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Making sense of the confusing world of Windows 8

Ready to jump into Windows 8? As if the switch from the Windows 7 interface to the Windows 8 way of doing things wasn't bad enough, deciding what type of Windows 8 or Windows RT device to purchase is another challenge.


Can you have too much choice? It's an old adage, and I'm beginning to feel it again as I ponder what to do about getting started with Windows 8, which launches October 26. Do I want a tablet, slate, convertible, laptop, or laptop with touch screen? Where does Windows RT fit in? There are so many choices that I feel almost paralyzed in deciding. As a first step, which I hope will be useful to others, I've tried to organize the options.

Microsoft's lack of guidance
Let me start with some background and perspective. Windows 8 is a huge change, putting Windows on an array of devices and opening up choices many consumers simply haven't had to ponder before. Choice can be good, but it can also be overwhelming. Sadly, Microsoft doesn't seem to be making this easy.

With the Mac, it's fairly simple. Any laptop is going to run Mac OS X, so it's really a question of how big a laptop you want; weight; screen resolution and quality; then processor and memory choices -- plus what you can afford to spend. These are standard criteria that we've long been used to assessing for a computer purchase.

Consider Apple's "Which Mac is right for you?" comparison page. Five main choices, narrowed to three if you're considering the overall size of the laptop (11 inch, 13 inch, and 15 inch):

You'll find nothing like this from Microsoft. Yes, I know Microsoft doesn't make its own PCs. But it does make its own Surface tablet, plus it does know what many manufacturers are launching. You'd think you'd get some guidance. Instead, this is what you get, on the home page of the Windows site:

"If you prefer a touch screen, a mouse and keyboard, or both, there's a perfect PC for you," the page says, then under the "Pick your next PC" heading is a link saying "Find out more."

That link leads an incredibly disappointing blog post, which is mainly about ordering Windows 8 as an upgrade for Windows 7 machines. It mentions that some manufacturers are also taking pre-orders for Windows 8 devices, but there's no guidance about what type of machine you might want to get.

That would be helpful, because beyond those standard things I listed above for Mac laptops -- which have long been true for Windows PCs -- Windows 8 raises new questions:

  • Do I want a laptop with a touch screen? What are the advantages?
  • What about getting a tablet that can convert into a Windows 8 desktop if I want?
  • What about Windows Phone 8? How's that different from Windows 8?
  • What's all this about Surface and Windows RT being different than Windows 8?

You don't have to deal with these questions when considering a Mac, because Apple has two different operating systems: Mac OS for laptops and desktops; iOS for mobile devices. Consumers aren't being brought up to think that their iOS apps should run on a Mac or vice versa.

Microsoft is going the other direction. Windows 8 is, supposedly, one operating system to rule them all. If it really was the same operating system on all the coming Windows devices out there, that would be pretty exciting. However, it's not -- and it adds to the confusion.

Windows RT versus Windows 8
Consider the consumer seeing the new Surface ads on TV and pre-ordering one of the devices. Here's how it's listed at the Microsoft Store:

"Surface with Windows RT." What's that? I mean, I saw this ad on TV for what looked like a tablet with a Windows 8 screen. So this is a Windows 8 tablet?

No, it's not. Windows RT is a completely different operating system from Windows 8. You can think of it as Microsoft's version of iOS. It's Microsoft's mobile operating system. Except, of course, there will be mobile devices out there also running Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8. Also confusing is the fact that Windows RT will be able to run some Windows 8 applications.

The FAQ "Just what is Windows RT, anyway?" here on CNET explains more about this. Microsoft itself doesn't. Back at the Windows site, there's nothing that explains Windows 8 versus Windows RT. There is, at least, a "Help Me To Choose" page for Surface that provides some explanation. I think it could be a lot clearer.

For some consumers, using a Windows RT device versus a Windows 8 device won't be a problem. People go between iPads and Macs without an issue, using applications that work on both. Another thing that especially helps is that so much of what we do these days runs through our browsers.

Then again, I was pretty jazzed that Surface comes with a version of Microsoft Office 2013 RT until I read the details. That version of Office doesn't include Outlook. If I want Outlook, I'm apparently out of luck.

