Microsoft Windows 8 Explored at BUILD

OS Overview and Resource Requirements

Windows 8 is damned impressive. That's our one-sentence summary of the company's keynote and it applies despite the appearance of a few bugs and hiccups during the on-stage OS demonstrations. The new operating system shares certain design elements with Windows Phone 7, but it's far from a large-screen version of Microsoft's smartphone OS. When Steven Sinofsky, President of the Windows division at Microsoft, wrote that "Windows 8 re-imagines Windows" and implied that this would be the largest overhaul since Windows 95, he wasn't exaggerating.

Steven Sinofsky holds a first generation Lenovo netbook with an Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM running Win 8

One thing classic users will have to get used to from here on out is that Microsoft's focus is on Metro UI. The classic UI environment exists--Microsoft showed Photoshop running seamlessly--but it's not the future of the operating system. We'll offer more details on classic mode and on the interaction between the two UIs as they become available.

Design Principles, Shared Performance

Windows 8 emphasizes a true "chromeless" full screen mode in which all title and menu bars are hidden until accessed by swipe or mouse gesture. The OS's various applications are able to take advantage of each other without the sort of vendor-specific linkages that caused so much trouble for Microsoft ten years ago.  Windows 8 is also designed to offer the same experience across both tablets and desktops. Microsoft may still offer a 'Tablet Edition' SKU, but there's no core feature difference between Windows 8 for ARM and X86 tablets vs. Windows 8 for high-end desktops and notebooks.

The second and fourth bullet points are the critically important ones and signal the greatest shift in Microsoft's thinking. Windows 8 is designed to be "used while carrying," and while it's too early to say if the company perfectly nailed the paradigm shift, it's a clear departure from previous mobile operating systems.

Ironically, the touch-enabled version of Windows 7 is the most likely to require the user to remain motionless thanks to the difficulty of navigating a mouse-driven interface by finger. Not so with Windows 8.

The last point is something we'll explore in more detail later in this article. Applications in Windows 8 are linked through the use of what Microsoft calls "contracts" and designed to share information and allow for seamless interaction between message services, social networks, and cloud storage. A number of the company's demos highlight the idea that the end user doesn't necessarily care--or need to care--whether an image is stored locally, on Windows Live SkyDrive, or on Facebook. The important thing is that the image is readily available when the user goes looking for it. Finally, there's the question of performance. Microsoft claims that Windows 8 delivers "fundamental performance gains" and offers the following comparison:

Windows 8, with a lighter footprint than Win 7?  Apparently, yes.

It's nearly impossible to verify Microsoft's numbers for Windows 7; the number of threads and total amount of available system RAM at boot will depend entirely on what applications, drivers, and third-party software has been configured to load at launch. We're assuming, for simplicity's sake, that the company's figures are based on a "typical" user profile, with all the slipperiness that implies. Clearly, we're meant to conclude that Windows 8 is a leaner, more svelte product. That may be true--but the truth is likely more complex.

There's a significant gap between both the amount of RAM and the available RAM bandwidth when comparing even modest mobile PCs and tablets. Low-end netbooks still sell with just 1-2GB of RAM, but even tablets using relatively high-end LPDDR2 rely on a 32-bit memory bus that's just half as wide as a standard 64-bit DDR2/DDR3 RAM channel.

We suspect Windows 8 will be capable of adjusting certain performance algorithms depending on what type of hardware is powering the OS. It makes sense to put the OS on a diet when dealing with devices that offer 2-3GB/s of total memory bandwidth, but there's little reason to enforce such strictures when a modern desktop offers 10-20x the bandwidth and 4-8x the storage capacity.

Update:  9/15/11 - 2:40PM - Here's a quick video quick video walk-through of the new OS on a Core i5 2520M-based notebook we had here in the test lab.

Having considered the operating system's general design and performance, let's move on to specific applications and screenshots.

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