's different from the touch workflow, but it's actually quite simple. You can even use the mouse for your picture log-in.

One of Windows 7's better interface features was a split-screen view that you could initiate just by dragging one program's Title Bar to the left or right side of the screen. This has been updated for Windows 8 when you drag an app from the left edge. Once the split bar appears, release the app and it will "snap" to the edge. The screen will be split, with one-third for the app you just dragged over, and two-thirds for the previous app. The benefits to multitasking in multiple apps are readily apparent.

Internet Explorer 10 plays a huge role in Windows 8. Under the hood, its JavaScript engine and hardware acceleration help power the Metro apps. More visible to the rest of us, it loads sites quickly and allows sites to be pinned to the Start screen as tiles. It also has a new interface, with the location bar on the bottom, and large thumbnails for open tabs at the top. Tap the location bar itself to search, or to see your collection of Pinned sites, Frequently Visited sites, and Favorites.

There's a lot of debate about how restrictive Microsoft might be making Windows 8 to other browsers, but that's a question that will take more time to resolve.

IE 10 is the most standards-compliant versions of Internet Explorer yet, as well as recognized by several sources as extremely good at blocking malware and phishing.

Windows 8 is also by far the safest version of Windows yet. Although there's no such thing as a foolproof system, these features greatly reduce the parts of Windows that are vulnerable. There's the Trusted Boot for double-checking system integrity before Windows loads, and the SmartScreen in IE10 to protect you from phishing and malware.

Windows 8 has even more features. This is the first version of Windows with dedicated parental control features called FamilySafety; there's support for games through the Xbox app and streaming content from Xbox with the SmartGlass app; and the Desktop apps such as File Explorer works amazingly well with touch and their new layouts.

Meanwhile, in the PC Settings, you can now handle poorly performing Windows 8 computers with the Refresh option, for reinstalling the OS without affecting your personal settings and files; or Remove everything and reinstall a fresh version of Windows without having to use any external installation discs. Again, the brief review period afforded to us by Microsoft means that we'll update this review with how these features performed in the future. If they work as advertised, though, they'll negate one of the biggest complaints about Windows over time: that the operating system performance degrades and reinstalling is a unmitigated, painful hassle.

The Windows Store is where you'll go to get the new Metro-style apps. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Performance
After spending months with various incarnations with Windows 8, we can confirm that it is indeed the fastest version of Windows ever. At least, it's the fastest to boot. While our experience has been that the operating system is also dramatically faster to use, especially on metrics like waking from sleep and navigating from app to app or Start screen, those are notoriously hard to evaluate. First off, we'll start with some hard numbers from CNET Labs. They've discovered that Microsoft's controversial new operating system doesn't steamroll over Windows 7 as much as it gently shoves it out of the way.

Operating system Boot time Shutdown time MS Office performance iTunes decoding Media multitasking Cinebench
Windows 7 SP1 45.2 7.7 408 127 343 16,985
Windows 7 SP1 47.5 7.8 412 124 344 17,116
Windows 8 RTM 31.4 8.8 372 123 340 15,300
Windows 8 RTM update 26.4 11.7 367 123 340 17,114

*All tests measured in seconds, except for Cinebench. On the Cinebench test, the higher number is better.

Our test bed is a Dell XPS desktop, running a 3.2GHz Core i7 processor, with 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, a Nvidia GeForce 8400 GS PCI-Express with 512 MB RAM graphics card, and a 1 TB Western Digital hard drive (model WDC3200AAKS).

We tested Windows 7 Service Pack 1 twice, and Windows 8 RTM twice. The second time we tested Windows 8, we updated the operating system because Microsoft claimed that the update was a big improvement to the OS. We conducted the Wake from Sleep test only once on Windows 7 because of its recent addition to our benchmark tests.

A word of caution about these benchmarks: They provide a snapshot of how our specific test hardware performs under strictly controlled conditions. They are not always representative of actual real-world performance.

We excluded our new Wake from Sleep test from the chart because the results were erratic. The second Windows 8 Wake from Sleep test gave us an average of 17 seconds, significantly slower than our experience with a real-world Windows 7 computer running Windows 8. A Toshiba DX1215 all-in-one touch screen, running the Windows 8 RTM with all the updates, regularly woke from sleep in under two seconds. That's a major win for Microsoft, even if our Windows 7 hardware running Windows 8 resulted in erratic tests.

Nevertheless, you can see that the Windows 8 RTM from August and the big October update to Windows 8 proved to boot significantly faster than Windows 7 Service Pack 1. Boot time shrunk by around 45 percent between Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8 RTM updated, and that's a key metric in making Windows 8 appealing.

Claims about sluggishness in Windows will be slightly harder to prove in Windows 8. Our in-use performance tests were fairly even, which CNET Labs explained to me as being because the tests have not been optimized to run on Windows 8. However, the Microsoft Office performance test shows Windows 7 taking around 410 seconds to complete its tasks, to around 370 seconds in Windows 8 -- about 10 percent faster.

Shutdown times in the lab were recorded at about the same speed for both Windows 7 and Windows 8, which parallels our real-world experience. Windows 7 SP1 has never been beastly for us when shutting down, although that hasn't been the case for everybody.

When using Windows 8 on real-world computers, not test beds that get reimaged, there's no question that it's a faster operating system. In the time that Windows 7 boots to the log-in screen, it feels like Windows 8 boots and gets you through your log-in. Windows 8 wakes from sleep mode rapidly -- not quite as quick as Chrome OS's instant-on, but significantly faster than Windows 7 and the closest to instant-on that Microsoft has ever been.

Microsoft is claiming some bold numbers for Windows 8 performance, including a 35 percent performance boost when waking from hibernation; better battery management; and better disk I/O that can result in faster program install times -- the company says that installing Office 2010 on Windows 8 is 10 percent to 20 percent faster than on Windows 7.

Windows 8 will work on the same hardware as Windows 7: a minimum of a 1GHz or faster processor; 1GB of RAM and a 16GB hard drive for an x86 computer, or 2GB of RAM and 20GB hard drive for an x64; and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9 with the WDDM driver. A screen resolution of 1,024x768 pixels is required to run Metro apps and use the Windows Store, while "snapping" apps requires at least 1,366x768 pixels.

Our judgment from all these lab tests is that on the key metric of how long it takes you to get going on your computer, Windows 8 lives up to its promise. But as always, your personal configuration could greatly affect your device's performance.

Conclusions
After spending the better part of a year with various forms of in-development Windows 8, we're giving it a strong recommendation in no small part because of its value. If you're running a Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 computer, upgrading will cost you $40 . That's worth it alone for the security and speed enhancements, not to mention the better driver and utility support. That price point is almost $100 cheaper than upgrading from XP or Vista to Windows 7 was.

Windows 8 has more going for it, of course. It's the first serious attempt to unify computing across disparate devices and accounts in a way that looks and feels cohesive. It's stunningly fast, it presents apps in a new way that avoids the repetitiveness of Android and iOS, and it feels connected to your life and the Internet.

One big question remains: does the learning curve make it worth strongly considering other operating systems? We think not. The aggressive learning incline does not negate the vast similarities between Windows 7 and Windows 8. We think that it's worth seriously considering the upgrade, especially from older systems, but it's not yet the one operating system (to rule them all) that Microsoft wants it to be.

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  • Release date Oct. 26, 2012
  • Category Operating systems
  • Compatibility Windows
About The Author

Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covers Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.