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The ActiveWin Team continues its journey evaluating the next release of Windows, officially Windows 8. For the past couple months we have spent some quality time with this new update to the next version of Windows currently under development. With the release of the Windows 8 Release Preview, Microsoft is in the home stretch and is expected to have a final release ready by the end of July with general availability this holiday 2012. I am going to be honest, I was less than impressed with the Consumer Preview, I was pretty much jaded by it. All except one of my home systems had it installed only in a VM. The one that had it installed on a physical hardware was on a partition. Windows 8 Consumer Preview to me did not evoke the polish of a Windows 7 beta released in January 2009 and so I was expecting a lot more stability. I am hoping the Release Preview will change that perception. So read on as we find out more about if this critical release will generate the enthusiasm that will guarantee a successful reception later this year.
We discussed the new branding of pre-release code Microsoft has been using since the introduction of the Windows 8 Developer Preview back in September 2011. The Release Preview is Microsoft’s new name for what is a Release Candidate. It signifies that the code is at a stage where it could potentially be the final product.
For me personally, I was in for some surprises, I decided before I installed it on any physical hardware I would check it out in a virtual machine. So I setup a new VMWare instance and loaded Windows 8 Release Preview x86, everything worked just fine and installed really fast. If it’s one thing I can’t get over it’s the impressive performance of Windows 8. Then again, this system has an SSD, 8 GBs of DDR3 RAM (allocated about 1024 MBs), but I was overall impressed. There was one slight issue, I noticed when I was configuring the VM at the OOBE (Out of Box Experience) phase of setup, my monitor stopped working, I had to turn off the monitor then turn it on again. I don’t know if it’s either the monitor going bad or an issue with the Release Preview, but so far, this only happens when booted into the RP and it didn’t happen under the Consumer Preview.
My next installation attempt was on my trusty old Dell Dimension 8300 purchased in March 2004. This system has been through Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 and ran the Developer and Consumer Previews without any problems. I even migrated from the Dev Preview to the CP without any issues and was impressed by its migration features which preserved my personal files and settings such as desktop shortcuts. So I was looking forward to try the Windows 8 Release Preview using a similar strategy. Disappointment! I launched setup from a burnt DVD and everything looked good initially, then I got a ‘This PC Can’t run Windows 8’ – ‘Your PC’s CPU isn’t compatible with Windows 8’. I decided to do some investigation and it seems to be a common issue amongst users trying out the Release Preview. The issue relates to a lack of support for No Execute Bit technology built into the processor. Some processors support it, but it might be disabled by default in the BIOS.
I did check my BIOS but that option is not available to enable it, Microsoft suggest you check the manufacturer of the computer for a BIOS update, but I have the latest BIOS available. So, it looks like the buck stops for modern releases of Windows with Windows 7. I can’t complain, I have had a good run over the past 9 years, I have other PC’s that can run it. Windows 7 isn’t going anywhere either since Microsoft plans to support Windows 7 until 2020 and even after that, you can still run it without any problems.
More on Microsoft’s decision requiring NX
On the Microsoft Answers forum for Windows 8 Release Preview, a Microsoft employee provided reasons into the Company’s decision for requiring NX support in order to run Windows 8 going forward:
We did make changes in the upgrade detection logic since the CP. The changes revolve around the default installer and how it checks for precise CPU features before continuing. Windows 8 requires the NX capabilities of modern CPUs. This is done for security reasons to ensure that malware defense features work reliably. This is important as we want to ensure that people can feel safe using lots of different software including desktop apps and apps from the Windows Store. This means some very old CPUs will not work with Windows 8. In the CP we did not block the installer for the NX feature. Based on CP telemetry we felt adding the block to setup was warranted to respect people’s time. It is better to get it over with quickly, even if it is disappointing. We also used the telemetry to get some handle on how many CPUs would fail the NX requirement so we could be sure enforcing NX presence was responsible in the ecosystem. We learned that less than 1% of CPUs did not have NX capability available and configured correctly and out of those 0.1% did not have the NX capability at all. Based on this we feel that enforcing NX presence is a good thing to do since it results in better malware defenses. Thus we now enforce NX presence in the kernel boot sequence.
