Over the past few months, we have looked at some of the changes coming in the CompTIA A+ exams as they are being updated. The new exams (to be named 220-901 and 220-902) are expected by the end of the year and one of the topics being added is that of Microsoft Windows 8/8.1. Both Windows 7 and Windows Vista will be tested on as well, but that has been the case for the past three years with the current version (Windows XP, which is currently teste on with exam 220-802, will no longer be test fodder)
In this month's column, we will look at Windows 8/8.1 from the perspective of addressing some of what CompTIA wants you to be familiar with for exam 220-902. If you've used the operating system for any length of time, then there will not be any surprises here. If you've stuck with Windows 7 until the release of Windows 10, however, then you'll want to pay close attention to the details and make sure you understand them (and get as much hands-on experience with the OS before the exam as possible).
The leap from one operating system to another can be either an evolutionary change or a revolutionary change. Windows 8 was a revolutionary change from the operating systems that came before it in the adoption of a tablet-friendly interface implemented across all devices. The interface was designed to accommodate touch gestures on a touchscreen, but it did not make their existence mandatory: You can still navigate with a keyboard, mouse, and touchpad.
Windows 8.1 was released as an update to replace Windows 8 and to make running the operating system on a system without a touchscreen easier. The changes from 8 to 8.1 were evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, and they could arguably fall under the category of a patch (or a step backward to adapt to hardware). The biggest noticeable difference is that during boot, the OS checks to see if it is on a touch-capable device. If it is not, then it boots to the desktop view (which looks like Windows 7) instead of to the Start screen (which is still there just the same).
Windows 8 was released in four different editions: Windows 8 (commonly called "core"), Windows 8 Pro (similar to Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate in terms of features), Windows 8 Enterprise (for volume licensing), and Windows 8 RT (for preinstallation on tablets). The RT version includes touch-optimized versions of Microsoft Office. All of the versions include the Start screen, Desktop, Windows Store, secure boot, and drive encryption. Only the Pro and Enterprise versions support BitLocker and Encrypting File System (EFS).
The minimum hardware requirements for a 32-bit installation are a 1GHz (or faster) processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of hard drive space, and a DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver. For 64-bit installations, this rises to 2GB of RAM and 20GB of hard drive space. Naturally, for touch capabilities, you need a monitor that supports touch, and you need an Internet connection to be able to access the Windows Store if you should need software from there. Windows 8 RT runs on an ARM processor, not on x86/x64 processors. This is important because programs and upgrades written for the x86/x64 processors will not work on RT.
The following table lists a number of features associated with the Windows 8 operating system that CompTIA wants you to know for the exam, along with a brief description of each.
Key Windows 8 Features
The Windows Start screen, with its tiled look, provides a main location where you can access everything. Depending on whether you have a touch-enabled device or not, how you interact with this screen will differ. The following table lists common actions and ways of navigating the Start screen based on whether you are using touch gestures or a keyboard and mouse.
Navigating the Windows 8 Start Screen
On the Start screen, you can start typing the name of any app, setting, or file and the OS will attempt to find what you are looking for and narrow your options to that. You can also search by using the Search icon (which looks like a magnifying glass) in the upper-right corner of the Start Screen.
As with any operating system installation, the two primary methods of installing Windows 8 are to either perform a clean install or an upgrade. With a clean install, no traces of any previous operating system are kept, and the main concern is that the hardware meets (or preferably, exceeds) the minimum requirements. Clean installs are usually done with new hardware and virtual machines (and, to a limited extent, multiple boot installations).
With an upgrade, the focus is on keeping something from the previous operating system that was installed earlier on the machine. That "something" can be user accounts, data, apps, or almost anything else. In the simplest sense, if you're keeping any existing data, consider it an upgrade otherwise it is a clean install.
When the upgrade is done without removing the existing operating system (the norm), this is known as an in-place upgrade. Windows 8.1 can do an in-place upgrade only from Windows 7 or Windows 8, and the following table shows the upgrade possibilities (since Windows RT 8 is designed for preinstallation on tablets, there is not an upgrade path for it).
Windows 8 Upgrade Options
The easiest way to see if your current hardware can run Windows 8.1 is to download and run the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant. Clicking to see more information in the wizard (Compatibility Details) brings up information and it lets you work through each issue individually. A tutorial and link to download the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant can be found here.
When it comes to software, the easiest way to see if your current apps work with Windows 8.1 is to visit the Windows Compatibility Center.
As mentioned, Windows 8 can be installed as an upgrade or a clean installation — accomplished with the Custom option (think custom = clean). When you choose Custom, you can choose whether or not to format the hard disk. If you choose not to format the hard disk, the old operating system is placed in a folder named Windows.old to allow you to attempt to return to the old operating system if needed. After 28 days, any files placed in the Windows.old folder are automatically deleted.
Continuing the theme of looking at topics associated with the newest versions of the CompTIA A+ exams, next month we will look at updates to the software troubleshooting category.