Windows 8: advanced features

The move to online accounts simplifies matters when it comes to managing home networks. In the past, when parents wanted to use Windows Family Safety, they had to go through a slightly awkward process of associating each child’s local user account with an online identity. Now the single sign-on system manages everything. The Family Safety system itself has been updated, too, so you can now restrict not only web pages but also app downloads from the Windows Store to certain age categories. In addition to the existing “permitted hours settings”, parents have the option of limiting the total time their offspring spend online, or just using the computer, on a given day.

Windows 8 is also the first version of the operating system with a built-in awareness that not all networks are created equal. 3G mobile internet adapters can now be configured as metered connections, which won’t be used automatically to download apps and drivers. To activate this feature, open the Charms menu, select Settings, right-click on the appropriate connection and select “Set as metered connection”. Windows can keep track of your estimated data usage over a metered connection, so you can tell if you’re getting near a data cap; you can assign different costs to different adapters, enabling Windows to select the cheapest connection automatically (Windows will use this by default in preference to any mobile broadband connection if a Wi-Fi connection is available). If you need to shut down all your wireless communications, a new “airplane mode” toggle makes it easy.

Business-friendly features

One novel feature in Windows 8 is the new Windows To Go system, which allows you to install the operating system onto a USB flash drive or external hard disk. The process is fairly automatic – you’re guided through it by a wizard called the Windows To Go Creator. The volume you create can then be used to boot any PC it’s plugged into – a boon for remote workers and hot-deskers.

The way it works has been well thought out: the first time you start up on new hardware, any necessary drivers are automatically downloaded and then integrated into the image, so that subsequent boots take place at full speed. Memory caching is used sensibly, so booting and running over USB 2 is an impressively smooth experience (although USB 3 is recommended for optimum performance). The system is designed to tolerate the accidental removal of the system drive, allowing you to resume by reconnecting the disk within 60 seconds. With full-disk encryption, any security concerns over losing the drive are eliminated.

Windows To Go has limitations: once you start using a To Go system, there’s no way of automatically synchronising new documents and desktop applications back to your primary system. It’s also available in only the Enterprise edition of Windows 8 – not the Professional edition, which is a mean decision, in our view.

Businesses operating over a wide-area network will also be pleased by upgrades to the BranchCache feature, which manages local caching of remote documents and resources so that they can be opened and accessed quickly, even if the master copies are located at the other end of the country. When it was introduced in Windows 7 (and its server-side partner, Windows Server 2008 R2), BranchCache’s capabilities were limited. In Windows 8 and Server 2012, BranchCache can support any number of remote branches, and can be silently enabled on client PCs through a group policy. Deduplication is automatically applied, so only one copy of duplicate data is stored and synchronised, which minimises bandwidth and storage requirements. Extensive new configuration options also let administrators manage how much information is cached where, and for how long.

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