It's a familiar conundrum: Your old PC isn't quite as chipper as it used to be, and your usual rejuvenation strategies aren't as helpful as they once were. You need a new machine, and probably soon.
The problem? It's June 2012, and Microsoft is just a few months away from releasing an all-new, all-singing-and-dancing operating system. Do you hold out for hardware based on the revolutionary new OS? Or do you head out to the big box electronics store today and fetch a lovely new Windows 7-based laptop that could be yesterday's news before year's end?
It's a challenge that faces all PC buyers whose purchase cycles coincide with the dead zone leading up to a major new operating system release. If you find yourself lording over a failing machine, consider the following options as you try to navigate the next few months:
Buy now, stick with Windows 7
There's something to be said for using an established, mature operating system. Windows 7, which nicely relegated Vista to the dustbin of history as it went on to ship 600 million (and counting) copies, is a reliable, well-supported piece of code that gets the job done. Like millions of users who stick with older Microsoft operating systems — I'm looking at you, Windows XP — there's nothing wrong with not having the latest and greatest as long as it suits your particular needs.
As slick as Windows 8 promises to be, it won't turn Windows 7 machines into productivity pumpkins as soon as it hits store shelves later this year. It may also be wise to stay away from the new OS until the first service pack upgrade banishes most of the expected early-stage bugs. For Windows 7 stalwarts, Microsoft remains committed to its legacy offering for years to come, so buyers don't need to worry they're bringing home a soon-to-be-orphan.
Buy now, upgrade later
Microsoft hasn't released hardware minimums for Windows 8-based desktops and laptops, but based on developer/consumer releases and the current release preview, most observers expect the standards to match those currently set for Windows 7, which are:
Processor: 32- or 64- bit, 1 GHz or faster
Memory: 1 Gb of RAM for 32-bit installations, 2 Gb for 64-bit
Hard drive: 16 Gb of space for 32-bit installations, 20 Gb for 64-bit
At first glance, this means most machines that run Windows 7 comfortably — in theory, any computer you can buy today — should also accommodate an eventual upgrade to Windows 8. Your mileage may vary, of course, as Microsoft's minimum standards have often been inadequate for true, seamless, everyday use. If you're going to buy a current-generation PC and hope to upgrade the operating system to Windows 8 after it ships, don't buy the el cheapo model and expect it to be enough. It won't be.
Move up the spec ladder and open up the budget a bit for a machine with at least a mid-range processor, preferably a higher-end quad-core offering. Max out the RAM to at least 8 Gb and pay attention to video capability as well: avoid integrated graphics — a common cost-cutting approach on lower-end machines — and go for a machine with discrete video. Not sure what that looks like? Look at professional workstations or gaming machines, as they always have the best video. If you're buying a desktop, you can always add an updated video card later on. If you're bringing home a laptop, you'll have to ensure it comes so-equipped from the factory.
The gotcha here? You're stuck buying an extra copy of the operating system later on — prices haven't been announced, but as guidance a current Windows 7 upgrade can run anywhere between $130 for Home Premium to $250 for Professional. In the past, Microsoft has offered free upgrades to buyers who brought home a previous-generation machine after a certain date — often about two to three months before the new OS went live — but that may not be the case this time out. Reports from Cnet suggest customers may be stuck paying for some upgrade options.
Wait for Windows 8
Generally speaking, it's preferable to buy a PC that's been optimized from the factory for a particular operating system. Vendors tweak their machines to accommodate the new code, with custom drivers that, they promise, can improve reliability and performance. It also means you don't have to go out later and buy another box and run the gamut of upgrading it yourself.
Waiting for one of these wonder-machines means you're stuck keeping your existing hardware on life support. Balance the effort and risk required to ensure it's worth holding your breath for the next few months. If your old machine's performance is more an annoyance than a critical threat, it may be worth your while to hold out. If you're stuck duct-taping things together to keep your PC working, you may have no choice but to bite the bullet now.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org