Updated: Windows 8: everything you need to know

Updated: Windows 8: everything you need to know

The Windows 8 picture is becoming clearer. Following on from the slides allegedly leaked in June 2010 by a software engineer at HP, Microsoft has outed far more details about the interface design.

Microsoft says Windows 8 is a reimagining of Windows, “from the chip to the interface” and has launched an Engineering Windows 8 blog. The corporation has promised that a pre-release Windows 8 build will be available to the public.

Microsoft says that “a Windows 8-based PC is really a new kind of device, one that scales from touch-only small screens through to large screens, with or without a keyboard and mouse.”

Indeed, the new OS appears to have two completely separate interfaces – one, a traditional (and, on the surface of it, unchanged) Windows desktop and the other a new touch-based interface that borrows heavily from Windows Phone.

Actually, as you’ll see, it basically is Windows Phone. You can move seamlessly between the interfaces and even have both on screen at the same time. So that leads us to believe there will be a single OS for tablets and traditional PCs.

This shows the transition between the interfaces:

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 release date

We originally wrote that we expect the Windows 8 release date to be in early 2012 and on 23 May 2011, Ballmer confirmed that Windows 8 will be released in 2012. He didn’t go as far specifying when in 2012, though.

Bizarrely, Microsoft later said: “It appears there was a misstatement,” adding “To date, we have yet to formally announce any timing or naming for the next version of Windows.” However, it now seems he was spot on – as you’d expect.

However, more stories are now adding weight to the 2012 date. Microsoft corporate vice president Dan’l Lewin, hinted that the Windows 8 release date is likely to be next autumn – late 2012.

Seasoned Microsoft-watcher Mary Jo-Foley suggested on 27 June 2011 that the RTM, or Release to Manufacturing, date could be April 2012.

Windows 8 screenshots

Speculation is rife that a Windows 8 beta will surface at Build, a developer conference being held by Microsoft in mid-September 2011. Expect to see some Windows 8 action there for sure.

Windows-related jobs have also appeared online, presumably gearing up for the launch.

Windows 8 system requirements

The new demo shows Windows 8 running on touchscreens (potentially tablets too) – expect many Windows 8 devices to be touch-orientated – and this may make its way into the device spec.

Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 have system requirements of a 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM. Vista requires 15GB of free hard drive space, and Windows 7 requires 16GB.

Windows 8 screenshots

Given that there’s been no real jump in requirements from Windows Vista to 7 (unlike the jump from XP to Vista, where XP required a 233MHz processor and 64MB of RAM) we’d expect Windows 8 to happily run on a system that can run Windows 7.

On 13 July 2011, Microsoft confirmed our assumption that Windows 8 would have the same system requirements as Windows 7. At Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference, Corporate VP of Windows Tami Reller talked about “continuing on with the important trend that we started with Windows 7, keeping system requirements either flat or reducing them over time.”

Windows 8 screenshots

On 18 May 2011, Intel confirmed that there will be separate editions of Windows 8 that run on ARM processors and versions that require Intel’s own chips. The Windows 8 ARM editions will be tailored to mobile devices and Windows 8 tablets. The Intel versions of Windows 8 will feature a Windows 7 compatibility mode, while ARM versions won’t.

Motorola says it is “completely open to Windows as a platform” according to Cnet.com. During an earnings call in mid August, Nvidia’s Jen-Hsun Huang said: I’m very bullish about Windows 8,” said Jen-Hsun, “I think it’s going to be an amazing operating system. Windows 8 tablets and Windows 8 clam shells that Tegra is going into, I hope will translate into real growth for our company in the second half of next year.”

“We’re not leading the charge on Windows 8, but as we become comfortable that [Windows 8] is a viable ecosystem [and] that the quality of innovation and quality of services and quality of capabilities [are] being delivered there, we will certainly be open to that,” he said in response to a question.

However, the following day, Windows President Steven Sinofsky said that Intel’s statements were “factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading.” Sinofsky didn’t elaborate on how the statements were inaccurate, simply saying “[We] have emphasized that we are at the technology demonstration stage. As such, we have no further details or information at this time.”

