Once upon a time a new version of Windows was something to get excited about. Be it the low level support for new hardware technologies, new features and ways of interacting with one’s PC, there was a reason people lined up outside Harvey Norman stores to get their hands on Windows 95 the moment it was available.
This all came to a crashing halt with Vista, when a long and relatively public phase of operating system development resulted in a bloated, intrusive operating system that most people felt best ignoring.
Vista not only killed the clamour for the new, it meant Microsoft ended up needing to support Windows XP well beyond its intended use by date.
The mistakes of Vista were largely erased with the launch of Windows 7, and that has been the operating system many long-term PC users have settled down with. Gone was the unnecessary bling and in its place was an operating system that was less bloated but without getting rid of the better features Vista brought on board.
For many Microsoft moved away from its traditional audience with Vista, and in the process alienated them. This wrong step hangs heavily over Windows 8, which has Microsoft making even more drastic changes to the way in which we have learned to use our PCs.
We’ve had an All-In-One in the labs running the various versions of Windows 8 released so far, but it has been a largely academic exercise. While it gives us an opportunity to explore the operating system at our leisure, we aren’t forced to use it – and hence don’t, for anything beyond investigating the operating system itself.
With this in mind, we decided the consumer preview version of Windows 8 needed more committed testing. So we went all in with a laptop.
It was a process driven by a degree of nerdy bravado.
I got as far as the installer download page before sanity kicked in and I started wondering about the currency of my laptop’s backup. After transferring a few gigs of miscellaneous data to my NAS, I downloaded that little 5MB installer and proceeded to turn my Windows 7 laptop into a Windows 8 machine.
This was done with full awareness that upgrading is perhaps the worst thing to do with a pre-release operating system. But I was committed to learning the ins and outs of Windows 8. Oddly enough, the upgrade process went incredibly smoothly.
The installer ran some scans and presented a list of programs (now reduced to being described as mere Apps) that the upgrade would break, while also pointing out that I had virtually no free disk space on myC: Drive (the installer needed 20GB free).
The upgrade process begins.
I moved 35GB of Steam files and proceeded with the install. It really is one of the most polite processes Microsoft has ever delivered, with reassurances that I could continue using my computer while it downloaded, which was probably the slowest part of the entire procedure thanks to my wireless router being midway through dying at the time.
Once the files were downloaded it was the point of no return – the moment when the next shutdown could result in some sort of ominous user error. Thankfully it didn’t– if anything the experience of going from Windows 7 to Windows 8 ended up being the smoothest transition between operating systems since I first booted up Windows 3.1.
Once installed you need to give the usual location details and login with a Windows Live account. After a brief flirtation with password recovery the system booted up, now sporting that very identifiable Metro interface.
This was the point at which Windows 8’s inherently schizophrenic nature started to really show itself. Make no bones about it – Windows 8 is an attempt at a happy compromise between PC and tablet software that ends up feeling like two operating systems bolted together. The bolting is less awkward than it was in the developer preview from last year but is still apparent, and also governs interaction with the operating system too much.
It is hard to tell whether it’s the general feel of the interface or the fact that I’ve been using Windows Phone for some months now, but my first reaction to seeing those metro tiles was to paw the screen. It was a moment when the handful of touch-enabled laptops shown to me over recent years actually made sense for the first time, and the first indication that Windows 8 was going to really mess with my head for a while.
Resigning myself to not being able to flick through the interface, it was time to start working out just how the touchpad and keyboard translated to navigation in Windows 8. It was around this time that a few things became clear: first, that while most of the Windows 7 drivers on my laptop worked, the bits and pieces of Samsung software that helped with quick booting and system updates were not working.
Not the end of the world, but this did mean the instant return from hibernation that I loved so much under Windows 7 was gone. Searching for the device manager I discovered the Metro-based settings screen bears little or no resemblance to the desktop-based control panel in Windows 8.
Some settings hide in each area, again making Windows 8 feel like two operating environments mashed into one. Thankfully Windows Key + Pause still brings up the System menu, from which I could get into the Device manager and check what drivers were missing.
The upgrader finds a few issues which need fixing before it can continue.
Display drivers seemed to be my major issue. Thankfully though, the wireless connection was still operational after the upgrade so it was a simple case of checking both NVIDIA and Intel’s website in search of new graphics drivers (my laptop uses a Corei5 and a GeForce GT520M).
Intel’s driver detection java widget failed to play nice with Windows 8, while NVIDIA already had Windows 8 as an option in its driver selection page. So while downloading the GeForce drivers I checked Windows Update –or at least vainly searched for it in Metro then went to the desktop and searched for it in the control panel.
Pleasingly there was not only an Intel driver to download but also a Microsoft-approved NVIDIA one and drivers for the Broadcom wireless chip in the laptop (even though wireless was working fine right off the bat).
I started this downloading and hoped the drivers would actually support NVIDIA’s Optimus technology for graphics switching. Curiously, while going through this process I noticed that I had a) forgotten to disable Norton Internet Security and b) it didn’t actually matter because it was patched and working fine with Windows 8.
This in and of itself is a bit of a miracle, given how antivirus in general and Norton in particular has had a shaky history of coping with operating system upgrades.
Finally my laptop was transformed. I’d managed to survive the transition with very little hassle. My major issue was that the Samsung software on the laptop looked broken enough that my battery life wouldn’t be as impressive, but apart from that I was pleasantly surprised the upgrade process had gone so incredibly smoothly.
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