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How to future-proof your hardware for Windows 8

Loyd Case | Sept. 19, 2012
It's like a special consumer-tech corollary of Murphy's law: Your PC will inevitably die just before a new Windows OS is about to ship. You need a new laptop immediately, and you can't wait to buy one that comes with the new OS preinstalled.

Even if your BIOS is up to snuff, you may run into hardware or software incompatibilities. Windows 8 is supposed to work with any hardware that runs on Windows 7, but older hardware may still be problematic. And software that requires driver-level access may have issues, too.

The easiest way to check out compatibility issues is to run Windows 8 setup. You can download the Windows 8 release preview, create a DVD (or install it to a USB flash memory key) and run Setup, making sure to answer 'yes' when the setup program asks you to download the latest version of setup. Note that you don't have to install Windows 8; the nice thing about the installation routine is that it first performs a compatibility check.

In this screenshot, the reported problem with the networking hardware spells trouble. I would definitely want to have a Windows 8 driver on hand before proceeding.

Upgrading to the right hardware

You need a new graphics card. Or the 19-inch, 1280-by-1024-pixel LCD panel you've been using for years is finally starting to fade. Or you're contemplating buying something as simple as a new mouse.

If you need to upgrade any piece of hardware, take time to research what will work best with Windows 8. Even if you don't plan on upgrading immediately, new hardware tends to offer better features, performance, or both. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Graphics cards

Suppose that you have an older graphics card--say, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 or an AMD Radeon HD 4850. Neither runs current-generation games especially well, and both make more noise and consume more power than modern graphics cards. Currently, you can find tempting sale prices for one-generation-old GPUs such as Nvidia's GeForce GTX 460 or AMD's Radeon HD 6850. But if you're thinking of moving to Windows 8, it may make sense to consider a current-generation graphics card, such as the AMD Radeon HD 7970 or the Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti. Both of those models support DirectX 11.1, which Windows 8 also supports.

Admittedly, DX11.1 offers only incremental upgrades from DirectX 11. But many of those features promise greater efficiencies in the Direct3D pipeline (bigger constant buffers, for example). DirectX 11.1 also adds stereoscopic 3D support. For Windows 8, the key feature that DirectX 11.1 brings to the table is better 2D performance through Direct2D, which means that windows pop onto the screen more fluidly, and overall text rendering is much snappier.

Keyboard, mice, and touchpads

Windows 8 supports touch and gesture recognition in a big way. Nevertheless, though you may be tempted to upgrade to a multitouch desktop display, only a handful of models are available on the market today--and the ones that do exist are either quite expensive or painfully small. But some nifty touch-enabled interface devices are available (or are coming very soon), and they have the potential to work more effectively with Windows 8.


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