Windows 8 price

Windows 7 Home Premium costs £99 for an upgrade copy and £149 for the full version. Expect the Windows 8 price to be similar.

Windows 8 interface

In March 2011, we reported that Windows 8 could offer a cut-down version of its user interface, taking on some design elements from the Windows Phone 7 UI in the form of Aero Lite. And it appears that prediction was correct – what we’ve seen looks a lot like Windows Phone. Indeed, it essentially is Windows Phone.

Windows 8 gestures: what the Touch Mouse tells us

And, what’s more, you can swipe between any of the interfaces in a cycle – and that includes traditional apps on the Windows desktop.

Windows 8 screenshots

“Fast, fluid and dynamic, the experience has been transformed while keeping the power, flexibility and connectivity of Windows intact,” says Microsoft’s head of Windows Experience Julie Larson-Green.

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

“Although the new user interface is designed and optimized for touch, it works equally well with a mouse and keyboard. Our approach means no compromises — you get to use whatever kind of device you prefer, with peripherals you choose, to run the apps you love. This is sure to inspire a new generation of hardware and software development, improving the experience for PC users around the world.”

Windows 8 screenshots

Here’s a full list of what Microsoft has announced about the interface:

  • Fast launching of apps from a tile-based Start screen, which replaces the Windows Start menu with a customizable, scalable full-screen view of apps.
  • Live tiles with notifications, showing always up-to-date information from your apps.
  • Fluid, natural switching between running apps.
  • Convenient ability to snap and resize an app to the side of the screen, so you can really multitask using the capabilities of Windows.
  • Fully touch-optimized browsing, with all the power of hardware-accelerated Internet Explorer 10.

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 screenshots

The user interface and new apps will work with or without a keyboard and mouse on a broad range of screen sizes and pixel densities, says Microsoft “from small slates to laptops, desktops, all-in-ones, and even classroom-sized displays.”

“Hundreds of millions of PCs will run the new Windows 8 user interface. This breadth of hardware choice is unique to Windows and central to how we see Windows evolving.”

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 features

The ‘fundamentals’ Microsoft is aiming for with Windows 8 include “a fast on/off experience, responsiveness, and a great level of reliability from the start”.

You’ll be able to use an encrypting hard drive to boot Windows 8 and they’ll integrate with BitLocker and third-party security apps. Anti-piracy measures are also set to be improved, though it’s unclear currently just how this would work.

Improving battery life will be based on some deep changes to the kernel; removing an interrupt in the kernel scheduler completely and removing more of the timers that interrupt Windows when it’s trying to save power.

Windows 8 screenshots

Windows 8 might get the same option for powering down unused areas of memory to save power that’s on the cards for Windows Server, it will block disk reads and writes and some CPU access when you’re not doing anything on your PC and PCI devices can turn off completely when they’re not in use (assuming the drivers for specific devices support it).

Windows 7 stopped laptops waking up automatically when they’re not plugged in; Windows 8 will get a new ‘intelligent alarm’ that can wake them up for things like virus scans, but only if they’re plugged in.

OEMs will get new test tools that check the performance, reliability, security and Windows Logo compatibility of the PC, as well as measuring performance in Outlook and IE. And depending on whether partners have “concerns” about it, Microsoft might give the same tools to journalists, IT pros and users.

Windows 8 is also set to feature a native PDF reader, meaning PC owners will no longer need to install a third-party app such as Adobe Reader to view PDFs. The new PDF reader is known as ‘Modern Reader’, and uses the new AppX application package type, which is similar to that in Windows Phone 7 and likely to be used in Windows Phone 8 .

Windows 8 screenshots

Reports that surfaced on 18 April 2011, suggest that you’ll be able to run Windows 8 from a USB stick, using a feature called ‘Portable Workspace’. This feature is said to only be available in Windows 8 Enterprise Edition, though.

Microsoft has shown effortless movement between existing Windows programs and “new Windows 8 apps.” Yep, that’s right – Microsoft is going right down the app route…

Windows 8 screenshots

A Windows app store and Windows 8 apps

More than 30 app stores have launched in the last year and Microsoft isn’t the only company copying Apple here; Intel has its own app store for Atom PCs. PC makers like the idea – apparently at the first forum they commented that it “can’t happen soon enough”.

