The 30 best features of Windows 8
The touch interface is the most obvious new feature in Windows 8. But delve a little deeper and you’ll find there’s something for everyone.
1. LIVE TILES The Modern UI Start Screen may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have undeniable benefits, chief of which are the live tiles. Unlike certain other mobile OSes – yes, we’re looking at you Apple – Windows 8’s Modern UI icons do more than merely open the app. They provide a rich stream that turns the Windows Start screen into a dashboard teeming with live data.
The interactive tile for the Mail application provides snippets from unread inbox messages; the Music tile shows which track is currently playing; the Calendar app shows forthcoming diary appointments. Set it up properly and it provides an overview of everything you need to know when firing up your PC or tablet first thing in the morning.
2. TASK MANAGER Nobody really likes spending time in Task Manager, but should you be forced to, the utility ’s new look in Windows 8 makes it a darn sight easier.
Microsoft has introduced the elegant simplicity of heat-mapping to help identify apps that may be hogging CPU cycles or memory, while a range of new performance graphs gives you instant visual notification if your CPU, memory or network connection is taking an unexpected hit.
3. BUILT-IN ANTIVIRUS Windows 8 is the first version of Windows to come with built-in antivirus protection – and not before time. Microsoft Security Essentials, the optional free antivirus package for older versions of Windows, now appears under the Windows Defender umbrella in Windows 8. As with the Windows 7 version of MSE, it’s fairly light on features, but for an unobtrusive minder that keeps an eye out for anything untoward on your system, it should suffice.
4. NO NEED FOR NEW HARDWARE As with Windows 7, Microsoft isn’t raising the hardware requirements for its latest operating system. That means – in theory – any PC capable of running Windows Vista should be able to handle Windows 8. In other words, any PC bought in the past three to four years should cope.
5. AIRPLANE MODE With Windows 8, there is no more scrambling around for Wi-Fi/Bluetooth switches. A new option in the Settings menu allows you to put your tablet or laptop into Airplane Mode, just like a smartphone, meaning there’s absolutely no danger that you’re going to send your easyJet flight catapulting into the South Terminal at Gatwick. Not that there was much chance in the first place…
6. SKYDRIVE INTEGRATION Microsoft’ s cloud computing service allows you to save gigabytes of files on the company’s servers for free! The SkyDrive app on the Windows 8 Start menu provides access to any documents, photos and music you’ve already uploaded to Microsoft’ s cloud service, and allows you to upload new files. SkyDrive also appears in Windows Explorer on the desktop, allowing you to drag and drop files to it as if it were a hard disk on your own PC.
7. TILE GROUPING Install a few apps from the Windows Store and the Start screen can start to look disorganised. However, apps can be arranged into customisable groups – Games, Work, Music, for example – simply by dragging and dropping them into position. Once your apps are in place, click on the little minus sign in the bottom-right corner, or pinch to zoom out if you’re working on a touchscreen, and you get a helicopter-style view of your Start screen. Right-click on a particular group of apps and you can give it a name.
8. WINDOWS STORE The Windows Store contains thousands of apps, many of them free, for your Windows 8 device. The Store is cleanly presented, with apps sensibly broken down into categories and sortable by highest rating, most recently added and other criteria. Many publishers offer time-limited trial versions of their apps before you have to buy, and apps are sold on a per-customer rather than a per-PC basis, so you can install them on multiple devices.
9. INTERACTIVE LOCK SCREEN No longer is the Windows lock screen little more than a glorified password prompt. The new-look Lock screen can now include snippets of information like the number of unread emails you have, or the state of the battery. To unlock your PC, simply swipe upwards on a tablet device, or click and drag the screen skywards on a laptop or desktop.
10. SPLIT-SCREEN APPS While other mobile OSes boast of multitasking, Windows 8 actually does it in a meaningful way. Apps can be run split-screen, with three quarters of the screen devoted to one app and a thin slice down either side of the screen afforded to another. For example, you can browse the web in Internet Explorer 10 while keeping the People app open on the right side of the screen, delivering live updates from your social networks.
