Microsoft will tomorrow release a new version of its Windows operating system, one designed to make desktop and laptop computers work more like tablets. It represents the software company's effort to address the growing popularity of smartphones and tablet computers, namely Apple's iPad.
The new software is a radical departure from previous versions of Windows. The familiar start menu on the lower left corner is gone, and people will have to swipe the edges of the screen to access various settings. There will be a new screen filled with a colourful array of tiles, each leading to a different application, task or collection of files. Windows 8 is designed especially for touch screens, though it will work with the mouse and keyboard shortcuts, too.
There will be several versions of Windows 8:
Like its predecessors, Windows 8 will run on computers with processing chips made by Intel or Advanced Micro Devices. There's a basic version designed for consumers and a Pro version for more tech-savvy users and businesses. The Pro version has such features as encryption and group account management. Large companies with volume-licensing deals with Microsoft will want Windows 8 Enterprise, which has additional tools for IT staff to manage machines.
For the first time, there will also be a version running on lower-energy chips common in phones and tablets. That version will run on tablets and some devices that marry tablet and PC features. While tablets with Windows 8 can run standard Windows programs, the RT devices will be restricted to applications specifically designed for the system. Borrowing from Apple's playbook, Microsoft is allowing RT to get applications only from its online store, and apps must meet content and other guidelines.
Windows Phone 8
While Windows 8 and RT will be out Friday, the phone version won't be available until an unspecified date later this year. Nokia and Samsung have already announced plans for new Windows phones.
You can get Windows RT and Windows Phone 8 only by buying devices with the software already installed.
How you can get — or avoid getting — Windows 8:
Buy a new PC
Desktop, laptop and tablet computers with Windows 8 already installed will go on sale on Friday. Several PC manufacturers including Samsung, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell have already announced details about their new machines. Microsoft will also have its Surface tablet with Windows RT out, with a Windows 8 version coming later this year.
Upgrade your PC
Those who have bought a Windows 7 PC (other than the Starter Edition) since June 2 will be able to buy Windows 8 Pro for $14.99. The offer applies to Windows 7 PCs sold until January 31, and the upgrade must be claimed by February 28.
To claim the offer, users must register the machine online. You'll get an email with a promo code, which you can use to get the Windows 8 upgrade online.
Those who bought a Windows PC before June 2 will be able to upgrade for $39.99. You must already have Windows XP with Service Pack 3, Windows Vista or Windows 7.
Before buying the upgrade, check to make sure your machine is strong enough to run Windows 8. Microsoft lists the system requirements online.
Not sure if you have what it takes? Microsoft has an upgrade tool that will stop you if you try to buy Windows 8 without the requirements. The tool will also warn you of software that might need updates to work on Windows 8.
If you're upgrading from Windows 7, the tool will let you keep settings, personal files and applications. You can migrate settings and files from Vista and files only from XP. You'll also have the option to start fresh and bring nothing to Windows 8.
Keep older Windows
Do nothing if you do not wish to upgrade to Windows 8. After Windows 8 is out, most machines on sale will have that version of Windows.
It will be possible to buy Windows 7 machines or upgrade to Windows 7, though you may have order online and your choices may be restricted to gaming or business-oriented machines.
Microsoft hasn't said what the cut-off date for Windows 7 will be, but expect to be able to buy Windows 7 as an upgrade for another year or pre-installed on a new machine for two more years.
After Windows 7 came out in October 2009, for instance, retailers were still allowed to sell boxed versions of the predecessor, Vista, until October 2010. PC makers were able to sell Vista machines until October 2011.
Microsoft plans to continue providing technical support for Windows 7 until January 14, 2020.
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