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Ten Must-Know Windows 8 Features

Have you seen the Windows 8 commercials on TV? Those devices sure look great. The print ads are stellar, and of course all the news organizations are reporting their Windows 8 stories. But all they want to talk about is the Windows 8 user interface, thinner and lighter devices, and so on.

Something is missing from all those commercials, ads, and news stories. The IT pro who takes care of everybody else’s computers and sees to it that they are fit and healthy is missing. You. So what does Windows 8 have to offer you? That’s the point of this article. We’re going to describe ten Windows 8 features you absolutely, positively must know about. We’ll start with File Explorer.

File Explorer

Remember the first time you saw Windows Explorer? Meet File Explorer. We’ll grant you that File Explorer is not new, but we did much more than just rename the tool from Windows Explorer. As you see in Figure 1, File Explorer has a new ribbon that makes discovering and using its features simpler. (It is similar to the ribbon in Office 2010, so you’re probably already familiar with it.) File Explorer also offers an Advanced File Copy feature that displays a real-time performance graph, stacks multiple file-copy operations into a single window, and provides more advanced conflict resolution that can help you more accurately determine which copy of a file to keep, if not both.

Figure 1. File Explorer

Task Manager

Next on the list is Task Manager. This isn’t the Task Manager of yesteryear. The Task Manager in Windows 8 provides far more detailed information and more options for managing the processes that are running on your computer. For example, Figure 2 shows you the significant amount of detail that Task Manager displays about your computer’s performance.

You can also start, stop, and restart services. You can disable apps that start when the operating system starts and view a history of app performance over time to determine whether an app is using more than its fair share of your resources. One of our favorite things about Task Manager is that you can now see what processes are running in all those Service Host processes—all without breaking out another tool.

Figure 2. Task Manager

Windows To Go

Windows To Go has received a lot of hype, and there is a great reason for it. It is very cool. In a nutshell, you can use Windows To Go to create a portable Windows 8 workspace hosted on a USB 3.0 flash drive. You can boot that workspace on almost any computer.

The benefit is obvious: It gives users a great deal of flexibility to access their personalized desktop environment on almost any computer, without toting around a laptop. The bottom line is that Windows To Go helps you realize entirely new deployment scenarios.

You use the Windows To Go Creator tool to build portable workspaces, but you can only build workspaces on computers running Windows 8 Enterprise. Other than that, the requirements are actually pretty lenient. It does want to USB 3.0 flash drive, but we’ve created portable workspaces on USB 2.0 flash drives and had great experiences with the performance. If you want to learn more about Windows To Go, take a look at Windows To Go: Feature Overview on TechNet.

BitLocker and BitLocker To Go

BitLocker and BitLocker To Go are not new features, but there are some enhancements that are going to interest you. (You’ll notice that many of the Windows 8 highlights are enhancements to existing features and not radical changes.) One of the BitLocker highlights is that standard users can now change their BitLocker PIN and password on operating-system volumes and BitLocker password on data volumes. If you’re not using Microsoft BitLocker Administration and Monitoring, this might save you a lot of calls.

Our favorite new BitLocker features is Used Disk Space Only Encryption. You can still encrypt a full volume, but now you can encrypt only the used disk space when you enable BitLocker. It’s something you have to see to believe. Encrypt two USB flash drives that are the same size and contain data. On the first, use full volume encryption and on the second, encrypt only used disk space. The second device will encrypt in a fraction of the time it takes to encrypt the first devices.

There are a lot of other great enhancements to BitLocker. To learn about them all, see BitLocker Overview on TechNet.

Authentication Choices

Authentication is not the most glamorous topic, but as an IT pro, you might be interested in Windows 8 authentication enhancements. Two of the most notable are Virtual Smart Cards and Dynamic Access Control. Virtual Smart Cards enable two-factor authentication in a cost-effective way. They work in conjunction with the TPM as a convenient and secure solution to access control. For more information about Virtual Smart Cards, see Smart Card Overview on TechNet.

