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Tech to Watch 2012: Windows 8 Finally Answers the iPad

The Windows 8 operating system is Microsoft’s long-awaited answer to the iPad. But this touch-friendly OS isn't just designed for tablets. By late 2012, the software will find a home on everything from laptops and slates to huge all-in-one PCs. Microsoft says that a beta version of Windows 8 (and the accompanying Windows Store) will be available in February

Similar to Windows Phones, Windows 8 sports a Start screen with dynamic Live Tiles and sleek panoramic interface. Although the OS has been optimized for touchscreen input, it also supports mice and keyboards. This is a vastly different strategy than Apple’s, which is using iOS for phones and tablets and Mac OS X for computers.

Why It’s Important

Today, Windows XP still accounts for 38.1 percent of global desktop operating system usage. Microsoft is hoping to convince the more than one billion people who use Windows to upgrade—and to fend off Apple. As part of that effort, Windows 8 supports ARM processors, in addition to Intel and AMD x86 CPUs. These low-power chips will enable fanless designs with long battery life.

“Windows 8 is a big deal for the industry,” said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis of NPD. “It’s a radical departure from what Microsoft has done in the past. And they’re being pushed in that direction by smartphones and tablets and Android and iOS.”

During our hands-on time with the Samsung Windows 8 Developer Preview PC tablet we found the Metro UI responsive and the hardware impressively fast. We also appreciated the pen input option, and look forward to what hardware makers will do with the platform.

How It Will Change Your Life

The look and feel of Windows is getting the first major overhaul in several years. The traditional Start menu has been replaced with a whole new look and feel. Live Tiles present more info at a glance than static icons, and you’ll see lots of full-screen apps in Microsoft's new Windows Store, from productivity tools to games. This UI could prove jarring, but users will be able to fall back on the more traditional Windows environment and run desktop apps.

This dual-pronged approach worries some analysts. “Depending on which application you open, you may be getting the new UI or the old UI, which can be clunky,” said Al Gillen, program vice president at IDC.

If you can't wait to play with this new OS, it is possible to get it now by setting up your PC to dual boot Windows 7 and 8. Simply follow our step-by-step directions.

Outlook

The early reaction to Windows 8 has been mostly positive. However, it’s not clear whether Microsoft’s one-size-fits-all approach for tablets and PCs will resonate with consumers. “The other players in the market view the tablet as the upscale smartphone OS, while Microsoft looks as it as a downscale PC OS,” said Baker. “How they execute that will be critical.”