11. TOUCH KEYBOARDS Nobody can accuse Microsoft of not putting enough thought into its soft keyboard for touchscreen users. There are two different types on offer: one that spans the full width of the screen, or a split keyboard that makes it easier to type on larger tablet screens.
The split keyboard can be zoomed to different sizes, and cleverly places the number keys in between the two banks of letters, leaving them easily accessible but not in the way. In addition to the two soft keyboard options, Windows 8 also offers handwriting recognition, enabling stylus users to write into web forms, the browser bar or jot notes.
12. APPS SHARING DATA Unlike other operating systems, Windows 8 apps can freely exchange data with one another. You could, for example, allow a Twitter client to have access to your Photos app, allowing you to pick a photo and share it via the micro-blogging service simply by opening the Share charm on the left-hand side of the screen and selecting the Twitter app. Likewise, you could pick a handful of photos and have them opened in a photo-editing app.
13. FEWER SURPRISE RESTARTS A welcome change introduced by Windows 8 is that your PC shouldn’t surprise you by suddenly restarting to install a security update any more. Microsoft promises only to restart for security patches once a month – unless a “critical security update” crops up, in which case Microsoft will push out an update and restart machines. Secondly, there will be no more pop-ups interrupting presentations or DVD playback – Microsoft will instead put a prominent warning about necessary restarts on the revamped Lock screen. You’ll also get three days’ notice of any restart, not the 20-minute countdown you get with Windows 7. Even if you sail past that deadline, Windows 8 will not restart if you have applications running or unsaved work.
14. CROSS-DEVICE SYNCHRONISATION The Windows 8 installation screen all but forces you to set up a Windows Live account. This not only becomes the login for your PC and gives you access to the Windows Store, it allows you to synchronise settings across different Windows 8 devices. Your lock screen, desktop wallpaper and Modern UI theme are all synchronised by default, providing visual consistency across devices. Browsing history, bookmarks and other Windows settings are also shared, while the Sync menu lets you synchronise certain app settings.
15. IMPROVED 3G SUPPORT Windows 8 offers support for 3G and forthcoming 4G networks, including built-in meters to make sure consumers and business users don’t stray past their data cap. Hefty device drivers won’t download by default whilst running on mobile broadband, and the new Task Manager reveals which apps are hogging your data connection, allowing you to kill the most greedy. Windows 8 will also automatically switch to Wi-Fi when in range of a known access point to prevent running up unnecessary bills.
16. RUN ISO IMAGES Windows 8 throws a meaty bone to power users, namely the ability to run ISO files natively. You can, for example, download the ISO of a Linux distro or another piece of software to the Windows desktop, double-click to “mount” the file, and run the SETUP.EXE without having to physically burn the ISO to disc. Not only will this save you having to keep a supply of blank DVDs to hand, but also provides the performance boost of running from a local hard disk/SSD, rather than an optical drive.
17. PICTURE PASSWORDS Tapping in passwords on a tablet, even using Microsoft’ s excellent soft keyboard, is less than ideal. Picture Passwords are an inventive alternative: you pick a photo from your library, draw three gestures with your finger on the chosen photo – tapping each of your kids in age order, for example – and that becomes your Windows login.
Should you forget your Picture Password, you can switch straight back to the conventional text-based login.
18. INSTANT SEARCH Instead of having to scroll through dozens of tiles to find the app you’re looking for, Windows 8 lets you simply start typing the name of your desired app on the main Start screen. In the bat of an eyelid, the search returns a list of matching apps for you to choose from: it could barely be easier once you’re used to it. Windows 8 Search has much more to offer than that, though. Aside from searching for specific apps, you can also search for settings and files stored on your PC. It’s also possible to search within individual apps: it’s simple to find songs by a particular artist in the Music app, for instance, or beef recipes using the Bewise Cookbook app.
19. USER ACCOUNTS Windows 8 is the first tablet OS to offer different user accounts on the same device, so the kids can’t get access to mum and dad’s apps, email and documents if you’re sharing a tablet in the home.
