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Laptop buyers: Should you wait for Windows 8?

With Intel's Ivy Bridge and Microsoft Windows 8 on the horizon, it looks like the smartest thing most laptop buyers could do is hang in there. But for how long?

Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

When should you buy a laptop? That's always a very difficult question--buy too soon after new technology hits, and you miss out on refinements and price drops. On the other hand, you certainly don't want to spend upwards of $1,000 on a device that feels outdated just months later. It's an even more difficult decision in the wake of Microsoft's look at Windows 8 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, 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 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 the fall of 2009, you were probably pretty upset being stuck with a Core 2 Duo.

This time, the order is reversed. Intel's newest Ivy Bridge processors are scheduled to hit anywhere from April to late May, which will be when a number of the hottest laptops we've seen at CES--the Acer Aspire S5, and others--should be hitting, too. Especially if you're an ultrabook would-be 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.

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 hardware changes that could be on the horizon. The touch-screen-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 at a tablet-like laptop. For those people, I'd say to 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 or dream of some sort of hybrid device--like the Yoga, or maybe a device like a Windows version of the Asus EeePad 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 (Seth Rosenblatt thought as much during our Microsoft live blog). If any company is developing a killer hardware concept, you can bet it will come out then, in time for holiday shopping.

Aloysius Low/CNET Asia

Windows 8 will support NFC (near field communication) and other new technologies, too. Better multimonitor 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 if that tech might only be fully utilized 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 if I hadn't bought a laptop already. 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 till Memorial Day or thereabouts--or, if you're future-curious, stick around to see what the holidays 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 the laptop's next "killer app," and not necessarily Windows 8. Or, at least, consider the two parts of a synchronized effort that you'll want to be onboard with.