Of course, I can get by without Outlook on a tablet. It's not like I run Outlook on my iPad. I'm quite happy doing tablet-based e-mail using the iPad's outstanding e-mail client, as I've written about before. Windows RT is going to have some type of e-mail application, and that might be perfectly fine for my tablet-based needs.

Windows RT tablets versus Windows 8 slates
That leads to the Windows 8 choice consumers have to make. Do you want a tablet that can turn into a full-fledged computer?

Apple has nothing like this. You can hook a keyboard up to your iPad and even run the display on an external monitor. That doesn't turn it into a full-fledged Mac. But Windows 8 tablets -- real ones -- are indeed full-fledged Windows PCs.

Surface will cost you $500 for the basic version, and other Windows RT tablets are coming in at $100 to $300 above that, so far. For the same price as Surface, you could purchase the Acer Iconia Tab W500 at the Microsoft Store and get full-fledged Windows 8.

CNET's review of what seems to be the similar Iconia W510 isn't great. Unless you pay extra for the detachable keyboard, transforming the Iconia into a regular PC sounds like a fiddly experience of hanging adapters and perhaps being disappointed by not having the horsepower you'd expect from a desktop computer. Then again, something like the Samsung Series 5 or 7 slates (see our CNET review) might be more compelling.

In the end, it's another choice some people will have to consider. If you're going to spend $500 for a Windows RT tablet, should you spend more for an actual Windows 8 tablet or slate?

"Slate" is the term both Samsung and Microsoft use, such as in the slate section of the Microsoft Store. CNET has sometimes used the term "hybrid" for these type of Windows 8 tablets. 

Personally, I like the name "slate." It positions these devices as different from what we're used to with tablets from Apple and Android, computing devices not really intended to replace regular laptop and desktop computers. Don't get me wrong. Tablets are great, but laptops are far from dead and still beat tablets for some tasks.

Windows 8 slate versus Windows 8 convertible laptop
If you're still struggling with deciding between a Windows RT tablet and a Windows 8 slate, time for more confusion. How about a convertible laptop?

There's a line of Windows 8 laptops that allow you to use them in slate/tablet mode and then with a flip, expose a keyboard. There's no fiddling around with trying to locate your keyboard or forgetting it when you're on a trip. The keyboard is integrated into the slate, ready to be revealed when you need it.

The Dell XPS 12 is one of these that's caught my eye. The base model is more than twice the price of the Microsoft Surface. But the idea of having a fairly lightweight computer that can be used in "tablet" mode is appealing.

I've long wanted that from my MacBook Air, which I use when traveling. I stopped carrying my iPad when I got my MacBook Air, because I could switch it on nearly as fast and get to work without any tablet limitations. But there are times when I wish I could just tuck the keyboard away, say if I need to look up an address or just want to read in a vertical orientation.

Windows 8 laptop: Touch screen or not?
Decision time isn't over. Let's say you leave all the tablet versus slate versus convertible madness behind. You decide to go just for a good old-fashioned laptop. It turns out that some Windows 8 laptops are sporting a newfangled feature -- touch screens.

Windows 8 has been designed for touch, hence all the "swiping" to move applications off the screen. Yes, you can use it without touch. Plenty of people are about to do that, as they upgrade old laptops without touch screens. But for those starting fresh, do you want a touch screen laptop or not?

Personally, I suspect this isn't a crucial need. I know from my time using a keyboard added on to my Asus Transformer Android tablet, I end up getting confused. The keyboard has a touch pad, so I start using that and forget that I can touch the screen. But others may want touch capabilities in their laptops, so it's another choice to ponder.

Windows Phone 8
I'm not going to get into the desktop choices in all of this. Suffice to say, there's an additional spread of desktop devices out there for Windows 8 that range from the traditional to the giant slatelike all-in-one units.

I do think Windows Phone 8 deserves some attention, because it launches only days after Windows 8 itself officially is released. Both things have "Windows" and "8" in their names, so it's easy to think they're connected, perhaps the same operating system. They're not.

