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What Windows 8 means for laptops

The demos of Windows 8 certainly look promising, but should laptop users be wary of the new emphasis on touch-screen and tablet features?

Screenshot of Windows 8
Screenshot of Windows 8 Via AllThingsD

Over the past few years we've seen laptops transition from Windows XP to Windows Vista to Windows 7. Inevitable, of course, is a move to Windows 8, the new operating system officially unveiled by Microsoft this week.

Much of the Windows 8 hype so far has been about its new features for touch-screen tablets, and from the small snippets we've seen, it looks like Microsoft is finally taking that challenge seriously, as opposed to the unfulfilled tablet promises of Vista and Win7. But, Windows tablets remain a niche market, held back by both hardware and software issues (see some of our recent Windows tablet reviews for examples). Where Windows 8 really needs to deliver is in PCs, specifically laptops (as desktops are an ever smaller part of the market). Without compelling features for laptop users, Windows 8 may end up being considered as skippable as Vista was.

Microsoft expert Mary-Jo Foley at our sister site ZDNet has similar concerns. She writes:

For PCs, I am not so sure--especially for legacy PCs, like my two-year-old ASUS thin and light laptop. Why would I put Windows 8 on this non-touch-centric machine? Yes, I heard Microsoft execs say that the so-called Modern Shell (MoSH) will allow users to interact with a keyboard and mouse. And I believe users will be able to switch between the touch-centric mode and a more traditional Aero interface mode with Windows 8. But why should the default interface, optimized for gestures and touch, be required on a machine that I never plan to put my grubby fingers on?

On top of that, there are the usual OS upgrade concerns about backward compatibility for both software and hardware. Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky told the crowdat the D9 Conference that everything that works on Windows 7 should work on Windows 8 as well, and that traditional apps will run in more familiar desktop-like interface. Of course, each new version of Windows promises easy compatibility with older software and hardware, but the first several months of a new OS's lifespan are inevitably filled with driver issues, especially for items such as printers and audio/video devices (musical keyboards, ProTools interfaces, etc.).

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We welcome the focus on touch and tablets, but hope it will not be at the expense of the silent majority of keyboard/mouse/touch pad users. When Microsoft says things like, "Although the new user interface is designed and optimized for touch, it works equally well with a mouse and keyboard," it reminds us how hard it is to completely please two disparate audiences with the same product.

The demos of Windows 8 certainly look promising, not that we'd expect anything else from a tightly controlled demo environment, but for computer users accustomed to a traditional PC desktop experience, there will be a lot of hard questions to answer before deciding to upgrade when Windows 8 hits next year.