Microsoft Windows 8 full review
The touch experience
The PC you own today almost certainly lacks a touchscreen. You may have a laptop with a touchpad, but most existing touchpads can't take full advantage of the touch capabilities inherent in Windows 8, since they lack the edge detection that is built into recent touchpad hardware.
On the other hand, your next PC may very well have full ten-point multitouch support, even if it's a stock desktop PC. Manufacturers are starting to ship desktop displays with touch capability; the first touch-enabled displays have built-in capacitive touch sensors, which work via a USB connection to the PC. Future touch displays might communicate through some flavor of wireless, including Bluetooth.
More likely candidates for built-in touch are mobile PCs, including traditional clamshell laptops and convertible units that you can transform into tablets, either by concealing the keyboard or by detaching the display, which can act independently as a tablet.
Windows 8 is a different experience with a touch-enabled display, even if you're using such a display with a stock desktop system. At first, you don't think you'll use the touch capabilities. But then your kids come up and start touching the screen—after all, these days young users are growing up expecting displays to be touch-enabled. I've been running Windows 8 on a desktop PC equipped with an Acer T232HL touchscreen display, and although I use the mouse some of the time, I find myself reaching out to use gestures on the screen at other times.
As for other desktop-PC options, look to the emerging generation of all-in-one PCs, such as Sony's 20-inch Tap 20 and the updated version of Lenovo's A720, which are shipping with Windows 8. The Tap 20 is unusual in that it has a built-in battery, which allows you to move it around the home easily and use it as an oversize tablet.
With any touch display, you tap app tiles to launch software, swipe the display to access other features, and use multitouch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom to enlarge or shrink what's on the screen. Touch support makes the Start screen more usable, though the user interface still has some rough spots. For example, if you swipe your finger in from the left just a little, you get thumbnails of currently running or suspended applications. But slide it a bit too far, and one of those apps takes over the screen. You need to develop a delicate touch (no pun intended) to take full advantage of the interface.
Despite Windows 8's new features, performance tweaks, and improvements over Windows 7, its touch support will likely be the defining factor. And despite some imperfections, the touch interface works smoothly. After you use it for a few days, the old way of using Windows will start to seem slightly cumbersome.
Windows 8 on tablets
One of the big reasons for the creation of Windows 8’s new Start screen is the emergence of tablets. Microsoft has tried and failed on several occasions to create a market for tablet PCs, but the models released during those attempts have always been clunky and difficult to use. The gargantuan success of Apple’s iPad—with its streamlined interface and its relentless focus on encouraging content consumption instead of serving as a general-purpose tool—seems to have clarified Microsoft’s goals.
Microsoft's Surface comes in Pro and RT models.
Even so, Microsoft is planning to support two types of tablets. The first type, which resembles the company’s original Tablet PC concept, consists of convertible laptops running Windows 8. Even Microsoft’s Surface Pro is just a thinly disguised laptop that emphasizes touch interaction over keyboard input.
The second type will carry a slightly different flavor of Windows 8, dubbed Windows RT. This version runs only on tablets using ARM processors, rather than Intel or AMD processors. ARM doesn’t make its own hardware, but licenses its processor technology to other companies such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments. These companies design system-on-chip (SoC) products, which typically consume very little power relative to their performance. (The iPad, for example, uses an ARM-based SoC that Apple designs and builds.)
Windows RT tablets will have a restricted version of Windows 8. Although such tablets will include the traditional desktop, you will have access to the desktop only on a limited basis, to run preinstalled applications such as Office. You will not be able to install desktop programs; instead, RT tablets will focus on the Windows 8 apps you buy through Microsoft’s Store.
In contrast, tablets with Intel-compatible processors can run the full PC version of Windows 8, and offer complete access to the desktop. They’ll probably cost more than RT tablets, too, as they’ll need broader expansion options, bigger batteries, and more memory. Intel-based tablets will almost certainly be heavier and bulkier, as well: For example, Surface Pro, which has an Intel Core i5 CPU, weighs about a half-pound more than Surface RT does.
The existence of two types of tablets on the market may end up confusing consumers, though the differences in price will likely drive shoppers in one direction or the other.