How to Upgrade to Windows 8 (Without Committing to Windows 8)
It’s become hard to ignore Microsoft’s new touch-friendly operating system, Windows 8 (recently updated to 8.1). Not only is it nearly impossible to find a new Windows 7 PC anymore, most computer manufacturers are including touchscreens in both all-in-one desktop PCs and laptops, to take advantage of the new interface.
But what if you’re not ready for tiles, touch, and gestures? Let’s take a look at how to upgrade to Windows 8 without completely committing to the new interface.
Three Important Reasons to Upgrade
- Performance — Windows 8 outperforms any previous version by a long shot. Boot times are shorter, apps crash less, and the OS requires less resources to do its job.
- Ecosystem — Microsoft is really attempting to create an ecosystem around its products, and they’re off to a pretty good start. Your Microsoft account keeps your system settings safe, grants you access to the new Windows Store for apps, and can backup important files with SkyDrive.
- Multitasking — Side-by-side “snapped” apps are incredible. No more resizing windows on the desktop, as snapped apps work independently, and can pack a lot of information in a small window. And thanks to the latest 8.1 update, you can open as many side-by-side apps as your screen can handle.
The Upgrade Process
Upgrading Windows is a fairly simple process, but it can come with hiccups. To ensure that your upgrade from Windows 7 goes smoothly, follow these steps:
Run the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant
To find out how compatible your current hardware and software are with Windows 8, you’ll need to download and run Microsoft’s official Upgrade Assistant. This will let you know if your PC can run the latest version of Windows and if developers have certified their apps as compatible. You won’t be able to keep any apps from your current installation, but it’s good to know whether or not your most important programs will work when you’re getting ready to reinstall them.
Backup Your Current Files
While the Windows 8 installer does allow you to keep personal files intact, it’s a good idea to have a backup just in case something goes wrong. (If you have an external hard drive, you’re already well prepared.) A partitioned backup of your current Windows install is also a great way to get your old setup back up and running if worst comes to worst.
Windows 8 Relies on a Microsoft Account
Like Google with its services and Android and Apple with Macs, iPads, and iPhones, Windows 8 is linked to your Microsoft account, and you’ll need one attached to your PC to download apps from the new Windows Store. Apps can also utilize your Microsoft account to quickly create profiles for you, similar to “Connect with Facebook” on the web.
Get Your DVD or Install File Ready
Once all that’s said and done, you can get your DVD or install file ready, and let the automated process take you from there. You can always check with Microsoft’s upgrade guide if you have any trouble.
And If you don’t already have a copy, it’s a good idea to take advantage of Microsoft’s student discount. Like Office 365 University, Windows 8.1 Pro for Students offers a pretty hefty discount ($70) compared to the regular consumer version of 8.1 Pro ($200).
Getting a New PC? Go for a Touchscreen
Image: Intel Free Press
Well, duh, right? You’d think so, but there are still plenty laptops and all-in-ones running Windows 8 being sold without touchscreen displays. They might have been completely capable Windows 7 machines, but Windows 8′s new Metro interface is sadly unintuitive without a touchscreen. Even if you don’t like the idea of a touchscreen and don’t feel you’ll use it, that’s where the future of Windows devices is heading, so it’s a good idea to start getting used to it.
When combined with a touchscreen PC, Windows 8 is extremely fun. And that’s about all there is to the new interface. It looks good and there are plenty of cool apps, such as Cocktail Flow and Fotor, but most apps designed specifically for Windows 8 — available in the Windows Store — are not the type you could use to efficiently get school or office work done. Not yet, at least.
Metro Interface vs. Desktop
The whole desktop vs. Metro thing is really a battle for your soul, and that’s not exaggerating the situation. It’s a little difficult to balance both Metro and desktop apps side-by-side, which is actually supposed to be on the most important features in the new OS. On the one hand, you have this extremely cool new interface, and on the other, you have the classic desktop that’s been the staple of computer interfaces for nearly 30 years.
Microsoft really did do a great job creating a flat, clean design based around beautiful typography, though. The problem is, it’s hard to be productive in the new Windows 8 environment. Most apps are simply less-featured versions of desktop apps, and if you’re attempting to use a Windows 8 app as a substitute or replacement for a desktop app, you’re likely to notice that things are missing and have a hard time adjusting.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there were more apps available in the Windows Store. You could take advantage of the familiar desktop’s ease of use for school and professional work, then slip on over to the tablet side of things when work is done for some fun and relaxation — a purpose that Surface and other Windows 8 tablets excel at.
Taking the 8 Out of Windows 8
If you flat out hate the Metro interface and simply want to boot up your PC and be greeted by the classic desktop and start menu, this section is for you.
The exclusion of a boot-to-desktop mode and start menu were two of the biggest complaints upon Windows 8′s initial release. Those were the key features in previous iterations of Windows, and the loss was not easy for many to cope with.
