10 essential ingredients of a killer Windows 8 business PC

Windows 8 is here. In form and functionality, the new flagship operating system is the most dramatic makeover of Windows since its inception. Windows 8 was developed from the ground up with a touch-enabled interface that works best when tapped and swiped. Under the hood, the same old Windows is still present, but the Modern UI and the Windows Store shift the focus to mobile.

A survey conducted by the tech support services provider iYogi found that one-third of small businesses are considering switching to Windows 8. iYogi also learned that 38 percent of the respondents currently using iPads for business are exploring Windows 8 tablet options.

The launch of Windows 8 will bring an avalanche of new hardware, too. A number of diverse models have already become available, including traditional desktops and laptops, all-in-one touchscreen PCs, Ultrabooks (with and without touchscreens), tablets, and hybrid tablet/ultraportable products. For some small businesses, the options can be confusing and overwhelming.

Is it time to invest in new PC hardware for your company? Regardless of whether you wish to move to Windows 8 right now, it makes sense to begin purchasing hardware that's at least Windows 8 compatible.

Look for the following features and capabilities in any new hardware you buy for your business, so that you can get the most out of Windows 8 when the time comes to install the OS on legacy machines.

1. Touch support

Sony's Windows 8-powered VAIO all-in-one.

Microsoft built Windows 8 with touch in mind. The Modern UI (formerly known as “Metro”) is a colorful collection of tiles and apps designed to be tapped and swiped. You can interact with Windows 8 using a traditional keyboard and mouse, but that isn't ideal. Any new hardware you buy should support ten-point multitouch gesture control if you want to use Windows 8 to its fullest potential.

That said, some people find using touchscreens on notebooks and desktop displays to be awkward and unnatural. If you fall in this camp, a laptop with a touchpad, or a touchpad peripheral combined with a desktop or laptop, will allow you to interact with Windows 8 as intended.

2. Horsepower

Hardware specs are always a prime consideration when you're buying a new computer. The number of processor cores, the speed of the processor, the amount of RAM, and whether the machine carries a discrete graphics processor all play important roles in the overall performance of a PC.

The system requirements for Windows 8 are modest, but you may need a workhorse like Intel's Core i7 chip for heavy processing tasks such as video and photo editing.

Here's some good news for the performance-deprived: According to Microsoft, the Windows 8 hardware requirements are exceptionally meager. You can get by with a 1GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a graphics card compatible with DirectX 9. So you can run Windows 8 smoothly on existing Windows 7 hardware, or put together a snappy Windows 8 system on a shoestring budget.

For most average users, pretty much any PC that meets Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Certification requirements (and bears a "certified for Windows 8" logo) will suffice. But if you will use your business PC for more processor- or memory-intensive tasks, such as video editing or 3D modeling, don’t skimp on horsepower—choose a system with a more powerful processor, such as a quad-core Intel Core i7.

3. Storage

Although the on-board storage capacity of your Windows 8 machine might become less important if you routinely keep data on SkyDrive, storage needs still vary widely from business to business. It all boils down to how you plan to use your hardware on a day-to-day basis.

Most users will probably be fine with the standard-issue 500GB hard drive that comes in most baseline Windows 8 desktop PCs. However, if your workflow involves content-creation tasks such as video production and photo editing, that 500GB might fill up quickly with massive files. If you need to store data locally to present and share files with customers, your PC should have a drive capable of accommodating that—or you’ll require an additional drive.

This consideration is extremely important, given SkyDrive's native limitations: Free storage for new users tops out at 7GB (though you can always purchase more capacity), and file-size limits could affect how you use the service. Microsoft limits you to a 300MB maximum file size for drag-and-drop browser uploads, and to a 2GB maximum file size when you use the SkyDrive desktop app.

4. Battery

Image: Loyd Case
Dell's Latitude 10 tablet includes an easy-access compartment for battery swapping.

So much of Windows 8 focuses on mobility, so the battery life of the devices you purchase will be key. As a rule, users who travel or work remotely should be able to work through the day on a single charge, or close to it.

Vendors often overstate battery life, claiming 9 hours or more. With real-world use—connecting to the Internet, surfing the Web, checking email, and getting stuff done—most leading Ultrabooks are good for about 6 to 7 hours.

Intel says laptops and tablets running its new Clover Trail processors for Windows 8 will get up to 10 hours of battery life. ARM-based tablets running Windows RT are said to offer about the same. Bottom line: Pay close attention to PCWorld's battery-rundown tests if battery life is a paramount concern for your Windows 8 business PC. Also be on the lookout for devices with user-replaceable batteries, such as the Dell Latitude 10.

5. Portability 

A difference of a pound or two doesn’t sound like much on a spec sheet, but that extra weight makes a big difference to your back after you've lugged a laptop around all day. If you plan to transport your Windows 8 PC from work to home and back again, or if you frequently work at 35,000 feet, the size and weight really matter.

Microsoft's Surface RT is the most portable Windows 8 device--but not necessarily the one you want.

There's a trade-off as well, though. An 11-inch Ultrabook is lighter and more travel-friendly than a 17-inch laptop, but the 11-incher has a substantially smaller display, and probably less local storage capacity, not to mention fewer ports and a lack of peripherals such as optical drives. You need to choose the most portable PC that still provides the features and capabilities you need.

Ultrabooks range in weight from about 2.5 pounds to more than 4 pounds. Most fall somewhere in the middle, at around 3 pounds. Of course, if you want a truly lightweight mobile computing device, you can use a Windows 8 tablet. The Surface RT weighs a feathery 1.5 pounds and is a serviceable machine for Microsoft Office, but it doesn't have the screen size and flexibility for serious content-creation work.

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