Whereas Apple has iOS for mobile devices and Mac OS for laptops and computers, Microsoft effectively has three operating systems, one for phones, one for tablets, and one for computers. Roughly, it's like this:

  • Phones: Windows Phone 8
  • Tablets: Windows RT
  • Laptops, Desktops, and Slates: Windows 8

Your Windows Phone 8 apps from the Windows Phone Store aren't designed to run on Windows RT or Windows 8, though it might be that if you purchase an app, the vendor may give you access to editions for other devices.

As I understand things, your Windows RT apps, which you'll get through the Windows Store, should run on Windows 8. However, some apps for Windows 8 that you get will not work for Windows RT.

By the way, those with Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 devices, like me? There's no upgrade to Windows Phone 8 coming. If you want Windows Phone 8, you have to buy a new phone.

Upgrading from Windows 7
Finally, there's going to be a number of people who will simply upgrade an existing device to Windows 8. Microsoft has said anyone with a PC already running Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $40, all by way of an online download that's available to people in more than 100 countries around the world.

If this works for previously validated and registered copies of Windows without requiring me to locate some old installation DVD or a 25 string of letters and numbers, I'll be thrilled. More details can be found in our CNET story about Windows 8 upgrading, including how the file can be saved to disk.

What's unclear is how people who have no computer can get a full copy of Windows 8. Who might that be? Many Mac users, like myself.

Despite my move from Windows 7 to the Mac several months ago, I still run Windows for some programs. If Windows 8 turns out to be great, maybe it'll tempt me back from the Mac. That's the nice thing about owning Mac hardware. It can also run Windows, either through Boot Camp or virtually, using software from makers like VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop.

Anyone already running an older version of Windows on a Mac this way should be able to upgrade to Windows 8. However, those without an older version are stuck. There's no full version for sale in the Microsoft Store yet, nor does Microsoft seem to have released news about this. That means first having to install an old version of Windows, then upgrading from that.

Windows 8 becomes Windows 8 Pro with previously promised features?
Just to end a column of confusion with more confusion, there are two versions of Windows 8: Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, as Microsoft announced earlier this year. Well, there's also Windows 8 Enterprise, but Microsoft's blog post didn't focus on that.

The basic version was mainly lacking Windows Media Center. But if you go to the Microsoft Store, Windows 8 basic is nowhere to be found. Instead, Windows 8 Pro is offered (without Windows Media Center), while Windows 8 Pro Pack seems to have Windows Media Center and other features that Microsoft originally promised Windows 8 Pro would have.

Both are priced the same, $70, but Windows Pro Pack works only for those already running Windows 8. In other words, if you buy from the store, you'll pay $140 in total to get Windows Media Center and some other features.

Upgrading online is a better deal. That will cost $40, and Windows Media Center is offered as a free add-on. You won't get some additional features, like BitLocker drive encryption, however.

Windows 8 resources
Good luck with your decision, if you're heading down the Windows 8 route!

For myself, I've ordered a Surface for Windows RT tablet, so I get to know the Windows RT experience. I haven't decided on whether to go for a convertible laptop or stick with a regular non-touch-screen one.

As mentioned, I found the official Windows site fairly useless in figuring things out. The Microsoft Store is much better, so make sure to pay a visit. And, of course, we've got some great resources here at CNET worth checking out:

Postscript: Looking at some of the comments coming in, some are taking this as somehow to be an "choose Apple over Microsoft" article. Anyone who actually reads it won't find anything like that.

As always, as I've written before, whatever computer you want to use is fine. There's no "wrong" device, and I'm never wanting to encourage disappointing fanboy behavior. Like many, I live a multiplatform life. I buy software and devices because they make my life easier, not because they make me feel like I'm supporting some sports team.

The rollout of Windows 8 introduces a range of complexities for consumers, complexities they don't deal with with the Apple ecosystem. That doesn't mean Windows is worse than Apple. It just means that there is more to decide.

Choice can be good. If you wanted a convertible MacBook -- exactly as I described wanting -- you can't get it from Apple. You don't have that choice. But choice can also be overwhelming. My criticism in this piece at Microsoft isn't that Windows 8 is bad. It's that Microsoft could do a better job explaining it all to the typical consumer.

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