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People try out Microsoft Corp's Windows 8 operating system at an event for its debut at the Akihabara electronics store district in Tokyo October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS) (Toru Hanai/REUTERS)
People try out Microsoft Corp's Windows 8 operating system at an event for its debut at the Akihabara electronics store district in Tokyo October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Toru Hanai (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS) (Toru Hanai/REUTERS)

Six cool lesser-known features of Windows 8 Add to ...

We've looked at a lot of Windows 8 over the past few days, and there's a lot more we could say. However, now it's time to pull together the cool bits and pieces that didn't fit elsewhere in our coverage.

Wait for the Surface Pro

You need to know upfront that the Surface tablet released along with Windows 8 does NOT run full Windows 8. That model, the Surface Pro, will show up in about six weeks. The difference: the processor. Today's Surface has an ARM processor, a mobile chip that allows for really lightweight devices and long battery life. It runs a subset of the OS known as Windows RT, and though it runs all of the Windows 8 apps from the Store, it can NOT run Desktop programs. Microsoft has customized some of the Office programs – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote – and includes them on the Surface, but no other Office software will run. Not even Outlook.

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That's not a condemnation of the device. It does what it's supposed to do very well. But if you expect to run everything that your laptop runs on the Surface, you will be disappointed. Wait for the Surface Pro, or check out one of the other tablets launched along with Windows 8. Look for one that advertises x86 processors, not ARM.

NFC and USB 3.0

Built-in support for hardware features such as Near Field Communications (NFC) and USB 3.0. USB 3.0 devices are up to 10 times faster than USB 2.0 devices, making data transfers to portable hard drives fly. NFC, an extremely short-range radio technology, isn't new, but it's finally appearing in smartphones and tablets, allowing wireless data transfers for things like mobile payments, exchange of contact info, and even product info from ads by simply putting your device close to another.

Split task bar

More and more of us are using multi-monitor setups, which can be a pain in the neck to manage. When you have several programs open on the Desktop, split over multiple monitors, it can be difficult to find a program's Taskbar icon. With Windows 8, you have the option to split the Taskbar, so the icons of running software show up only on the monitor the program is displayed on. You can also have different wallpaper on each monitor, or choose to have the same wallpaper span all displays.

Customized cellular data access

More of us are buying tablets that you can stick a SIM card into, it's necessary to cope with mobile broadband, with its costs and restrictions, as well as regular wireless networking. Just as on phones, you can now tell Windows 8 NOT to perform some operations – like multi-megabyte software updates – over metered connections, to prevent sticker shock when you get your cellular bill.

Windows to Go

This amazing feature currently only offered to Enterprise users. It really needs to be available to the rest of us. It is a full version of Windows 8 (currently built by an enterprise admin) that runs off a 32 GB or larger USB key, allowing you to go to an Internet café, boot from the USB key, work on your own copy of Windows 8, and, when you remove the USB key, leave no traces on the host PC. The host can't pass its resident malware on to the Windows to Go instance, nor can it snoop on and record what you're doing; it is totally isolated. Inspired! Want!

Windows 8 Editions

There are three versions available to consumers and small business: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT. There's also an Enterprise edition for volume license subscribers.

  • As mentioned, Windows RT just runs apps from the Store, and is so far limited to tablets. You can't buy it separately.
  • Windows 8 is probably what most users will opt for; it runs apps from the Store plus Desktop programs that also run on Windows 7.
  • Windows 8 Pro adds business-friendly features such as an encrypting file system, the ability to join a domain, and a virtualization client, Hyper-V.

See here for a more complete feature list.

You can upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7 Home and Starter, to Windows 8 Pro from Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate. Through the end of January 2013, consumers currently running PCs with Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7, are qualified to download Windows 8 Pro for an estimated retail price of $39.99. And eligible Windows 7 PCs purchased between June 2, 2012, and January 31, 2013 can download Windows 8 Pro for an estimated retail price of $14.99 with the Windows Upgrade Offer, available here. Windows 8 Pro users will also be able to grab a free Media Center upgrade until January 31, 2013.

Final thoughts

Windows 8 is very different than what we've used before, but in a good and interesting way. Is it hard? No. I turned a PC-using grandmother loose on a Windows 8 tablet, and after a brief run-through of the gestures (and the odd hint over the course of an hour), she was threatening to take it home with her.

You'll need to check out any desktop programs and utilities you rely on to make sure they play nicely, but so far I've had no issues, even with a screen capture utility.

We haven't mentioned much about security, but not only have most anti-malware vendors reassured me that their products work under Windows 8 (Norton has even released a Windows 8 app as its user interface), Microsoft has made sure you're protected by baking-in its own security products to provide basic protection.

Bottom line: Is Windows 8 worth the learning curve? On tablets, definitely. I'm hooked on it for running all of my Windows software on a lightweight, compact platform, and accessing my files anywhere. On laptops and desktops, as long as they're certified to run Windows 7, it does just fine too; the mouse and keyboard interfaces do a good job (though touchpad drivers have been challenging on some systems – that should change as drivers mature). And on new systems – hey, they're designed for it, and it lends itself to innovative hardware configurations like Lenovo's Yoga convertible and Dell's XPS 12 Ultrabook. In addition, the transparent links to the cloud make it really easy for users of multiple devices to keep up with their files, wherever they are.

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