As a desktop operating system Windows 8 has some significant improvements that will help you get work done more quickly and efficiently and over the next page we give you the main reasons Windows 8 is a good move for your business.
The first improvement is performance. Windows 8 starts up, shuts down and resumes faster than Windows 7 on the same hardware. On a first generation Core i5 system that we upgraded, boot and shutdown were both more than twice as fast in Windows 8 and resuming from hibernation was up to a third faster.
Some of the reasons for the fast shut down are because of the new way Windows 8 shuts down compared to previous versions. Windows 8 will close any running applications but it just hibernates the operating system, so as long as the drivers pass a test when you turn the PC back on Windows will just reload rather than starting from scratch.
Some of it is because there's less of Windows 8 to load into memory, which means more memory to run your other applications as well. You see the effects of that in general program use, and we saw 15-20% speedups in benchmarks like PCMark 7 that are based on real programs.
Another way Windows 7 improves performance is by doing less in the background; Windows batches up low-level system calls so they're not always interrupting the CPU. If you're running software, that means the CPU doesn't have to switch away from what it's doing as often. It also means that when you're watching a movie or scrolling through a web page – which use the GPU far more than the CPU – the CPU can drop into a low power state for longer before it's interrupted, saving power for longer.
Additionally if you're not using the USB ports or your SD Card slot, they're not drawing power. A lot of that relies on improved USB drivers, which may also explain the nearly 10% speedup we've seen when copying files to and from USB drives in Windows 8.
But the most noticeable improvement, which might make an upgrade worthwhile on its own for mobile users, is better battery life. With our first generation Core i5 test laptop, battery life went from just under four hours to nearly five.
More desktop tools
Pinning applications to the taskbar and using the Windows-X shortcut for power user tools let you stay on the desktop where you can take advantage of the improved Explorer. This packs the ribbon full of useful tools like inverting the current file selection; if you want to make a ZIP file of everything except one file, it's faster to select the unwanted file and invert your selection than to painstakingly select all the other files by hand.
There's also a useful Easy Access menu in the Home tab of the ribbon that puts tools for mapping network drives, pinning favourite folders and managing offline file access in the same place.
There are no obvious differences in offline files as a way to take files from your Windows Server network share on the road, and have them automatically sync when you get back, but we've found this faster and less prone to connection problems (with both Windows Server 2008 R2 and 2012).
There are specific tools on the ribbon for copying the path to the current file or folder and pasting a shortcut, as well as opening a command or PowerShell window to the current folder ready to type commands. And if you work with deep nested folders on network drives you'll be used to seeing the folder view jump around annoyingly as you try to navigate it; that's fixed in Windows 8.
There's also a whole tab devoted to sharing; although it's disappointing that this doesn't include third-party tools like WinZip or YouSendIt that you have installed, it certainly makes setting up access for file sharing on a network clearer.
Copying and backing up files in Windows 8
As well as copying files faster, Windows 8 makes file copying clearer. The estimated transfer times are more accurate and a histogram gives you a better idea of how the transfer is getting along; if you set several batches of files copying you can see each batch – and pause one to prioritise the files you need more quickly.
If you're connected to a Windows Server file share, you can still use the Previous Versions tool for getting back a file you've changed or accidentally deleted. And the familiar if little used Windows Backup tool is still there as well, hidden away as Windows 7 File Recovery. But for smaller businesses the new File History option may be the best option.
The File History tool protects files in any library by taking copies every hour (but you can make it as often as every ten minutes) and saving them to an external or network drive. If you need to save space to can choose how long they're kept (from one month to two years or just until you run out of disk space) and multiple PCs can safely save files onto the same drive without them getting confused.
If you're in a homegroup for file sharing, you can set the file history location on one PC and have it automatically suggested for the other PCs, but you do have to configure File History before it starts working, otherwise it will try to save files on the main hard drive (which would not be a sensible backup strategy).
The file restore function is not hidden away in the properties dialog anymore; just select a file and click the History button on the ribbon to see how you've changed the file and restore the version you want.
Getting connected faster
Frequent business travellers will appreciate the networking improvements in Windows 8. Not only does it finally take account of bandwidth as well as signal strength when picking which network to connect to, but Wi-Fi credentials are one of the settings roamed through your Microsoft account.
Set up your laptop and say a Surface tablet with the same Microsoft account as your log in; when you take one of them to an office or hotel where you've already gone online with the other PC, it will already know the password and get connected automatically.
Windows 8 reconnects to Wi-Fi more quickly than the same PC running Windows 7; it also connects to a mobile broadband connection more quickly. And you don't need to install any of those irritating driver apps from your mobile operator that stop your Wi-Fi working or change your other settings, because Windows has built-in drivers.
If you have built-in mobile broadband or you connect via a dongle or USB modem, the connection is marked as 'metered' and things like Windows Update don't connect and use up all your data. If you're tethering your smartphone as a modem, just right-click on the connection and set it as a metred connection by hand.
Remote Desktop support
As Windows RT devices like the Surface become popular, Remote Desktop support in Windows 8 becomes increasingly useful. The desktop app for this is much the same as in Windows 8, but the Windows Store Remote Desktop app is designed to be used on a touchscreen – although you might want to plug in a mouse to drive the full desktop applications you'll get when you connect. It's going to work best on a fast network, but essentially you're running the program on the server and streaming the interface like an H.264 movie.
Don't think of Remote Desktop as just a way of managing your server without walking over to it. This is the way to get a full desktop with any Windows desktop application onto a Windows RT (or Windows 8) device, from Windows Live Writer to AutoCAD.
If you want to see individual applications rather than a whole new desktop, you can use the new App-V 5 (which is part of MDOP 5, a Software Assurance benefit) or Citrix's virtualisation tools to set up RemoteApp; this uses the Remote Desktop protocol and application to show just the application you want to use without the rest of the Windows UI, so it fits in neatly with what you're already doing in Windows 8 and Windows RT.