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Versus: Windows 7 vs Windows 8.1: which is the better OS?

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Introduction and app issues

Microsoft took a different approach when it designed Windows 8 compared to all of the firm's previous operating systems. Instead of designing for a desktop or laptop – predominantly controlled by a mouse – Windows 8 was designed for a touchscreen, creating big 'tappable' tiles in place of small, fiddly buttons.

While this approach was fine on a tablet, it grated a fair amount with desktop and laptop users who were used to the Windows 7 experience. Users clamoured for the Start menu – a staple feature of Windows – to return, and Microsoft answered with Windows 8.1, and an ensuing update to that version.

Legacy apps

If you are deciding whether or not to upgrade to Windows 8 from Windows 7, you need to consider various things. The first point to bear in mind pertains to you if you're running a business and are installing Windows 8 onto multiple computers, all of which will need legacy apps and services.

If this is the case, Windows 8 may not be an advisable choice unless absolutely necessary. While Microsoft has implemented some more mouse-friendly features, the operating system remains predominately designed for a tablet with an awkward transition to the Desktop mode when legacy apps are called upon.

Businesses still rely on some legacy software, no matter which sphere they operate in. For example, Microsoft is still yet to produce a proper, dedicated Windows 8-ready version of Microsoft Office, one of the core suites of apps used around the world. When the Office tile is tapped, the whole OS switches to Desktop mode, a jarring process that can be confusing and is in no way smooth.

While legacy apps are still compatible, the process of using them is confusing and feels, above all else, unpolished. Over time, major developers will build apps specifically designed with Windows 8 in mind, but that time may be some way off.

Market share matters

Windows 7 is still the operating system with the most market share – due, in part, to Microsoft's lack of a clear update mechanism like Apple's Mac App Store – but that will change as more people upgrade their PC to a machine running Windows 8, buy a tablet, or simply upgrade their operating system.

The day when Windows 8 has the majority market share of the Microsoft ecosystem has not yet arrived though, and so it is still possible to choose between the two. Major retail outlets and PC vendors still sell some machines running Windows 7, and the support and developer community is strong, despite its release being almost five years ago.

As an enterprise, the operating system of choice is clear: Windows 7. As of right now, the lack of apps made specifically for Windows 8 undermines the usefulness of the changes, and the state of many companies' hardware – laptops and desktops without touchscreens and sporting older internals – makes Windows 7 the obvious option. As a consumer, however, the answer is rather harder to find.


Consumer considerations

If, like me, you prefer to keep your software up to date then upgrading to Windows 8 seems like the next logical step, as everything moving forward will become exclusively compatible with Windows 8. If you've already invested in the Windows ecosystem – through Windows Phone, for example – then Windows 8 will make a lot of sense, both aesthetically and functionally, as the two sync well and the user experience is almost identical, bar desktop apps.

Windows 8 does come with some app advantages, however. If you're willing to put up with the awkward transition from the tile interface to the desktop one, then you are opening yourself up to a lot more apps. Microsoft is encouraging developers to create apps that work in full-screen in a similar fashion to how apps work on a Surface or iPad, meaning that tablet-style apps are possible on your desktop. This has obvious advantages, with casual games becoming a reality just as they are on tablets.

Microsoft is working on getting as many developers on board as they can, with some big name apps already appearing on the Store. Developers are receiving an even bigger incentive from Microsoft's "One Windows" strategy, by which developers can write one universal app for Windows and have it run on Windows Phone, Xbox and Windows 8. This will help increase the amount of games available massively – especially indie titles made by developers who don't have the resources of a big studio – as Xbox has been brought into the fray.

OS X and enterprise conclusions

Mac attack

The debate about which operating system to choose is, however, never complete without comparing Windows to its biggest rival, Apple's Mac OS X. Over recent years, the Mac ecosystem – both hardware and software – has come on leaps and bounds, introducing features that surpass Microsoft's own.

The "Back to Mac" strategy unveiled by Apple means that features found on iOS are becoming available on the Mac, creating a synergy between the two platforms. While the concept may sound similar to Microsoft's strategy with Windows 8 and Windows Phone, the two operating systems remain distinctly different: different code bases, no touchscreen input for OS X, and no app sharing (beyond namesakes).

In enterprise, Microsoft's offering beats Apple's hands-down. While the Office suite is available on Mac, there are a host of apps that many businesses rely upon to get the job done that are not available for OS X and likely never will be.

The refusal to license OS X onto machines not manufactured by Apple dealt them a deadly blow in the enterprise space, where companies are more comfortable buying one thousand Dell PCs and putting Microsoft's OS on them. Apple is increasingly moving into the enterprise space, however, with many businesses investing in the iPad or providing employees with an iPhone. Whether this means a greater uptake in Mac sales in the enterprise remains to be seen, but right now Microsoft still rules the roost.


Redmond gets creative

With Windows 8, something even more unexpected happened than Apple moving into the enterprise space: Microsoft became a (minority) player in the creative sphere, where Apple has traditionally had an almost total monopoly.

While it's unlikely that Apple will lose its large creative client bases who have invested hundreds of thousands in Macs and niche software for recording, editing or drawing, Microsoft has stepped up its efforts in the home video making and audio editing space. This predominantly stems from the fact that the new Windows Store is so much friendlier to those kind of apps, so a spotlight can be placed on them. When the majority of apps were found on the web, or via "Top 10 Apps" lists, building and executing creative apps was a much tougher process.

Whether you require Windows 7 or Windows 8 is predominately determined by what you use the operating system for. If, for example, you are in need of a new PC and are wondering whether to try and find a machine still running Windows 7, the answer is probably no, you can live with Windows 8.

The majority of tasks are very similar – if not better, due to full-screen apps – on Windows 8 compared to 7, and the opportunity to pick up a touchscreen PC, or even a tablet, increases the experience tenfold. The jarring shift to desktop apps is annoying, but time will fix this as more and more developers move to create apps specifically for Windows 8.

Enterprise advice

As an enterprise, the answer is rather more confusing. Visually, Windows 8 is far nicer than Windows 7 and is far more future-proof, but also comes with many more headaches. While core spec requirements for Windows 8 are the same as Windows 7, running an operating system that needs a touchscreen on a five year old desktop PC grates somewhat.

Microsoft is moving to make the experience more pleasurable, but it will never truly match that of Windows 7. Phil Tyler, Head of Global Programme Delivery at Gazprom, says that he implements a "year on, year off" strategy, meaning that you ignore one update from the company. With this strategy, he went from Windows XP to 7 (bypassing Vista) and will update to Windows 9 upon release, bypassing Windows 8.

This strategy seems sensible – Vista was a terrible operating system according to many, and Windows 8 is a large leap which will be compensated for in Windows 9 to some degree – and it saves a company thousands of pounds from the headache of upgrading its array of PCs.

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