Is all your gear Windows 8 compatible?

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Migrating to a new operating system is a bit like getting ready for a first date. What will she look like? Will he be easy to get along with? Will the two of you be compatible? That last question is the precise question that millions of PC owners must consider on October 26, when they think about upgrading their machines to Windows 8.

The good news: Unlike the painful upgrade that many users experienced when moving from Windows XP to Vista, the move from Windows 7 to 8 should be much easier—at least that's what Microsoft is promising. Windows 8 will be backward-compatible with Windows 7, says Microsoft COO Kevin Turner. And PC manufacturers and device makers such as Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard tell PCWorld that they've been working closely with Microsoft to ensure that gear "just works" when plugged in.

"Windows 8 ships with more than 450 Hewlett-Packard printing products supported," an HP spokesperson says. HP drivers will be bundled with Windows 8, and, if you can't find the right one for your HP printer directly in the operating system, the Windows Update utility should be able to help you track it down. In addition, HP will offer a Printer Install Wizard for anyone who needs extra help.

Nonetheless, Windows 8 presents unique challenges for peripherals that must work with the touch-centric interface found on tablets, hybrids, and other newfangled devices. Will your Windows 8 tablet transfer print jobs to your laser printer problem-free? Will the advanced features on your webcam get hosed in the upgrade?

Photo of test printers at one of Microsoft's printer labs.

Surveying the Windows 8 compatibility landscape

PCWorld took an exhaustive look at reports of hardware compatibility and incompatibility with the latest Windows 8 Release Preview. We combed through Microsoft's Compatibility Center for Windows 8 Release Preview database of known problems with printers, scanners, sound cards, webcams, keyboards, and mice. What we found on Microsoft's site was encouraging.

Of the thousands of hardware devices listed there, only a handful of products were tagged as incompatible (see the list near the bottom of this story). The Compatibility Center for Windows 8 Release Preview gathered the data from its own research, but it also considers feedback from Windows 8 Release Preview users.

And now for the bad news...

Unlike previous OS upgrades, Windows 8 has a dramatically updated interface that will likely require driver upgrades if you want your peripherals to work seamlessly with the new OS. As a result, to take just one example, Epson updated the printer utility software for its Epson nx430 printer, originally designed for Windows 7. In Windows 8, the Epson print utility has a stylish Metro look (see image, below) and is touch-enabled. But if a manufacturer doesn't provided a customized experience for Windows 8, Microsoft will provide a "generic interface" with possibly reduced functions.

Epson's Windows 7 printer utility (left), and its Windows 8 version (right).

Michael Cherry, an analyst with the independent Directions on Microsoft research firm, points out that you're unlikely to run into upgrade compatibility problems with gear from mammoth manufacturers like Epson and Hewlett-Packard. But equipment from smaller peripherals makers is at far greater risk of incompatibility, Cherry says. "If you didn't make money on your hardware peripheral when Windows 7 came out, what incentive do you have to write a new driver that works with Windows 8?," he said.

"Are peripherals makers ready for Windows 8? We'll find out soon," Cherry says. Though he's impressed with Windows 8, Cherry has his own compatibility hiccup to share: He's running Windows 8 on a Samsung tablet and complains that his HP multifunction printer has lost some advanced functions, such the ability to display ink levels and perform duplex printing.

Advice when upgrading your desktop or laptop from Windows 7 to 8

If you're considering upgrading your existing system's Windows 7 OS to Windows 8, you should run Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant (see image at right) to determine which of your hardware components might not work with the new OS. Lists of incompatible hardware will vary, but one component will invariably show up as needing an update: your DVD player. That's because Windows 8 dumped default DVD playback. Microsoft will continue to offer Windows Media Player in all versions of Windows 8; but to play back videos, you'll need to install a fee-based or free third-party option such as the open-source VLC media player.

Ultimately this is more of a usability issue than a compatibility problem. But it's definitely a hassle.

Early adopters: You have been warned!

Desktop users will likely have fewer problems upgrading to Windows 8 than laptop users. That's because laptop manufacturers tend to maintain tight control over driver releases. Graphics hardware could be particularly problematic. Even recent-generation laptops with the latest GPUs may run older drivers—indeed, laptop manufacturers are notorious for their slow deployment of the latest drivers.

Consider the plight of one Windows 8 Preview Release user who owns a Dell laptop equipped with a very recent Radeon HD 7600M GPU: According to this user's post on Microsoft's support site, Windows 8 won't load the Radeon driver properly, and there's no updated driver on the Dell website.

It's possible that such drivers will show up on Dell's site on October 26, but it's just as likely that some delay will ensue. So even if you buy a new laptop that runs Windows 7 but comes with a $15 Windows 8 upgrade coupon, you might want to hold off on installing the upgrade until you can confirm that drivers are available.

Microsoft insists that current Windows 7 drivers will work on Windows 8. Nevertheless, a user will be presented with a message saying that the software has not been digitally signed for Windows 8 (this is true for every device maker that doesn't yet have a Windows 8 driver). Our advice? Take Microsoft's Windows 8 reverse-compatibility claims with a grain of salt.

The upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8 will be smoother than the one many users experienced during the Vista debacle. But no OS upgrade is trouble-free for everyone.

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