I’ve had a lot to say about Windows 8 already this year, and I’ll doubtless have more as we edge closer to its official late October release date. And, let’s face it: Most of what I’ve said thus far hasn’t been good. I’ve stated on a few separate occasions my belief that this OS is a disaster in the making, and that everyone not using a touch device of some sort is, for want of a better word, hosed. But last week I discovered one area in which Windows 8 has potential for providing real benefit to both the industry and its end users.
A couple of representatives from Microsoft showed me the Windows Assessment Toolkit, and it’s one of the most advanced and easy-to-use methods I’ve yet seen for measuring system performance. Variations of this have existed in one form or another since at least the days of Vista, but the new tweaks and innovations made for Windows 8 might just be enough to pluck this technology from obscurity and put it where it belongs: In everyone’s hands.
Unlike a lot of the tools out there that most of us “in the business” use because, well, there just aren’t a ton of other options (such as PCMark, SysMark, and a few others with “Mark” in their names), this one doesn’t give you a simple, useless number or two that you can toss out for garden-variety comparison. It gives you deep, detailed data about practically every aspect of your system that you can think of. The chief categories are Startup and Shutdown, Browsing and Windows UI, Media Experience, Hardware Performance, and Battery Run Down – and that’s just where the Toolkit starts.
With the accompanying graphical Windows Assessment Console, you can run almost two dozen specific assessments to analyse boot performance (cold or warm), driver certification and validation, file handling, memory usage, streaming media, and a lot more – on either x86 and x64 or ARM devices. You can create jobs to run any combination of the assessments you want, and even export them to a USB stick to run on any other machine. If all this wasn’t enough, the entire thing is also an open system with public APIs, so experienced users can use it as a launching pad for even more exciting things.
Although Microsoft may have intended the toolkit to be used by OEMs and system integrators, so they can make sure each individual piece of system hardware is operating at top efficiency prior to shipping them off, it gives ordinary computer owners powers they’ve never before had – in as convenient a manner, at any rate – to pinpoint problem areas. The Windows Experience Index was sort of a broad-based early step in this direction, but as we’ve demonstrated on ExtremeTech in the past, it was fairly silly, difficult to interpret, and even more challenging to properly “fix.”
Not so this. Sure, only those with a fair amount of technical knowledge will know how to use the information they glean from the final reports (sorry mom). But the use of universal green-yellow-red colour coding of each aspect of the reports means that anyone will be able to look at the output and identify at a glance where something might be operating at less than peak strength. This will guarantee fewer guessing games on support calls, whether to professionals or to other members of the family, and help the experts get a jump start on what matters most: Actually solving the issue.
In many cases, however, bum systems might not even get that far. Tech journalists and analysts will be able to apply these tools to computers they’re looking at before you even have a chance to buy them, and will be able to warn you ahead of time about troubles you might encounter during everyday usage. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and there’s no way to get better information than trusting the computer itself to tell you – with no third-party “interpretation” interfering.
Whether you’re curious about how long your laptop’s battery will last, or the degree to which your new SSD will improve your PC’s boot time, the Toolkit can give you more accurate information than you’ve ever had access to – and it’s all from a single application, with no scouring of the Registry, Event Viewer, or other arcane locations required.
I don’t want to oversell it too much, especially given how precious little hands-on time Microsoft gave me with it during our meeting. If you have an MSDN account, you can download it now, and the RTM version should be available there within the next few weeks; everyone else will need to wait for Windows 8 to come out. And even once more people are using it, my Microsoft contacts estimated that we won’t see the full value of the tool for anywhere from six months to a year. That’s a fair chunk of time, and a lot of deficiencies or weaknesses in the Toolkit could be found before then. There’s also no way to know for sure what other Windows 8-specific tools may come out that will rival or even surpass it in capabilities.
Truth be told, I’m not convinced that’s very likely. What I think will happen is that significant numbers of people will see the value in this and realise that there’s no better method for examining the inner workings of all sorts of Windows-based products. I think it will demystify so much of what already seems dark and difficult about system diagnosis, and inspire (admittedly enterprising) people to take more control over what they do with their own systems.
And, dare I say it, I think it will tell us a lot more about the mysterious Windows RT and what it can do – or, perhaps more appropriately, what it can’t do – than we otherwise might have been able to easily extract from Microsoft. The Toolkit obviously won’t be able to do everything, but it might be the best way some of us have ever seen to dispel component-level secrets.
So bring on the Windows Assessment Toolkit, I say, and start shining the sunlight where it’s always been needed: Inside Windows boxes. With the proper Linux-based PC or enough Windows knowledge, you’ve always been able to glean this kind of information, but you’ve had to work to get it and work to read it. Now, a few clicks and you’re not just there, but you know exactly what you’re looking at and where you need to go next. It’s tough to imagine many more powerful ways of taking control of your computing life than this. The Toolkit might just change everything – and I, for one, can’t wait to see the results.