Weighing Windows 8 features: Windows 8 pros

Gary Olsen, Contributor

There has been a lot of news media coverage of how Windows 8 has been hurting PC sales, and Microsoft's latest operating system has certainly stirred controversy. I admit that when I saw Windows 8's user interface, it was hate at first sight. Others have pointed out that if the future of computing is on tablets, Microsoft is ahead of the game. Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of Windows 8 features, starting with Windows 8 benefits.

After looking at the Windows 8 Metro interface, I decided that I would stick with Windows 7. However, at the TechMentors Conference in Redmond, Wash., last fall, I sat in on a session by Stephen Rose, senior product marketing and community manager at Microsoft. He demonstrated how well Windows 8 works on mobile devices, which it was obviously designed for.

The Windows 8 user interface (UI) was built for the touchscreens of smartphones and tablets, not desktop PCs and laptops. Microsoft could have taken an intermediate step, so that such change would be less painful for conventional PC users, but the company bet the farm on mobile devices. Its Windows 8.1 update (formerly codenamed "Windows Blue") may backtrack a little, but there are still Windows 8 features for both end users and IT administrators to love.

1. BYOD security

One of the big challenges for IT management these days is securing endpoints in bring your own device (BYOD) programs. Who doesn't have a tablet these days, and why would you leave it at home?

Yes, there are ways to guarantee BYOD security for non-Windows machines. Connecting to a virtual desktop can be done with the right software and configuration. But virtual desktops aren't always practical, especially for small to midsize businesses (SMBs).

When Windows 8 is loaded on all mobile devices, these devices are Windows clients. Period. They look like Windows clients; they are secured like Windows clients. They are domain members and are managed just like any other Windows client.

Of course, the downside is that you can accept only mobile devices that run Windows, which are several times more expensive than typical Android devices, and IT departments will likely have to fund the devices.

2. Windows apps on everything

A friend of mine was getting used to his new Surface tablet and Windows 8 features. He wanted to view a PDF document, so he started searching for a PDF reader that would work on the Surface. He suddenly realized, "Hey -- this is just Windows." He loaded the PDF reader for Windows and was ready to go. This is a simple but powerful Windows 8 benefit.

Consider having Microsoft Office apps such as Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and Excel on your tablet (make sure you get a good keyboard). Now those apps will work in native form on your tablet. Mobile professionals like sales reps can put all their apps on a tablet and not have to lug laptops around. By the way, you don't have to remove tablets from your carry-on luggage to get through airport security.

3. SkyDrive -- files in the cloud

For synchronizing files, SkyDrive is built into Windows 8 (though subscription to the service is extra). Going back to the sales rep example, the user can work in the office on his laptop with Windows 8 and save some Excel files to a SkyDrive account.

The rep can grab the tablet, head out on a sales call and easily get those files on the tablet. Companies can load data sheets, proprietary software tools and more to SkyDrive accounts and provide them to remote employees securely.

4. Remote access software

Here's an Apple anecdote: I talked with a user who needed to connect to her employer's intranet to take some training courses. This required a Citrix connection. She and her IT pro husband tried to get this to work on her iPad to no avail. They finally installed the Citrix bits on his Surface, and it worked fine.

This is not an advertisement for the Surface, because it is just a Windows client. The user could have the same success on an HP Windows tablet or any other OEM's tablet, if it has Windows 8. Remote-access software will someday have versions for iOS, Android and other OSes, but there is already mature software for Windows clients.

5. Streaming video and other devices

Apple devices are popular, but the company is very proprietary. Recently, I purchased a movie and downloaded it to my iPad. I bought a cable to connect the tablet to my TV. But the movie would not play as long as the iPad saw the connection to a non-Apple TV.

On the other side, Windows 8 -- even Windows 7 -- has no problem doing this. So a Windows 8 tablet can use the TV to view a movie. This is a significant Windows 8 benefit for enterprise training.

If you have an Xbox, an application called Xbox SmartGlass can allow you to use the console as a "video server" and simultaneously watch and manage video, TV, games, etc. This app is free (at least for iOS) and is available for Windows 8, Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

6. Common user experience

OK -- this Windows 8 pro has a huge caveat. Learning how to use the Windows 8 UI on a laptop or PC isn't fun, but using the tile interface on the touchscreen of a tablet or smartphone might make you reconsider.

More about Windows 8 features and pros

Windows 8 has tighter security, but IT admins should still beware

Microsoft readies Windows 8 updates and more Surface tablets

User experience made similar across devices in Windows 8 updates

Windows 8 Pro lacks admin capabilities found in Windows 8 Enterprise

Legacy apps get addressed by compatibility tools in Windows 8

What do you know about Windows 8?

What to do before you migrate to Windows 8

Give up the desktop interface, and build custom tiles for your applications. Explore the Mail tile where you can instantly see your mail without starting an application, waiting for it to load, entering a password, etc. It's just there.

Get notifications from social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Custom-built tiles allow Windows 8 pros to move apps and Web sites from the desktop file cabinet to tiles on the desk. What's more, when you go to a tablet or phone, they are all in the same place -- it all looks the same. In addition, tiles on tablets lead to Bing and MSN.com.

7. Windows 8 native boot from VHD

Obviously, Microsoft's latest OS requires training, and you may not have extra computers lying around that are Windows 8-compatible. So put Windows 8 on a virtual hard disk (VHD). Even people who aren't geeks should be able to take advantage of this Windows 8 benefit.

You can install Windows 8 on a VHD during normal setup, and it shows up in the BCDEdit boot menu. This is a native boot -- just like the old multiboot configuration of Windows versions past -- and it's transportable. Move it to another computer that has sufficient disk space for the VHD and boot it from there.

You can even put the OS on a USB stick and boot it from anywhere. (You'll need to a high-capacity USB stick, though.) The advantage for IT pros is that you can do software development and testing for driver compatibility in a native environment. Loading Windows 8 in a virtual machine will not test the real drivers in a native environment, because of the abstraction layer it works with.

8. (tie) Bitlocker and Bitlocker To Go Improvements

Windows 7 BitLocker encrypted either the entire drive or nothing. Window 8, however, allows encryption of data rather than the entire drive, significantly reducing the time required to encrypt a drive before using it.

If you have contract staffers waiting for drives to encrypt to complete the deployment of each device, this will pay for itself in no time. Of course, BitLocker isn't the only game in town, but if you do use it, this is a huge Windows 8 benefit.

8. (tie) Faster boot time with UEFI

Okay, I squeezed in an extra one, but I just couldn't ignore the new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) developed by Intel. UEFI is more efficient than the old Extensible User Interface.

UEFI also contributes to faster boot times, which are well documented in tests comparing Windows 7 and Windows 8. While waiting a little longer for a client machine to boot normally only happens once a day, UEFI is also more secure, using public and private keys to prevent loading of drivers and OS loaders that are not properly digitally signed.

It may be years before the verdict is in on whether Microsoft made a good decision by forcing a touchscreen UI on non-touchscreen computers. In the meantime, there are definitely a lot of Windows 8 pros for consumers, enterprise users and IT administrators to take advantage of.

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