We now know that Windows 8 will launch in October, in both its X86 and ARM Windows RT flavours. And we expect Windows Phone 8 and the Microsoft Surface tablet to launch at around the same time.
If you are looking to upgrade your smartphone or tablet, then, Windows 8 will offer a very different alternative to Android, iOS and the rest. But what about the majority of the world's one billion Windows users, who are running X86 Windows PCs and laptops? Here then, is a rough guide to what's new in Windows 8, and how it differs from Windows 7.
Windows 8 vs Windows 7: Metro interface and touch
The most immediate and fundamental difference between Windows 7 and Windows 8 is the main interface. Although the Desktop view is similar to traditional Windows, most of the time you'll be interacting with Windows 8's Metro interface - and boy will you notice the difference. The Metro interface is the default home screen for Windows 8, and features a series of colourful tiles, each offering access to a discrete application. Each offers live information, so you can see how many emails are in your inbox, for example, without having to open an application. You can customise your device's Metro interface, adding for instance access apps, web pages, images and even people - or at least their picture, contact details and your combined communication.
Metro is bold and striking to look at, and you can change its colour scheme to suit your taste. You can also log in to an account, and take your settings and apps with you wherever you roam, similar to using your Google account with Android. Metro is scalable, too: so if you zoom out the tiles rearrange themselves in a meaningful way.
It's sure to attract as much criticism as it does praise, because Metro is so very different from what went before, but Metro is certainly new to Windows 8. It's also designed to work best with touch-enabled devices, so if you are running a Windows 7 PC without a touchscreen, you may decide that the change is not worth it. There's a lot of dispute about the potential value of touchscreen PCs and laptops, and it is indisputably true that touch is not ideal for typing on an upright screen, for instance. But if you do have a touch-enabled device, you may find that you interact with a Windows 8 PC using your digits a lot more than you expected to.
With our Windows 8 Slate and Bluetooth keyboard setup we find that we've been using the keyboard to type out emails, for instance, but touching the screen to hit send. Windows 7 has touch capabilities, of course, but it's nothing like a true touchscreen OS: with the Metro interface. Windows 8 with Metro is.
Windows 8 vs Windows 7: Windows Store and Apps
The Metro interface looks and feels like a smartphone or tablet OS, and following that theme is the inclusion of the Windows Store in Windows 8. This online shopfront is stuffed full of Windows apps - each designed to run on x86 Windows PCs, laptops and tablets, as well as ARM tablets and smartphones. Windows 8 apps follow the same design principle as Metro - being constructed of cascading live tiles of information, in primary colours. They all have social networking capabilities baked in as standard, and follow the same principles of interface, so that there is no real learning curve when starting to use a new app.
Native apps included with Windows 8 include the Mail email app, a calendar app and much improved contacts app called People. There's Photos, Music, IE, Weather, Finance, Sports and so on. Which is all very nice, but if you are an existing Windows 7 user wondering whether to upgrade, you almost certainly have legacy X86 software programs that you wish to continue to use. This is taken care of in all flavours of Windows 8 apart from Windows RT and Windows Phone 8.
To use older software in Windows 8, you have to use Desktop. This is an app in its own right, and opens up into an environment that looks and acts virtually the same as Windows 7. Think of it as virtualised Windows 7, in Windows 8 (it's like a much more simple version of Classic Mode from when Mac OS X first came out). This is imperfect, of course, as it means that much of your computing experience in the 'new' OS is taking place in a window that looks suspiciously like your old one. Still, it's difficult to see how else such a great leap forward in Windows' interfact could be handled. And it does mean you can have the best of all worlds.
The Desktop mode in Windows 8 is different from Windows 7 in one subtle but critical way, however: there's no Start menu. In fact, wherever you are in Windows 8, either touching the middle right of your screen or mousing over there brings up the Charms menu, which comprises Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings icons. The change takes a bit of getting used to, but is actually a lot more straightforward than the old way of doing things.
