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Windows 8 and Surface RT Hit Retail Shelves

Microsoft's new Windows 8 client operating system and the Windows RT-based Surface tablet both hit the general availability milestone on Friday.

Windows 8 was earlier released in August to Microsoft's volume licensing customers, as well as its TechNet and MSDN subscribers, but Friday's release marks the first time the OS is available to consumers. Windows 8 software upgrades and hardware products are now available at various retail outlets worldwide in two versions: Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The Pro version is more complete and has some capabilities that home users might not value, such as domain joining, encryption (BitLocker and encrypting file system), Group Policy controls, Remote Desktop as a host, booting from virtual hard disks and desktop virtualization via Hyper-V. A comparison of features can be found in this Microsoft blog.

Microsoft's newest OS notably departs from past Windows releases based on its design. Windows 8 has a colorful tile-based user interface that supports touch, as well as keyboard-and-mouse interactions. The OS is reminiscent of the touch-based interface that's seen on Microsoft Windows Phone devices.

Sales of Windows 8 systems began after midnight on Thursday at retail and online stores. Consumers can expect to see a variety of models, including desktops, laptops, tablets and all-in-one computers. Availability by device maker will vary, but notable original equipment manufacturers that are building Windows 8 products include Acer, ASUS, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba. Some of the manufacturers will roll out products running Windows RT, which is Microsoft's Windows 8 version for ARM-based devices. Microsoft has indicated that "over 1,000 Windows 8 certified devices" will be on the market starting Friday.

Friday also marks the retail availability date for the ARM-based Microsoft Surface running Windows RT, with prices ranging from $499 to $699. The ARM architecture is widely used in mobile smartphones and is notable for enabling extended battery durations compared with traditional laptops. The new Surface devices are available at "27 retail and 34 holiday stores in the U.S. and Canada," according to Microsoft's announcement, with a list available here. Microsoft is also selling Surface in China and Hong in stores, as well as online in "Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States."

Microsoft also plans to release an x86/x64-based Surface Pro running Windows 8 in late January. These Surface Pro devices will use system-on-chip processors from Intel and AMD. Microsoft, which took a new turn by designing its own hardware with Surface, describes the lightweight and thin Surface as "PC tablet" devices.

Microsoft is selling Windows 8 devices via this page. However, for Windows 8 consumer deals offered by local retailers, see the listings at this Microsoft blog post.

Windows 8 Upgrade Offers
Typically, consumers would get Windows 8 when buying new machines from retailers. However, Microsoft has a limited-time offer for consumers buying new Windows 7 machines. If the Windows 7 machine was bought between June 2, 2012 and Jan. 31, 2013, it can cost $14.99 to upgrade to the Windows 8 Pro edition, provided that the terms of the deal are met.

Those consumers with older Windows 7 machines that do not meet that June-to-January purchase criteria can still get a low-cost upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. Starting today, those Windows 7 users can pay $39.99 for the upgrade, which takes place online. However, if the purchaser wants to have a DVD of the Windows 8 Pro upgrade as a boxed copy, it is still possible to get that today from retail outlets, but it costs $69.99, according to the details of Microsoft's offer. These upgrade offers are only good through January, after which the retail upgrade price of Windows 8 Pro for consumers could bump up to about $200.

Those looking to buy a boxed copy of Windows RT will look in vain. Microsoft doesn't sell the Windows RT OS as a separate product. It's sold with a device.

Microsoft is offering its Windows 8 upgrade offers via this portal page.

Hardware Considerations
Microsoft has claimed that Windows 7-logo PCs will be capable of running Windows 8, but touch screens and the hardware needed to run desktop virtualization can be considerations for some consumers. For those consumers that want the greatest assurance on the hardware front, without having to know the messy details, purchasing a new Windows 8-logo PC would be the best approach, instead of trying to run Windows 8 on older machines.

Touch-screen hardware that was used for Windows 7 may work with Windows 8. However, Microsoft has previously recommended that touch screens running Windows 8 should support a minimum of five touch points. While it's possible to use a mouse and keyboard with Windows 8, most users likely will want to use a touch screen.

While consumers might not be thought of as desktop virtualization aficionados, hardware is a consideration for those who are. Windows 8 Pro ships with Hyper-V (the Windows 8 version doesn't have it), which allows users to run another OS in a virtual machine. This desktop virtualization capability requires the use of a 64-bit client machine with processors that have second level address translation (SLAT) capabilities and at least 4 GB of RAM, as described in this Microsoft blog. Moreover, if the user is running Windows 7 or another Windows version in a virtual machine atop Windows 8, then that Windows copy has to be licensed to that machine or user.

Another option for controlling Windows 8 comes through the use of trackpads on laptops. During a Microsoft launch event in New York City on Thursday, Michael Angiulo, corporate vice president for Windows planning, hardware and PC ecosystem, demonstrated that capability using a Windows 7 laptop. The same finger movements that control Windows 8 on a touch screen can also work on a trackpad, according to the demo. However, it wasn't clear if all older trackpads would work the same. A CNet article looking at the Windows 8 RTM version suggested that drivers are needed to make it work.

UPDATE: According to a Microsoft spokesperson, the ability to use gestures on trackpads depends on whether that capability is supported by the computer maker. "It's up to the OEMs to determine whether they will be installing track pads that support Windows 8 gestures. There are special track pads that have been designed for Windows 8 devices," the spokesperson noted.

An on-demand replay of Microsoft's launch event for Windows 8 in New York City can be accessed here.

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