Out of curiosity, I downloaded the Microsoft Windows 8 Consumer Preview last February, uprgrading it to the Windows 8 Release Preview when that came out later in the year.
The official version of Windows 8 came out last fall. I knew that the release preview would only be supported through this January; I intended to buy the new version in a few more weeks, or perhaps roll back to Windows 7. I hadn't made up my mind. I assumed that the end of support for the beta test meant that I would no longer get security patches or updates to the built-in anti-virus software or things like that.
Then, one night last week, I was listening to some music on my computer and it stopped suddenly. When I walked over to check on the situation, I had a message up on my screen informing me that since the beta test had now ended, my computer would begin restarting itself every two hours until I either removed Windows 8 Release Preview or upgraded to the official version of Windows 8.
I bristled a little at Microsoft's hardball tactic, but it had the desired effect: I paid for Windows 8. In the end, that was going to be easier than trying to reinstall Windows 7.
The preview versions of Windows 8 I'd been running for the past year had not completely won me over. The "live tile" interface which makes Windows 8 so distinctive is really intended for use on touchscreens, and while you can easily use it with a mouse, it's not as elegant, especially at first. But you can always click on through to a more traditional, Windows 7-like desktop, which is where I spent most of my time.
I've explained "live tiles" here before, but it bears repeating. The start screen from which you launch most programs on Windows 8 is composed of little squares and rectangles, each one representing a particular program. There are traditional desktop programs, but there are also lighter and less-expensive "apps" that are similar to the type of apps you might download for your smartphone.
The squares or rectangles you use to launch programs are called "live tiles" because, in many cases, they aren't just icons or buttons but little status indicators. For example, the live tile for launching a weather application might display the current temperature and conditions, or even a little radar screen. The live tile for a photo viewer might display the last photo you opened, or even a little slide show of your recent photos. The live tile for an e-mail program rotates through the headers for your most recent unread e-mails. This makes the start screen for Windows 8 not only a way of launching programs but a sort of home page.
The live tile interface is also used on Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows Phone 8.
Windows RT is a limited version of Windows 8 for use on some tablets; it has the live tile interface but not the desktop, and it can't run older desktop-style Windows programs, only the new apps. There are other tablets, however, that run basically the same Windows 8 you might find on a desktop or laptop computer. Those tablets can run traditional computer software like Microsoft Office.
The preview versions of Windows 8 had access to a marketplace of apps, but it was limited. The release version has access to the real marketplace, including a lot more apps, and for me, having access to all of those apps better shows off the operating system and its abilities.
I decided to give Windows 8 a more serious look. As I reinstalled all of the software that had been cubbyholed away by the upgrade process, I deliberately avoided putting icons for launching programs on my desktop, and tried using the live-tile-filled start screen for launching them instead.
I have to say, the system has grown on me more in the past week than it did in nearly a year of running the preview software.
Windows 8 has other advantages. The first few times you run it, it will be slow to shut down and slow to boot up, because it's still downloading and installing various upgrades. But once all that has been taken care of, Windows 8 (and this applied to the beta versions as well) is, hands-down, the fastest-loading operating system I've ever worked with. It boots very quickly, and I've had little problem with crashes or freezing.
The upgrade price from recent versions of Windows is currently $39.99 if you download Windows 8 from the Microsoft web site (you will pay more if you want a disk). The download starts with a utility that checks to make sure your system is compatible with Windows 8, and it will keep you from paying for or downloading the software if it won't work on your machine.
The download and upgrade process takes a long while but is relatively simple. Your documents and certain program settings are preserved. All of your programs, however, are sequestered along with your old operating system in a folder on the hard drive called Windows.old or something similar. If you want to keep your old programs, you've either got to move them out of that folder or reinstall them from scratch, which is what I did. Sometimes, a change like this is a good opportunity to look at which programs you actually use and which ones are just taking up space. Reinstalling programs one-by-one was a form of cleaning up my computer and doing away with software I rarely used anyhow.
After a while, once you're sure the new upgrade and your programs are operating properly, you can delete that Windows.old folder (or back it up to a DVD) to free up space on your hard drive. (Needless to say, it's a huge folder.)
If you're running a Windows 7 computer, should you upgrade to Windows 8? Maybe not. There is a learning curve; the new operating system definitely takes some getting used to, and not everyone will like it. If you think you'll be replacing your computer soon anyhow, just wait and get the new operating system when you get your new hardware. But if you're comfortable with new technology and interested in what Microsoft is betting will be the way of the future, upgrading might be worth a shot.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.