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Windows 8: Sugar coating on Microsoft's hard-to-swallow tablet

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SkyDrive is an app that hooks into Microsoft's Windows Live services. Images I had uploaded to SkyDrive from another PC automatically appeared in Windows 8. You can also use Office Web Apps for online creation and editing of Office documents.

Microsoft seems to be aiming for the same kind of seamless synchronisation that is Apple's target with iCloud. That said, while logging in with a Live ID is the default, you can also set Windows 8 to use a local account. "Your settings won't sync between the PCs you use," the settings dialog warns. Music and video are handled by separate apps that - again - are nicely done, though it will be interesting to see if Microsoft is able to set up online music and video stores that work in all territories by the time of the final release.

Windows 8 Hyper V

Microsoft's server virtualization is present by not enabled by default

Microsoft has given some thought to problem solving and streamlining the process of reinstalling the OS when it all goes to pot: buried in General Settings are options to refresh your PC without affecting your files, and to reset your PC and start over from scratch. If users do buy into the cloud connected concept, even a full reset might not lose much data. The snag, again, is all those legacy apps, which will continue to store data locally.

Windows 8 lets gamers sign in with an Xbox Live account and it looks as if Microsoft is finally building sensible links between Windows and its games console platform, a move that should boost its consumer appeal.

All of this is on the Metro side; what is there for desktop users for whom Metro will be little more than a distraction? There are a few things, including a new copy dialog with rich graphical progress reporting, and a revamped task manager that is mostly prettification but also adds new information. Explorer has a ribbon UI that works well, but is not a dramatic improvement on what was in Windows 7.

Windows 8 Task Manager

Task manager is mostly just prettied up

Hyper-V virtualisation will be supported, bringing together Microsoft's client and server virtualisation technology. Storage Spaces promises to simplify the business of expanding local storage by adding new hard drives. These are really server features that are coming in cut-down form to the client. Hyper-V is in the Consumer Preview if you enable it in Windows Features. Storage Spaces is not yet evident in the user interface.

It's worth mentioning the fast boot of the Consumer Preview, markedly quicker than Windows 7 on this slate and less than 10 seconds from cold. Sleep seems to work better in Windows 8 as well.

Another feature interesting to enterprises is Windows to Go, the ability to boot and run Windows 8 from a USB storage device. This could be used to give an employee a work-related Windows environment that could be used on a home PC, isolating business and home use and data.

Xbox Live in Windows 8

Sign in to XBox Live via Windows 8: a sensible link at last

Microsoft has promised to talk more about enterprise features in Windows 8 at the CeBit conference in Hanover, Germany, later this month. That said, executives at the launch would not give me a straight answer when I asked whether Windows on ARM PCs will be able to join a domain. Questions about Windows on ARM are referred to Windows and Windows Live group president Steven Sinofsky's lengthy blog on the subject, but more remains to be revealed.

Windows 8 is at times refreshing and delightful, at times puzzling, and at times awkward and annoying. Microsoft is presenting it as the next generation, but in truth it will be a transitional release. The good news is that Metro Windows 8 runs nicely, and Microsoft deserves credit for its decision to enforce asynchronous calls for the slower parts of the Windows API thereby making Windows Runtime apps more responsive. Windows 8 on a slate does have appeal.

The case against is that there is little here for desktop users, that Windows 8 tablets may be too expensive and complicated, and that Metro apps will be lacking at launch, leaving users stuck in the desktop most of the time.

That said, when I have handed the Windows 8 slate to others and asked for opinions, most have said that they like the way it works, and that it really is "fast and fluid" on the Metro side. This is a bold move from Microsoft, but it just might work. ®

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