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Product Reviews

What to expect from Windows 8

Microsoft adds touchscreen capability to its updated operating system

The Acer Aspire laptop is among the first Windows 8 computers to be tested by Consumer Reports.

The Acer Aspire laptop is among the first Windows 8 computers to be tested by Consumer Reports.

Might a laptop be your next tablet? Maybe, if Microsoft has its way.

Windows 8, the just-launched version of the ubiquitous computer operating system, brings to laptops and desktops more of the touchscreen capability that has made the iPad and Android-based tablets so compelling to use.

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The first Windows 8 computers to hit our labs, the Acer ­Aspire V5-571-6891 laptop and Gateway One ZX6980-UB308 AIO desktop, offer an intriguing glimpse into how computer makers can keep prices down without entirely sacrificing Windows 8’s touch capability.

The 15-inch Aspire is a case in point. Acer was able to hold the price at $500 by using a less costly Intel Core i3 processor and a 500-gigabyte hard drive instead of the pricier, lightweight solid-state drive found in Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air.

Although there’s no touchscreen, there’s an enhanced touchpad that supports a variety of useful finger gestures. For example, to scroll through apps, you swipe the touchpad from the left. To switch between Windows 8’s two interfaces, you pull down from the top of the pad using four fingers.

Microsoft says that Windows 8 resumes activity from sleep mode more quickly than Windows 7. When Consumer Reports made that comparison, the difference was negligible.

The Gateway, a $750 all-in-one, has a 23-inch touchscreen. It uses a Pentium processor and has a 500GB hard drive. There’s no touchpad, but you can control the cursor and apps by gesturing in front of the screen, such as by moving your hand horizontally. Even with the screen’s sensitivity set to low, the gesture controls sometimes kicked in unexpectedly.

One pleasant surprise: Both computers have onscreen buttons for such functions as shut down, restart, sleep, and hibernate, to compensate for Windows 8’s lack of the familiar Start button on its desktop interface.

Here’s what you need to know about Windows 8 if you’re shopping for a PC:

It’s more tabletlike. The new OS has two user interfaces. One is almost identical to Windows 7’s desktop. The other, called the Start screen, resembles a tablet in the way it organizes items — by grouping tiles for e-mail, photos, video, social networking, and apps — and with its use of touch. You can easily switch between the two.

Its touch capability is a hit. Consumer Reports found the touch capability quite intuitive. In the course of performing various tasks, testers moved almost effortlessly from touchscreen to keyboard to mouse as needed.

There are rough spots. The Start screen will feel familiar if you’ve used a tablet, or even a smartphone. But the traditional desktop interface lacks the Start button that Windows users have relied on for years, to perform some common tasks, so you need to learn a different way to select them.

Upgrading might not be worth it. Any Windows 7 PC bought between June 2012 and January 2013 can be upgraded to Windows 8 for $15 until the end of February. Consumer Reports is still looking at whether Windows 8’s benefits are worth the upgrade.

Expect more touch capability. Touchscreens are about to become more common on laptops. A touchscreen could add roughly $100 to a laptop’s price.

Gesture controls are coming. Even without a touchscreen, you should still be able to enjoy some new tricks on a Windows 8 computer. Some new laptops and desktops have touchpads with enhanced multitouch capabilities that make the most of Windows 8. So if your budget won’t cover a touchscreen equipped PC, look for one with an enhanced touchpad.

Other manufacturers are adding gesture controls that let you raise volume or scroll through webpages by waving a hand in front of the screen.

Some Windows 8 PCs will respond to voice commands. Those models may well allow you to type on physical and virtual keyboards, use touchpads with enhanced capabilities, use hand gestures, take advantage of touchscreens, and speak commands — all on the same computer.

Netbooks are passé. There’s little need for them in the era of tablets, MacBook Air, Ultrabooks, and Windows 8. Any netbook you buy this season will almost certainly not include the new OS.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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