TWT Newsletter, Issue #064 – Windows 8 – The final verdict, are you using Wi-Fi safely on the road?
Welcome to our September 2012 TWT Newsletter. Another summer sadly draws to a close, but there’s still plenty to look forward to in the last quarter of the year, not least a new version of Windows.
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In this months issue:-
1) What’s new at Top-Windows-Tutorials.com?
2) Windows 8 – The final verdict
3) Tip of the Month – XP Users – Get “snap” functionality with TrueTransparency
4) Free Utility of the Month – Fliptoast
5) Are you using Wi-Fi safely on the road?
What’s new at Top-Windows-Tutorials.com?
We kicked off August with a look at VPN technology. Your editor recently went away for a few days to visit a friend and while there, noticed that the internet connection in the hotel was completely unsecured. Obviously this is very dangerous as anyone with a simple USB Wi-Fi card and a little know how can capture all of your surfing history. To combat this problem, a VPN can be used. We discuss the benefits of VPN’s in this article.
For iVPN, our recommended VPN service, we have produced two tutorials to get you up and running quickly. You can check them out by clicking here. We’ve more on why you might need a VPN later in the newsletter.
We’re sorry if you’re getting sick of all the Windows 8 coverage, but a new Windows operating system is big news for us! Using the final build of the OS, we updated and improved our Windows 8 preview tutorials, if you want to get a sneak peek at the new OS, this is the best way! Click here to view them.
Expect much more Windows 8 content in September too, as we approach the launch date of the new OS.
Windows 8 – The final verdict
The final build of Windows 8 is now in our possession. We’ve been giving the OS a thorough going over while producing our Windows 8 Superguide, which is expected to launch soon after Windows 8 hits the shelves. Here are our thoughts on the final build of the operating system, hopefully once you’ve read our review, you will know if Windows 8 is of interest to you. We’ll also take a more in-depth look at your upgrade options once the OS has officially launched. The review below applies to the x86/x64 version of Windows 8 (the version that runs on regular PC’s).
The most flexible Windows ever
Windows 8, as you are probably aware, is almost like two operating systems in one. The new Start screen with its live tiles is more than just a pretty new Start menu. The tiles represent a whole new way to work with your PC, specifically optimized for touch and tablets. As you’ve seen in our earlier newsletters, Windows 8 comes with several applications all written for this new ecosystem. There’s an e-mail client, an instant messenger, news and finance apps and many more. Windows 8 comes with more bundled software than any version in recent history. The reason for this is simple, Microsoft has to provide these applications since, unlike with desktop software, there’s not a huge range of tile applications already available. Although the new Windows 8 store is starting to stock its virtual shelves, there’s still a relative lack of software compared to competing platforms like Apple’s iOS which runs on the iPad and iPhones. Quality third party software is starting to appear though, with a much wider range than we saw in the consumer preview release.
The new tiled interface (we can’t call it Metro any more) really does work well with touch and in our opinion feels more flexible than Apple’s iOS for instance. Applications can be snapped to the sides of the screen, multitasking is quick and easy and sharing information between apps is faster too. The only times the experience begins to fall apart are the times you find yourself kicked back to the desktop interface. This can happen, for instance, if you need to configure more advanced settings on your PC or if you want to browse files or folders. However, these kinds of settings don’t need to be changed particularly often, it’s perfectly plausible that you would never see the desktop on a typical touch-computing session.
We love how Windows 8 integrates Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks. We particularly like the People application which allows you to browse all your social networks at a glance and post, reply and retweet to your hearts content. It certainly sets Windows 8 apart from other tablet operating systems.
Faster, more secure
Security improvements are one of those things that won’t sell Windows 8 machines in stores, but are nevertheless important and significant. Most radically, Windows 8 comes with antivirus software pre-installed, saving you the hassle of finding your own solutions. There’s also improved download screening; although this can interfere with legitimate downloads, it does make it much more difficult to accidentally download malware. There are also improvements deep within the operating system too that provide even more protection against exploitative software and spyware.
