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Windows 8 buying guide

Everything you need to know to make the right decisions about Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Before taking the plunge into Windows 8, there are a few questions you should ask yourself. We've summarized some of most useful ones here, and by going down this checklist, you'll end up with a much better idea about the right path for upgrading existing hardware versus buying a new machine, and figuring out all the new styles of tablets and touch-screen hybrids hitting store shelves alongside Windows 8.

Do you want to stick with Windows at all, or would another OS work better for you?
Microsoft has two new operating systems, Windows 8 and Windows RT. For traditional desktop apps, if you're already on Windows, chances are you'll stick with it, although not necessarily the most current version (we still know a lot of people running Windows XP). Anecdotally, we do hear about people switching to Apple's Macintosh OS X after years as Windows users, but rarely the other way around. (You could also go with Google's Chrome OS or even Linux, and both have advocates who I'm sure will be happy to weigh in via the comments section.)

Full coverage: Windows 8

If you're looking for a pure tablet-style experience, that's what the simplified Windows RT OS targets. That said, iOS and Android have been serving that audience well for a couple of years now, and, in the case of Android, through a wide variety of hardware at some very, very low prices.

Should you upgrade an existing PC or start with a new one?
Previous generations of Windows have seen midnight launch events, with fans lining up to buy boxed copies and install the new OS on their current machines. I expect we'll see less of that this time around, in part because people are much more used to downloading software, and so many new laptops lack optical drives.

At the same time, upgrading a recent PC purchase should be a relatively inexpensive procedure this time around. Anyone with Windows XP, Vista, or 7 can upgrade to Windows 8 for just $40, no matter how old that PC is. If you have a new PC purchased after June 2, 2012, the upgrade is price is merely $15. Rich Brown has a detailed explanation of the upgrade plans and details here.

But just because you can upgrade, doesn't mean you should. In previous generations, layering a new version of Windows on top of an older has often led to trouble, with driver problems, incompatible hardware, or unstable systems as a result. We've installed Windows 8 over many Windows 7 laptops and desktops over the past several months, and while we've run into occasional problems, it's actually been a surprisingly trouble-free experience overall.

That said, if your PC works well now, there's certainly no pressing reason to risk an upgrade (and please, back up your important data if you do try it). The way most people will end up with Windows 8 is that they'll simply wait until they need a new tablet, laptop, or desktop, and whatever they buy will come with Windows 8 preinstalled.

Choose your OS: Windows 8 or RT
Besides Windows 8, Microsoft also offers Windows RT, a new OS designed for tablets and hybrids. It shares the same tile-based interface, but runs on ARM CPUs rather than Intel or AMD. More importantly, Windows RT systems can only run apps acquired through the built-in Windows app store. In other words, none of your legacy Windows software will work on an RT system; only RT-certified apps and browser-based apps and services.

With purportedly amazing battery life and some cool-looking hardware, Windows RT is certainly interesting. The main risk factor here is price. The RT systems we've seen to date run around $500 to $600 for the tablet component, plus another $100 to $150 for a detachable keyboard dock. That makes RT products only slightly less expensive (if at all) than full Windows 8 hybrids. We've got more on the differences between Windows 8 and RT here.

Do you need a touch screen?
Make no mistake, Windows 8 is built around touch. So much so that we've seen several examples traditional, non-transforming clamshell laptops getting touch screens added to them.

As in the case of the Acer Aspire S7, it's actually a pretty useful addition, and adding an occasional screen swipe to using your keyboard, touch pad, or mouse, feels surprisingly natural.

Using Windows 8 on a nontouch device is frankly a pain. Navigating the traditional Windows desktop is fine, but using the tile-based interface, formerly known as Metro, is especially annoying, as you have to maneuver very carefully around the edges of your touch pad to replicate basic navigation gestures.

What style of new PC should I get?
In addition to traditional laptops and desktops (including all-in-one PCs), every PC maker is releasing a collection of machines that blur the line between laptop and tablet. Some have screens that swivel or fold to form tablet-like shapes, others have screens that fully detach.

For the sake of clarity, we call systems with screens that rotate, fold, or otherwise move around convertibles. Examples include the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and the Dell XPS 12. We call systems with screens that fully detach hybrids, such as the HP Envy X2 or Acer Iconia W510.

Scott Stein has a great breakdown of the different laptop/convertible/hybrid categories and subcategories here. And Eric Franklin has a breakdown of the different types of Windows RT devices here.

Where can I find reviews and previews of all the new Windows 8 and Windows RT systems?
All the latest reviews and hands-on previews of Windows 8 and Windows RT systems can be found here, in "Windows 8: The complete new PC launch list." That page will be updated with new systems and new reviews as they get posted.