Your top 10 Windows 8 questions of 2012, answered [Year in Review]

My most popular posts this year were about Windows 8. In fact, I continue to get emails every day asking questions I've covered in posts throughout the year. This post tackles my top 10 questions, including "Is Windows 8 worth the upgrade?" and "Where can I find Windows 7 PCs?"
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Judging by my monthly analytics reports, 2012 was the year of Windows 8.

My most popular posts this year were, invariably, about Windows 8.

In fact, I continue to get emails every day asking questions about Windows 8 that I've covered in posts throughout the year.

So I decided to take the 10 questions I'm asked most often about Windows 8 and assemble the answers right here, along with links to articles that go into much greater depth on the topic.

Here's the list:

Page 1:

  • Is Windows 8 worth the upgrade?
  • What should I know before I begin installing Windows 8?
  • Where is the Start menu?
  • What's the difference between Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro?
  • Are there any deals on upgrades?

Page 2:

  • Can I use Windows 8 in a virtual machine?
  • What happened to Media Center?
  • What's the point of Windows RT?
  • Where can I find PCs with Windows 7?
  • How do I downgrade to Windows 7?

This post doesn't cover every question, but it covers the big ones. Including the biggest one of all:

Is Windows 8 worth the upgrade?

That depends. Despite the highly vocal, often absolute opinions you'll read from critics, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer.

Windows 8 makes some very important changes in the underlying architecture of Windows. It is dramatically faster at starting and shutting down than Windows 7 was. It has antivirus protection built-in. Internet Explorer 10 is a very polished, fast, standards-compliant browser.

The Windows 7 desktop also gets its share of significant improvements, including positive changes in File Explorer (the new name for Windows Explorer) and Task Manager.

If you own multiple Windows devices, the benefits associated with signing on using a Microsoft account and synchronizing settings and files across those machines cannot be overstated. Combined with the free SkyDrive cloud storage service (which includes 7GB of free storage and a Windows 8 app that keeps everything in sync), it is very easy to move between PCs without skipping a beat.

That said, there are two roadblocks that stop some people from falling in love with the new Windows and even send some into fits of rage.

The first is the new interface, which works spectacularly well on touchscreen devices (especially notebook PCs) but requires a significant amount of unlearning and retraining on conventional desktop devices. I found the adjustment mostly painless, but I understand how some people would prefer not to change their habits. That's especially true if you are perfectly happy using desktop apps and don't feel the need to change.

And speaking of apps... The new Windows 8 app model, with apps available only through the Windows Store, is still in its infancy. Last I checked there were around 20,000 apps listed in the Store. That includes some very good ones, including a Kindle reader, solid apps for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Skype and Shazam, Wikipedia and Khan Academy, and (naturally) Angry Birds. Some of the built-in apps that are installed with Windows 8 are superb. But many apps you can find today on competing platforms or on the web are missing in action in Windows 8.

There's no penalty in sticking with Windows 7 and waiting as the Windows 8 ecosystem matures. In fact, there's no penalty waiting until the first big update to Windows 8 appears, perhaps as soon as mid-2013.

Or, as I wrote back in July: "Honey, if you don’t want to upgrade, just don’t upgrade."

See also:

What should I know before I begin installing Windows 8?

I've covered this topic from multiple angles this year. Here are a few articles I recommend you read:

Where is the Start menu?

It's gone, and it's not coming back. If you just can't live without it and you're otherwise happy with Windows 8, you can take your choice of third-party replacements. I know of at least a half-dozen, and I recommend either of these two:

What's the difference between Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro?

I answered this question back in April. The short version: You need Pro if you want to join a Windows domain, connect to your PC using the Remote Desktop server, or use Hyper-V virtualization. The long answer is here:

Are there any deals on upgrades?

Yes. If you have a PC running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, you qualify for a discounted upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $40. If you purchased a new PC with Windows 7 after June 2, 2012, you qualify for a $15 upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. Both offers expire on January 31, 2013. If you bought a new PC with Windows 8, your upgrade to Windows 8 Pro will cost a little more.

Details here:

Next page: Media Center, virtual machines, and where to find new PCs with Windows 7

Can I use Windows 8 in a virtual machine?

Yes, you can, using an OEM System Builder copy of Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro. You can also install an OEM package of Windows 8 on a PC you build yourself, without paying for an overpriced full retail copy.

This is a significant change in licensing terms compared to previous Windows versions. With Windows 7, for example, the System Builder license agreement prohibits installing the software except on a PC you plan to resell to a third party. Windows 8 adds a Personal Use License to the OEM license, which specifically gives you the right to install the software on a PC you own. You can even transfer the software to a different PC if you completely remove it from the machine where you originally installed it.