A better (but duller and occasionally confusing) desktop
As you’ve probably gathered, we’re not exactly against the new tiles and their touch friendly new interface, but let’s be perfectly clear, the tiles are not going to replace the desktop for the vast majority of users of desktop and laptop PC’s. Some articles suggested that Microsoft hopes within the next ten years that we’ll mostly be using the new tile-style applications. This seems unlikely, compared to desktop applications the tiles are very limited. They can’t be resized, only two can be on the screen at once, they don’t support multiple monitors in any meaningful way, there’s no taskbar so switching between them is slower and they don’t use the space of your screen as efficiently. Working with the tiles with a keyboard and mouse still feels a little clumsy, especially using the hot corners. If you’re using a traditional style PC with a keyboard and mouse then for almost every new tile application there’s a desktop equivalent that’s quicker, faster and more feature rich. The notion that desktop applications will all but disappear, leaving us all using the touch optimized tile applications is, quite frankly, completely absurd. Fortunately, Windows 8 isn’t all about the new tiles and touch screen. Microsoft seem keen for us all to embrace their new fancy tiles, but there are still a lot of improvements to the desktop side too. Windows Explorer has been renamed File Explorer and has had a significant overhaul. Now featuring a ribbon interface, the program may look ugly and confusing at first glance, but once you start to work with it the improvements are obvious. Thanks to some clever design, the most useful icons on the ribbon are always placed just one or two clicks away, and the new Explorer is closer in power to some of the popular replacements like Windows Commander or Directory Opus.
Windows backup has had a significant overhaul too. If you have used or heard about the Time Machine backup program on the Macintosh, or used either Genie Timeline or Oops Backup, you will probably be pleased to know that this kind of backup is now built into Windows 8.
There’s also a new more powerful task manager and some great improvements for those of you lucky enough to have two or more monitors. Now each monitor can have its own separate taskbar. Windows can place their icons on the taskbar located on the same monitor if desired and desktop backgrounds can span across your multi-monitor setup.
It’s not all improvements however, despite protests from many users, the Start button is gone, perhaps never to return officially. It’s replacement, the “hot corner” is fiddly and slow to use with a keyboard and mouse. What’s more, there’s no visual clues for using the hot-corners whatsoever, leaving long-term desktop users at least initially baffled. Rather than try to use the fiddly hot corners with the mouse, we prefer to press the Windows key keyboard shortcuts instead. Luckily there are already two start button replacement programs for Windows 8 which bring back this useful functionality for bewildered new users and those of us that simply prefer the speed and convenience of the Start Menu.
Microsoft have also changed the default theme for the desktop. Gone are the transparencies of Windows Aero, to be replaced with a much more minimalistic looking theme. Supposedly this was done to improve battery life and performance on lower spec machines. The popular Aero Snap and Aero Shake features are still available, but aero flip has been replaced with a more simple task switcher that can switch between both desktop and tile applications.
The interface formally known as Metro and other confusions
Windows 8 is certainly the most potentially confusing version of the operating system yet. Like Windows 7, Windows 8 will come in several editions, namely Home, Professional and Enterprise.
Unlike Windows 7 however, there will also be a special version called Windows RT. This version is designed for machines with the low power ARM processor. It was originally believed that this version would run tile-style applications only, however from the latest preview build it can be seen that the RT version does have a desktop too. The RT version of Windows 8 will not be compatible with any existing Windows software or any software designed specifically for the regular version of Windows, but all of the tile-based applications will work on Windows RT. There will also be special versions of the more popular applications, such as Microsoft Office, produced for this version of Windows 8.
The confusion continues with the new tile-style interface. There’s only a few months until Windows 8 launches and Microsoft still haven’t given us a satisfactory answer as to what to call the applications, previously known as “Metro”. “Call them Windows 8!” was the answer, which of course isn’t very helpful. More confusion was incoming when Microsoft announced another gaming service, “Xbox Live for Windows 8”. Games on this service will run on both the regular versions of Windows 8 and also the RT version. The “Games for Windows Live” service (which includes multiplayer infrastructure and a store for Windows desktop games) is also set to continue, although it doesn’t look like it’s getting the overhaul that many of us had hoped for.
