In the meantime, if you’ve bought, or have been issued, a Windows 8 machine, you’ve got a lot to learn. You’ll notice immediately that Microsoft has moved the furniture around while you were away. But once you learn where things have wound up, you’ll find a lot to like in the redecoration. For example:
It’s graceful. Windows 8 nags you less than any version ever. You can’t believe how many operations have been streamlined and simplified.
It’s phonelike. Windows 8 incorporates a lot of features that are standard in smartphones, like iPhones, Android phones, and Windows Phones. For example, now there’s a Lock screen that shows your battery level and the time. There’s a Refresh command that resets Windows to its factory-fresh condition without disturbing any of your files. And there’s a Reset command that erases it completely (great when you’re about to sell your PC to someone).
It’s touchscreen friendly. Microsoft strongly believes that someday soon, all computers will have touchscreens—not just tablets, but laptops and desktop computers, too. So Windows 8, especially TileWorld, is filled with touchscreen gestures that work as they do on phones. Tap to click. Pinch or spread two fingers on a photo to zoom in or out. Log in by drawing lines over a photo you’ve chosen instead of typing a password.
It’s cloudy. Your login account can now be stored online—“in the cloud,” as the marketers like to say. Why? Because now you can sit down at any Windows 8 computer anywhere, log in, and find all your settings just the way you left them at home: your address book, calendar, desktop wallpaper, Web bookmarks, email accounts, and so on.
It’s beribboned. A mishmash of menus and toolbars in desktop windows (now called File Explorer) has been replaced by the Ribbon: a big, fat toolbar atop each window that displays buttons for every possible thing you can do in that window, without hunting.
It comes with free virus software. You read that right. For the first time in Windows history, antivirus software is free and built in.
It’s had some overhauls. The Task Manager has been beautifully redesigned. Parental controls have blossomed into a flexible, powerful tool called Family Safety, offering everything from Web protection to daily time limits for youngsters. The Recovery Environment—the screens you use to troubleshoot at startup time—have been beautified, simplified, and reorganized.
Those are the big-picture design changes, but there are dozens of happy surprises here and there—features new to Windows, if not to computing:
Storage Spaces lets you trick Windows into thinking that several hard drives are one big drive, or vice versa, and simultaneously gives you the incredible data safety of a corporate RAID system.
File History lets you rewind any file to a time before it was deleted, damaged, or edited beyond recognition.
BitLocker to Go can put a password on a flash drive—great for corporate data that shouldn’t get loose.
Windows To Go (available in the Enterprise version) lets you put an entire PC world—Windows, drivers, programs, documents—on a flash drive. You can plug it into any PC anywhere and find yourself at home—or, rather, at work. And you can use your own laptop without worrying your overlords that you might be corrupting their precious network with outside evilware.
New multiple monitor features are a treat. Now your taskbars and desktop pictures can span multiple monitors. You can have TileWorld on one screen and the desktop on another.
Microsoft’s Xbox Music service (no relation to the Xbox game console) has been almost completely ignored in the reviews—but it’s great. You can listen to any band, any album, any song, on demand, for free. How’s that sound?
Narrator—a weird, sad old feature that would read your error messages to you out loud—has been transformed into a full-blown screen reader for people with impaired vision. It can describe every item on the screen, either in TileWorld or at the desktop. It can describe the layout of a Web page, and it makes little sounds to confirm that you’ve performed touchscreen gestures correctly.