However it was my first hands on experience of Windows 8 and following the mixed reviews that followed its release last autumn it was a timely opportunity. Obviously I wanted to look at the interface itself, but I was also keen to see how the OS would work on non-touch-screen PCs. One thing that was immediately clear from the show is that touch-screen laptops are going to be the standard going forward - all the major manufacturers were represented and they all featured touch-screen technology. To see how a non-touch-screen PC would work, I had to keep my fingers away from the screen and just use the mouse pad. It's not as good as swiping with your finger, but it doesn't make the interface redundant - in fact, even without touch the interface seems pretty good.
My only complaint to many of the exhibitors pitching Windows 8 compliant machines is that, with the exception of the Microsoft stand, hardly any exhibits were loaded with Microsoft Office - it's possible that they had all hoped to use SkyDrive to pull Office 365 down on to demonstrate the capability of their products and run into the same problems I did with the so-called open WiFi which locked up my smart phone. Needless to say, the Microsoft machines were loaded with Office and they had instructors to hand to demonstrate it. Which was great, because the real differentiator between the Windows 8 tablets and laptops and the raft of other tablets including the iPad and the Nexus products is the ability to use functional business tools like Office.
From my playing with the various laptops, and there were some seriously sexy models to play with, I think I'm sold. Obviously the concern is that all the machines on display are turbocharged and beefed up to make sure Windows 8 runs like a dream - we've all experienced Microsoft products, especially new operating systems, only to find that they run like a snail with an anchor strapped to its leg. According to the specialists on hand, the new OS runs lighter and more efficiently than windows 7 and outstrips Vista many times over. Not that beating Vista is an accomplishment to brag about. I have to take Microsoft's word that Windows 8 doesn't need the hardware resources of a NASA rocket launch, but the interface works for me. Apparently overlaying in a Windows 7 machine like mine is OK, but anything earlier than Windows 7 has to be uninstalled first, and when pinned up against the stands the Microsoft specialists admitted that removing Windows 7 is still the smartest move.
Pricing is a bit sensitive, though. Currently if I want to upgrade my laptop to Windows 8 it costs £99. It's not Microsoft's fault that Acer didn't anticipate the move towards touch-screen technology when they built my machine a couple of years ago, but I have to stop and rationalise that I'm not going to be able to enjoy one of the cooler aspects of the new OS if I retro-fit it on my laptop. The joined up thinking interface is an attractive option, but I'm not sure it's worth nearly a ton when I have Windows 7 installed and working adequately. If I could install on a couple of laptops for that price I'd be interested, I'm certainly keenly looking for any offers. I think £50 a license would work for me.
Of course there are two versions of Windows 8 floating around, and the lower tier offering comes pre-installed on the Surface RT. In fact, all the software on the Surface is pre-installed although you can download Windows 8 apps to expand it, obviously. It's an extremely compelling device given its price - £399 including keyboard, Windows 8 and Office pre-installed. The keyboard took a bit of getting used to - its a flat membrane with very little tactile feedback, however I reckon it does the job as well as protecting the device when in transit. The basic model comes with adequate memory given that it is easily upgradable using micro SD cards or plugging external hard drives using the USB port - two critical omissions from devices such as the iPad.
Plus there's the Office software that lets you write using industry standard formats - try achieving that on your iPad too. Microsoft reckon the screen surface area is larger than the iPad - it looked comparable in the hand but I didn't have an iPad available to compare the difference directly. The downside is that it's not a business machine - you'll need to fork out for the pro version for that - and it won't connect to Microsoft Exchange. At last something the iPad compares with. To be fair, I've seen iPads linked to Exchange servers but it's hard work and, of course, there isn't anything particularly useful you can do with them once connected apart from access email, maybe. OK, share photos and surf thin clients possibly, but probably not all of the proprietary stuff you use in work. With this device you can access SkyDrive and share documents that way, or use good old email to send documents to your work account. And all thin clients that work with Windows should work, although Microsoft admit there may be some legacy issues. Anyway, at least the documents would be readable.
So, would I have a Windows 8 touch-screen laptop? Like a shot. Would I manage with a Surface? For home and travel, absolutely, especially as its pitched at iPad prices but with tons more functionality built in. It's probably not as rounded for mindless enjoyment as the iPad, but I use these things for reading, writing, spreadsheeting and surfing the web. For work and more challenging tasks needing screen real estate I'd want a larger screen, but I see the future being a reasonably large touch-screen laptop with a full fat Windows 8 OS loaded, a Surface for round the house and travel, backed up by a seven inch tablet such as my Nexus.
Given my new shopping list, I guess I'd better sell a few more books!
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