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Microsoft Windows 8: What it means for you

Microsoft Windows 8: What it means for you

Today is Windows 8 Day, the release of Microsoft’s first new OS in three years. Starting today, Windows 8 is pre-installed on new Windows-based computers, and related Windows 8 operating systems will come installed on tablets (smart phones get their version next Monday). Here’s a primer on what to expect and what consumers should consider.

There’s a tsunami of new PCs. Manufacturers have held back on shipping new models, as they awaited today’s official launch of the new OS. We are expecting over 50 new PCs to hit our labs in coming days. Those include touchscreen all-in-one desktops from Dell, HP, and Samsung; HP’s Envy Sleekbook laptop; Dell’s I14z Ultrabook; and Lenovo’s ThinkPad Twist, one of the convertible laptops mentioned above.

Since Windows 8 is notable for the live-tile touchscreen interface, we’re looking forward to trying out models that feature touchscreens, including convertible models that transform from laptop to tablet form factors and all-in-one desktops with large, multi-touch displays. But even hardware without touchscreens will include tweaks that take advantage of Windows 8. Many laptops, for example, are getting enhanced touchpad capabilities that recognize some Windows 8 gesture controls, such as the ability to swipe from the left to scroll through open apps.

Another version of Windows 8 for computers, Windows 8 Pro, also launches tomorrow. It includes a few networking and other options that aren’t available with Windows 8. It’s meant more for commercial users than consumers.

New Windows tablets hit the market. Important to note is that Windows tablets will come in two flavors: Windows RT and Windows 8.

Windows RT runs a special version of Office and any apps available in the new Microsoft Store. This version of Windows won’t be compatible with all of your familiar Windows applications, but Windows RT tablets will work with a large number of peripherals (such as keyboards, mice and printers) wirelessly or via the USB port required on all Windows RT devices.

Even on a tablet, Windows 8 runs just like a traditional computer, but with touch capabilities. If you want to use traditional Windows programs like Quicken, for example, on a tablet, be sure you buy a device with Windows 8 and not Windows RT.

The launch of Windows RT and Windows 8 heralds the arrival of a wide variety of tablets. The highest-profile tablet is, of course, the Surface—Microsoft’s first tablet branded with its own name. The Windows RT version of the Surface ships today; a Windows 8 version will be available in the near future, Microsoft says. We’ll do a first-look review of both as soon as we get ours in the labs.

There will also be a host of Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets arriving from other manufacturers. What makes these interesting is the wide variety of devices being launched. Some are straightforward tablets like the Android and iOS models we’re all familiar with. Others come with detachable keyboards or keyboard docks. You can slip them into the keyboards for small laptop-like devices or pull them out to use as a tablet.

Others are convertible laptops that remain attached to the keyboard but twist around into a flat shape with the keyboard hidden below and the tablet screen visible on top. Still others can be flipped, folded, and twisted, depending on what you’re doing.

If you’re buying a new PC, a touchscreen model will provide the best Windows 8 experience. Again, many of the new PCs will have a touchscreen, which will enhance your experience with this new version of Windows.

When our experts first tested Windows 8, they found that without a touchscreen, the new OS was not as impressive: In fact, they said, “With the new tablet-style interface, which invites you to tap and swipe with your fingers, we were frustrated at not being able to engage.” They also noted that when using a touchscreen computer, switching between using the touchscreen and the traditional keyboard and mouse controls was seamless. Just bear in mind that the larger the display, the more touch capability will cost you, starting at about a $100 premium.

You can still buy Windows 7 PCs. Although PC manufacturers have told us that they will not be shipping new Windows 7 models, computer retailers will likely sell off leftover inventory. So far, at least, we haven’t seen much in the way of lower prices, at least on the Windows 7 models in our Ratings—but that might change once the new Windows 8 models are in.

Why might you opt for a new Windows 7 computer, with Windows 8 available? In our testing experience, using Windows 8 without a touchscreen with the desktop interface was very nearly the same as using a Windows 7 PC, once you get used to working without the ubiquitous Start menu.

Should you upgrade? If you’re not buying a new computer, but your existing one has a touchscreen, Windows 8 is a worthwhile upgrade. But you’ll need to get used to working without a Start menu, which has disappeared and is replaced by the tiled interface on the Start screen and controls on a sidebar you “swipe in” from the right.

If you don’t have a touchscreen model, you might want to wait a while before upgrading to see, for example, whether you’re excited by the apps in the Microsoft Store that will become available over the next few months. But even without a touchscreen, you might appreciate the live tile interface on Windows 8’s Start screen. It shows when you’ve received e-mail, informs you about updates on your social networks, and displays news headlines, among other things. Check out our first look at Windows 8 for more details.

If you decide to make the switch, you can upgrade your Windows 7, XP, and Vista PCs to Windows 8 Pro: It costs $40 as a download, or you can have it shipped for $70. And if you bought a new Windows 7 computer after June 2 or buy one before the end of January, you can get the upgrade for just $15.

Upgrading, not surprisingly, is most seamless from Windows 7. According to Microsoft: “If your PC is running Windows 7, your files, apps, and settings will easily transfer to Windows 8 Pro. If your PC is running Windows XP or Windows Vista, you will need to reinstall your apps.” The Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant (a free download) can help you determine your current PC’s upgrade eligibility.

New Windows 8 phones. These get their launch day on Monday, October 29.

Although it’s new to tablets and computers, the tiled interface of Microsoft’s just-launched Windows 8 operating system will be familiar to owners of Windows Phone 7 smart phones. But Windows Phone 8 gives the tiles some new tricks: You can vary their size and shape and program them to allow one-tap access to e-mails, texts, and social-media posts. Also promised is a free built-in navigation app with spoken, turn-by-turn directions.

The new Windows 8 phones, in turn, promise to offer the top-notch performance and features previously found only on Android or Apple iOS phones. We had an early look at two of the first, and highly anticipated, models, the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 smart phones.

Related:
Windows 8 brings tablet features to PCs, but it’s not for everybody
Preview of the new Microsoft Windows 8
Windows 8 to power new tablets from Acer, Asus and Toshiba
On Gateway One ZX6980 Windows 8 desktop, not all controls are equal
Acer Aspire V5-571-6891 Windows 8 laptop satisfies, even without a touchscreen

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