So you want a computer with Windows 8? Welcome to Decision City, population you. On October 26th, the day Microsoft launches its new operating system, you'll be able to choose from a tremendous array of laptops, desktops, tablets and even some computers that defy traditional form factors. You'll be able to pick from no fewer than five different types of processors and three versions of the operating system in all. Or, you can simply upgrade your existing computer to Windows 8 without a lot of trouble. Here are a number of the questions you'll probably be asking yourself:
How much does Windows 8 cost? When can I get it? Where can it be found? What's that "Windows RT" thing I keep hearing about?
We're going to help you navigate that sea of choices in this very article. Incidentally, the answers to those first three questions are these: 1.) as little as $14.99, 2.) October 26th, and 3.) just about anywhere computers are sold.
The real first question is this: Are you looking to upgrade your existing computer, or do you want a brand new machine? If you just want to upgrade, read on. If you're looking for a new laptop, tablet, all-in-one, or crazy transforming computer, click that little "new Windows 8 machine" button on the left to skip downwards.
I’m upgrading my existing PC
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Installing Windows has gotten easier over the years, and Windows 8 might be the cheapest, most painless upgrade yet. You can download an official Microsoft program that will install Windows 8 right over your existing copy of Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP, and depending on the version, you can maintain your files, settings, and possibly even your installed programs.
What can you transfer over?
That depends on which version of Windows you’re currently running.
- Windows 7: settings, files and programs
- Windows Vista (SP1): settings and files
- Windows XP (SP3): files only
The SP stands for Service Pack, and both of them are updates you can easily download before you get started.
Should I get Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro?
First and foremost, if you've got Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate right now, you'll need to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro. Otherwise, vanilla Windows 8 should be fine for most installs. Both versions have the full Windows Desktop, the new Start Screen, all the new gestures, and the ability to install both traditional software and apps from the Windows Store. What Windows 8 Pro adds is primarily a bunch of business-friendly features like BitLocker drive encryption, file encryption, client-side Hyper-V, the ability to join a Windows Server Domain, and to host a Remote Desktop. If that all sounded like a bunch of meaningless jargon, vanilla Windows 8 will do nicely.
Note that neither version comes with Windows Media Center, and Windows 8 Pro is one step closer to getting that home entertainment software suite. From vanilla Windows 8, it will cost you at least $70 to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro with Media Center, but if you’ve already got Windows 8 Pro, Media Center will be an inexpensive incremental download. In fact, for right now, it's free: Microsoft is giving the Media Center pack away free with Windows 8 Pro until January 2013.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, is your PC ready for a new operating system at all?
- 1GHz or faster processor
- 1GB RAM for 32-bit, 2GB RAM for 64-bit
- 16GB available disk space for 32-bit, 20GB for 64-bit
- 1366 x 768 screen resolution
- A working internet connection
- DirectX 9 compatible graphics with WDDM 1.0 or higher drivers
32-bit and 64-bit refer to your processor's underlying architecture, but you don't really need to know much about that. With the exception of a few Intel Atom processors in netbooks and nettops, most machines where you'd want to install Windows 8 can use a 64-bit version of Windows. That's also what you'll probably want to get, because without 64-bit you can't take advantage of more than four gigabytes of memory in your computer. Most recent laptops and desktops come with 4GB at a minimum, with 6GB and 8GB becoming more and more common.
Mind you, these are the minimum requirements, and you might want a bit more horsepower if you’re planning to run CPU- or GPU-intensive programs.
So, how much will the operating system cost, and how do you get it installed? Point your eyes to the right to see pricing options, then continue on down to the install process.
If you’ve ever installed a previous version of Windows, you’re about to find out that Windows 8 is a breeze by comparison. If you’re upgrading over your existing OS, it’s the same basic set of steps we described for the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. You use an automated setup tool to download the necessary files, it informs you if you have any incompatible programs, and then you let it install. Then, you just set a number of setting sliders to determine how Microsoft handles your privacy and overall experience (or tap a button to skip past them) and you’re done.
If you’re installing fresh, you’ll need to burn the ISO to a bootable USB flash drive or DVD drive, using the very same Microsoft tool, and tell your computer to boot from those instead, and you’ll need to backup any critical files ahead of time so they aren’t wiped out when you reformat. There are also fancier options, like setting up a dual-boot arrangement or installing on a separate partition.
I’m looking for a new Windows 8 machine
You want a new computer? What type, though? Let’s survey your options. On October 26th, you’ll have a whole number of new form factors to choose from. There are laptops and desktops, certainly, but also tablets. There are also desktops that act like tablets, and tablets that act like laptops, and laptops that fold into tablets too. If that’s not confusing enough, there are two different operating systems underneath. Not every combination will be right for your needs, so choose wisely.
Windows 8 vs. Windows RT
Some of these machines run Windows 8, with all the features in the full desktop operating system, while others run Windows RT. What’s that? It’s a stripped down version of Windows 8 designed for ARM processors. Windows RT computers will likely have higher battery life, but they can’t run your old programs. You’ll only be able to use apps from the Windows Store, and even then you can only use apps designed for the new user interface, not new desktop apps. You do get a pre-installed version of Office, with Word, PowerPoint and Excel, however.