Dynamic Access Control enables granular and complex resource protection. With Dynamic Access Control, you can apply permissions and restrictions on resource access based on the resource's sensitivity, the user, or the device being used to access that resource. For example, a user can access a document from a trusted connection in the office but when travelling, the user can’t access the document due to its access restrictions. See Access Control and Authorization Overview to learn more.

Secure Boot

Secure Boot is an often misunderstood feature. It can help prevent authorized firmware, operating systems, or UEFI drivers from running when the computer boots. It maintains databases of software signers and images that are pre-approved to run on the computer. To learn all the details, see Reengineering the Windows boot experience.

Client Hyper-V

Client Hyper-V is one of the best Windows 8 features for IT pros. On your desktop computer, it provides the same virtualization platform running on Hyper-V servers. You can use it to test applications, learn about new technologies, test deployments, and so on. The best part is that it supports both 32- and 64-bit guest operating systems.

You can install Client Hyper-V on 64-bit computers that have Second Level Address Translation (SLAT) enabled. Most modern PCs support SLAT. It supports as many as 12 monitors, most USB devices, wireless networks, and sleep and hibernate states. It also offers a full-fidelity desktop experience, including USB device redirection, 3D, audio, multi-touch, and so on.

In short, Client Hyper-V can help you work more efficiently. It's not really a feature intended for user virtualization. Instead, it can help you avoid buying new hardware to set up lab and test environments. You can easily transfer VMs between Client and Server Hyper-V environments. Last, most IT pros will have a zero learning curve for using Client Hyper-V, because it is almost identical to Server Hyper-V.

To learn more about Client Hyper-V, see Client Hyper-V on TechNet.

Windows 8 Apps

More than likely, you already know about Windows 8 apps. They provide a new and exciting experience. The part that will interest the IT pro in you is that you can deploy line-of-business (LOB) Windows 8 apps by sideloading them, instead of installing them from the Windows Store.

You can only sideload apps on Windows 8 Enterprise edition (or on Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT devices by installing a sideloading product key on the device). The target computer must also be joined to the corporate domain and the Group Policy settings “Allow all trusted apps to install” must be enabled (unless you have installed a sideloading product key). Last, the app must be signed by a trusted code-signing certificate.

You can use Windows PowerShell to sideload an app for the current user or the Deployment Image Servicing and Management (DISM) tool to provision apps on the Windows 8 image for all users. The article How to Add and Remove Apps on TechNet provides more details. Additionally, System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Service Pack 1 natively supports Windows 8 app deployment, and the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012 Update 1 supports provisioning Windows 8 apps during Windows 8 image deployment.

AppLocker

AppLocker is yet another feature that isn’t new. However, the reason that you need to know about it is that you can use AppLocker to deny and allow users to run specified Windows 8 apps based on many factors. AppLocker is not the most exciting feature in the world, unless your manager asks you to restrict the apps that users can run on corporate computers. Then you’ll think it’s the best thing ever. To learn more about AppLocker, see AppLocker Technical Overview.

Tool Updates

The last Windows 8 feature that you need to know about isn’t a Windows 8 feature at all. Nonetheless it belongs in this article. It’s the tools that you use to deploy and manage the Windows operating system. They are already updated and ready for Windows 8. For example:

  • The Windows Automated Installation Kit is now the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (Windows ADK), and you can download it from Microsoft Download Center.
  • The Microsoft Deployment Toolkit Update 1 supports Windows 8. It even supports Windows 8 app deployment natively. You can download the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit from the Microsoft Download Center.
  • System Center 2012 Configuration Manager Service Pack 1 also includes Windows 8 support. Like the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012 Update 1, it offers native support for deploying Windows 8 apps.
  • The Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) for Windows 8 are already available on the Microsoft Download Center. It includes Server Manager, Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-ins, consoles, Windows PowerShell cmdlets and providers, and command-line tools for managing roles and features that run on Windows Server 2012.

Conclusion

We have highlighted only ten features in Windows 8. There are many more that IT pros like you will like. Windows PowerShell and the PowerShell Integrated Scripting Environment come to mind.

To experience these features for yourself, you can download and install the Windows 8 Enterprise evaluation image from the TechNet Evaluation Center. It’s a fully functional 90-day evaluation that you can use to learn more about what makes Windows 8 a great operating system for businesses.