20. SECURE BOOT This anti-malware measure will prevent malicious software from starting before Windows 8 is up and running. It’s designed to head off rootkits and other forms of malware that attempt to hijack the startup process.
21. REVAMPED EXPLORER Although on the surface the traditional Windows desktop is almost identical to that of Windows 7, changes have been made under the skin. Windows Explorer is now graced with the ribbon interface that first arrived with Office 2007 and has slowly made its way across almost all of Microsoft’ s applications. The ribbon sports sizeable buttons for common tasks such as Copy, Paste and Rename. Microsoft claims it’s relied upon years of Windows telemetry to determine which functions are given greater emphasis. The Explorer ribbon also hides tabs until they’re relevant. Click on a JPG in an Explorer menu and the Picture Tools tab appears, for example, allowing you to set a photo as your desktop background or rotate the photo left or right.
22. REFRESH PC We all have those relatives – the ones who install every toolbar, utility and Facebook app they can point a mouse at, and then wonder why their PC is so slow. With Windows 8, however, Microsoft has eased the pain of a full reinstall with a new feature called Restore PC.
This leaves all your files, settings and apps downloaded from the Windows Store intact, and clears out the rest. Yes, this does mean that Windows desktop software will need to be reinstalled, but it’s less painful than starting from a completely clean installation.
23. THUMBNAIL PREVIEWS Hover your mouse over the top-left corner of the Start screen and a column of thumbnails appears, allowing you to select any application currently being used on your PC. Touchscreen users can merely flick their finger from the left-hand edge of the screen to scroll through the open apps.
24. KINECT FOR WINDOWS Forgive us for a little crystal ball gazing, as we’ve yet to see a Windows 8 system running with Microsoft’ s gesture-based controller, but the potential marriage of Kinect and the new interface is too enormous to ignore. The new interface was patently designed for touch controls, and few will want to sit prodding at a large, vertical touchscreen on their desktop. But if it were possible to scroll through the Start screen with a casual wave of the hand, rotate a photo with a flick of your wrist, or skip to the next track with the brush of finger…
Well, suddenly Windows 8 would become a more compelling proposition on the desktop. It’s a feature Microsoft is working on.
25. RESET PC Unlike the gentler Refresh PC (see above), Reset PC provides an automated way to completely wipe your Windows 8 installation and start from scratch – handy if you’re planning to sell on your PC with the operating system intact.
There are two types of Restore available:
- a “thorough” clean that removes all of your applications and data and makes them irrecoverable by writing over the deleted files several times.
- Then there’s the “quick” clean that effectively just formats the drive and reinstalls the OS, which is the option to pick if you’re merely wiping your own PC.
26. USB 3 SUPPORT Microsoft promises that Windows 8 will provide native support for every USB 3 drive and device on the market, while of course retaining compatibility with the older USB 2 and 1 devices. However, there has been no word as yet on native support for the potentially much faster Thunderbolt technology .
27. PANORAMIC BACKGROUNDS Windows 8 allows you to stretch one panoramic background image across two screens. This only works on screens of the same size and resolution, though.
28. FASTER BOOT TIMES Microsoft claims to have made Windows 8 boot times up to 70% faster than those of Windows 7 by making subtle changes to the way the PC shuts down and resumes. Windows also now takes advantage of all available processor cores, reducing boot times on today’s multi-core systems.
29. FILE COPY CHARTS The new file copy dialog is a small fillip for anyone who frequently shunts large files from drive to drive. Click “more details” in the dialog box, and a little graph appears displaying variations in transfer speed and the average speed in MB/sec, which is pleasingly geeky. Should you find the file transfer is bogging down your system, you can now pause the transfer, finish what you’re doing, then resume where you left off. Sometimes it’s the little things…
30. WINDOWS TO GO One you might see at work. Windows To Go allows companies to provide employees with a locked-down installation of Windows 8 on a USB thumb drive. This means you could be given a USB stick with all the company’s applications pre-installed, which you could then run securely on your PC at home, without having to install any software on your own PC.