The silicon inside
Does that price tag or battery life sound too good to be true? It might hide a difference in processing power inside. Here’s our handy cheat sheet so you don’t get taken for a ride. Tegra 3 and Snapdragon S4 are low-power ARM chips, so they’ll only run Windows RT. Battery life should be good, and devices thin, but performance relatively slow. Next up, Atom chips will have the full Windows 8 experience, but with the performance of a netbook. An AMD Z-60 will have even less battery life than Atom, but possibly slightly better graphics. AMD A4, A6, A8, and A10 ups the performance and lowers the battery life across the board, and finally Intel’s Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 are generally the top of the heap as far as pure performance is concerned. If you want some of the power of Intel’s Core but slightly longer battery life, look for a U at the end of the name. The Core i5-3317U, for instance, still drains batteries far faster than an Atom or Z-60, but should handle most non-intensive tasks with ease.
It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish what the word “laptop” means anymore, but the traditional clamshell certainly has a place with Windows 8. Some manufacturers are updating their touchpad software to support Windows 8 gestures, while others are actually adding touchscreens. A touchscreen on a clamshell won’t be for everyone, since that keyboard can get in the way, but it can be rather nice if you occasionally want to touch the screen.
It looks like even lowly netbooks will be preloaded with Windows 8, so clamshells can be a cheap way to get in on the game. You can find a touchscreen clamshell as cheap as the $599.99 Asus Vivobook X202, or as fancy as the $1,299.99 Asus Taichi, which has two 1080p touchscreens: one on either side of the lid. Anyone for a game of Battleship? We also have to mention the exceedingly thin, gorgeous $1,199.99 Acer Aspire S7, with a glass-covered lid that opens a full 180 degrees, so it can lie flat on a table for two people to collaborate.
Tablets and Transformers
You don’t always need a keyboard to use Windows 8, however, and so the PC industry’s built a whole host of tablets to welcome the new operating system into the fold. You can easily hold them in either landscape or portrait orientations, and most come with full-size USB ports and have SD card slots to augment their storage. Some have optional cellular radios so you can take them on the go. The downsides are usually a fairly low screen resolution of 1366 x 768, and typically, less processing power than you’d fit into a laptop.
Some of them have detachable keyboards, like the $599.99 Asus Vivo Tab RT, which comes bundled with one. Most add an additional cost. Many of those keyboards even have an extra battery inside that can double the tablet’s battery life. Microsoft’s own $499.99 Surface RT has a keyboard built right into one of two optional magnetic covers that fold around the back of the machine and can protect its screen too. Others have docking stations, like the $799.99 Acer Iconia W700’s three-port USB 3.0 dock, or active stylus pens, like the $649.99 Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2. One of the most interesting detachable tablets won’t be available at launch, though: the $499.99 Acer Iconia W510, which can also flip into a stand mode with its optional keyboard dock.
If you’re sure you’re going to use a keyboard with your tablet, though, you might decide to buy one where it’s permanently attached. Come October 26th, you’ll be able to choose touchscreens that twist, slide, spin, or even fold backwards into tablet configurations. Machines like the $849.99 Lenovo ThinkPad Twist and $1199.99 Dell XPS 12 are sized more like laptops, which means they won’t be nearly as easy to tote as a tablet, and can be clumsy in tablet mode, but they’ve also got laptop-class processors inside and many have higher-resolution screens than machines that are designed to be tablets first and foremost.
For $999, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 stands out with its crazy 360-degree hinge and a surprisingly reasonable price, but we’re also not going to underestimate the charm of Sony’s $1,099 Vaio Duo 11 and Toshiba’s $1,149.99 Satellite U920T sliders. The Vaio Duo 11 also supports an active stylus.
Before Windows 8, all-in-one computers seemed like mostly a space-saving exercise, a way to store components in the same area as the screen. Now, they’re more like gigantic tablets with hefty processing power. If you’re looking for a stationary computer with a touchscreen, they make more sense now than they ever did before. Many can also double as multimedia centers thanks to their large, high-resolution screens, integrated speakers and DVD or Blu-ray drives, and some even have the TV tuners and HDMI input required to double as a small TV set.
So far, we’re tracking prices as low as $749 for the basic Samsung Series 5 All-In-One PC, with a 21.5-inch screen, and $800 seems to be a good starting point for an entry-level AIO with a touchscreen. Prices go way up, though: the 27-inch, 2560 x 1440 panel on the Dell XPS One 27 will set you back at least $1,599.99, and you’ll pay $1,899.99 for the minimalist stylings of the Acer Aspire 7600U. The craziest all-in-one on sale might be the Sony VAIO Tap 20, though. It really is a gigantic 20-inch tablet, which weighs about 11 pounds and comes with a removable battery offering an estimated 3.5 hours of battery life. It starts at $879.99.
Desktops and peripherals
All-in-one PCs aside, there aren’t a lot of desktops specifically designed for Windows 8, but there are plenty of desktops that will run the OS, and you’ll be able to get a whole variety of peripherals to add the touch experience back in. Peripheral manufacturers including Microsoft and Logitech will have touch mice and touchpads available, and several manufacturers will offer touchscreen monitors, which you can connect to a desktop or laptop.
Which is the right Windows 8 PC for you?
Click here to see our full Windows 8 hardware StoryStream, chock full of new laptops, desktops, tablets and convertibles.
So there you have it: a list of your options if you absolutely, positively must get Windows 8 on the day of launch. Would we recommend you do that? Not necessarily. You’re looking at the first wave of hardware for a pair of unproven operating systems, and while it’s new and exciting stuff, we’ll be bringing you full reviews of these devices over the coming weeks to help you make balanced purchasing decisions. Either way, check out our reviews of Windows 8, the Microsoft Surface, and the Asus Vivo Tab RT to see what Microsoft’s new platform is capable of.
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