As support for Windows XP comes to an end – we take a look at which OS is the best to replace it.
Windows XP is coming to the end of its life on 8 April 2014. Consumers and business using the operating system have a choice to soldier on with the legacy OS and risk a security breach or switch to a supported version.
The upgrade candidates are Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. But what is the difference between Microsoft’s operating systems? Which is better? Here, we break down the key features to help you decide (fast forward to our verdict). Or if you’ve had enough of Windows altogether, there’s always the option of a switch to Apple’s OS X Mavericks.
1 – Boot time
Windows 8 machines boot up in 10 – 15 seconds, some even faster depending on the SSD. Gone are the days when you have to go and make a cup of tea while your system wakes up.
How has this been achieved? Microsoft engineers combined the hibernation and shutdown modes into one. Windows 8.1 uses a hybrid boot mode to start up in seconds. It hibernates the kernel instead of shutting it down completely and uses all cores to startup as fast as possible.
Winner – Windows 8 – The quicker the machine starts, the more time you can spend being productive. Over the multiple year lifespan of a machine, this can add up to hours.
2 – Enterprise features
Windows 8.1 offers more enterprise features than 7. The Enterprise edition of 8.1 has a feature called Windows To Go, allowing users to boot a personalised version of Windows from a USB on any other Windows 7/8 machine.
IT admins can run Windows virtually without any third-party software. Add in the optional Hyper-V support for your copy of 8.1 and you can connect to a server.
Windows 8.1 includes better support for mobile device management, tap-to-print support via NFC, as well as enhanced biometrics, malware resistance and encryption.
However, IT departments across the world have given Windows 8.1 the cold shoulder in favour of its older brother. HP told IT Pro that Windows 7 is the most popular enterprise choice for companies upgrading from XP.
“[Businesses] are ignoring Windows 8,” said HP project manager Jeff Wood.
Enterprises want stability, Windows 7 has the advantage of time, familiarity, extensive testing, and total peripheral compatibility.
Upgrading from Windows 8 to 8.1 hasn’t been a plain sailing either with users complaining that the update broke simple things like the ability to print.
Winner – Draw – Although Windows 8 has more enterprise features as default, Windows 7 is tried and tested. Forthcoming Service Packs are unlikely to give IT admins as many headaches as Windows 8.x updates.
3 – Performance
Microsoft revamped the engine under the hood of Windows 8. The result is a faster system which consumes fewer resources than Windows 7, making it a good choice for low-end PCs.
The new OS redesign uses simple colours and fewer visual effects, drawing fewer resources than Windows 7’s Aero Glass effect.
Windows 8.1 performs better than 7 in everyday use and benchmarks. Extensive testing has revealed improvements in tests like PCMark Vantage and Sunspider but the differences are minimal.
Winner – Windows 8 – It’s faster and less resource intensive.
4 – Interface
Microsoft saved its most radical changes for the front-facing user interface. Windows 8 is a redesign and feels like two operating systems meshed together.
Turn on the computer and you’re greeted by the new Start screen, a page of apps and live tiles. The Metro interface puts everything into a Metro app, even the old desktop mode. Apps like IE 11 are great for touchscreen web browsing – but not much else.
Even the old desktop looks different. Windows 8.1 has a start button, but it just takes you back to the between screens.
The revised interface has been polarising. There are a lot of users who dislike Metro, saying an interface designed for touch shouldn’t be used on a desktop computer.
However, spend a little time setting up 8.1 and you can get a comparable, if not better experience. 8.1 lets you boot to desktop and avoid Metro.
There are real UI improvements in 8.1. You can add Start bars to dual monitors and keep a separate wallpaper on each. There’s also fast universal search on the Start screen. Just hit the Windows key and start typing to search local files, OneDrive files, apps, settings, and the internet. You can even browse OneDrive files through File Explorer (a.k.a. Windows Explorer).
Winner – Windows 7 – The familiar desktop wins the day. Windows 8 tries to do too much. The 8.1 update allows users to boot straight to the desktop, but Metro still has a habit of popping up and isn’t useful in a business environment.
5 – Security
Keeping a PC secure is vital for individuals and businesses. As the most popular desktop operating system, Windows is the primary target for malware and viruses.
Windows 7 and 8.1 share security features. Both use BitLocker Drive encryption, but 8.1 enables it automatically. You can download Microsoft Security Essentials free for Windows 7, but its younger brother has it built into the system.
8.1 also includes support for secure booting on UEFI systems, making it harder for rogue malware to infect the bootloader. PCs running 8.1 can also automatically connect to VPNs.
Winner – Windows 8 – It’s got more security features set as default.
6 – Task Manager
The Windows 8 Task Manager displays more information in a visual form. There are coloured charts for heat, CPU, memory, disk, Ethernet, and wireless consumption. There’s even a breakdown of how each program affects boot time.
Winner – Windows 8 – Who doesn’t like more graphs?
7 – USB 3.0 support
Windows 8 has OS-level support for USB 3 devices. Instead of relying on manufacturers or updates to add support for the devices, any Windows 8-enabled device can enjoy transfer speeds of up to 5 Gbit/s.
Winner – Windows 8 – You can’t argue with faster transfer speeds.
8 – Data transfers done right
Windows 7 handled copying or moving data the wrong way. When it encountered a name collision between two files, it interrupted the transfer with a prompt asking the user what to do. It would also stack individual windows for each transfer.
Windows 8 cleans that up. It puts all the transfers in one window and pushes name collision dialogues until the end. The Windows guys even tried to make transfer time estimations more accurate.
Winner – Windows 8 – Not only does it transfer data faster but Windows 8 ensure fewer interruptions – and the time estimates are more accurate.
9 – Daemon Tools is obsolete
Windows 8 finally added support for native mounting of ISO, IMG, and VHD disk images. You can access the contents of virtual disk files and write them to physical CDs without any third-party programs like Daemon Tools.
Winner – Windows 8 – Finally helps to put the nail in the coffin of physical media
10 – 3D printing support
Microsoft added native support for 3D printing in Windows 8.1. You can send files to a MakerBot Printer straight from the Charms bar.
Winner – Windows 8 – It’s not a necessity yet, but in the future, the ability to print 3D prototypes could be invaluable to businesses.
Verdict – Which version of Windows is right for you?
Windows 8 caught a lot of flack for Metro interface but this shouldn’t obscure the number of improvements Microsoft’s made to the OS.
Think of Windows 8.1 as Windows 7 with four years of additional development. The downside is that updates can break the system as it’s not been tried and tested as Windows 7.
The latest OS has the faster boot time and performance along with better task manager and security features. It’s also got native support USB 3, 3D, ISO, IMG, and VHD.
However, Windows 7 did manage to win the interface category and salvaged a draw when it came to enterprise features.
If you’re thinking of buying a Windows machine for personal use – the 8.1 OS is the way to go – just ignore Metro for productivity and use it for web browsing.
However, businesses looking to deploy machines are likely to want the familiarity and stability of Windows 7. This is something OEMs have recognised as they are selling Windows 8 machines to enterprises with the option to downgrade Window 7.