The time has come. Windows 8 has at last been finalized and shipped off to stores, so now we know exactly what to expect when the operating system [OS] lands on our computers come October. Until now, Windows 8 has been a semi-known quantity. Although we've played with the consumer preview and release preview, there was no guarantee that the OS would ship in exactly that form.
But now we know for sure, so let's take a look at the highlights and lowlights of the new OS – and its alternative, Windows RT for ARM-based hardware.
Choose your own adventure:
The good: Windows 8 will run on desktops, laptops and tablets, giving users a single experience regardless of platform. Microsoft promises that it will run on any PC that can run Windows 7, and of course, vendors are busily developing machines that support the new Windows 8 features. Expect a pack of new machines in all forms to hit the streets; tablets in particular will be the device of choice. And if you buy a machine running Windows 7 today, you will get a $15 upgrade to Windows 8.
The not-so-good: Windows RT for ARM-based hardware, though it looks similar and is being released at the same time, is not the same animal as Windows 8. It offers most of the same features on the new 'start' screen, but it doesn't offer many of the enterprise-friendly features such as Active Directory support. It also doesn't give you the Windows desktop, where you can run Windows 7 software. This isn't so much an OS flaw as it is one of positioning; Microsoft needs to make its limitations very clear to prospective users so they understand what they're buying. The short story: Windows RT runs on ARM-based tablets, Windows 8 runs on any supported PC processor-based device, from laptop and desktop to tablet.
Firing it up:
The good: Windows 8 boots fast. Microsoft has demonstrated virtually instantaneous start-ups, but in my experience it takes a few seconds to get from zero to desktop. Mind you, it's a lot fewer seconds than even Windows 7 takes to become operational. And thanks to a technology called UEFI that's beginning to replace the old BIOS as the hardware kickstarter, Windows 8 can offer something called Trusted Boot – designed to keep malware from sneaking in during that vulnerable period before anti-malware software kicks in, by requiring all components to be properly signed and certified.
The not-so-good: Windows 8 machines may not be capable of running other operating systems, thanks to UEFI nailing down what's allowed to load. This means no sneaky slithering of Windows XP or Linux onto a machine that came with Windows 8. It won't be a big deal for most, but the minority who wants the freedom to swap out the shipped OS for something else is irked, and working on ways to get around the restriction.
Security and manageability:
The good: Full Windows 8 (but not Windows RT) has all of the management and security features one would expect from Windows. It can join domains, interact with Active Directory, and be managed with Group Policies. Microsoft's System Center management suite will be able to manage Windows 8 along with other Microsoft products by the time it hits user systems.
The OS includes built-in anti-malware software, and other security vendors have promised that they, too, will support Windows 8.
BitLocker full-disk encryption keeps company data safe, and AppLocker lets administrators control what apps may be on each device.
The not-so-good: Windows RT does not have most of these enterprise features. That, in itself, isn't necessarily bad, as long as people understand the implications and govern themselves accordingly, but it could lead to issues.
If it's broke, fix it:
The good: Windows 8 has two features that will make life infinitely easier for IT workers and regular user alike. The first is "Refresh," which reinstalls Windows while preserving the user's data, Windows 8 apps (but not Windows 7 desktop programs) and settings. It's a great way to clean up operating system glitches without forcing the user to completely rebuild.
The second is "Reset." It's used when a system has to be restored to a known, clean state. By default, it wipes all software and user data and settings and reinstalls Windows, but companies can opt to reset to a predetermined custom image, with approved software installed and configured. It's ideal for situations in which a device is being redeployed to a new user, ensuring the previous user's footprint is gone.
The not-so-good: Programs that run on the Windows Desktop are not preserved, unless they're included in a custom image.
Microsoft has not neglected businesses in its design of Windows 8, both keeping a lot of the good stuff from Windows 7 and adding some new features. While it may not suit everyone, the plumbing is there to make companies with and without IT staff happy.