The new Windows isn’t only about tablet apps. Darien Graham-Smith looks at some of the technical enhancements in Microsoft’s latest OS.
The big news about Windows 8 is, of course, the “modern” tile-based interface (formerly known as Metro) and the system’s newfound focus on touchscreen input. However, Microsoft’s latest OS also brings plenty of technical enhancements for advanced desktop and server users. Amid the buzz surrounding Windows’ major new direction, this side of things has received little attention. However, for a huge number of users, it’s these features, rather than tablet support, that are likely to be the key considerations when deciding whether or not to upgrade. We’ve touched on many of these features in our full review of the operating system, so here’s a more detailed run-down of some of the advanced technical features in Windows 8.
Starting up and restarting
You’ll notice the first enhancement to Windows 8 as soon as you begin using it: it starts up much more quickly than previous OS versions. This is assisted by a new feature called “fast startup” (internally known as HybridBoot). It works in a similar way to hibernation; when you shut down your PC, Windows logs you off, then writes out a memory dump to disk before switching off the power. When you turn on your computer, the dump file is read back into memory, so in a matter of seconds you’re ready to log on and start using Windows again.
Fast startup is switched on by default, although you can disable it from the Power Options item in Settings (click “Choose what the power buttons do” to access the option).
Sometimes, however, a “real” reboot is required – for example, when installing patches downloaded from Windows update or running a disk check when suspected corruption is detected. The good news is that in Windows 8, both of these scenarios are less frequent and intrusive than in previous versions.
Disk-checking requirements have been reduced, thanks to a new “online self-healing” approach, which tries wherever possible to fix NTFS disk errors in the background while Windows is running, rather than waiting for the next reboot. What’s more, on those occasions when a reboot is necessary, the disk scan now targets only the parts of the disk where inconsistencies have been detected, rather than scanning every single file, as it did previously. To say that this dramatically reduces the amount of checking required hardly conveys the scale of time saved – Microsoft estimates that on a system holding 100 million files, processing time is cut from around two hours to less than two seconds.
Windows Update has been streamlined in a similar way. Frequent forced restarts have long been the bane of desktop users; now Windows Update will demand a restart only after installing critical security updates, which usually means once a month. If other updates arrive in the interim, they’ll quietly install at your next restart.
You’ll receive more notice of a pending reboot than before, too: update warnings now appear on the login screen three days before a forced restart. If you’re not sitting at your PC when the three-day period expires, you’ll receive a 15-minute warning after your next login, giving you a chance to save your work. This at least is the default behaviour – if companies want to enforce a stricter patch policy, or disable automatic reboots altogether, it can be customised through group policies.
The new Task Manager
At first glance, the Task Manager in Windows 8 looks much simpler than the old Windows 7 version, showing nothing but a list of applications and a “Not responding” flag next to any programs that appear to have frozen. It’s accessed in the same way too: you can press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to open the lockscreen and click on Task Manager, or press Ctrl-Shift-Escape to open its window directly.
Click “More details”, though, and the window grows into a more powerful console. The default tab – Processes – lets you monitor all running processes in a hierarchical view, and examine not only each one’s CPU usage, but also memory, disk and network consumption. This provides a useful insight into what’s gobbling up your resources.
In the upgraded Performance tab, you can take a closer graphical look at total resource usage, and the Startup tab shows you a list of processes set to load automatically when you log in – a graphical alternative at last to the antiquated MSConfig tool. It’s a breeze to check and disable unwanted resource-hogging startup items; a particularly nice touch is a “Startup impact” estimate that helps you to identify the most sluggish starters.
Other tabs enable you to monitor resource usage by user and keep an eye on running services. This all adds up to a more powerful monitoring tool than its forebears.
The only disappointment is the “App history” tab, which keeps track of total CPU time and network usage for each installed app. The idea of keeping a long-term view of resource usage is a good one, but unfortunately, only modern apps are counted, not desktop applications, making this tab fairly useless to desktop users.
Much has been made of the new ribbon-based Explorer. For the most part, this merely puts the features of the classic Explorer into a more organised interface, but look closely and you’ll spot some useful new features and controls hidden in the interface.
For a start, we’re happy to see an up-arrow icon, which takes you unambiguously to the parent folder (in contrast to the Back button, which leads to the most recently viewed directory). Under the Home tab, the new “Copy path” button lets you copy the full path of the selected file or folder to the Clipboard (with multiple selections separated by carriage returns) – this saves time when you’re writing a program or technical document. The History button gives you direct access to Windows 8’s File History feature – a system similar to Apple’s Time Machine that uses external storage to automatically archive previous versions of files for backup and reference. For more details on File History see our full review of Windows 8.
There’s a new “invert selection” button, too, which can be helpful if you want to copy or move a specific selection of files. Under Share, you’ll find a one-click Zip button, as well as a simplified interface to Windows’ disc-burning wizard.
Other contextual tabs also appear based on your location and selection. These won’t revolutionise the way you use Windows, but you may quickly come to rely on them. Tabs for Computer, HomeGroup, Library Tools and Network provide one-click access to common configuration and troubleshooting tools. Picture, Music and Video Tools tabs appear with playback and basic editing options when you select the relevant type of media.
Of particular interest is the tab that appears when you select a disk image in ISO, IMG or VHD format. The Disc Image Tools tab offers a Burn icon, and also a new Mount option for mounting image files as virtual DVDs and hard disks. This makes it easier to install software and browse images for specific files.