It is interesting to look at the case where NX is available but not configured correctly. It is possible on “most CPUs” in this state to override the BIOS setting in software. Because the “opposite of most CPUs” case means a code 5D bluescreen later on, it saves time to get it out up front and ask the user to fix the BIOS setting during setup. However, the “most CPUs” case does mean there is a potential workaround, which I’ll describe in a moment.
We didn’t make any change related to PAE detection, but it is good to note that PAE is a pre-requisite for NX on 32 bit processors due to how NX is implemented in memory manager page tables.
We did change SSE2 instruction set detection based on telemetry from the CP and Windows 7. SSE2 became standard on CPUs a long time ago, but Windows did not rely on those instructions. It turns out though, that an increasing number of 3 party applications and drivers have started using those instructions, and not checking for them before use. We get to see this in our telemetry, as application crashes and in- the- driver case bluescreens. Taking into account that the rate of these differences in 3 party programming is increasing -- and that SSE2 has been present on all CPUs since 2003 and most since 2001-- we decided to check for SSE2 in setup. The result for users at large is their PC is more reliable. We do not check for SSE2 in the kernel boot sequence,;however, if your CPU has NX it also almost certainly has SSE2.
Before I provide the potential workaround, if you can, please properly configure NX in your BIOS.
Here is the potential workaround: Download the ISO and burn it to a DVD or create a bootable USB flash drive. Boot from the media that you created. If your CPU does not support NX you will see a code 5D bluescreen before setup starts. This is rare, but if it happens we won’t be able to help you run Windows 8.
This workaround may succeed because Windows contains two installers: the end user installer (setup.exe at the root of the Windows DVD) and the commercial installer (setup.exe found in the \sources directory of the Windows DVD). The commercial installer runs when the PC is booted from DVD/USB media and does not perform the NX/SSE2 checks and attempts to enable NX/SSE2 on supported systems.
Of course, I tried these options and was still unsuccessful with my installation on the Dell Dimension 8300. I do hope Microsoft does provide better clarification on system requirements though, because if the minimum system requirements says it needs the following:
And my system has the following specs:
How is a Pentium 3 going to be able to run Windows 8 since such systems would likely to not have NX support?
My next system I tried to install Windows 8 Release Preview on is the computer I use at work every day. I have been using the Consumer Preview on it exclusively since February 29th. I have it setup in a dual boot configuration with Windows XP Professional which works well. Because I didn’t have enough disk space, so I had to do a backup using Windows Easy Transfer and then do a custom clean install and restore the backup. Installation was surprisingly smooth, it took only 10 minutes to have the OS up and running. I also benefitted from the built in sync support. The minute I logged in using my Hotmail email, common settings that were applied under the Consumer Preview such as Lock Screen background, my account picture, desktop background were all pulled down. All I had to do next was do my Windows Easy Transfer and additional settings were restored such as Navigation Pane Favorites and other personalization’s. It’s absolutely amazing how smooth a migration that was.
The next system I decided to give the Release Preview a go at was my Acer Ferrari 5000 laptop. Previously, I discussed my disappointment with not being able to do an in place upgrade to the Consumer Preview. I was reluctant but willing to try again since I am tired of running the previews through partitions or VM’s and I want to see how well it handles upgrades and application compatibility. I launched setup for Windows 8 Release Preview 64 bit from within Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit, (this is the only way to do an in place upgrade by the way), followed all the pre-requisites such as Entering the product key, accepting the license agreement, and choosing what I want to keep (Personal files, Apps and Settings). Installation did its normal checks which indicated that I needed to uninstall Microsoft Security Essentials. I kinda find this annoying, considering that Windows Defender and Security Essentials are related, why can’t it just replace it during the install without requiring manual removal by the user? On top of that, I had to do a restart, thankfully, Windows 8 setup automatically resumes setup for you with little interaction required (this did not work the last time in Consumer Preview). After prompting to continue, I left the system, as setup went into a full screen mode with a small indicator showing its current progress. The initial phase of setup took quite some time before it restarted, I watched it a bit and decided to go take a shower. When I came back, progress was only 35 %. This is understandable since it is an in place upgrade which is migrating personal files, apps and settings to a new version of Windows. Other factors that can determine the speed of the upgrade include the size of the data set (mine is about 101 GBs), processor and memory.
