With Windows 8 Microsoft is making a huge bet, as CEO Steve Ballmer has said repeatedly. The visceral and sometimes vitriolic reaction to losing the fiddly Start menu has obscured the major advances in Windows 8. This is a next generation version of Windows, even before you get into Windows RT running on ARM chips.
Windows 8 is faster; you'll notice the difference on older PCs as much as on new machines. Battery life improves enough to be noticeable. And it's significantly more secure. That makes the low upgrade price a bargain (and given that you can upgrade from any version of Windows, you only need to pay more than the upgrade price if you're building a new PC from parts).
And then there are the features, like Storage Space and File History, or the new Windows Explorer, or better multimonitor support. Picture Password is a great compromise between security and convenience (and yes, it works with a mouse as well as a touchscreen). The charm bar, especially the handy icons on the Setting bar, put most of the tools you actually use to manage your PC at your fingertips. The cloud integration in Windows 8 is a game changer.
It's not just the Windows Store, that's going to make finding desktop apps easier as well as supplying all the games, Twitter clients, feed readers and tablet apps you could want. It's the way that Windows 8 understands what it means to be connected and makes great use of it to make your life easier and more convenient.
The new experience and interface is far from universally popular and while every interface is a matter of personal taste, the range of opinions about the Windows 8 interface is extreme even for the world of technology. Actually, we dislike the vitriolic arguments about the interface and Start screen far more than the experience of switching from the desktop and back. What we miss is the unified search of documents and emails in the Windows 8 desktop that you could start from the Start menu (which Microsoft tells us very few people used). The Search charm offers some of this, but only for files and 'modern' apps (so not Outlook or OneNote; OneNote MX is searchable but only opens notebooks from SkyDrive) and you can't see the search next to an open document. A wider selection of apps may deal with this but it's one of the few places the desktop feels like a second class citizen.
Until Connected Standby devices come out, hibernate and hybrid sleep is the best option for getting good battery life on a notebook, but neither are on by default in Windows 8. Microsoft may expect OEMs to tweak this on new PCs but that doesn't mean hiding the options away is a good idea. We understand the plan to make Media Centre something you have to pay for given the success of Xbox for watching video as well as gaming and how few people use Media Centre; it's a shame not to see more improvements in Media Centre and this is only for the die-hard fans. If that's you, make sure you buy Windows 8 at the upgrade price because then you'll get Media Centre free. Incidentally, we don't know what the long-term price of Windows 8 will be after January 31, 2013 when the upgrade price expires.
Talking of things that should install automatically, why are the official apps like Mail, Messages, Calendar and the Bing apps the only ones that you get without having to go to the Windows Store? If you own apps that you've installed from the Store on another PC, we'd like to see the installation ask if you want to install them as well. Also missing; DVD playback software. That's to save the cost of the licence for all the PCs without a DVD drive - when you get a DVD drive it always comes with third-party software (and Media Center can play DVDs) – and this is part of how Microsoft is getting to the low upgrade cost, but it's never fun losing features.
Windows 8 Pro gets BitLocker disk encryption. Windows RT has disk encryption that's very like BitLocker but doesn't get the name because businesses can't manage it in the same way and might get confused. But plain Windows 8 doesn't get BitLocker. That's absurd; if Windows RT devices need to be encrypted (so that your toddler mashing their hands on your password screen five times will securely lock your managed-by-work tablet, by throwing away the encryption keys so you can unlock it with the recovery key, rather than wiping it like an iPad) then so do Windows 8 PCs.
This is the fastest, most secure, most battery friendly version of Windows 8.
It's also a bold move to head off the danger of Windows becoming irrelevant in an iPad future, by giving you the best of both worlds. You can have a slim, lightweight, cheap tablet with a tablet OS, that can also run Office and turn into a notebook when you add a keyboard. (We have to see the final version of Windows RT to see how well this works, but so far we're impressed.) Or you can have a slightly larger and pricier tablet with a tablet OS, that can also run Office and all your applications and turn into a notebook when you add a keyboard. Or you can get all of that in a notebook or a desktop, as long as you can deal with the touch-friendly interface.
Undeniably, Windows 8 shines most on a touchscreen system. Even older touch notebooks that were awkward to use with touch under Windows 7 give you a great experience and the latest tablets are fun and engaging to use (and features like rotation work immediately without you having to hunt down drivers). The mouse gestures mean that you can use Windows 8 without missing a touchscreen, but we really need edge gestures on trackpads and the Microsoft Touch Mouse to make it more natural.
But touchscreen or mouse, Windows 8, undeniably, shines. The final desktop look makes the transition between Metro and desktop less obvious. You can still stay substantially in the desktop if you want to and enjoy a faster, more secure version of Windows with a better browser that has longer battery life. But as more useful 'modern' apps come along, you'll find you split your time between the two experiences more and gestures could be critical to making that a natural combination. Keep an open mind, spend some time getting used to the charm bar and the Start screen and we defy you not to be impressed by Windows 8.