According to Microsoft, Windows 8 is designed to be used by touch, keyboard and mouse - whatever is most appropriate to the task in hand. The corners of the screen are easy for mouse use, for instance, which is why the Start 'button' has disappeared, and in order to get to the Start menu you simply mouse to the bottom left. Similarly, for mouse users 'back' is top left, and to get to 'Charms' you have to go to the right and swipe. Keyboard navigation has been similarly adjusted. To get the 'Weather' app, for instance, you simply type 'weath...' and as you type the options will reduce until the Weather app appears. Meanwhile, page up, page down and so on, work as they do in Windows 7.
You can access search from anywhere, and the results are listed via the icons of the apps in which they appear. Simply click an app to choose results from that application. A search from anywhere combs the entire machine.
There are, of course, some down sides in these changes and to the fact that older software works only in the Desktop mode, but compatibility with other Windows 8 devices isn't one of them. For the price of getting used to some new interface tricks, you get to run all of your new apps across all kinds of Windows 8 devices, including PCs and laptops, but also ARM tablets and smartphones - in an interface that looks the same and has all your settings regardless of which device you are using.
Windows 8 vs Windows 7: security, cloud, task manager
There are a couple of other relatively minor, but significant changes in Windows 8 that may make it worth an upgrade for Windows 7 users. Windows 8 has a cloud focus to it which might be a tempting feature. Microsoft stores all your settings and customisations in the cloud so whenever you log on to a Windows 8 machine you will have it looking and working your way.
Other elements of the cloud system include pulling your email from Gmail, for example, and viewing all your photos from Facebook. And each Windows 8 device comes with a ready-enabled SkyDrive account.
In terms of security, as well as the additional peace of mind that downloading apps from a curated Windows Store brings, Windows 8 features a lock screen which allows you use a picture password. This means you can affix a photo to the lock screen, and replace your password with a gesture traced out over the photo. Because of the additional complexity this adds in over a traditional alphanumerical password, it ought to be more secure.
Staying with the theme of security, Windows 8 is the first flavour of Windows that comes with antivirus baked in, in the form of Microsoft Security Essentials, which sits alongside the software firewall in Security Center. You could justifiably save yourself a few dollars by not bothering to buy security software (although standalone security vendors will have a thing or two to say about this). There's also an all new Task Manager, offering two different ways to view information: one simple, one more complex.
Windows 8 vs Windows 7: speed
That's about it in terms of significant feature changes, but Microsoft would have us believe that Windows 8 is much faster than Windows 7 - it certainly works on the same hardware, which removes one barrier to upgrade. (And it won't be an expensive upgrade, either.)
Bill Karagounis, Principal Group Program Manager for the Windows 8 Fundamentals Team, recently claimed that startup times were 40% faster than Windows 7 on the same hardware, and that the memory footprint of the new OS is '10% to 20% better'. He said that the Windows code base comfortably scales on all devices from tablets right up to workstation PCs, and demonstrated Windows 7 and Windows 8 running on similar laptops, with relatively low specifications (including just 1GB RAM).
According to a demonstration Karagounis ran, Windows 7 uses 389MB of system memory, Windows 8 only 330MB. And this in an operating system that includes more functionality.
Karagounis also showed how an older Asus UltraBook with a second-generation Intel chip could boot from cold in just 8 seconds. However, he said that Windows 8 was intended to be what he called 'always on, always connected'. 'You don't boot and shut down Windows 8', he said. Further, he suggested that the OS was designed to be always running switching on and off instantly like a smartphone. He demonstrated the power draw of an Intel-system on a chip Windows 8 slate, using virtually no power in sleep mode, with only the occasional tiny peak when it checked for or received data.
The device was, he said, connected to the web, working in the background in a mode he described as 'connected standby'. Karagounis sent an IM to the slate, at which point he power draw peaked and the device set off an alert. This status applies to Windows RT PCs, and Intel SoC PCs . In the demonstration the power draw goes up instantly something then happens, and then drops off quickly when so-called connected standby kicks in.
This is all Microsoft's own take on things, however, but recent independent tests suggest that Windows 8 uses less memory
, and Windows 8 performs better than Windows 7
, on the same hardware.