My last attempt to upgrade failed after the first restart, so I had my fingers crossed. Things seemed to be progressing at this point and there were no unexpected pop ups during this time. Eventually it restarted and continued on with ‘Getting Devices Ready’, Preparing System and other chores. Soon after, I was at the Out of Box Experience where I was prompted to configure basic settings such as a personal color. I noticed that the mouse pointer was missing and I was not able to use the keyboard. I found this strange that neither were working, I checked to see if both were locked since there is an option to do so. I tried an external mouse and keyboard and was able to continue with setup. After confirming these settings, Windows 8 did some additional chores. I was finally greeted by the welcome screen, it was kinda surreal as I was saying to myself, it actually installed. I then I logged in with my user account, I was greeted by an error relating to not be able to find something in C:\$Windows.~BTSources\Panther. I clicked OK and continued on. Windows 8 took quite a while to configure the Start Screen since it kept saying preparing. Eventually everything loaded up and I was greeted by a familiar yet different desktop. All my Taskbar shortcuts were there along with my default theme I had running under Windows 7. Overall, the upgrade took about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Not bad when I compare it with my 2009 upgrade from Windows Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 Ultimate which took 3 hours.
There were some issues to sort out though, such as the mouse and keyboard not working. It seems there is a compatibility issue with the Synaptics Touch Pad driver. I decided to try a reinstall but I encountered an error relating to ‘Operating System not Found’. Tried installing the driver using Troubleshoot compatibility, encountered the same issue. I opened Device Manager, right click the exclamation and clicked Update driver, browsed directly to the x64 bit driver folder where I had it stored, the driver installation wizard indicated it encountered an error installing the driver. I downloaded an updated driver from Acers website, but that did not work either. As for the keyboard, I was able to install that by browsing to the drivers folder and let it search it and I had a working keyboard again. I took my laptop to work since I wanted to get some updates installed (faster connection at the workplace). I connected a USB mouse and checked Windows Update which downloaded some available updates which included Windows Defender definitions. After downloading, I was prompted to restart and my Touch Pad was working again, I just do not have scrolling working though.
One serious issue I am noticing is when I shutdown, hibernate or put the Acer Ferrari to sleep it crashes with a system kernel initialization error. Of course, I was greeted by the new friendlier memory dump screen which used more human language to indicate an error occurred. There was still a technical answer which said something about KERNEL INITIALIZATION FAILED. I am trying to figuring out the culprit, I know its driver related, I have seen some errors in Event Viewer related to VMWare Workstation 8.0, so I reinstalled that to see if it would correct the issue, but it did not.
Overall, not much has changed since the Consumer Preview, Explorer features a much flatter theme with a vector style that adheres more to the Metro design spirit. Co-incidentally, Microsoft has indicated it will be removing the Aero Glass theme which has been around for the past 5 years. I can see indications of this in the Release Preview, since Title bar text on the transparent background is no longer viewable and you need to turn off transparency in Personalization in order to better see it. Metro elements on the desktop are more refined, the App History Bar for instance is much smaller while also displaying labels when you hover over it.
Application compatibility is a key part of upgrading to a new version of Windows. You want to ensure that the effort spent doing it will guarantee that your applications continue to work. Windows 8 does a surprisingly well job of handling application compatibility especially after doing an in place upgrade. When you take into account the Acer Ferrari, some of the applications now running on it were first installed on Windows Vista and they continue to work just fine on Windows 8. All of the applications with exception to one (Mobile Partner Dashboard) work without modification to compatibility settings. This is certainly a testament to Microsoft’s commitment to compatibility. Here is a list of applications I have installed along with their compatibility status:
Here are some additional applications I have installed on my Windows 8 install at work:
Of course, there were some applications that did not intentionally survive the upgrade. Windows Virtual PC with Windows XP Mode is one of them. Microsoft is substituting this with Hyper-V Client, one drawback though is Hyper-V requires that your processor supports Second Level Address Translation, unfortunately two of the systems I tested Windows 8 on do not suppot it. Thankfully I have VMWare or Oracle VirtualBox to turn to.
