The new Windows 8 isn’t only about tablet apps. Darien Graham-Smith looks at some of the technical enhancements in Microsoft’s latest OS
Windows 8 is noted for its tile-based interface (formerly known as Metro) and newfound focus on touchscreen input. However, this latest edition of Windows also brings numerous technical enhancements for advanced desktop and server users. For many users it’s these features, rather than tablet support, that may sway the decision whether or not to upgrade.
Starting up and restarting
You’ll notice the first enhancement to Windows 8 as soon as you begin using it: it starts up much more quickly than previous OS versions. This is assisted by a new feature called “fast startup” (internally known as HybridBoot). It works in a similar way to hibernation; when you shut down your PC, Windows logs you off, then writes out a memory dump to disk before switching off the power. When you turn on your computer, the dump file is read back into memory, so in a matter of seconds you’re ready to log on and start using Windows 8 again.
Fast startup is switched on by default, although you can disable it from the Power Options item in Settings (click “Choose what the power buttons do” to access the option). Sometimes, however, a “real” reboot is required – for example, when installing patches downloaded from Windows Update or running a disk check when suspected corruption is detected.
The good news is that in Windows 8, both of these scenarios are less frequent and intrusive than in previous versions. Disk-checking requirements have been reduced thanks to a new “online self-healing” approach, which tries wherever possible to fix NTFS disk errors in the background while Windows is running, rather than waiting for the next reboot. What’s more, on occasions when a reboot is necessary, the disk scan now targets only the parts of the disk where inconsistencies have been detected, rather than scanning every single file as it did previously. To say that this dramatically reduces the amount of checking required hardly conveys the scale of time saved – Microsoft estimates that on a system holding 100 million files, processing time is cut from around two hours to less than two seconds.
Windows 8 Update has been streamlined in a similar way. Frequent forced restarts have long been the bane of desktop users; now Windows Update demands a restart only after installing critical security updates, which usually means once a month. If other updates arrive in the interim, they’ll quietly install at your next restart.
You’ll receive more notice of a pending reboot than before, too: update warnings now appear on the login screen three days before a forced restart. If you’re not sitting at your PC when the three-day period expires, you’ll receive a 15-minute warning after your next login, giving you a chance to save your work. This at least is the default behaviour – if companies want to enforce a stricter patch policy, or disable automatic reboots altogether, it can be customised through group policies.
The new Task Manager
At first glance, the Task Manager in Windows 8 looks much simpler than the old Windows 7 version, showing nothing but a list of applications and a “Not responding” flag next to any programs that appear to have frozen. It’s accessed in the same way too: you can press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to open the lockscreen and click on Task Manager, or press Ctrl-Shift-Escape to open its window directly.
Click “More details”, though, and the window grows into a more powerful console. The default tab – Processes – lets you monitor all running processes in a hierarchical view, and examine not only each one’s CPU usage, but also memory, disk and network consumption. This provides a useful insight into what’s gobbling up your resources.
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