With an app store, Microsoft hopes to attract more of the type of developers who are currently building smartphone apps and it wants them to create apps that make Windows the best place to use web apps (a job advert last October claimed “we will blend the best of the web and the rich client by creating a new model for modern web applications to rock on Windows”.)

Windows 8 screenshots

Microsoft says the new OS will support “web-connected and Web-powered apps built using HTML5 and JavaScript that have access to the full power of the PC.”

There is “effortless movement between existing Windows programs and new Windows 8 apps. The full capabilities of Windows continue to be available to you, including the Windows Explorer and Desktop, as does compatibility with all Windows 7 logo PCs, software and peripherals.”

Windows 8 apps use HTML5, tapping into the native capabilities of Windows using standard JavaScript and HTML. New Windows 8 apps are full-screen and touch-optimized, and they easily integrate with the capabilities of the new Windows user interface.

“There’s much more to the platform, capabilities and tools than we showed today,” says Larson-Green.

The Windows Store will be branded and optimised for each PC manufacturer. Your settings will follow you from PC to PC, as will your apps (although some slides refer to this as a possibility rather than a definite plan) – but you’d need an HP ID to log into the ‘HP Store powered by Windows’ and get your HP-specific apps. Microsoft doesn’t plan to make money from the store; the early slides called it “revenue neutral”.

More windows 8 rumours

The full capabilities of Windows continue to be available to you, including the Windows Explorer and Desktop, as does compatibility with all Windows 7 logo PCs, software and peripherals.

“Windows 8 apps can use a broad set of new libraries and controls, designed for fluid interaction and connectivity,” says Larson-Green.

“Apps can add new capabilities to Windows and to other apps, connecting with one another through the new interface. For example, we showed today how a developer can extend the file picker control to enable picking from their own app content or from within another Windows 8 app, in addition to the local file system and the network. We’re just getting started.”

Windows 8 is also set to offer improved file management, including the possibility to have multiple copy jobs going on at the same time.

Windows 8 startup and shutdown

The ‘big three’ are boot time, shutdown time and battery life which will undergo massive improvement, but Microsoft is also thinking about how long it takes to get things done – how long until you read your first email, see the home page in your browser or start playing media. PCs should feel like an appliance that’s ready to use as soon as you turn on the power.

Windows 8 startup

FASTER STARTUP: Windows 8 will show you what slows down startup and if removing an app you don’t use improves it

Mobile PCs should resume ‘instantly’ from sleep (in under a second from S3 sleep), and booting up will be faster because of caching, with a boot layout prefetcher and the ReadyBoost cache persisting even when you reboot.

As only 9 per cent of people currently use hibernate (which will work more quickly in Windows 8 because system information will be saved and compressed in parallel), Windows 8 will have a new Logoff and Hibernate combination that closes your apps like shutting the PC down does and refreshes your desktop like restarting does, but actually caches drivers, system services, devices and much of the core system the way hibernation does.

Turning the PC back on will take about half the time a cold boot needs (and the slides point out that on many PCs the power-on tests take longer than the Windows startup, so BIOS makers need to shape up).

It will be the default option but it won’t be called Logoff and Hibernate; Microsoft is debating terms like Shutdown, Turn Off, Power Down and thinking through how the other options for turning the PC off will show up in the interface.

We’ve previously reported on a whole load of other Windows 8 rumours, too:

Windows 8 Media Center and multimedia

Windows 8 will have better media playback and recording, but it will balance using hardware acceleration to save battery life and using the CPU when it gives a better result.

More windows 8 rumours

Audio will use hardware acceleration more because that does improve battery life. There will be post-processing to take out blur, noise and shakey video filmed on a phone or webcam, and support for more codecs including AVC and as-yet-undetermined 3D video codecs (stereoscopic3D support is coming, for games and for 3D movies in Media Center, but there are format issues).

Windows 8 may well end up with Media Center incorporated still – Microsoft dissolved its eHome team previously but a few leaked screen shots at TheGreenButton.tv show the same old Windows 7 Media Center well and truly alive in Windows 8.

