Big Decision: Upgrade to Windows 7 or Just Buy a New PC?

October 22 is quickly approaching, and excitement over Windows 7 is at an all-time high. Manufacturers are announcing new hardware, and software companies are readying their newest apps. Users who just have to have the latest OS from Microsoft are faced with a pressing question: Do I upgrade my computer, or do I buy a new one?

This decision may seem simple, but here are a few questions to examine before you decide.

Will Windows 7 run on my computer?

If your PC is less than 5 years old, the answer is almost certainly yes. Microsoft claims that a 1GHz processer, 16GB of disk space, and 1GB of RAM are the minimum specs required, and I've even run it successfully on below spec hardware. However, for the most productive and satisfying Windows 7 experience, you'll want as fast of a computer as possible. I don't recommend running Win 7 on anything less than a dual-core CPU with 2GB of RAM.

It's also a good idea to run Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor, which will check to see if your hardware and software are compatible with Windows 7. I've had issues with unavailable video drivers on some laptops, so even though Windows 7 would install, the experience was sub-par. A good rule of thumb is that if you're already running Vista, Windows 7 will perform as well or better on the same hardware.

Will I get the most out of Windows 7 on my current hardware?

Though Windows 7 might run acceptably on your computer, older hardware could mean missing out on some of the new OS's best features. For instance, Windows 7 has extensive multi-touch support, and you may want a multi-touch monitor or track pad to take advantage of it.

Windows 7 is also the first Microsoft OS to include native enhancements for SSDs. Considering the performance gains of a computer with an SSD running Windows 7, this is one temptation that makes sense to users who don't have time to waste.

Will my computer support XP Mode, and do I need it?

XP Mode is a great feature of Windows 7 Professional and higher. It allows people to run applications that require Windows XP inside of a virtual machine. XP Mode relies on Windows Virtual PC, which not only has greater memory and CPU requirements, but also requires a processor capable of hardware virtualization. If you have apps that require XP you may be deeply disappointed if you assume your computer can handle XP Mode without verifying support first.

Is it time to leap to 64-bit? Will my computer support it?

We've finally reached the point where it's cost effective to supply a PC with more memory than 32-bit Windows can handle, and I personally suspect that Windows 7 will be the last Microsoft OS to be offered in a 32-bit version. If you find yourself performing tasks that push your computer to use more than 3GB of memory, you should be considering 64-bit Windows. People who use their computers for office apps and Web surfing don't really come close to exceeding the limits of a 32-bit OS. But if you find yourself running virtual machines, editing HD videos, and manipulating 12MP raw images, it's probably time to switch to a 64-bit OS. The Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor can tell you if your CPU is ready for it.

Does it make sense to sink money into my old computer?

Purchasing an upgrade to Windows 7 Professional will set you back a solid $200, while Home Premium will run you $120. That's a serious chunk of change that could otherwise be applied to a shiny new PC. Considering that a new laptop can be had for under $330 and $800 will buy you something pretty sweet, it's easy to see that $120 to $200 as a discount on a new piece of hardware which already comes with the edition of Windows 7 that you want.

There's also a bunch of newer features that a computer that's more than couple of years old may not have, such as HDMI, Blu-Ray, eSata, 802.11n, and LED backlighting.

If you've got a kid who can use your old computer for school, or if you really find yourself wishing you had an extra machine in the office, it might be best just to leave the old computer as-is and treat yourself to the latest technology. Besides, you deserve it, and our economy desperately needs your contribution.

Conversely, if your computer is relatively new and fully compatible with Windows 7, and you're happy with its features and performance, it probably makes sense just to keep it and upgrade your OS.

Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.

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