Windows 8 will arrive soon, but should you start planning an upgrade for your small business? Here are six reasons to consider a timely upgrade, plus one reason you might want to think twice before taking the plunge.
After two generally well-received public beta releases of Windows 8 this past spring, Microsoft has confirmed that the next version of Windows should be locked down by early August, with general availability expected by late October.
Of course, with each new version of Windows, an inevitable question arises—should you plan to upgrade your small business IT, or should you stay on the sidelines for a while? While there’s no simple answer to that question, here are several good reasons to embrace Windows 8 upon its release, along with one more reason (and it’s a big one) to consider standing pat for a while.
The Clock is Ticking on Windows XP
If your business is one of the many still creaking along with Windows XP, your day of reckoning is close at hand. Microsoft’s support for Windows XP will end in less than two years—on April 8, 2014, to be exact—which means no more security fixes, new drivers or other updates after that date.
But forget about 2014—by the time Windows 8 launches this fall, Windows XP will already be more than 11 years old, which probably makes it the oldest piece of technology your business is running. Windows 8 represents a good opportunity to (finally) bring your PCs into the 21st century.
Anti-Virus Built-in to Windows 8
Although the built-in Windows Defender software that comes with both Windows 7 and Vista provides spyware protection, it doesn’t guard against viruses, which is why supplementing it with separate anti-virus software is a must.
Figure 1: Windows 8 comes with Windows Defender, which unlike previous versions of Windows, includes anti-virus protection.
By contrast, the Windows Defender that ships with Windows 8 offers the same full-fledged virus and malware protection you get with Microsoft’s well-regarded Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), without the need to download or install additional anti-virus software. (Plus, it’s truly free, because although MSE is free to download for personal use, the license agreement limits its use by small businesses to a maximum of 10 PCs.)
You Can Upgrade Cheap—If You Act Fast
Microsoft hasn’t announced official Windows 8 pricing yet, but upgrading to the latest version of Windows typically costs anywhere from $100 to $200. Thanks to an upcoming Microsoft promotion, though, you can get Windows 8 for a fraction that if you act quickly.
That’s because from the date of the Windows 8 launch until January 31st, 2013, any PC running Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP will be eligible to download a Windows 8 Pro upgrade for a mere $40. (The packaged retail DVD version of the upgrade will be available at a still highly-discounted price of $70.)
What’s notable about this upgrade promotion—aside from the low price—is that you don’t have to be currently running a Professional/Business version of Windows 7, Vista, or XP to qualify. Even if you have one of the consumer (i.e. Home) versions of Windows, you can still upgrade to the more feature-laden and business-centric Windows 8 Pro for forty bucks.
Better Mobility with Windows to Go
Businesses that opt for Windows 8 Enterprise (only available through Microsoft’s Software Assurance volume licensing program) can avail themselves of Windows to Go, a feature that enables a self-contained, secure and customizable Windows 8 environment to run on a portable USB flash drive.
Windows to Go can be extremely useful in a number of different scenarios, from allowing contract and remote workers to access corporate applications and data from personal PCs (rather than having to issue them company-owned hardware), to giving in-office workers greater mobility by not tying them down to a particular PC.
Speedier System Recovery and Recycling
Anyone who’s tried to fix a malfunctioning Windows PC knows that while System Restore can sometimes fix problems by rolling the computer back to an earlier system configuration, often the only surefire way to cure a PC of serious maladies is to start over from scratch with a fresh copy of Windows. But restoring Windows 7 or earlier versions to pristine condition without losing personal data in the process is currently a cumbersome and time-consuming process.
With Windows 8, things are considerably simpler and quicker. Forget spending hours backing up data, finding (or making) operating system and driver discs, going through initial Windows setup and finally restoring data. Instead, Windows 8’s PC Refresh feature will—in slightly less than 10 minutes—automatically reinstall a clean copy of Windows 8 while preserving personal data, key system settings, and Windows 8-compatible apps. For technical reasons, you will still have to install pre-Windows 8 programs after the refresh, but a list of such software is saved for you so you don’t have to compile it.
Figure 2: The Windows 8 Start screen is better suited for touchscreens than manipulation by mouse. If you’ve used Windows for year, it will take time to get familiar with the heavily revised user interface.
Windows 8 also includes a related PC Reset feature for cases when you want to return a Windows 8 PC to its out-of-the-box condition without saving any data (when repurposing or disposing of a PC, for example), and it includes an option to ensure that erased data can’t be easily recovered.
Synchronize PC Settings Online
Windows 8 can give you a consistent experience across multiple PCs thanks to online synchronization. When you log into a Windows 8 PC using a Microsoft Account (which is what a Windows Live ID will soon be called), you can opt to have many of your personal settings—such as default language, desktop theme, browser history and favorites, network and website passwords, and more—synced to the cloud so they’ll be accessible when you log onto other Windows 8 PCs.
Despite all of the reasons to hop aboard on the Windows 8 bandwagon, there’s one major downside that you need to consider as well.
The Metro User Interface Learning Curve
Each new version of Windows has brought a number of changes to the user interface, but they’ve typically been subtle enough that anyone accustomed to an older version of Windows would still be fairly comfortable using the new one.
The Windows 8 heavily reworked Metro UI, on the other hand, is nothing like what your employees are used to. Case in point—Windows 8’s "Start" screen uses large tiles instead of small icons, scrolls horizontally, and runs its specially-designed apps in full-screen mode only.
Although the interface has a lot going for it—tiles can display real-time information, for example—anyone who has used Windows before will likely find learning the ins-and-outs of Metro somewhat daunting (keyboard shortcuts can help). And while a Windows 7-like desktop still exists in Windows 8, it’s relegated to a background role so you still must launch programs (including pre-Windows 8 software) from the Metro-based Start screen.
Plus, the Metro interface was primarily designed with touchscreens in mind (it was first introduced on Windows Phone 7 devices), and although you can use a mouse, doing so can feel quite awkward and imprecise. Even after you get used to it, using a mouse with Metro isn’t nearly as intuitive as swiping, pinching, and tapping by hand, especially for things like scrolling, zooming, and summoning special features from the edges of the screen. To get the most out of Metro, you’ll want to consider (pricey) touch-enabled laptops and desktop displays.
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.
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