OPINION: Microsoft's latest operating system for desktop, laptop and tablet computers - Windows 8 - will be released on Friday. Here's what you need to know about it.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
Microsoft has not yet said how much it will cost to buy as a full version, rather than as an upgrade for an existing computer.
If your computer has an older Windows operating system, such as Windows XP, Windows Vista or Windows 7, you can get an upgrade for $50 if you download it, or $90 if you buy it at retail stores.
Note Windows 7 was about two gigabytes in size, so downloading Windows 8, even on fast broadband, could take 10 hours.
SHOULD I UPGRADE?
Whether to upgrade from an older version of Windows is always a tricky decision. In general, I recommend an upgrade only if you know there are features of the new operating system that you want or need. Having said that, any computer capable of running Windows Vista or Windows 7 can also capably run Windows 8, so if you upgrade, you shouldn't see any reduction in performance.
I BOUGHT A COMPUTER EARLIER THIS YEAR - CAN I GET WINDOWS 8 CHEAP?
Whether you are about to buy a computer, or just have, Microsoft offers upgrade pricing for Windows 8. A computer bought after June 2, with Windows 7 installed, can be upgraded to Windows 8 for $20. Go to windowsupgradeoffer.com. This is available until early next year, so if you can't find a Windows 8 computer when you go to buy, you can still get the new operating system affordably.
WHAT ARE THE IMPORTANT NEW FEATURES?
I've been using Windows 8 for months now, and the most important changes are to the way Windows looks and works. There's no more Start button or Start menu as you know it. Instead, Microsoft is using a tile system to display your applications. It can be confusing for people using the operating system for the first time. If you think of this sideways-scrolling interface as a graphic version of your Start menu's list of programs, however, you won't be quite so confused. If you're looking for the familiar desktop and program icons, you'll find it if you click a tile called Desktop.
Also new is that Microsoft makes settings, search and navigation between apps available by using "hot corners". If you hover your mouse in each of the four corners of your screen, you can access different aspects of the operating system. Hover in the lower left corner, and you can return to the tiled interface. Hover on the lower right, and you can access settings and search, for example.
The new tile-based layout will simplify things for those using tablet computers. Using a finger to swipe in from the sides or corners of a tablet screen makes intuitive sense, and will make all parts of Windows accessible. For anyone with a desktop or laptop, it will take a little getting used to.
Microsoft has also added SkyDrive internet storage access and a Microsoft login to the Windows interface. If you have a Hotmail or Windows Live login, you already have a Microsoft login, but you can also make a new one. SkyDrive allows you to save documents and files, such as photographs, in the cloud. If you log into your Microsoft account on a Windows 8 computer anywhere, your Skydrive documents and files will be available to you. It should make user accounts on Windows much more easy to manage for a family sharing a single computer.
The time of the tablet wars: This week will see the announcement of a new, smaller iPad (hopefully) as well as a new 10-inch Nexus tablet from Google and some Windows 8 tablets and tablet/laptop hybrids such as the Sony Vaio Duo. I will talk about them in more detail next week.
Zara Baxter edits New Zealand PC World and has been reviewing gadgets for more than 15 years. Visit pcworld.co.nz.