Laptop buyers: should you wait for Windows 8?

When should you buy a laptop? That's always a very difficult question — buy too soon after new technology hits, and you could miss out on refinements and price drops. On the other hand, you certainly don't want to spend upwards of AU$1000 on a device that feels outdated just months later.

(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

It's an even more difficult decision to make in the wake of Microsoft's look this week at Windows 8 at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain.

For Mac users, the decision's generally simple: wait for the new version, and buy, buy, buy. MacBooks, like iPhones and iPads, only come in so many versions, and they rarely drop in price anywhere.

Windows PCs? Well, that's another story.

There are always new processor upgrades, spec bumps and price drops. However, two big, impending waves are about to crash on the PC world at the same time: Intel's next-gen Ivy Bridge processors; and Microsoft's Windows 8.

The last time we saw a new Microsoft operating system (Windows 7), it coincided with a bunch of new holiday-themed laptops with Windows 7 preinstalled. That was in October 2009. Just months later, Intel's Core i3, i5 and i7 processors debuted at CES in January. Well, if you were one of those Windows 7 laptop early adopters in 2009, you were probably pretty upset at being stuck with a Core 2 Duo.

This time, the order is reversed. Intel's newest Ivy Bridge processors are scheduled to hit anywhere between April and late May, which will be when a number of the hottest laptops we've seen at CES — including the Acer Aspire S5 — should be hitting, too. Especially if you're a would-be ultrabook buyer, Intel's Ivy Bridge is definitely worth waiting for; it's specifically targeted at improving ultrabook performance and power efficiency. Other laptop buyers may also want to wait for Ivy Bridge for its graphics boost, as well as hardware support for USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. There might even be battery-life gains to be had, if Ivy Bridge is truly more power efficient.

(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

So, where does that leave Windows 8? Since Windows 8 is software, any laptop can theoretically be upgraded later. However, read between the lines, and Windows 8 suggests that hardware changes could be on the horizon. The touchscreen-friendly nature of Windows 8's Metro user interface suggests that it could be perfect for a laptop/tablet hybrid like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, which seems like a shoo-in for a holiday-targeted Windows 8 launch laptop.

Many people might have no interest whatsoever in a tablet-like laptop. For those people, I'd say wait for Ivy Bridge, and upgrade then. Microsoft showed off Windows 8 on several ultrabook-type laptops, including the Samsung Series 9 and Acer Aspire S5, and these are clearly considered "Windows 8-ready" machines. Those laptops should debut before the final release of Windows 8.

Those who crave some sort of hybrid device — like the Yoga, or maybe a device like a Windows version of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, which can be a tablet or a semi-laptop — you'd be best off waiting for Windows 8. Microsoft has given no official launch date for Windows 8, but, based on previous launch schedules, it seems likely to guess October. If any company is developing a killer hardware concept, you can bet that it will come out then, in time for Christmas shopping.

(Credit: Aloysius Low/CNET Asia)

Windows 8 will support near-field communications (NFC) and other new technologies, too. Better multi-monitor support and boot times, and more efficient battery management, could make Windows 8 seem indispensable. Laptops like the HP Envy 14 Spectre have claimed to have NFC built in, but I wonder whether that tech might only be fully utilised in Windows 8. Peripherals might emerge that could also be Windows 8 oriented. If I were buying a laptop, I'd make sure I waited for Ivy Bridge. Of course, you don't have to install Windows 8 at all, but where's the fun in that?

In the meantime, if you're Windows 8 curious, read our CNET hands-on take. Or download the consumer preview for yourself and play around. I'd say that if you like it, hold off on your laptop purchase until the end of May or thereabouts — or, if you're future curious, stick around to see what Q4 brings. However, October is a long time away if you need to buy a laptop, and those Version 1.0 examples of Windows 8 hybrid devices will only be improved upon in a year.

The safe bet is to consider Ivy Bridge as being the laptop's next "killer app", and not necessarily Windows 8. Or, at least, consider the two parts of a synchronised effort that you'll want to be on board with.


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PaulyC posted a comment   

Great article, this has definitely convinced me to refrain from buying a laptop in the next couple of months, which I had intended to do. Thanks for the info bud!

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