A guide to Windows 8 and 8.1 from a CompTIA A+ perspective
Over the past few months, we have looked at some of the changes coming in the CompTIA A+ exams as they are being updated. The new exams (to be named 220-901 and 220-902) are expected by the end of the year and one of the topics being added is that of Microsoft Windows 8/8.1. Both Windows 7 and Windows Vista will be tested on as well, but that has been the case for the past three years with the current version (Windows XP, which is currently teste on with exam 220-802, will no longer be test fodder)
In this month’s column, we will look at Windows 8/8.1 from the perspective of addressing some of what CompTIA wants you to be familiar with for exam 220-902. If you’ve used the operating system for any length of time, then there will not be any surprises here. If you’ve stuck with Windows 7 until the release of Windows 10, however, then you’ll want to pay close attention to the details and make sure you understand them (and get as much hands-on experience with the OS before the exam as possible).
The leap from one operating system to another can be either an evolutionary change or a revolutionary change. Windows 8 was a revolutionary change from the operating systems that came before it in the adoption of a tablet-friendly interface implemented across all devices. The interface was designed to accommodate touch gestures on a touchscreen, but it did not make their existence mandatory: You can still navigate with a keyboard, mouse, and touchpad.
Windows 8.1 was released as an update to replace Windows 8 and to make running the operating system on a system without a touchscreen easier. The changes from 8 to 8.1 were evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, and they could arguably fall under the category of a patch (or a step backward to adapt to hardware). The biggest noticeable difference is that during boot, the OS checks to see if it is on a touch-capable device. If it is not, then it boots to the desktop view (which looks like Windows 7) instead of to the Start screen (which is still there just the same).
Windows 8 was released in four different editions: Windows 8 (commonly called “core”), Windows 8 Pro (similar to Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate in terms of features), Windows 8 Enterprise (for volume licensing), and Windows 8 RT (for preinstallation on tablets). The RT version includes touch-optimized versions of Microsoft Office. All of the versions include the Start screen, Desktop, Windows Store, secure boot, and drive encryption. Only the Pro and Enterprise versions support BitLocker and Encrypting File System (EFS).
The minimum hardware requirements for a 32-bit installation are a 1GHz (or faster) processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of hard drive space, and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver. For 64-bit installations, this rises to 2GB of RAM and 20GB of hard drive space. Naturally, for touch capabilities, you need a monitor that supports touch, and you need an Internet connection to be able to access the Windows Store if you should need software from there. Windows 8 RT runs on an ARM processor, not on x86/x64 processors. This is important because programs and upgrades written for the x86/x64 processors will not work on RT.
The following table lists a number of features associated with the Windows 8 operating system that CompTIA wants you to know for the exam, along with a brief description of each.
Key Windows 8 Features
|Metro UI||When Windows 8 was first released, the new interface was called the “Metro UI”. This name did not last long and it has come to now be known as the “new Windows UI” or the “Windows 8 UI”.|
|Pinning||If you have favorite apps, you can “pin” (add) them to the Start screen/Desktop so that you can get to them quickly or see updates to their tiles at a glance. To add an app to the Taskbar, for example, right-click and choose Pin To Taskbar (or choose to unpin it if you want to remove it). Choosing Pin To Start places it on the Start screen instead of on the Taskbar.|
|OneDrive||CompTIA refers to this as two words (One Drive), but Microsoft refers to it as one (OneDrive). Either way, it is the online/cloud storage account that comes with your Microsoft account. You can save files there from applications or move them there (and back again) using File Explorer (previously called Windows Explorer). There is a limited amount of storage given to each account for free, and you can purchase more as you need it.|
|Windows Store||The Windows Store is an online site, requiring Windows 8 or higher, from which you can download apps, games, software, and so on. Once they’re downloaded, you can install them, pin them, and use them.|
|Multimonitor Taskbars||Multiple monitors have been available with Windows for some time, but not until Windows 8 has it been possible to have a Taskbar appear in each monitor.|
|Charms||Windows 8 introduced charms to the OS. These are controls that are available on the side of the screen for every Windows Store app. They consist of Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings.|
|Start screen||The Windows Start screen is the central location where you can access your most commonly used data and sites.|
|PowerShell||Windows PowerShell (one word per Microsoft and two per CompTIA) has been around for several years and was available with previous versions of Windows as well. It can be thought of as a greatly enhanced command interface where you can write script files based on the .NET programming framework.Some common commands that can be used in PowerShell can be found here.|
|Live sign in||In a non-domain-based environment, it is possible to use your Microsoft account (MSN, Hotmail, Outlook, and so forth) username and password to log in to your Windows 8–based PC. This is intended to serve as a single sign-on, allowing you to not only interact with the OS but also to download apps from the Windows Store, sync files with OneDrive, and so on.As an alternative to this, you can still create a local account and use it to log in, but you will need to authenticate with cloud-based services when/if you connect to them.|
|Action Center||Also available in Windows 7, Action Center (Control Panel Ø System and Security Ø Action Center) is a central dialog for dealing with problems, security, and maintenance.|
The Windows Start screen, with its tiled look, provides a main location where you can access everything. Depending on whether you have a touch-enabled device or not, how you interact with this screen will differ. The following table lists common actions and ways of navigating the Start screen based on whether you are using touch gestures or a keyboard and mouse.