See also:

What happened to Media Center?

Windows Media Center was a showcase feature of every "premium" version of Windows for the past decade. In Windows 8, Microsoft removed it, citing low usage (only 6% of Windows 7 users even launch it once, and of that 6%, only a quarter do more than just look around). And then there's the cost of licensing codecs for media playback, which is only a few dollars per PC but adds up to billions of dollars when you ship hundreds of millions of copies.

A side effect of removing Media Center is that Windows 8 loses the ability to natively play back DVDs in Windows Media Player. OEMs who include DVD or Blu-ray drives include third-party software that supplies the necessary codecs. Installing the Media Center Pack does the same.

Running Media Center requires Windows 8 Pro. Because many new PCs are sold with the basic (Core) edition of Windows 8, Microsoft is delivering the Media Center features as an add-on, in two different packages. 

Upgrading from the basic edition of Windows 8 requires the Windows 8 Pro Pack, which upgrades your PC to Windows 8 Pro and enables the Media Center features.

If you're already running Windows 8 Pro (as an upgrade or installed with a new PC), you can use the Media Center Pack.

Both add-ons are currently available at discounted prices: The Media Center pack is free and the Pro Pack is $69.99. These special offers are good until January 31, 2013. Details and a sign-up form are here.

A word of caution: If you are a Media Center enthusiast and you have a working Media Center setup, I do not recommend upgrading to Windows 8. The Media Center add-on is basically identical to the Windows 7 version, and I've found enough incompatibilities in my testing to convince me to keep my two Media Center machines running on Windows 7 for now

See also:

What's the point of Windows RT?

Windows RT runs on ARM processors, which means it can get much better battery life than Intel Core processors (the jury is still out on battery life for Intel's new Clover Trail family of processors that can run the full x86 Windows 8).

It can run most programs written for Windows 8 and delivered through the Windows Store. Microsoft has included a recompiled version of four programs from the Office 2013 suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) that run in an environment that is essentially identical to the Windows desktop.

With those exceptions, Windows RT can't run traditional Windows desktop programs. That is both a limitation and a tremendous feature. Devices running Windows RT are, for all intents and purposes, immune from Windows viruses, spyware, and other forms of malware.

The most popular Windows RT device is Microsoft's Surface. Here's my initial review:

Where can I find PCs with Windows 7?

Most PC manufacturers have introduced new PCs running Windows 8. Many of them include touchscreens or enhanced trackpads (or both) that showcase the signature feature of Windows 8. These devices are aimed primarily at consumers.

If you're considering a touchscreen PC, I strongly recommend buying one with Windows 8. If you've decided to skip Windows 8 and stick with Windows 7, there are still plenty of choices available for you. The trick to finding them is to avoid looking in places that appeal to consumers and instead shop in the online and brick-and-mortar stores that cater to conservative business buyers. That's true even if you're planning to use your new PC in your home. Dell, for example, allows you to filter its full list of products to show only those with Windows 7 available (here are laptops and desktops). At Lenovo's web site, you can search for Windows 7.

The good news is that Microsoft isn't forcing anyone to give up Windows 7. Under its well-documented, longstanding sales lifecycle, PC makers can build and sell PCs with Windows 7 preinstalled for two full years after the release of Windows 8. That's October, 2014. Microsoft will continue to sell Windows 7 boxed software until October 26, 2013, and of course smart resellers can stock up on software and PCs before either of those deadlines to take advantage of eager customers. That means you can safely skip Windows 8 and continue using Windows 7 for a long, long time.

See also:

How do I downgrade to Windows 7?

That question really demands two answers, one legal and one technical.

Legally, you are entitled to downgrade a Windows 8 Pro license to Windows 7 Professional if and only if you purchased your new PC with Windows 8 Pro preinstalled. The base edition of Windows 8 does not include downgrade rights. Neither does an upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. If you buy a new PC with Windows 8 preinstalled and you want to install Windows 7 on it, you need to buy a full retail copy of Windows 7, at least if you want to comply with the terms of the license agreement.

From a technical point of view, downgrading from Windows 8 to Windows 7 means doing a clean install. There's no way to uninstall Windows 8 to revert to Windows 7, and you can't perform an installation that keeps your data files or programs.

And no, you can't legally downgrade a Windows 8 Pro PC to Windows XP.

See also:

Got more questions? Send me an email using the contact form at the end of this post. (Don't leave them in the Talkback section, please, because there's no guarantee I'll see them there.)


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