Windows 8 is not your conventional Windows upgrade. With Windows 7, Vista, and XP, you got a fresh OS that added new tools, more capabilities under the hood, new interface options, and a new look. But all of these were variations on the basic Windows theme, and ran all your existing Windows programs. Windows 8 changes all this, because it has a bigger mission – to extend Windows for use on touch tablets while still keeping its ability to run your existing Windows programs.
With this goal came a whole new class of apps that run on the operating system, and that brings us to our first point of confusion: Metro apps vs. desktop apps. But even before delving into which types of apps run where, you have the choice of which kind of machine you want – tablet or desktop/laptop. In fact the lines between tablets and laptops start to blur with Windows 8, and many manufacturers are coming out with convertibles that start out looking like laptops but detach or swivel to transform into tablets.
As with the earlier major Windows releases, we still have the "which edition?" question. Thankfully, this time around there's actually a less confusing array of choices than we had in the past for Windows 7. It's pretty much Pro vs. standard Windows 8, unless you're in a developing nation or in a large enterprise's IT department. Also in the past, you had questions of upgrade or buy new, 64-bit or 32-bit, and upgrade or clean install. But those are more familiar and less existential than most of the dualities we cover below, starting with...
Windows 8 is a tablet operating system as well as a PC operating system. It's designed to be equally at home on both. So, while Windows 8 offers excellent touch input capabilities, it can fully take advantage of a keyboard and mouse. You can't really say that about an iPad with an after-market keyboard – just try using the arrow keys to scroll up or down on a web page. And forget about keyboard shortcuts.
This is another one of the major splits we find within Microsoft's new operating system. You always start out in the new-style, tiled "Metro" Start screen. From there, you can either launch new-style apps or traditional Windows apps. The new-style apps are full-screen, touch-friendly, web-connected, and only available from the Windows Store – Microsoft's (much smaller) equivalent to Apple's iTunes App Store. The Store also lists regular Windows programs, but these aren't acquired through the Store, but rather from the software publisher's own page.
Microsoft presents Desktop as just another app on the Start screen, but when you launch it, you'll land in a completely different, yet familiar interface – one that's nearly identical to the Windows 7 interface. So while desktop users can still run their existing programs (and enjoy faster performance, incidentally), they can also take advantage of a whole new class of easily obtainable and updateable lightweight apps more commonly associated with mobile platforms.
This one is a tricky one, but the easiest way to think of it is that Windows RT is the purely tablet version of Windows 8. RT is the version that runs on non-Intel/AMD processors such as those from Qualcomm and Nvidia (ARM-powered chips). For the most part at this point RT only runs the new-style Windows 8 apps available from the new Windows Store. Its desktop also run apps specifically compiled for RT, such as the new version of Microsoft Office, which comes bundled with Windows RT.
But hold on: RT can't actually run every app in the Windows Store, though it does run the majority. For example, when I checked the Windows Store on a Windows 8 tablet with an Intel processor, I saw Microsoft Solitaire Collection, Microsoft Minesweeper and CyberLink's YouCam; but not on an RT tablet. (There were, however, still plenty of other Solitaire apps available). But the major players and even many minors were in the RT Store, including Skype, Netflix, and so forth. One thing you're unlikely to see on RT is a version of iTunes, which you can easily run on a Windows 8 machine in desktop mode.
One advantage of Windows RT over regular Windows 8 (not Windows 8 Pro – see below) is that it includes data protection using Device Encryption, which is based on BitLocker technology. According to Microsoft's Windows version comparison page, data is protected on Windows 8 PCs and removable drives using BitLocker and BitLocker To Go.
This one is pretty straightforward. If you want a Windows 8 PC for home use only, stick with generic Windows 8. For business environments, Windows 8 Pro makes more sense, as it can be joined to network domains and use Remote Desktop Connection. One exception to the home/work split is that if you want to run a home cinema PC, you'll need Pro, since only it can run Windows Media Centre.
Some have argued that Microsoft likes the confusion sown by this one. Yes, Windows 8 is a mobile OS in the sense that it runs on tablets, but it's not a phone OS, despite the similarity in the names. Unlike Apple, which upsized its phone OS to work on a tablet, Microsoft's strategy goes in the other direction, bringing its desktop OS down to the tablet form factor. And when you think about it, that strategy makes just as much sense as coming from the phone to the tablet, especially if you expect tablets to get more powerful and capable. But to clarify the issue: No, Windows Phone 8 apps don't run on Windows 8, and vice versa... not yet, anyway.
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