Not much has changed on the desktop, but there are some minor cosmetic changes since the Consumer Preview. The App History Bar now feature smaller thumbnail previews with labels. One of the key improvements is the accuracy when hitting the hot corners of the Windows 8 Screen which is more accurate when you want to bring up either the Charm Bar or App History Bar. Windows Explorer see’s the bulk of minor improvements, featuring a much flatter appears, the changes to the Ribbon is more aesthetically pleasing and fits in with the overall look and feel of the operating system. There is not much else that really can be talked about that we have not looked at in our previous previews here and here.
The bulk of changes taking place in Windows 8 happens at the first place you see when you log in. That is the Start Screen. For me personally, the Start Screen remains a curiosity, an occasional experience when I don’t have much to do. One of the things I have appreciated about Windows 8 RP is better integration between the Desktop and the Start Screen, things like notifications gently pop up such as a calendar event when I am working in the Desktop. Those are some nice things. Unfortunately, there are some limitations that are making the Start Screen a hard bargain to use constantly. For instance, the ability to snap apps is a feature I would love use with the desktop, but because of my monitors limitations, I can’t snap anything. Snap requires that your monitor supports 1366 by 768, fortunately I am able to use it on my laptop and I definitely see the benefits there. Snap allows you to create a Sidebar with any Metro based application, so you can look at a stock ticker while watching a video or view photos or even browsing the web using Metro IE.
Start Screen sees some minor changes to its interface, for instance, the Semantic Zoom button is now a minus sign, while Control Panel is launched only from the Charm bar is called PC Settings. All Apps app bar is now situated at the right. The App History bar features much smaller thumb nails with easier precision and response when you hit the hot corners. The color scheme of some App tiles have changed, Mail now features a light green tile, while Music app is a more lavender hue. Of course these are minor changes, which I guess add a degree of refinement to the OS as it approaches final release.
Apps in the Consumer Preview were pretty much disasters and I hardly used them because of the constant crashing I experienced. Sometimes, it took up to 4 launches just to get a particular app started. Windows 8 Release Preview adds some improved stability; it is still not enough though as I still experiencing crashes, especially when using Mail.
MUSIC APP – Sees some of the biggest improvements in the Release Preview, my previous experience with it in the Consumer Preview was disappointing. The interface was chaotic, difficult to navigate and just plain tacky. Although its not something I find myself regularly using, it is a decent to work with. As I write this paragraph, I still continue to experience crashes when I launch the Music app, which is the first sign of something is still wrong with some of these Metro apps. The good thing is, a second launch finally brought the app up and running. The true hallmark of Metro apps on Windows 8 is there simplicity, featuring a clean UI with a subtle interface. Music App gets it right in the Release Preview, when you launch it you are greeted by a list pane to the left with songs, albums, artists and playlist. To list, this options display your songs with accompanying thumbnail. Unfortunately only some of my songs seem to not be displaying cover art.
Overall, I think Music App is what we should have seen in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview with a more refined product in the Release Preview. Although there are welcome improvements, the Metro app does not make a good substitute for a desktop app such as Windows Media Player or iTunes. Even if I was using Windows 8 on a Tablet, I would not want to use this app for long periods because of how limited it is. Microsoft, seriously, you need to ensure this app is continually improved and not just wait every three years to do it. There needs to be more Power user features built in. I understand the focus on simplicity, but at the same time, at what cost?
MAIL – Mail is a beautiful app to use and I have admired its focus on simplicity. The clean UI is breath taking, easy to navigate and work in. There is not much that’s new since the Consumer Preview, but a new Hotmail banner at the top of the folder pane displays your available unread messages. Mail is one of the apps that support the new Snaps feature and it makes working in the Start Screen and desktop app so much easier and flexible, I can quickly move in an out of an app while still viewing my email, it really makes multi-tasking a reality in the Start Screen, I definitely see a lot of users taking advantage of this feature.
