A new version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, dubbed Windows 8, hits store shelves this week.
But it’s no ordinary update.
The new software looks completely different from its predecessors. There’s a variation of it that won’t run any programs designed for previous versions of Windows. And because the software was designed to be used on touch-screen devices, Windows 8 will take Microsoft’s operating system to places it hasn’t been before, including on tablets comparable to the iPad and new types of computers that blur the lines between tablets and laptops.
“This is definitely the biggest change in the user experience of Windows since Windows 95,” said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst for technology research firm Gartner.
Even before the final version of the software has been released, its big changes have drawn skepticism from analysts and customers and criticism from tech reviewers, including this reporter. Some analysts have gone so far as to compare it to Windows Vista, the much-pilloried version of the operating system that came before Windows 7 and was largely ignored by corporate users.
“If you have Windows 7 today on a non-touch-enabled PC, I would say there’s not an overwhelmingly compelling reason to upgrade to Windows 8,” said Al Gillen, an analyst with tech research firm IDC. “I think lot of business users will see it that way.”
The biggest difference for users is Windows’ new interface. Gone are the familiar start button, start menu and, at least at first glance, the traditional Windows desktop. They’ve all been replaced with a new interface designed around application “tiles” arranged on a plain background.
The tiles work like program icons: you tap them to launch a program. But unlike traditional Windows program icons, the tiles can work like widgets, displaying small tidbits of updated information. For example, the email tile might display your latest message, or the calendar might show your next appointment.
But the interface, which Microsoft formerly called “Metro,” has other differences from the traditional Windows desktop. Unlike the traditional Windows interface, the new one doesn’t support overlapping windows or the ability to view more than two programs on the screen at one time.
And the only programs that will work with the new interface are ones that either come preinstalled or that users download from Microsoft’s new online Windows Store.
On most editions of Windows 8, users will still be able to access a traditional desktop and run older Windows programs. They can even launch those programs from the new interface, but when they do, they’ll be taken to a version of the old desktop, in which they can see more than two applications and have overlapping windows. And they can’t configure Windows so they see the desktop when they start it up; instead, they’ll have to go through the Metro interface.
On one edition of Windows 8, called Windows RT, the break from the past is even more pronounced. This edition of the software was built to run on devices using ARM processors.
These are the low-power chips that come from a variety of manufacturers and underlay the iPad and most other tablets and smartphones on the market.
Windows 8 details
Release date: Friday.
Number of editions: Four: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows RT.
Price: $15 for the Pro version for those who bought a Windows 7 computer on or after June 2. For other consumers, the downloadable Pro edition of Windows 8 will cost $40, while the version sold in stores on DVD will cost $70. Microsoft hasn’t announced pricing for the regular and Enterprise editions of Windows 8. Windows RT will be offered as the operating system on certain tablets and computers.
What you’ll need to run Windows 8 on your computer:
Processor speed: 1 GHz or faster.
Memory (RAM): 1GB for 32-bit systems, 2GB for 64-bit ones.
Hard disk space: 16GB for 32-bit systems, 20GB for 64-bit.
Graphics card: Needs to be compatible with Microsoft DirectX 9 and include a Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) driver.
Optional: Multitouch display or trackpad for touch interaction, a screen resolution of 1024x768 to access the Windows Store and download and run Metro apps, a screen resolution of 1366x768 to view two programs at once under the Metro interface.Microsoft Corp., San Jose Mercury News