Perhaps the most visible change to the Windows 8 Desktop (the "old" half of Microsoft's new operating system) will come from live performance graphs. Improved heuristics in the new Task Manager and all-new graphs in Windows Explorer, of all places, will tell you when "burst mode" kicks in and when your hard drive is slowing down.

In this 10-part series, 26-year veteran Windows tester Scott Fulton walks us through the best features, faculties and functions of Windows 8.

Performance, to the user, is the impression that things are moving smoothly and promptly. It's been said that if you find yourself measuring performance, it's because you don't have it - although now that I think about it, a politician may said this, not an IT pro. With Windows 8, Microsoft is becoming more comfortable with giving everyday folks easier access to meaningful performance metrics - and by "meaningful," I mean "not the Windows Experience Index." 


Making Performance Meaningful

Mind you, there have been performance monitoring tools for Windows for quite some time. The screenshot above shows Windows 7 (not Windows 8), and in the upper right is Task Manager, with a graph from its Performance tab. The window on the lower right is an independent tool called Resource Monitor, which can be pulled up from Task Manager. The problem with the original Sysinternals tools (maybe the only one, really) is that they present their data in very rich detail, making it somewhat inaccessible to the amateur. Like the tax code, you can decipher it easily enough if you know what it means.

Last week, one of my hard drives began failing on my multiboot test system. What I noticed first, however, looked like a complete system performance drop-off. I noticed the trouble in both Windows 7 and Windows 8, so I expected a hardware failure. But I wasn't certain: Perhaps the addition of a certain Media Center device driver to both operating systems was interfering with both systems.

It was the new Task Manager in Windows 8 that gave me the evidence I needed of a cache memory failure on one of my disks. I can't show you the exact moment I saw that data, but I can show you where it was: It's in the Task Manager window. Don't you see it? In the screenshot above, it's on the right.

The Performance tab on Windows 8's new Task Manager presents basic utilization charts in a much more easy-to-read format that dispenses with the "stereo volume bars" nonsense. (It's a computer, folks, not a graphic equalizer.) And in its new format, you can select Options > Always On Top, then right-click the window and select Summary View to eliminate the window dressing and narrow it down to just the contents. In this form, you can stretch and size the contents, and then drag them to some out-of-the-way place.

As the screenshot at the top of this article indicates, yes, Task Manager and Metro-style apps can co-exist, and not by means of Metro's funky app-snapping mechanism. For that shot, I double-clicked on the CPU utilization chart to have Task Manager center on that chart only. In case you're wondering, CPU utilization in the context of Windows 8 means the relative workload at any one time for all cores in the CPU collectively. On quad-core PCs, Windows 7-based utilization tools tend to render results on a 400-point scale. So folks who think their Web browsers hog CPU cycles at 105% utilization (as if that's really possible) might be interested to learn that their processor is really being taxed at about 26%. Here in Windows 8, the chart correctly registers full utilization at 100%.

In Windows Explorer (the file manager program), every version of Windows since Windows 95 has had a progress bar indicating the relative completion of long copy operations. In Windows 8, the optional "More Details" view (which you can turn on once and leave on) reveals a heuristic graph showing the bandwidth of transfers in progress, inside a taller version of the progress bar. I was able to isolate my failing hard drive as the cause of the system slowdown by attempting a big copy operation, then watching the graph. Rather than a consistently slow copy, I could see that the bandwidth had been reduced to zero, then would occasionally burst to full and regular speed and maintain that speed for as much as a minute. That's behavior consistent with a hard drive that either has a failing memory cache or whose regulator is not reporting it's spinning at a consistent speed.

A Full Rundown That Makes Sense

Finally, for the first time, Windows now has no problem actually showing you, on a graph, when and how it's crashed over time. One of my absolute favorite new performance graphs in Windows 8 is called Reliability Monitor. Think of it as a crash dump you can actually read.

The line at the top represents a "Reliability Index," which represents Windows' own internal assessment, on a 10-point scale, of how well its internal services, functions and drivers are working. It's surprisingly harsh on itself, grading itself gradually higher for each hour that no critical or nominal events occurred, but scoring itself down the moment something does go wrong. While the index itself may be an unimportant number, the telltale stair-steps in the line tell you when critical events occurred, as plotted against the calendar axis along the bottom.

To get a full report of every Windows-related event that happened on a particular day, including ordinary things like patches, updates and software installations, you click on the day in question. Now, how many times has this happened to you: You install something that Windows Update said you must have, and suddenly your performance slows down. With this chart, you can verify your suspicions: You can see the time when you installed the update (or when your PC installed it automatically), and you can gauge the relative performance drop compared to before the installation.

Microsoft is famous for burying great new features behind mountains of junk, and Reliability Monitor appears to be no exception. The company may change things for the final version, but in the Consumer Preview, you find Reliability Monitor like this: In the Notification Area, click the Action Center flag, and from the pop-up, select Open Action Center. Click the Maintenance category, then from the choices that slide down below it, locate and click the hyperlink View Reliability History.

Hardware fails and software fails. Operating systems fail even more often. These are everyday facts of life, which won't change just because some PC users switch to tablets. The way to cope with and overcome everyday failures is through information - through being able to perceive what's wrong rather than having to guess.

In the Microsoft Vista era, when a security feature was tripped, rather than give you any clue as to why it was failing, the Vista screen went completely black. It's a bit like having a disease, but instead of being told the diagnosis, having all the doctors in the hospital lock themselves in their offices. With that type of response, you might conclude it's not only fatal but contagious. And that could be for something minor like a misplaced Registry entry.

Being explicit about its own performance in Windows 8 tells me that Windows is finally maturing. After three decades of this, it's about time.