PHOTOS – Focusing on bringing it altogether, photos shows off the tight cloud integration available in Windows 8. The ability to access your photo libraries from a number of sources, whether its online photo repositories such as Flickr, Facebook, Skydrive or other computers that you trust, it really is a great way to have better access to your photo libraries across devices. What this means is, you will never forget a photo. I personally have pictures stored across a number of systems, this includes my desktop PC and laptop, along with my work computer, my brothers computer and online photo sites such as Flickr. I have tried many times to really bring them all together, but its hard when you have thousands of photos scattered about. Photos eliminates the need by bringing in your photos from all your approved sources.
The pictures interface is simple and easy to navigate, just click one of the available locations, which will display large thumbnail preview of a photo from a folder. Inside you will see even larger previews you can quickly look at and swipe through from left to right. Click on a photo and you will be greeted by a full size preview of the photo. Photos also supports snaps, but its not so productive in this view. The App bar in Photos features options for importing from a digital camera, select all and tools for deleting or clearing your selection.
Importing photos from your digital camera seems like a tedious task, since you don’t have any sorting options available. The views available are limited, its big and bold, there are no options for small thumbnail previews in the photos interface.
CALENDAR – features a richer set of views with additional color code options for events. The interface is nicer to work in especially when you snap it and use it with fellow Metro apps like Mail. The ability to view events and look at the Mail the same time really shows that Metro can definitely be a viable work environment. Of course, Calendar or Mail won’t be a robust replacement for applications such as Microsoft Outlook or even Windows Live Mail, if you need more flexibility and collaboration tools, its best you still have those tools such as Outlook available your disposal.
VIDEOS – Microsoft made an announcement prior to the availability of Windows 8 Release Preview about how the operating system will handle video. Windows 8 is going in a direction where the optical drive is pretty much irrelevant and to be honest, it is pretty much irrelevant today. We can see this trend taking place in hardware form factors such as the Intel driven Ultrabook or Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display. DVD has been a popular way to consume movies, with the popularity online sources such as Netflix, HULU, YouTube and Vimeo, users are turning to these services obtain the latest in movies and entertainment shows. Using the videos app in Windows 8 is a bit so-so, it hands basic video just fine, but try watching a 720p movie and Video barely handles it. I started watching Fast Five and had to stop after the first 5 minutes because of the constant glitches that occurred. I thought it was the video file, I started playing it in Windows Media Player and it played just fine. I tried another video, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 and the same thing occurred. The video was just glitchy and unbareble to watch. In contrast, watching a BBC documentary on Slavery, was totally watchable without any problems. Videos, is another one of the apps that also supports in Snaps and its quite useful, for instance, typing this review, I was able to do it while watching the video (albeit in a small frame) it really shows off the platform.
CAMERA – The camera app is unusual because, I am trying to find out which scenarios you would use this often. My Acer laptop has a built in camera, but because of its low resolution and pixel support (1.3 Megapixels) produces both low quality pictures and videos. In fact, I was embarrassed to take a screen with it. As noted, the Camera app also handles video. Basic camera options include Brightness, Contrast, Auto exposure. I wish there was more than just it being a camera app, the best use for a Camera apart from video conferencing and recording videos is Apples Photobooth on Macs, its fun, great time waster. A similar thing could have been done with camera app here.
METRO IE – One of the apps users of the Start Screen are likely to spend a lot of time in if they purchase Windows 8 on a Tablet. Metro IE is a decent app for the target environment, it features most of the core tools you want from the desktop version such as Tabs and convenient navigation tools. When you bring up the app bar in Metro IE, you have options for closing or opening a new Tab or even starting an inprivate mode session. I notice when I launch a new Tab, IE Metro will bring up a gallery of frequently viewed website. Something I really like that saves time entering a URL. Often, I am going to visit a site I have already loaded, so Metro IE thinking ahead is definitely something I like. In addition to support frequently viewed websites, you can also pin your favorite sites to the Start Screen, similar to how you would pin your favorite sites to the Windows Taskbar (this feature was originally introduced in IE 9). One of the biggest additions is built in support for Adobe Flash on a select few websites which is nice. It seems that Microsoft realized Flash isn’t going anywhere soon and HTML5 support is still a long way off. It works quite well on popular sites such as YouTube and CNN and I am sure the list will continue to grow.
