Microsoft's Windows 8 has been kicking about in public beta form for some time now, so many PC users already know what to expect from the latest edition of the world-conquering operating system. It's being billed as the software's most radical overhaul since Windows 95, a risky path to tread in these times of heightened competition.
Windows 8 is very much an attempt to bring the platform into the 21st century, offering a reworked interface designed to be touch-compatible, SkyDrive integration and a dedicated apps store. Using previous versions of the OS became second nature to virtually everyone a long time ago, so reinventing in this way is not without risk.
Microsoft has lofty ambitious with Windows 8, targeting 400 million installs by the end of the year. It surpassed 1% of that figure within a few days, so it's already on the way, but is it worth shelling out for that upgrade?
Installation and performance
To upgrade your existing operating system to Windows 8, you can either do so online or purchase a copy on DVD. Users who upgrade from Windows 7 have the option to transfer over all of their programs, settings and files, while Windows Vista users will lose their programs and XP users everything but their personal files.
Once you run the installer, you will be guided through the process and told exactly what you can and can't keep. It took just over an hour to upgrade our Windows 7 PC with all compatible software on board, and we were up and running moments later.
Windows 8's hardware demands are slightly higher than Windows 7, meaning an entire generation of machines will be incompatible, but that is to be expected with any new OS. Users should have approximately double the minimum required specs that Microsoft lists, as a 1GHz CPU and 2GB of RAM won't get you very far.
However, with the right hardware Windows 8 runs like a dream. Booting up and shutting down are significantly faster than in Windows 7 and navigation in general feels more fluid. This is best experienced with a touch-screen device, yet there are certain advantages to using a keyboard and mouse, such as the ability to hover and highlight text with greater ease.
Microsoft has beefed up security this time around, bundling in a fully fledged security suite, introducing Secure Boot and alternate authentication schemes. Windows Defender offers malware protection, which is a more robust offering than Microsoft Security Essentials before it. The picture password function allows you to select a photo from their image library and set three gestures against it, comprising circles, lines and taps. This feels like more a novelty inclusion, but there's no doubt that the OS is more secure across the board.
Windows 8's most striking difference stares you in the face as soon as you boot up your computer. The startup screen of old is replaced by an array of snazzy live titles reminiscent of the Windows Phone experience. It's a colourful and attractive layout, and navigation is gratifyingly smooth with both mouse and touch-screen controls.
Users are in for a stripped-down experience far removed from what they are accustomed to. Minimising, maximising and scrollbars have no place in this newfangled system and numerous features are tidied away into nifty menu bars called Charms, which will inevitably mean that some of the more traditionalist users will feel like they are trapped in a bad dream.
However, the familiar Windows 7 experience is little more than a click away. Windows 8's titles screen is merely the first layer of the OS, and beneath this lies the previous generation desktop experience. Selecting the 'Desktop' title strips away the modern façade leaving everything as it was before, or so it would seem.
In a move that's sure to bother some users more than others, the Start button has been dropped altogether. We had no trouble navigating the underbelly of the OS using search, but others are obviously more set in their ways, based on some of the reaction on messageboards.
What does become problematic is the constant back and forth between what feels like two different programs. Certain controls - such as adjusting the date on your machine - can only be accessed from below, which highlights a limitation of the new technology. Having the option to revert to the classic layout would have felt more beneficial, were it not a necessity at times.
The option to boot up straight to the desktop would have been welcome too. It's not a deal-breaker, but there's a lot to be said for the principle of allowing users to choose these preferences for themselves.
The live tiles do a great job acting as windows to the software running beneath them and Microsoft's pre-installed applications take full advantage of this. There are your standard Mail, Calendar and People apps, which are easy and intuitive to set up, as well as more interesting inclusions such as the touch-optimised Internet Explorer 10 and SkyDrive.
Windows 8 comes with two versions of Internet Explorer 10, a touch-friendly version for the start screen and a desktop edition. Both have a Chrome-esque feel to them and are based on HTML5 technology, though the desktop edition supports Flash and Silverlight. Both versions sync with each other and have you well catered for with their combined resources, but it would have been nice if the touch-optimised version had the same extensive plug-in support as its desktop counterpart to eliminate the need to switch between them entirely.
The release of the Windows 8 SkyDrive app coincides with Microsoft's decision to overhaul the web-based version of the service, and the desktop edition offers the same neat grid layout. It serves as the default storage service for most of your applications, so you'll consume vast quantities of space right off the bat unless you change this manually.
SkyDrive integration is an important step forward for the Windows OS, offering users a quick and easy way to back up all of their content, but the service itself has some drawbacks compared to rival offerings. Most significantly, it imposes a 2GB restriction on file size, making it far from ideal for hosting lengthy HD video clips. Files containing nudity, extreme violence or copyrighted content are also prohibited, a policy which is defensible and divisive in equal measure.
News, sports, weather and search apps from Bing will keep give the desktop a content-rich look and feel, while Xbox support has you covered for all your music, video and gaming purchases. Then of course there's the Windows Store, which currently plays host to thousands of additional apps.
The Windows Store
Windows 8 is the central part of Microsoft's new ecosystem, designed to tie in with the Windows Phone 8 mobile OS and the tablet-based Windows RT. It's a setup not dissimilar to Apple's empire, a comparison that is highlighted by the launch of the Windows Store.
The Windows Store is everything you would expect from a dedicated apps store. There are around 3,000 apps in stock at present, a fraction the amount of its Apple counterpart, but that's only to be expected at this early stage in its existence. What does come as a surprise is some of the notable absentees at launch.
Given that Windows 8 will be shipping on millions of new PCs worldwide, Facebook and Twitter have missed a trick by not getting in there at launch. Still, at least we've got Angry Birds.
In terms of how it looks and feels, the storefront offers the same user experience as any other Windows 8 app. It's a transparent interface that serves users recommendations, highlights new releases and organises apps into categories for your browsing convenience. The potential is there for this to one day rival Apple's App Store, but it's also a step towards the walled garden mentality of the Mac maker, a move which is sure to alarm the development community.
Windows 8 is a slick, stylish and expertly crafted operating system, but it's not for everyone. A touch-screen device is required to get the most out of it, and it may be too fundamentally different for some users to comfortably adopt.
That said, many of its features have a far-reaching and meaningful impact that will benefit virtually everyone. Running on the right hardware, users are in for a smoother experience with swifter boot times, amped-up security and extensive cloud and social networking integration.
The move towards an Apple-esque ecosystem may not sit well with everyone, particularly those in the software game, but it's an all-encompassing experience that meets the needs of modern users, and in many ways a bold stride for the prolific operating system.