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Review: Windows 8 - Part Three: Desktop

by Parm Mann on 31 October 2012, 12:00

Tags: Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Windows 8

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What's The Same

Windows 8 has so much in common with Windows 7 that, you may be surprised to hear, there are times when Microsoft's new operating system doesn't feel any different at all.

Yet continuing to use the same core as Windows 7 has many benefits, none more so than compatibility. We've installed Windows 8 on numerous laptops and desktops, with various peripherals, and we've encountered no incompatibilities; not a single one.

In every instance Windows 8 found and installed all the required drivers, and in the rare occasion that additional software was required - for a webcam or printer, for example - the built-in Action Center automatically pointed us towards the correct download to complete the install.

Being able to retain this incredible range of compatibility continues to be one of Windows' strong points, and the ability to support so many devices is a real boon for tablet users. With Windows 8, you can plug in external mice, keyboards, or one of thousands of other peripherals in the knowledge that there's a good chance it'll just work.

And, seeing as Windows 8 and Windows 7 share the same underlying code, there's no need to seek out new software. The vast majority of programs designed to run on the older operating system will continue to run just fine on the 2012 version (though not Windows RT, remember, which only runs Windows Store apps), so while the user interface can at times feel jarring, the transition for third-party hardware and software is smooth as silk.

These similarities are significant, as for desktop users, Windows 8 isn't quite the radical departure it's made out to be. Use the Start screen sparingly - as we suspect most power users will - and the desktop isn't just very familiar, it's actually better.

What's Better

Let's correct a common misconception; Windows 8 isn't dumbed down for Ma and Pa. Underneath the snazzy Start screen - which of course is tailored for the touchy-feely crowd - there's a desktop that's more powerful than ever.

Although the Start menu has gone, right-click in the bottom-left corner and up comes a new Power User menu that provides quicker access to tools such as Control Panel, Task Manager, Command Prompt and Device Manager. These power-user utilities are all now two clicks away, and this one menu is so useful that it's a surprise Microsoft hasn't provided any option for customisation. Being able to add/remove links to this pop-up would have helped bridge the gap between the Power User menu and the old Start menu.

Still, chalk this one up as a plus for the Windows 8 desktop, it's a new feature we use frequently and there are plenty of others, too.

Faster Boots

There's little doubt that Windows 7 booted quicker than its predecessors, and Windows 8 continues that trend. It cold boots to the lock screen in under 15 seconds on my 2012 desktop PC and my five-year-old laptop. Resuming from sleep is near-instant, as is shutting down, and though the speed bump isn't huge compared to Windows 7 (we'll cover performance in greater detail in the fourth and final part of the review), there's no denying that Windows 8 gets you in an out that little bit faster.

Better File Explorer

Throughout Windows 8, Microsoft appears to be juggling with the same predicament; how do you appease casual users and power users at the same time? The software giant doesn't always succeed, but it has hit the nail on the head with the new-and-improved File Explorer.

By introducing the context-sensitive ribbon interface, amateur users now have easy access to a wealth of commands neatly sorted at the top of the window.

The ribbon fulfils its purpose particularly well, and maintains continuity with almost all of Microsoft's desktop programs (even Paint has a ribbon!), but for power users the ribbon can be hidden at the click of a button, providing an uncluttered view that's cleaner than Windows 7.

What's particularly useful is that Windows 8 will sync your preferred File Explorer view across devices, provided you're signed in with a Microsoft account. Previous Windows releases have struggled to remember the user's preferred Explorer view on a single device, Windows 8 gets it right on every device.