Microsoft talks about sharing ‘with nearby devices’; one way that will work is adding the Play To option currently in Windows Media Player to the browser for HTML 5 audio and video content, so you can play it on any device that supports DLNA, another is APIs to let other software do the same.

More windows 8 rumours

That will work with DRM content, if it’s protected with DTCP-IP (digital transmission content protection over IP) or Microsoft’s own PlayReady and hardware acceleration will speed up DRM decoding.

There’s also a new ‘remote display’ option that will let you send your screen from a laptop to a large monitor (which will use DirectX hardware acceleration and the same multimonitor interface that’s already in Windows 7, but for wireless displays as well, which could be an Internet-connected TV – Microsoft refers to 35 per cent of TVs having network connectivity by 2012 and wonders whether to prioritise Internet TV over further improvements to broadcast TV).

Windows 8 Help and Support

In Windows XP the Help and Support centre was a branded hub of tools and links; in Windows 7 it’s far more minimal. Windows 8 will go back to the branded experience, with integrated search for support forums run by your PC manufacturer but add the Windows 7 troubleshooters.

It will also link better with the Action Center, with tools that show more clearly what’s happening on your PC; what apps are running, what resources are being used (like Task Manager showing which apps are using the most network bandwidth), how and when things have changed and what they can do about it. It will also include an Application Management tool that will let you find what apps are causing performance problems and adjust or remove them.

Windows 8 task manager

IMPROVED TASK MANAGER: Task manager will make it easier to see why an app might not be performing; here the Zune software is using all the network bandwidth to download podcasts, so video in the browser keeps pausing. We hope the white on black isn’t the final design!

The Windows pre-boot recovery environment will be simpler, combining the safe mode and ‘last known good’ options into one interface. It will use what Microsoft calls ‘superboot’ to remove malware and rootkits

If you have to reset your PC, Windows 8 will restore “all the files settings and even the applications” although you’ll have to go to the Windows Store to download apps and get a list of apps that didn’t come from the store, so it’s not clear how automatic this will actually be.

UPDATE: On 28 March 2011, the Windows 8 System Restore feature surfaced in a screenshot.

Microsoft is also apparently building a feature called History Vault into Windows 8. History Vault would allow users to back up files and data automatically using the Shadow Copies function and could also allow users to restore documents to a particular moment in time.

Devices matter (almost) as much as PCs

One of the reasons that Windows took off in the first place was working more easily with devices – in those days, printers. Support for a wide range of devices is one of the reasons it’s hard to other OSes to challenge Windows but Microsoft would like to get hardware manufacturers to do more with the sensor platform and DeviceStage interface it introduced in Windows 7.

With Windows 8, Microsoft wants to see “PCs use location and sensors to enhance a rich array of premium experiences. Users are not burdened with cumbersome tasks that Windows can accomplish on its own. Users are neither annoyed or disturbed by the actions the PC takes. Instead, the PC’s behaviour becomes integrated into users’ routine workflows. Devices connect faster and work better on Windows 8 than on any other operating system.”

The ‘current thinking’ is for Windows 8 to include Microsoft’s own Wi-Fi location service Orion (which has 50-100m accuracy in North America and Western Europe but falls back to using the location associated with IP addresses elsewhere, which can be as bad as 25km).

Orion will be used in Windows Phone 7 (as well as Hawaii, a Microsoft Research project to build cloud-enabled mobile apps which refers to Orion as a ‘prototype service’). Microsoft partnered with Navizon in March to use their Wi-Fi and mobile network location database but the slides claim that Orion is buying a bigger database than Navizon’s 15 million access points, giving it 40 million compared to Google’s 48 million (neither matches the 120 million Skyhook gives the iPhone).

Location will be available to the browser as well as to any app that’s written to use it (music players as well as mapping tools), and web apps will get access to webcams.

Microsoft is emphasising the privacy aspect of location and webcam use, with mockups of how apps can ask for location and users can choose to deny it or only allow it once. And it’s also asking PC manufacturers how many devices they plan to put GPS in and offering a Device Stage interface for using a PND like a Garmin nuvi as a GPS source for your PC.