Windows 8 will continue to be an open system as far as the desktop is concerned. Anyone can write, publish and distribute their own desktop software. For the tiles however, this situation has changed. The only way to publish a program to run on the new tiled interface screen is to go through Microsoft’s own store. Naturally Microsoft are keen on this idea, having seen the revenue generated on platforms like iPhone and iPad. Microsoft will, of course, also take a cut from each application sold in their store. This does have some benefits for consumers too, Microsoft will screen each application for malware before allowing it to be published, potentially keeping users safer from malicious software. Each application will run on up to five different devices too, meaning you can have, for example, a desktop, tablet and even (possibly) a Windows phone all running the same app you paid for once. The bureaucratic nature of submitting programs to Microsoft for approval will not suit many developers and open source advocates who are likely to simply boycott writing tile-based apps for Windows 8 altogether. A ‘jail break’ solution to this problem is likely to happen relatively quickly, at least on the standard version of Windows and it will be interesting to see how Microsoft reacts to this.
Is a hybrid OS just history repeating itself?
Windows 8 isn’t the first time that Microsoft have tried a hybrid solution for both touch and traditional desktop PC users. Windows XP tablet edition was launched in 2005 and had support for stylus input, on screen keyboards and other touch related features. The operating system carved out a small niche for itself in enterprise, but largely went unnoticed by consumers. There were three main reasons for this. The first and main reason was lack of software that took advantage of touch/pen input. Another reason was the weight and general bulk of most tablet PC’s at the time and the final factor was increased cost. For the price of a tablet PC a much higher spec laptop could be purchased instead. Microsoft is doing its best to take care of the software problem and advances in technology have taken care of the weight problem, but the cost problem seems to remain, expect to be paying over $1000 for a hybrid laptop/tablet running the full version of Windows 8. Of course, the advantage of having a full tablet that converts into a laptop easily is likely to appeal to many users, especially those who are often out on the road, enabling them to replace two gadgets with one.
While Windows 8 has a few minor missteps, the operating system itself is still solid, stable and for many users a worthwhile upgrade from Windows 7. For those of you who want to side-step the tiles and simply use the operating system on the desktop, third party utilities will enable you to do just that. It’s likely that even features like Aero Flip will be restored by third party software eventually. The locking down of the Windows store for tile-based applications is worrying, but the bulk of the operating system remains open to any and all developers.
The first batch of Windows 8 hybrid tablet/laptop machines look both interesting and useful and the notion of having a tablet that’s as flexible and powerful as a laptop is extremely appealing. Nevertheless the hybrid system isn’t without it’s problems. Being dumped into the desktop interface without a mouse and keyboard can be extremely fiddly, for instance, and working with the tiles with a keyboard and mouse is acceptable but hardly optimal. Will users overlook these issues in exchange for greater power and flexibility? Some undoubtedly will, but with the high cost of full Windows 8 hybrid tablets being so high, the idea of owning a separate tablet and desktop might be more appealing for some.
If you’re buying a new PC then we can absolutely recommend buying one with Windows 8 installed, there’s simply no reason not to. If you already have a PC, you might not find so much value in an upgrade. Next month we’ll run an article on upgrade options that will help you decide if Windows 8 is right for you.
Tip of the Month – XP Users – Get “snap” functionality with TrueTransparency
Since there are no doubt many of you intending to stick with Windows XP until you’re forced to upgrade, that means there’s a number of you who are probably sick of all the Windows 8 coverage. This little tip is specially for you Windows XP die-hard fans. If you’re on XP and you want to get some of the functionality of Windows Aero on your older machine, this cool little tool will help you. Once installed, you’ll be able to snap and shake your windows around just like on Vista and Windows 7. What’s more, you can have Windows Vista/Windows 7 style transparencies too! Check out our TrueTransparency tutorials for more information.
Free Utility of the Month – Fliptoast
We’ve featured several free utilities in the past that bring social networking to the desktop. Sadly some of them are no longer supported or no longer available. If you’re looking for a new, more efficient way to use and check Facebook, then FlipToast is a new utility that brings Facebook to your desktop in style. Update your status, upload photos, check your messages and more all without having to fire up your web browser and wade through the ever-overloaded Facebook web pages. While you won’t be able to ditch the Facebook website entirely, you will be able to carry out the most common tasks more quickly than ever before.