Windows 8 Release Preview introduces some new apps to show off the platform. Since the release of the Windows 8 Developer Preview Microsoft has bundled the operating system with a variety of applications to show what’s possible. Three new apps you will find in this release include News, Travel, Sports and Finance. All are self explainable. News delivers content from a variety of sources and I guess its Microsoft’s answer to Google News which I regularly use to find about current affairs. Travel is a neat app that you can use to search up information whether you are planning a trip or thinking about particular destination. It features beautiful photos from different cities and locations around the world that really gets you in the spirit. I not a sports fanatic, but I can see how this app can be a hit with fans who have interest in different sporting activities, I asked a student to give a list of their favorite soccer teams and I was able to find out about the latest matches along with previous wins. I notice there is no data available for cricket which very popular in the Caribbean, UK and middle east countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Finance for all those market buffs provides information on world market trends along with the ability to create watchlist, find out about currency rate and source information from different places on the web. It’s a rich app that will definitely be useful for mobile users since it integrates with Snap it shows off some of the rich capabilities built into the OS. I also like that it includes local currency exchange rates which I personally find difficult to find on the web, it’s definitely useful.
Windows 8’s built in applications show off what is possible with the platform. Analyst have been describing Tablets as more consumption devices, but there is a lot more you can do with touch, the Start screen and its built in functionality such as Snaps (I have mentioned this quite a bit), App Bar, App History makes working in the interface more productive. Does it allow you to leave the Windows Desktop app behind? Unfortunately no, there is still a lot required by users today that the Start Screen does not deliver. Of course, for users on the go, the interface will definitely be a lot more flexible and easier to use than Windows Explorer.
SHARE CHARM & CONTRACTS
One curious feature that has been around the since the Dev Preview is the Charms bar, which features options for Devices, Sharing, Start, Settings. As the name suggest, it is about sharing, if your app supports it, you can publish data from your app through other apps or services such as Facebook. For instance, if you are on a web page in Internet Explorer and you see something interest, you can launch the Share Contract which can present a list of supported apps. Right now, I notice only Metro IE supports the Share contract and there is no support in desktop applications.
DESKTOP INTERNET EXPLORER
Version 10 of Internet Explorer remains pretty much the same, I have encountered quite a few stability issues using it in the Release Preview though, I don’t know what is causing this. The only add on I have installed is the built in Flash. I will note, the performance is quite good, it loads web pages noticeably faster than both Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, I can testify to this because I am using a GPRS modem to connect to the Internet which is a slow connection. You really can see what is fast and what is slow on a 5 KBps connection. One change to Internet Explorer in the background is support for Automatic Updates. Users now have the option of having Internet Explorer automatically update itself when new versions are available.
MULTIPLE MONITOR SUPPORT
Windows 8 greatly improves support for Multiple monitors and the additions are definitely a welcome. The process is easy to setup, I was able to connect a flat panel LCD monitor to my VGA port on my laptop and using the Windows + P command choose from a list of options which included extending or duplicating the screen. The Extend option which is the one I use, creates an extension of your existing desktop on the main monitor, so you can easily drag windows between two monitors. To make it easy to work with and reduce arm fatigue, Windows 8 automatically creates a second Taskbar and App History bar, so you can quickly access and launch your favorite apps without much movement between screens. Configuring your multi-monitor setup in Windows 8 is also easy, you can choose to have your Monitor configured for Portrait or Landscape along with identifying its physical location whether it is on the left or right or above the main monitor. Personalization adds another nice feature, you can apply a specific background to one monitor, just open Personalize, click Desktop Background, right click a Background picture and click on the option to apply it to either Monitor 1 or 2. When you add a second monitor, Windows 8 enables additional controls on the Taskbar properties, so you can adjust options to have buttons display on the second Taskbar if you wish or have windows display on the main monitor or not. These vast improvements in support for Multi-monitor should definitely make it an enticing upgrade. It also makes working with the Start screen a lot easier. For instance, you can have the Start Screen displayed on one monitor while you have another monitor just for the Windows Desktop. Based on my usage, this makes a world of difference when working with Windows 8. I was able to even use familiar tools like Snaps just fine when working with multi-mon setup, it is definitely easier and more productive. If you are going to invest in a new desktop or even a laptop, definitely consider a second monitor with your purchase.