Windows 8 location privacy

LOCATION PRIVACY: Web apps can see your location and use your webcam – but you get to control that to protect your privacy

As we’ve said before, Device Stage will become the standard way you work with devices; Microsoft previewed the options you’ll get with a featurephone and a webcam as well as GPS.

Along with GPS, Microsoft is expecting PCs to include infrared sensors as well as the ambient light sensors that are becoming common, and the accelerometers that are in tablets with rotating screens.

Put that together and the PC could know which way up it is, whether there’s anyone in front of it – or near it and what the lighting is like in the room. So when you walk into the room your PC notices and wakes itself up so by the time you sit down the webcam is ready to recognise you – and no waiting or having to line your face up with a box on screen.

If this works, the camera will pick your face out of the room, like Photo Gallery finding a face in a picture (hopefully without thinking the face in a picture on the wall is you). When you walk away it goes back to sleep again.

We like the idea of rotation lock buttons on ‘Lap PCs’ so you can move them around to control a game without flipping he screen repeatedly; again, if you look away from the game, Microsoft envisages it pausing automatically and if you pass a slate to someone it will switch to their account automatically.

What’s in: USB 3.0, Bluetooth hands free and headset profiles (mono and stereo audio).

What’s out: Microsoft has no plans to support Bluetooth 3.0 + High Speed, 1394 might be deprecated and Microsoft seems to expect USB 2 ports to be phased out in favour of USB 3 within the lifetime of Windows 8.

Dolby has said its technologies won’t be incorporated in Windows 8.

What’s under consideration: Bluetooth Low Energy (from Bluetooth 4.0). What’s not mentioned: Intel LightPeak, although Microsoft does ask if it’s missing anything on its list of connectivity.

Windows 8 Xbox Live integration

Like Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is planning to add Xbox Live to Windows 8. Microsoft VP Mike Delman said plans are afoot to bring the experience to its other platforms.

Windows 8 will know who you are

With better ways to log in to your PC, like your face, Microsoft is considering giving Windows 8 a way to “securely store usernames and passwords, simplifying the online experience”.

Your Windows account might connect more directly to the cloud than just having a Windows Live ID, logging into web sites on your behalf; there’s very little detail on this but it could revive the CardSpace technology introduced in Vista but not widely adopted.

Windows 8 face login

FACE LOGIN: Forget passwords; Windows 8 will use the webcam to find and recognise your face (probably)

Windows 8 gaming

Microsoft hopes to use Windows 8 to relaunch itself at the forefront of PC gaming, with Redmond ready to put its weight behind the platform once more.

“Windows 8 will represent a real new push into PC gaming,” a source told TechRadar. “Gaming will be a key component for the whole OS.”

It sounds as though Windows 8 won’t include an Xbox emulator, as if there was any surprise in that. However, as with Windows Phone, it’s more than likely that Xbox Live will be included – and indeed the Xbox dashboard itself will start to look more like Windows Phone and WIndows 8.

Windows 8 tablets and ARM support

The revamped interface and support for ARM processors point only one direction – Microsoft wants to be big in tablets.

Windows 8 lap pc

LAP PC: Using the Lap PC to read a magazine and play a driving game

Key to making a successful Windows tablet is apps with user interfaces that change depending on the form factor (touch and gestures instead of keyboard and mouse), but Microsoft is also looking at stereoscopic 3D and high colour displays and natural input that uses touch, voice, 3D gestures (“on the horizon”), and facial recognition.

Windows 8 3d support

3D SUPPORT: Windows 8 will play 3D movies and games, but don’t ask Microsoft to pick its favourite format yet

Optimising “for smaller screens” will help netbook users as well; Windows 7 gets key dialog boxes to fit on a small screen but not all apps do.

Put it all together and you get some welcome improvements. It’s impossible to say if Microsoft can come up with a simple enough programming system to appeal to the developers it wants to create Windows apps to rival Apple’s App Store.

Windows 8 laptops

PC World believes that Windows 8 will start a low-cost laptop boom as ARM processors steal up to a quarter of the laptop market from Intel.

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