Luckily, developers have come to the rescue, creating apps to reclaim the desktop and start menu. Classic Shell and Start8 are two of the best for getting the job done. Classic Shell is a free and open source option that offers a Windows 7-style start menu, while Start 8 — which we’ve previously covered — brings more options and a Windows 8-style interface for $5.
In the first major update to the new OS, Windows 8.1, an option to boot directly to the desktop was added, but the start menu was still neglected. Instead of bringing the classic start menu to 8.1 — as the aforementioned apps do — only a simple right click menu was added. Needless to say, that wasn’t the solution users were looking for. So until a new update does, use Classic Shell or Start8 to keep your old-fashioned Windows flow in check.
Effectively Mixing the Desktop and Metro Apps
As previously mentioned, it is difficult to balance both desktop and Metro apps using Windows 8′s new side-by-side window option — especially if your PC or laptop’s resolution is below 1080p. Luckily, there are some fairly useful apps that can be snapped to one side or the other without taking up too much screen real estate.
Since the company was acquired by Microsoft, it’s become a pre-installed app in 8.1 and an integral part of the latest Xbox console. On the Windows 8 front, Skype is easy to snap the app to the side of your screen and go about your business while enjoying a quick chat with a friend, associate, or loved one. Like most Metro apps, it does take getting used to, but you’ll likely find it to be more convenient than the regular desktop version, which is still compatible with Windows 8 if you decide otherwise.
While the desktop version of OneNote (Office subscription needed) is one of the best note-taking apps available, the Windows 8 version makes a nice little companion app for research. When snapped, it’s a breeze to switch between your research and notes to take down bits of text, links, and even pictures from the web. I’ve been using it recently for HackCollege posts, and it makes the process easier than switching between various desktop windows.
Facebook, Twitter, and even Vine all have great Windows 8 apps that can snap to the side of your screen for quick updates. Not the greatest idea while trying to write a paper, but definitely better than switching between browser windows while you’re busying looking at cat pics.
There are plenty of great to-do list apps for Windows 8, but To-Dos is one of the simplest, making it perfect for use in snapped mode. There are no reminders, multiple lists, or tags — just you and your tasks. I find it most useful when I just need to sit and get through a small list of tasks.
The only Spotify client available in the Windows Store, Spotlite is a simple snapped-mode alternative to the official desktop client and web app. It has a few bugs and only provides basic playback for Spotify playlists and radio (no local songs worked upon testing), but is great if you want to avoid managing the desktop app or want to keep your work flow while still having access to song lists, as well as skip and pause buttons.
These are just a few of the thousands of apps that work great as small companions to the classic desktop. Most Windows 8 apps conform when resized, allowing for plenty of other practical uses.
Using New Features
Despite Windows 8′s interface issues, there are a lot of great features that make using the OS a much more pleasant experience than previous iterations.
Much like Dropbox, it becomes a part of Windows Explorer, allowing you to conveniently drag and drop files to sync to the cloud as you’re clearing space off your hard drive or organizing folders and come across an important document.
You start out with 7 GB of storage, but an Office 365 University subscription can give you an additional 20 GB. Not enough to back up everything, but plenty of room for tons of photos and videos from your phone, along with those important school files, of course.
Easily the most impressive change to Windows 8, search is quick and easy, allowing you to find everything from settings to info on the web. Simply swipe inside on the right edge of your device’s touchscreen or trackpad, or use the keyboard shortcut “Win + C,” to bring the charms bar onto the screen and reveal the search feature.
The web search capability isn’t something I’ve found myself taking advantage of on a laptop, as I’m usually in Chrome and the omnibox is more convenient. But if you’re just looking for quick information on a particular topic, it does a great job of displaying that right in the search app thanks to Bing’s Smart Search connection to data sources like Wikipedia and IMDB.
If you’ve decided to embrace the new Metro interface, forgoing a start menu-adding app, search is one of the easiest ways to find exactly what you’re looking for. You can avoid having to hunting down apps on the start screen or desktop, and it takes the pain out of locating certain system settings.
Once you have that first great experience of finding something quick, you’ll likely make a habit out of using search more.
There are quite a few gestures to master in Windows 8, especially if you make the wise choice of a touchscreen machine. They’re not essential to everyday use if you’re booting to the desktop and avoiding Store-installed apps, but they can be useful once you get accustomed to the option.
Coming from Windows 7, you’re not likely to have ever used gestures, so let’s take a look at some of the most essentials gestures you can use.
All of this does take experimentation. The new Metro interface is really slick and fun to use. In fact, it has that new feeling that makes you want to use it. But if you end up like me — on the side of the desktop — you can still enjoy using Windows 8.
Full Disclosure: HackCollege is partnered with both Intel and Microsoft for separate blogger programs. As a part of these programs, I received devices to better report on Windows software and become acquainted with the latest and greatest PC hardware.