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Windows 8 laptops and PCs buying advice

Everything you need to know when buying a Windows 8 machine

Windows 8 is designed to work across a variety of desktop and mobile computers. As hardware makers get to grips with the OS, they'll have to rise to the challenge Microsoft has set: creating computers with a variety of input mechanisms and screen sizes, all utilised via a single, unified interface. Visit our Microsoft Windows 8 review.

It's not such a great challenge for users, though. We've been running Windows 8 for months now, and it's fair to say the transition has been one of the smoothest Windows upgrades many of us have experienced.

And an upgrade it is. If you're new to Windows 8 you'll find it very similar to Windows 7 and Vista – just a little faster and a tad more stable. The Start menu has been replaced with the Modern UI Start Screen, a tiled interface that brings the desktop OS into line with Microsoft's mobile software, and offers access to the Windows Store and apps. But for the regular PC user, the main event will continue to be the classic desktop.

Windows 8 is speedy, good-looking and stable, and it doesn't represent too steep a learning curve. It runs faster and is more stable on the same hardware as Windows 7 and Vista. With Windows 8, fast systems should be available at low price points.

Here, we set out to provide a snapshot of the systems that will be available from 26 October. We set no limits to price or specification, and asked only that vendors submit PCs that will interest our readers.

WorldBench 6, our usual benchmarking tool, is not compatible with Windows 8. We've instead used PCMark 7 (see page 74). Given that the laptops were supplied running Windows 7 (although they will be available with Windows 8 from 26 October), we also ran WorldBench 6 on these machines prior to upgrading them.

Windows 8: Buying advice

All the desktop PCs in our round-up came with Windows 8 preinstalled, and we upgraded the laptops from Windows 7. The vendors have assured us that versions of each machine will be available with Windows 8 from 26 October.

If you do buy a machine that is still running Windows 7, and envision upgrading the operating system, check for a Windows 8 certification logo. The motherboard, in particular, will need to be Windows 8-compatible, and you can check whether your various peripherals will play nicely with the new OS by comparing them to Microsoft's list at tinyurl.com/99wanpp.

Few peripherals designed for Windows 8 were available at press time. In particular, Microsoft has recommended that the OS is navigated using a 10-point touchscreen, but monitor makers are waiting to see the level of demand for such screens before starting production. Of the four desktops here that are supplied with screens, three have only two-point multitouch functionality and one is a standard (non-touch) display. You may decide you want to wait a while rather than splash out on a screen that isn't optimised for Windows 8 now.

If you can afford it, get a PC fitted with an SSD – at least 60GB in capacity if you'll be using it as your boot drive. We saw significantly better performance results in PCMark 7 and noticeably improved system responsiveness from these PCs.

A smaller-capacity SSD can also be utilised to accelerate the hard drive when coupled with Intel's Smart Response Technology. For this you'll need an advanced motherboard, preferably with a Z77 chipset.

Both AMD and nVidia have produced graphics drivers for Windows 8, so your choice of graphics solution should be based on your specific requirements. Non-gamers will get by with integrated GPUs.

For system RAM 4GB is a good starting point. We'd prefer to get 8GB, but not if it means cutbacks have been made elsewhere.

Windows 8: How we test

We test each PC for performance, measuring its speed in everyday computing tasks as well its ability to play games. We asked vendors to submit their systems running Windows 8, but our long-standing benchmark, WorldBench 6, won't work with Windows 8.

For this group test we instead turned to PCMark 7, an industry-recognised test suite that uses 25 different workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image- and video manipulation, web browsing and gaming. We understand that results from this benchmark are not absolute, with Intel driver issues in Windows 8 meaning video-transcoding tests can present sub-optimal results. Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance.

As well as the overall PCMark 7 result, typically a points score between 3,000 and 6,000 with current hardware, we have also published results garnered from some of the suite's sub-routines. These are designed to gauge performance in, for example, creativity and entertainment scenarios. Another test highlights the difference between storage technologies. This is an area that impacts perceived speed more than ever, now that even the slowest modern CPUs are more than fast enough for everyday PC duties.

A major draw for many Windows PC users is playing games. As well looking at the sub-score from the PCMark 7 Entertainment test, we measured each PC's capability in Crysis, a revered first-person shooter that still stretches the mettle of any potential gaming machine. Most modern dedicated graphics cards now allow fast framerates at HD screen resolutions, while even integrated graphics processors can potentially provide smooth, playable framerates at modest resolutions and detail settings.

Windows 8: Conclusion

Windows 8 is designed to take advantage of touchscreens, but you don't need one to use the OS. The overall system requirements are much the same as they are for Windows 7.

If you're happy with the performance of your current PC, then there's no urgency to upgrade the hardware just to run Windows 8.

However, if you are about to buy a new PC, look for a Windows 8-certified motherboard to ensure the best compatibility.

The Modern UI interface may have you itching to try out a touchscreen, and it's tempting to go and buy one now. Be warned, though, that while currently available displays can make the OS more usable, they don't provide the full experience Microsoft has in mind. Some of the gestures required to move around the interface are tricky to perform and, while you may eventually get the hang of it, many gestures eluded us even after persevering.

Today, the best desktop Windows 8 experiences might come from all-in-one PCs that are ahead of the game in touch integration.

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