For the past couple of months I have been running Windows 8 on a variety of systems, this includes three desktops and one laptops, with a combination of modern processor, fast storage such as SSDs and traditional mechanical hard disk. One of the immediate experiences you get with Windows 8 is how fast it is, from setup, configuration to daily usage. Of course, this is dependent on the system configuration. The bulk of my time on Windows 8 Release Preview has been on my work PC. A 2008 Dell Optiplex 760, with the following specs: Intel Pentium 2 GHz CPU, 1 GB of RAM. Windows 8 on all systems installed in less than 12 minutes, at least 7 minutes on a HP Z210 was impressive.
RELIABILITY & STABILITY
I must admit, Windows 8 has had its share of stability issues over the past year, but for pre-release software it has been quite stable. I have come across one particular bug though on my Dell Optiplex 760 at work, where the system just randomly hangs forcing me to do a cold boot. I have since learnt this is a known system bug and has since been resolved in current builds of Windows 8 not available to the public. Windows 8 requires decent hardware, I would recommend no less than a 2 GHz processor, 2 GBs of RAM minimum just for the 32 bit to run it reliably. My main issue remains the unreliability of some Metro apps, especially Mail which often require several launches before opening. In contrast though, when using Windows 8 on my Acer Ferrari 5000, the software runs great with the exception of an issue with my Synaptic drive and a system memory dump screen that always occurs when I shutdown or try put my laptop to sleep or hibernation. It is obviously a driver issue, I have tried removing all possible causes, updated all drivers, but the problem persist. I should note, this is an in place upgrade from Windows 7 Ultimate which I have been running for the past 3 years. I am greatful to have it at least running since the Windows 8 Consumer Preview failed when attempting to upgrade it.
Windows 8 includes some advanced features, many I have not gotten to cover over the past 10 months. One in particular is Hyper-V. Hyper-V client is now a built in feature in Windows 8, if you are in the IT field and work with Windows on the server side, you might be aware of its availability in Windows Server 2008 R2 and as a separate add on for Windows Server 2008. Hyper-V is a hypervisor software which allows you to utilize the built in virtualization that might be available in your computers CPU. Windows 8 has one unique requirement when using Hyper-V, your processor must support SLAT (Secondary Level Address Translation). In my case, two of the systems I had Windows 8 setup on did not support it, lucky enough, a new HP Z210 I have in possession supports the feature. In order to use it, you first need to enable Virtualization in your System BIOS. Next, you will need to open Turn Windows Features on or off and check it off. You will be required to do a restart.
To find Hyper-V you need to open it either from the Administrative Tools (Control Panel) or from the Start Screen. The Hyper-V Management Console features a not so self explainable interface, to get started, simply right your machine name, click New > Virtual Machine and begin the process of creating a VM using the wizard. The process is very straightforward and simple, you can allocate as much hard disk you have available (64 TB is the max supported), similar options are available memory. A lot of the tools available in Windows Virtual PC 2007 are also available in Hyper-V, so if you are familiar with that program, you should feel right at home in Hyper-V. I notice I was not able to select a network adapter during configuration or setup one after, I wondering if this has something to do with Windows XP. I still was unable to connect the Virtual Machine to the host, so networking was a bit of a problem, but I assume it is something I am not doing right, since I have done this before setting up Hyper-V on Windows Server 2008.
After installation, I was able to install integration features which makes it easy to move between the VM and the host. Managing the VM is also easy, Hyper-V provides a straightforward interface, you can get an overview of things like VM state and up time. The Actions pane features additional tools you can use to configure a virtual switch for connecting to internal and external networks and SAN management. Hyper-V also allows you to do things like take a snap shot, pause, reset or move your VM. If you have an existing VM you can import it and start using it right away.
