You know, Windows 8 … on a desktop. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Filip Skakun.

“Windows 8,” in Microsoft brand vaguery, can refer to all sorts of technologies, from infamous new sets of colored tiles that mostly confuse users to touch-enabled ultrabooks to tablets to Surface to Surface Pro, from computers that run Intel chips that run traditional Windows software to ones with ARM chips that don’t.

In the near future, some of this could be cool. Imagine a conventional laptop, for instance, you can convert into a tablet for touch-enabled live performance — no iPad required.

But yes, “Windows 8” is also the version of Windows that follows “Windows 7.” While we await more solid information on the tablet and convertible laptop picture, let’s focus on that – “Windows” as you’ve known in the past, on conventional laptops and desktop machines. That’s the OS that matters to people using Cubase, and SONAR, and Ableton Live, and FL Studio, and the like. For those conventional Windows users making music, there are two basic questions:

1. Should you upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8?
2. If you’re in the market for a new Windows computer, is Windows 8 a good choice?

The answer to each turns out to be, basically, “yes.” Windows 8 is either just as fast as Windows 7 or faster when it comes to running live music performance and music production apps, and upgrades are inexpensive and painless. Being able to squeeze more performance out of your machine is probably worth jumping for the upgrade, given there’s no real downside (since the compatibility picture remains basically the same as with Windows 7). Upgrading for the sake of it isn’t always worth it, but in this case the improvements in performance, while marginal, appear to offset the cost in time.

As for adding any new annoyances, if you find you miss the Start menu, you can bring it back – in fact, you can switch on a better alternative (see Lifehacker). Or you can simply ignore the new-fangled tiles and (more or less) use Windows as you knew it before.

One instance in which case you might want to stick with an older version of Windows: certain FireWire audio chipsets can have an issue with a chance introduced in Windows 7. As of Windows 7, you could switch back to a “legacy” driver, as described on M-Audio’s support forum. That same driver support is missing in Windows 8, though there are workarounds. This appears to be a relatively minor issue, though, impacting only some FireWire devices. It mainly goes without saying again, then…

Any time you upgrade any operating system on any computer, you should:

1. Check in advance for any potential compatibility issues with gear on which you rely. (Microsoft includes its own Compatibility Checker for driver checks.)
2. Make a full system backup to which you can easily revert.
3. Avoid doing the update at a critical time (like, oh, the day of a gig).

You don’t have to go by impulse alone, however. We have two reliable sources of test information, to whom we’ve turned in the past here at CDM: PC maker Rain Computing, a rare PC OEM that optimizes their machines specifically for music makers, and Windows-only DAW developer and music tech vendor Cakewalk and their ever-knowledgeable CTO Noel Borthwick.

I hope we’ll talk to Noel more in detail as Cakewalk does more with their SONAR software on the new hardware and OS, but he tells CDM that depening on your specific configuration, you should at worst get performance on par with Windows 7 – and, very possibly, performance gains. He also says Cakewalk’s testing has been unable to uncover any significant compatibility issues.

Good reading on the topic, with some hard performance numbers:


Conclusions from Noel:

The tests ran very smoothly with no problems noted under Win8 using SONAR X1. In fact you could push the system harder under Win8 without getting glitches in audio as compared to Win7. The tests show that despite the controversial changes to Windows, there are some significant benefits even for standard Windows desktop apps running Windows 8. This is great news for existing Windows 7 users who are considering an upgrade to Windows 8.

Synthtopia asked their readers the questions above, with the following results:
Should Musicians Upgrade to Windows 8?

Some Mac vs. Windows and Linux vs. Windows advice creeps in there, which is a whole other ballgame. But what you will see is that users are generally finding things work just as well as they did under Windows 7, often with a small but noticeable performance boost.

Rain Computers also have put the new OS through the paces, running a number of benchmarks, and been impressed with the results (see video, below).

Windows 8 – Audio Performance Testing

So, let’s talk to Rain about the specifics. Jami McGraw and Robin Vincent join us from the UK offices of Rain to share their results.

Rain Goes Windows 8: Interview, Video

CDM: In your testing, you say you singled out Steinberg’s UR28M audio interface for testing. Why did you opt for that interface in particular?

Robin: I happen to have one knocking around and it’s recently had a driver update that takes if from a well-featured donkey to a well featured thoroughbred. It doesn’t have magnificent drivers like an RME box – it has decent mid-level ones like most interfaces (Focusrite, Presonus., etc.), so it has a better chance of being representative.

Ed.: I’ll leave those vendors to argue among themselves about who has the best drivers, but vendors, Robin’s comments are in line with the reputation I typically hear for each of you, just so you know! -PK

Right now, it seems there’s little reason not to upgrade from W7 to W8 – especially as there are copious guides for disabling features people may find annoying. Did you find any reasons people might want to consider legacy compatibility?

Robin: I can’t think of reasons why people would stick with W7 over W8 other than the interface. XP still has its devotees because of particular pieces of software but i dont think that applies to an upgrade from 7-8. It doesn’t appear to have left anything behind. I would say that if you put the old Start Menu back then you are preventing yourself from learning a new and i believe more powerful interface – and you’re going to look like an idiot when using anyone else’s computer.

Jami: There is a general performance increase and stability increase in Windows 8 alone that makes it worth its weight. Also, the Start menu is still there; it’s just a Start ‘screen’ now. You have an identical desktop landscape; however, instead of having this little corner-based start menu, you have an easy-to-navigate full-screen start environment. Regarding compatibility, every major hardware manufacturer had Windows 8 drivers out for the consumer preview on. There are little to no drawbacks. And considering most interfaces are USB based-now, you have USB 3 now native in the OS, which ensures better backwards compatibility. A win-win, IMOJ.

Apart from performance gains, is there anything in Windows 8 that might be a draw for users evaluating the OS for musical applications?

Robin: I think touch is going to become increasingly interesting – but the hardware manufacturers haven’t worked out that a subsidiary touch screen could be a desirable tool for professionals. I don’t want a 24” touch screen vertically before me – my usual screen is fine – but I do want a side screen, maybe 17”, that’s touch-enabled that sits flat between keyboard and screen on which i can touch stuff. Smithson Martin’s Emulator software springs to mind – an awesome Lemur-like controller. I have a Dell touchscreen (22”) on order and plan to review Emulator once it’s here and I’ll also be looking into other areas with it. Currently software has to be touch-enabled to use more than a single touch or gesture – so you can’t just start moving eight faders simultaneously in Cubase with a touch screen – Cubase has to be enabled for that. Touch is very focused on the tablets at the moment which is a shame, as it could be far more interesting on big desktop machines.

Ed.: Suffice to say that we’re following the development of touch-enabled apps closely. Some apps do support is already – though not Cubase – and that’s best left for another article. It’s a landscape that’s changing.)

Robin: There’s one element that I’m unsure about and that’s the connection between “apps” and the desktop. As I understand it, at the moment, all apps freeze when the desktop opens – so if we were to consider all the cool iPad music apps like the Moog, Korg, Fairlight, etc., if they became W8 compatible would we be able to use them with our DAW? One advantage the PC has over tablets is immense CPU power, so surely it would make sense to enable the desktop to connect to multiple apps all running at the same time, all wired in via some virtual MIDI cable – but this, at the moment, looks unlikely.

Are you doing anything different in terms of optimizing Rain systems for the OS? Or, if not, can you summarize what you’ve been doing on W7 and W8?

Jami: We are doing some things quite differently, and others much of the same. Regarding taming the systems services, and boiling the OS down to a lean, mean performance rig, we still do much of that. However, aesthetically, we no longer need to cripple down to a no-bells-or-whistles appearance, because Microsoft has written this version much thinner and more efficiently than any of its predecessors. It’s the “have your cake and eat it too” type thing, which really makes for a smooth experience on a Rain.

Is touch something Rain is evaluating?

Jami: Yes, touch has definitely been tested. Many applications have add on drivers to use your tablet (not naming names) as a controller, which we have tested. However, touch monitors were the new sexy for us for a bit. Windows 7 had touch capability as well, but we found leaning up to touch your screen was not a great work flow process. And in the event your monitor isn’t a foot away from you, you would end up having to lean forward for every gesture. On the drawback, if your monitor WAS a foot away, we found our test subjects to go cross eyed after a 45 minute editing session. The coolest thing we are testing as of now is the touch pad mouse. It seems to have the best of both worlds. And when used tandem with a standard optical mouse, it made my workflow much more efficient.

One other thing – i should make clear that the [Rain] video [see above] in no way proves that upgrading your computer will result in better performance. There may be all sort of things contained in the upgrade process, or things that are carried over from your Windows 7 installation that would hamper the performance of Windows 8. The video makes no comment on that either way – I purely used brand-new technology and fresh installations. That said, I’ve heard of plenty of people who have experienced a small bump in performance after upgrading. It should also be stressed that the improvement is small.

What About New Windows 8 Applications and Tablets?

It’s early to judge how new Windows 8-style applications will fare on desktop and tablets (and new hybrid devices in between). There’s hardware out there, but quality can be spotty, particularly on the all-important touch sensor. I think it’s safe to expect a more mature crop of devices early next year. And the ARM-based tablets are particularly new. (In turn, Microsoft’s own Intel-based tablet, the Surface Pro, won’t be out until 2013.)

One particularly good piece of news, though. In June, we expressed concern that new Windows 8 apps for the environment then called “Metro” – now the next-generation app platform from Microsoft – wouldn’t allow low-latency audio.

Music Developer on Windows 8: A Leap Forward for Desktops; A Leap Backward for Metro, WinRT?

We’ve since heard via Noel Borthwick confirmation that WASAPI Exclusive Mode, a critical mechanism for providing low-latency audio, will be supported on the new platform. That doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate real-world low-latency performance – I think there’s a lot of hardware and software testing you’d want to do before making any final judgment – but it means some real promise for the platform, in a way that is absent on Google’s Android.

Via Synthtopia, Sonic State’s Sonic Talk program talks with Wizdom Music’s Jordan Rudess and Kevin Chartier – noted iOS (and Android, Blackberry) developers – about why they’re excited about touch development on the new gear.

What About System Builders, Mac Users Dual-Booting?

One final note: you’ll notice it’s even harder than before to look beyond “Upgrade” editions of Windows. If you’re building your own machine, or you’re a Mac or Linux user wanting to boot to Windows or install it in a virtual environment, there is still a version of Windows for you. It just has a new name: the System Builder’s Edition. Tracking it down can also be a bit of a challenge. Remember, unless you already have a copy of Windows installed, you can’t use the upgrade versions. I’ll be trying this myself on my MacBook Pro, so stay tuned.

Nearly half of CDM readers do still use Windows, so don’t worry – we haven’t forgotten about you. Expect more information soon.

Other questions, advice? Let us know.

Update: one compatibility issue, and the first we’ve heard so far, is Liine’s Lemur Editor software for Windows. We’re in touch with Liine; they’re now researching the problem.