Many of us are pretty familiar with Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and have used it in various forms on our PCs for years. With the launch of Windows 8, Microsoft’s bold new direction has left at least a few of us scratching our heads.

So what’s different about Windows 8, and should you upgrade?

Two in one

To start with, Windows 8 actually contains two distinct and different looking interfaces which support the past, as well as the future of computing. Windows will still work perfectly well with a keyboard and mouse, of course, but the colourful new ‘Live Tiles’ interface is more sharply focused on making the most of new touch-centric computing devices. It’s a necessary and forward-looking move on the company’s behalf, and one which recognises the increasing important of tablets, convertibles (tablets with snap-on keyboards), super-slim Ultrabooks and touchscreen-enabled all-in-one style PCs.

The new Live Tiles interface consists of a horizontally scrollable ‘Start screen’ filled with dynamic ’tiles’. These Tiles can represent different applications, folders, people, documents, websites and more, and are ‘alive’ with the latest info, keeping you up to date at a glance.

Dynamic 'tiles' on the Windows 8 Start Screen represent different applications, with information accessed via touch control.

However, the old-style desktop view from Windows 7 (and earlier versions) is included in Windows 8 too, so you can switch back to it – and between the two – whenever you want. So if you prefer to use a mouse and keyboard, the desktop view is probably where you’ll spend your time, and if you have a touch-enabled monitor it will work with touch too.

Conveniently, if you’re running a new Windows 8 program that is designed for Live Tiles, Windows 8 will automatically revert to the Live Tiles mode. If you’re running an older Windows program created before Windows 8, this will run in the conventional desktop mode.

Apart from its dual interfaces, Windows 8 has a lot of new features too, and has pretty much been rebuilt from the ground-up. Performance-wise, it’s faster, uses power more efficiently and enables you to switch between applications in less time than Windows 7.

Search for new software at the Windows App Store

Security has been beefed up and there’s now a Windows App store for browsing and purchasing new software, some of which is free. Windows 8 also sees cloud integration added to the mix, which means that your photos, documents and settings can be synchronised with your cloud storage folders, enabling you to access them from wherever you are.

To upgrade, or not to upgrade?

So is Windows 8 worth the upgrade? For starters, download-only Windows 8 Pro upgrade is priced reasonably at $39.99, or $69.99 for the DVD version.  For many who are using older PCs, however, sticking with Windows 7 and its mouse-centric interface is probably the best option.

If you’re buying a new computer, especially one with a touchscreen or touch pad interface, this is where Windows 8 is right at home, and you’ll enjoy the fresh new design and all of the productivity benefits that come with it.