One of the immediate things I notice about Hyper-V it is how surprisingly fast it is, then again, I was using it on a machine with a SSD and 8 GBs of DDR3. I had setup a Windows XP Professional VM instance which I installed from a .ISO file on an external hard disk, the text based setup portion went by so fast I barely saw it. It reminded me of installing Windows 95 on a fast machine in Virtual PC 2007 (which shows how far we have come).
Hyper-V is a welcome support, I still need VMWare for certain things, especially if your system does not support SLAT. Hyper-V is especially handy for running legacy programs, the features are more advanced and flexible. For persons coming from a Windows 7 Professional/Ultimate/Enterprise setup with Windows XP Mode, Hyper-V should make a good replacement.
Microsoft has indicated built in support for USB 3.0 through class drivers. Unfortunately, my attempts to get this working out of the box in Windows 8 were unsuccessful. I had the same issue with Windows 7 64 bit and I ended up having to find the driver on HP’s website. I am not sure if this is an issue relating to the USB adapter being a generic third party add on and not something built into the architecture (IVY Bridge). I connected a USB 3.0 super speed supported IOMEGA external hard disk, Windows 8 detects the device, but nothing shows up in Computer Explorer. I went ahead and installed the NEC USB 3 driver, but still encountered issues with the drive not being detected. So that’s about it for USB 3.0 support in Windows 8.
This is not a full conclusion on Windows 8 just yet; I did not cover every detail. My perspective on Windows 8 at this point is, it’s a decent operating system, especially when used in context. Windows 8 will be excellent on Tablet and Touch supported devices. There is still a bit of reluctance about Windows 8 on traditional form factors such as Laptops and Desktop computers. Yes, the idea going forward is to have these devices in convertible modes that make using the Start Screen convenient on them. My use of the Start screen on all three systems where I have Windows 8 is very limited. It wasn’t until recently I have been dabbling with it more and it still remains a curiosity than a full time commitment. Microsoft has made great effort since the Windows 8 Dev Preview to make it a more enticing value proposition. With Microsoft’s entrance into the hardware industry with a device like the Surface, my commitment might change this fall. Right now, I just can’t justify Start Screen on a desktop computer and like I said before, the Start Screen feels secondary when being used with a mouse and keyboard. It’s clearly touch targeted. Apart from this, Windows 8 offers many improvements across the board in the desktop app especially.
The performance of the operating system remains one of its key improvements, but features like the new File Explorer, built in Hyper-V, advanced recovery tools, Multiple Monitor Support, make Windows 8 a joy to use and proves its value even more. Although I feel like Windows 8 could do with another preview before final release, especially since I am experiencing some problems in areas such as crashes on shutdown (no loss of data though), touch pad driver support, USB 3.0 class driver not working. I am also very concerned that Microsoft is leaving out support for capable devices. Considering that the Dev Preview and Release Preview worked just fine on my Dell Dimension 8300, it is surprising at this point that Windows 8 has dropped support for some older systems that might not be the most powerful, but capable. Windows 7 runs on these systems just fine, so I see why Windows 8 should not since they use the same system requirements. The No Execute Bit requirement is just unnecessary in my opinion. Is it a recommended upgrade though? If you just bought a new PC with Windows 7, you probably can hold off on the upgrade for a while and take the wait and see approach. I am personally staying committed to Windows 7 on the systems where I have it installed, I might consider dual booting with Windows 7 since I am a technology enthusiast and like to keep up with the latest. Overall, I would prefer to have Windows 8 on a new PC this fall instead of upgrading an existing one and one that is Touch ready (preferable a mobile device). The Surface is looking very enticing and it might actually be the device that gets Windows 8 into the hands of many.
Do I like Windows 8? Yes, I do, it is clearly Microsoft’s most bold development in years, it probably beats out the transition from Program Manager (Windows 3X) to Windows 95, the move from Windows 9x to the NT Kernel. The Windows 8 platform represents so many things: truly touch centric, support for modern processor architectures, fast and fluid as Microsoft puts it and also represents where the majority of the world is heading when it comes to computing, entirely mobile.
Systems used for testing: