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Windows 8 Review, Part 6: Reliability, Security, and Networking

This is part 6 of an ongoing 8-part review of Windows 8. Previous parts to this review discussedthe many improvements to the desktop in Windows 8, the often uneasy relationship between that desktop and the new Metro environment, how that new Metro environment is in fact a completely new mobile platform on which Microsoft is staking its future, the new productivity environment and apps in Windows 8, and the new entertainment apps as well.

As I’ve tried to stress throughout this review, Windows 8 consists of two discrete and barely-connected operating environments, Metro, which is a new mobile platform, and the desktop, which provides legacy compatibility with existing applications. But the new reliability, security, and networking features in Windows 8 are interesting examples of technologies that straddle both.

Here’s just some of what you get by upgrading to Windows 8. As you’ll see, it’s a long list, and it really throws a wrench into any theory that Windows 8 is just about Metro and touch-based apps. Note that some of these features are so important I’ll be covering them later---soon—in dedicated Feature Focus articles as well.

File History backups

Working in tandem with the Push Button Reset functionality described below, File History is part of the new Windows 8 backup and recovery system. File History is aimed at documents and other files: It provides file versioning capabilities and now operates via a simple new UI, though you need to manually enable it first, which is unfortunate.

Storage Spaces

While hard drive storage has increased almost exponentially over the years—3 TB hard disks are now inexpensive to add to desktop machines—our ability to overcome physical drive issues has not. But in Windows 8, Microsoft has finally come up with a reasonable and modern replacement for RAID. It’s called Storage Spaces, and it’s awesome.

Storage Spaces allows you to easy mirror the data on two (or more) drives, or create parity with three (or more) drives, providing a redundant local array of almost infinitely expandable storage that is compatible (NTFS file system, with a normal drive letter) and offers about the same performance as a single drive.

Storage spaces are also portable. You can detach a drive used by Storage Spaces, pop it into another PC, and the contents are immediately available, as with any drive. If that PC runs Windows 8, you can attach one or more of the drives from a storage space from other PC and it will reconstitute as the same storage space on the new PC. Amazing.

Improved Windows Recovery Environment

Windows 8 includes an improved recovery environment that can be triggered from within Windows itself, which is a nice touch since the OS boots so fast—under 10 seconds on every PC I use—that it’s often impossible to access it during a reboot. One of the key features of this new environment is the Push Button Reset functionality described next.

Push Button Reset

In previous Windows versions, OS recovery was a monolithic and time-consuming affair, and PC makers often added on to this functionality with their own even bigger and slower recovery routines that could also recover crapware applications, drivers, and other applications. For Windows 8, Microsoft has completely revamped this process. And the result, a set of features collectively called Push Button Reset, is one of Windows 8’s biggest innovations.

What used to take hours now takes minutes. With PC Reset, you can delete everything on the PC—the OS, Metro apps and desktop applications, settings, and data, and return the machine to its factory fresh, day one condition. With PC Refresh, you get the same functionality, but it can save your Metro apps, settings, and data, and reapply them after the system wipe.

In both cases, the process takes minutes, like single digit minutes. (That said, you can opt to securely wipe the PC, which will of course take a while. This is good for when you’re handing down or selling a PC.) And know that PC makers can build on Push Button Reset, so the PC Reset and Refresh functions can and will be extended with their own junk. I’m looking into documenting how you can get around that.

Microsoft account integration

While previous Windows versions supports both local and domain accounts, Windows 8 introduces a new and preferred account type called Microsoft account. This account type provides you with all of the benefits of a local account—simplicity and the ability to have both administrators and standard users—with the multi-PC settings replication you get with a domain. But unlike a domain, a Microsoft account is really easy to use. And you already have one: Formerly called a Windows Live ID, this account type is what you use online when you sign in to Xbox LIVE, Hotmail, and other Microsoft services.

Touch-friendly sign-in

Windows 8 provides two new touch-friendly ways of signing in to your PC: PIN and picture password. Neither replaces a traditional password. Instead, you create a regular password and can then opt to sign-in with a PIN (a four digit numerical code) or a picture password, where you execute a short series of gestures on top of a favorite photo. Both are useful because tapping out long passwords on a touch screen can be tedious.

Metro app model

While Microsoft’s decision to weld a new mobile platform, which I will continue to call Metro, on to the side of the traditional Windows desktop will be controversial for years to come, this new platform provides many benefits related to system security and reliability. Metro apps are sandboxed from each other and cannot interact with other apps or the OS except in very limited and formally constructed ways (like the Share charm). You cannot write a rootkit or other malware with Metro, and Metro apps cannot be launched automatically, as can desktop applications, when Windows boots.

Metro apps are also managed at runtime, much like smart phone apps. So while you can in fact manually shutdown an app, you don’t need to. In the background, Windows will sleep and then kill unused apps over time, automatically returning their memory allotment to the system.

Windows Defender with anti-virus support

In Windows 7, Windows Defender provided anti-spyware and anti-malware capabilities, but it lacked anti-virus functionality, a weird chink in the OS’s armor. So users needed to find and download their own anti-virus solution, and while Microsoft made its Security Essentials (MSE) program available for free, it was a silly extra step.

Not any more: The version of Defender included with Windows 8 now, finally, includes the same anti-virus functionality we had to previously add separately with MSE.

Windows SmartScreen

Microsoft included an interesting security feature called SmartScreen in Internet Explorer 9, providing protection against downloading malicious files online. SmartScreen works well, but it do a thing if you use a different browser, or if you download a malicious file through an email application or USB storage device. Queue Windows SmartScreen, which protects the file system against malicious files, no matter where they come from. And you’ll never miss its almost absurd new full-screen UI.

Action Center improvements

Action Center debuted as Security Center way back in Windows XP Service Pack 2 and it’s gotten better in each subsequent Windows release, providing a nice, centralized location to track and troubleshoot problems with the OS. In Windows 8, Action Center has been updated to support Windows 8-specific features like Windows SmartScreen, Microsoft account, File History, and more, of course, but it works the same as before, triggering notifications when something’s wrong.

Integrated startup program disabling (and no Metro)

One of the things that Action Center will notify you about is when there are too many applications auto-starting when Windows boots. (These are desktop applications; remember, Metro apps cannot auto-start at boot time.) This functionality is tied to a new feature of Task Manager, the Startup tab, which lets you easily disable (or enable) applications that are configured to run when the PC boots. The fewer enabled applications, the faster your PC boots.

Metro-based networking interfaces

While many Windows 8 configuration settings are still found in old-school control panels, Microsoft has moved the high-level networking interfaces—configuring Wi-Fi and other wireless networks, and so on—to the Metro Settings pane so they’re available no matter what you’re doing. Not a huge deal, but if you’re used to accessing networking features through what used to be called the connectoid icon in the system tray, it’s in a different place now.

Cellular broadband integration

In keeping with its mobile platform design, Windows 8 is the first version of Windows to explicitly support mobile broadband connections, which use cellular data plans. If you have a Windows 8 device with a SIM, you can connect to your carrier’s custom, Metro-based management interface and use the standard Settings pane to access the connection. It’s just built in, and doesn’t require you to manually find and install drivers or software as with third party dongles.

Airplane mode

Another obvious nod to Windows 8’s mobile platform roots is Airplane mode, which works as it does on smart phones and tablets: Flick one switch to disable all of the radios in the PC/device immediately.

But wait, there’re more

There’s a lot more to Windows 8’s reliability, security, and networking functionality, including such things as Secure Boot and Trusted Boot, and of course a ton of low-level changes. But you get the idea. There’s been too much emphasis on the one-time difficulty of adapting to Windows 8’s new dual-mode interfaces and to how the full-screen Metro apps are supposedly untenable on classic desktop and portable computers. Hopefully, this part of my review demonstrated that Windows 8 is more than just surface sheen, and that if you dig deep into the architectural improvements of this release, you’ll find that Windows 8 is in fact a major update.

In the next and penultimate part of this review, I’ll look at the new business features in Windows 8. Yes, I know you’ve been told there aren’t any. As with many other aspects of this operating system, the rumormongers have gotten it wrong again.

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