I've made a lot of computer blunders over the years. The biggest was taking a perfectly well- functioning Sony Vaio and upgrading it from Windows XP to Windows Vista, which left it so crash-prone as to be all but useless.
So please believe me when I offer this word of advice on installing Microsoft's shiny new Windows 8 operating system:
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Windows 8 is far from the disaster Vista was. But unless you have a very recent personal computer with a touch screen, there are few benefits -- and some significant drawbacks in terms of learning curve and usability -- to upgrading from Windows 7.
Microsoft is doing its best to make the process attractive. Buyers of Windows 7 PCs between June 2, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013, can upgrade for $15, while owners of older computers can download a copy from Microsoft's online store for $40.
I decided to go old school, buying the traditional boxed DVD of Windows 8 Pro at the neighborhood Staples for $70. My guinea-pig machine was one I use specifically for testing software and services, a three-year-old Hewlett-Packard Pavilion desktop purchased at Costco -- just the sort of thing many families might have at home.
I began the upgrade at 9:45 a.m. and finished it an hour and 37 minutes later, not counting another 15 minutes or so spent solving a couple of lingering issues. The process wasn't entirely smooth.
Most of the time was spent staring at the screen, which was populated by various all-but-indistinguishable status updates: "getting devices ready," "getting ready," "while we're getting things ready," and finally, more than an hour into the process, "we're getting your PC ready." Wait, what have you been doing up to now?
The final message was accompanied by "this will take a few minutes." No kidding.
Theoretically, I could have just started the process and walked away. But as it turned out, that would have been a mistake.
Shortly after I began, the installer mysteriously quit and returned me to the Windows 7 desktop with no explanation. I restarted the process, which at least picked up where it had left off.
Then, more than an hour into the effort, the Pavilion's hardware-diagnostic program prevented a required restart of Windows until I manually intervened. Had I not been sitting in front of the screen monitoring developments, it would have taken even longer before I was up and running.
Finally, upgrade complete, I rebooted into the new Windows 8 Start screen. I was greeted with its colorful tiles -- and an error message that read ".Net 3.5 Client Profile Runtime has stopped working." When I tried to summon Microsoft's online help service for a solution, I discovered my PC no longer had Internet access, thanks to an incompatibility with the version of Symantec's Norton Firewall software I was using. (Most of my other existing programs, though, seemed to run fine with the new operating system.)
Once I sorted out those issues, I noticed an immediate benefit. Prior to the upgrade, it took the Pavilion about 2-1/2 minutes to boot from a cold start. Windows 8, though, was much faster: about 50 seconds.
The upgrade also gave me tiles to access Microsoft's new Xbox Music service and a not-yet-very-populated app store for programs written for the new interface.
The other Start-screen tiles were filled with self-updating information from my social networks, calendar and other applications. While I was able to navigate through them using the mouse, it's clear the interface is really aimed at users with touch screens.
Those are likely to be standard equipment on most new Windows PCs, including the new Windows tablets from manufacturers including, for the first time, Microsoft itself. But the millions of individuals and businesses with older, mouse-driven systems -- and even many with laptops that have a touch pad but no touch screen -- may find themselves needing to memorize keyboard shortcuts for many common tasks, a throwback to earlier days of computing.
While there's still a Windows 7-like desktop, it's been demoted: You launch it from one of the tiles on the Start screen. And missing from the desktop is the familiar button that would allow you to shut down or restart the PC. Instead, you're expected to summon what Microsoft calls "charms" -- a set of buttons running down the side of the screen -- choose Settings and power down from there.
That's fine for touch screens and for Windows tablets, which -- like Apple's iPad -- you shouldn't have to power down or reboot very often. But it's clumsy for users of more traditional PCs, who will have to learn just where to move the cursor on the screen to bring up the charms.
Further, there's no option to boot directly into the desktop environment, or restore the Start menu. And, adding to the sense of schizophrenia, Windows 8 has two separate versions of the Internet Explorer web browser, one written in the new style, the other a more traditional one that shows up when you're working on the desktop.
For buyers of new computers, Windows 8 will be inescapable, and may make sense for the new generation of hardware it's spawning. But if you don't already have something close to the latest and greatest PC and you're reasonably happy with Windows 7, my guidance is simple: