Microsoft has now cleared up at least one mystery about Windows 8 with the announcement that only two versions will be available for conventional desktop and notebook PCs. (The third edition, Windows RT, is only for ARM-powered devices that are still months away from entering the market.)
New PCs sold through consumer channels will mostly come with Windows 8. No fancy marketing label, nothing to say it’s a home or consumer edition. It’s a base—perfectly useful for most consumers and small businesses. What’s especially refreshing is that the list of features available in the Pro edition is short and to the point. There’s no need for complex matrixes to explain what’s in each edition (for Vista I needed two separate posts, and for Windows 7 it took me six pages, although the breakdown was more rational than in Vista).
Just check the list of a half-dozen items in this post. If you see something here that you can’t live without, you’ll want to pay for the upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. If not, save your dollars, pounds, or Euros.
Domain Join and Group PolicyThis is the checklist item, the pair of quintessential features that have always differentiated consumer versions of Windows from their business counterparts.
The ability to join a Windows domain and access Active Directory resources is key to a managed Windows environment. The Group Policy editor exposes a slew of new, Windows 8-only policies that system administrators are eagerly awaiting. Pity that the ARM-based devices won’t be able to play in that same environment.
BitLocker and BitLocker To GoThis is a huge and very welcome change. Both of these features offer strong encryption that’s tailor-made for protecting data on portable devices.
BitLocker enables whole-drive encryption, making it possible for you to securely protect the data on a hard disk. If a notebook PC is stolen, it’s trivially easy for an attacker to mount the drive, take ownership of the files, and steal whatever data is there. BitLocker makes that impossible—or at least too difficult for anyone but the NSA to even try cracking the encryption.
BitLocker To Go is an exceptional security benefit if you carry valuable data in your pocket on a USB flash drive. The encryption process doesn’t require any special hardware, and if you lose the flash drive a would-be thief won’t be able to read its data. A new feature for Windows 8 lets you back up the encryption key to your SkyDrive account so you can unlock the drive using your online credentials if you forget the BitLocker To Go password.
Boot from VHDMicrosoft introduced this feature in Windows 7, and my first reaction was, “Huh?” But after playing with the feature on Windows 8 I’m a believer.
Boot from VHD eliminates the hassle of dual booting. Instead of messing with hard disk partitions, you create a virtual hard disk (VHD) file—a process that takes literally seconds. When you attach the VHD file to your existing copy of Windows, it acts exactly like a physical drive. In the example below, I created a 60GB VHD on an Ultrabook running Windows 7 Ultimate edition and installed Windows 8 on the virtual disk. I can keep using the production copy of Windows 7 for mainstream tasks and boot into Windows 8 when I want to test it.
The VHD-based Windows installation isn’t a virtual machine—it has full access to all hardware resources. It’s an ideal test bed if you want to try a new app without compromising the integrity of your existing system, or if you need to do a demo. You can back up the entire installation by copying the VHD file, and when you no longer need the second Windows installation, you can blow it away by simply deleting the file and removing its entry from the boot menu.
Client Hyper-VMicrosoft has had wimpy virtualization solutions for its desktop Windows versions for years. Windows 7 used Windows Virtual PC as the engine to enable its XP Mode feature, which made it possible to run otherwise incompatible legacy apps.
But Hyper-V blows the doors off anything that Microsoft has previously delivered for a client version of Windows. It is a full-strength hypervisor, essentially identical to the Hyper-V platform in Windows Server editions at a fraction of the price. If you know how that platform works, you’ll be right at home with Hyper-V in Windows 8. You can run any 32-bit or 64-bit Windows version—desktop or server. If you need to spin up a Windows domain controller or web server quickly, no problem.
For developers, IT pros, and security researchers, it’s a godsend.
Encrypting File SystemThis is old-school stuff, a part of the Windows NT family for nearly two decades. EFS is for locking down directories (they didn’t call them folders back in 1993). It’s reasonably strong and a good alternative if you want to avoid the risks of BitLocker’s whole drive encryption. It’s worth noting, though, that there are plenty of free encryption alternatives, so it’s unlikely that this feature is the one that will push you to upgrade.
Remote Desktop (host)This is another old-school feature that has been a part of business versions of Windows forever. These days there are lots of ways to connect to a PC across a network or over the Internet, but Remote Desktop is my favorite because it’s just so fast and smooth. Setting up a Remote Desktop host take literally a few clicks, and Remote Desktop clients are included with every Windows version and are also easy to find for non-Windows platforms.
The one feature I didn’t mention here, of course, is Windows Media Center. Microsoft has decided that Media Center—which debuted 10 years ago and has been a defining feature of the Home Premium editions of Windows Vista and Windows 7—will be an optional add-on in Windows 8. You'll need to pay extra for the "media pack," and it will only work with Windows 8 Pro. I’ll have more to say about that later.