Navigating the Windows 8 Start Screen
|Action||With Touch Gestures||With Keyboard and Mouse|
|Open an app||Tap the app.||Click on the app.|
|Return to Start screen from an app||Tap the Start button in the lower left-corner of the screen.||Press the Windows key on the keyboard.|
|Display the charms||Swipe from the right edge of the screen.||Point to the upper-right or lower-right corner of the Start screen.|
|Display the Start menu||Tap the Desktop tile and then press and release the Start button.||Point to the lower-left corner of the Start screen to display the Start button, and then right-click it.|
|See all apps on your computer||Swipe to the left until the down arrow appears, and then tap the arrow in the lower-left corner of the Start screen. A list of the apps will appear, by name and in alphabetical order.||Point to the lower-left area of the Start screen, and then click the down arrow.|
|Switch between open apps||Swipe in and out from the left edge of the screen to see a list of open apps, and then tap on one.||Point to the upper-left corner of the Start screen to see a list of open apps, and then click on one.|
On the Start screen, you can start typing the name of any app, setting, or file and the OS will attempt to find what you are looking for and narrow your options to that. You can also search by using the Search icon (which looks like a magnifying glass) in the upper-right corner of the Start Screen.
As with any operating system installation, the two primary methods of installing Windows 8 are to either perform a clean install or an upgrade. With a clean install, no traces of any previous operating system are kept, and the main concern is that the hardware meets (or preferably, exceeds) the minimum requirements. Clean installs are usually done with new hardware and virtual machines (and, to a limited extent, multiple boot installations).
With an upgrade, the focus is on keeping something from the previous operating system that was installed earlier on the machine. That “something” can be user accounts, data, apps, or almost anything else. In the simplest sense, if you’re keeping any existing data, consider it an upgrade otherwise it is a clean install.
When the upgrade is done without removing the existing operating system (the norm), this is known as an in-place upgrade. Windows 8.1 can do an in-place upgrade only from Windows 7 or Windows 8, and the following table shows the upgrade possibilities (since Windows RT 8 is designed for preinstallation on tablets, there is not an upgrade path for it).
Windows 8 Upgrade Options
|Existing Operating System||Windows 8 Core||Windows 8 Pro||Windows 8 Enterprise|
|Windows 7 Starter||Yes||Yes||No|
|Windows 7 Home Basic||Yes||Yes||No|
|Windows 7 Home Premium||Yes||Yes||No|
|Windows 7 Professional||No||Yes||Yes|
|Windows 7 Ultimate||No||Yes||No|
|Windows 7 Enterprise||No||No||Yes|
The easiest way to see if your current hardware can run Windows 8.1 is to download and run the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant. Clicking to see more information in the wizard (Compatibility Details) brings up information and it lets you work through each issue individually. A tutorial and link to download the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant can be found here.
When it comes to software, the easiest way to see if your current apps work with Windows 8.1 is to visit the Windows Compatibility Center.
As mentioned, Windows 8 can be installed as an upgrade or a clean installation — accomplished with the Custom option (think custom = clean). When you choose Custom, you can choose whether or not to format the hard disk. If you choose not to format the hard disk, the old operating system is placed in a folder named Windows.old to allow you to attempt to return to the old operating system if needed. After 28 days, any files placed in the Windows.old folder are automatically deleted.
Continuing the theme of looking at topics associated with the newest versions of the CompTIA A+ exams, next month we will look at updates to the software troubleshooting category.