Windows 8, which debuts this fall, is likely to thrill or infuriate you, depending on the device you're using and how resistant you are to change. The new operating system is designed to run on conventional PCs as well as touch-screen tablets, but the touch-and-tap interface is tailored for tablets. It is navigable on a PC with a mouse or touchpad, but its advantages for laptop and desktop users are less clear.
The Metro connection. The biggest change is the replacement of Windows' Start menu with a Start screen containing a collection of large boxes that Microsoft calls "live tiles." These tiles display personalized information, such as the local weather, thumbnail images of new photos on your Facebook page or the number of messages in your in-box. The new desktop look, dubbed Metro, is a fresh, dynamic presentation rather than the static, icon-oriented design of previous Windows versions.
"Microsoft made a decision that it wanted some level of operating-system commonality," says Stephen Baker, hardware analyst for the NPD Group, a market-research firm.
Metro requires longtime Windows users to relearn some basic tasks. The first time you launch Windows 8 on your PC, you may wonder where your favorite programs have gone. Don't panic. The old Windows desktop is still there, but you'll have to click or touch a tile on the Metro desktop to access it. The Metro layer may seem redundant on a PC. But for Windows 8 tablets, such as Microsoft’s recently unveiled Surface, it is an outstanding interface.
Going to the cloud. There's more to Windows 8 than Metro. The operating system's tight integration with SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud-computing service, is one of its handiest features. Whether you're at home, at work or at a friend's house, every Windows 8–enabled PC will recognize you and automatically display your personalized settings and apps when you sign in to your Microsoft account. And SkyDrive syncs your photos and files across various Web-connected devices.
Windows 8 comes with an assortment of apps. Plus, it has a built-in video player and a reader for Adobe PDF files. You can e-mail a picture directly from the Photos app, rather than having to launch the Mail app to attach a picture. Want to shop for more apps? Windows 8 links directly to the Windows Store, where you can try before you buy.
Windows 8 comes in a standard edition for consumer PCs and a Windows 8 Pro version for business users (the tablet version is called Windows RT, which will run on Surface and is being offered to other tablet manufacturers). Windows 7, Vista and XP users can upgrade to Windows 8 Pro for $40.
Should you upgrade? If you already own a Windows Phone handset or think you'll buy a Windows 8 tablet, upgrading to Windows 8 makes sense; you'll have a uniform experience across your devices. Upgrading from Windows 7? Your favorite programs should run just fine. Vista users will have to reinstall their apps; upgrades from Windows XP may work, but a lot depends on the age of your PC. If you don't own other Windows devices (and don’t expect to buy any), and you're happy with Windows 7 and not thrilled about learning a new interface, Windows 8 probably isn't for you. But remember, your next PC will most likely come with Windows 8 preinstalled, and you'll have to master Metro eventually.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.