Fliptoast also supports Twitter too, though in our brief test we weren’t able to get it working, there’s also preliminary support for Youtube and other popular websites included. If you’re planning on a Windows 8 upgrade there’s even a version for the Windows 8 tiles too. Check out FlipToast by visiting this link.
Do you use your laptop on the road? Pay attention to Wi-Fi hotspot security!
We talk a lot about internet security here on Top-Windows-Tutorials.com, but one topic we’ve not covered in detail until recently is the subject of security when you’re out on the road. Computers, tablets and smartphones are so much a part of our lives now that many of us are online in some capacity all of our waking hours. Using the internet on the go through your mobile phone can be expensive. Your carrier may charge you for any data you transfer, or you may have a strict limit you can access. If you are abroad the problem is exasperated due to mobile phone operators high roaming costs.
Due to this, the many public Wi-Fi access points that are dotted around make for a tempting alternative to the restrictive internet access you might get on your phone. Using public Wi-Fi access points is much more dangerous however, there are a number of attacks that take place:-
Honey Pot access points – Also often known as “Pineapples”, these poisoned access points pretend to offer free internet to anyone in range. Connecting to one, the victim may be tricked into logging into Facebook, Twitter or any website only to have his or her credentials stolen by the access point itself, ready for the operator to collect them later
How to avoid them – Connect only to the Wi-Fi access point provided specifically by your hotel or by the location you’re currently at. If your machine connects automatically to a Wi-Fi access point and you know you are out of range (for instance you connect to your home network and you’re actually in another country) disconnect immediately.
Hack attacks from users on the same access point – When you join a public Wi-Fi access point, you could be joining a network with strangers. Some of these strangers might find the idea of accessing resources on your PC to be appealing, be it for a practical joke, out of childish curiosity or for more malicious reasons. Hacking a user on the same local area network (LAN) as you is much easier than attacking someone across the internet, so care must be taken when you’re on a public hotspot.
How to avoid them – Configure your firewall to block incomming connections from the same network, see our firewall tutorials for more information.
Packet capture attacks – Packet capture is the technique of sitting with a network card in listen mode and simply recording whatever goes over the airwaves. With a home Wi-Fi connection, you are protected from this kind of attack by using WPA encryption. When you’re out and about, you are much more likey to encounter an unsecured access point. Many hotels will, for instance, provide you with free Wi-Fi that’s totally unsecured and deceptively require you to enter an access key to connect. Pay attention to what your laptop tells you, if it says the connection is unsecured, then anything you send over the internet could be intercepted.
How to avoid them – The best way to avoid this kind of attack is to add extra security to your connection. By using a VPN service, you create an encrypted tunnel around all your traffic as you use the unsecured access point. Any data that is then intercepted will be scrambled and unintelligible to the attacker. Using a VPN will even protect you to a degree on most honey pot access points, though more often than not if you try to use one with such an access point you simply won’t be able to connect.
VPN’s have other advantages too. Concerned about how much data your ISP is collecting on you? Want to surf anonymously without worrying about online censorship? VPN’s can help with that too and are used by privacy advocates the world over.
If you are a regular traveller and you need to use public Wi-Fi access points, we highly recommend considering a VPN to protect yourself while out on the road. If you are accessing business critical data then you should talk to your IT department about a VPN connection. If you need one for personal use, we highly recommend you check out iVPN. iVPN have excellent connection speeds, great technical support and one of the best privacy policies in the industry. If you want to check them out, use this link.
That rounds off our newsletter for September. On behalf of everyone here at Top-Windows-Tutorials, I’d like to thank you all for your continuing support and we hope you all had a wonderful Summer (well, those of you on this side of the world anyway!). The TWT Newsletter will return on the 10th October 2012 and will bring you more tips, tricks and techniques to help you get the best out of your PC, be it Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7! We hope that you found this newsletter informative and useful. If you did not then please let us know why, you can contact us by visiting this page or by leaving us feedback in our forum. If you have enjoyed this newsletter, feel free to pass it on to all your friends and family, or better still encourage them to sign up for their own copy. Until next month, keep checking Top-Windows-Tutorials.com, and enjoy happy, safe and stress-free computing!