Picking a Windows 8 PC

Picking a Windows 8 PC or Tablet
While the available selection of Windows 8-compatible PCs and devices is everchanging,
there are two primary issues to consider when it comes to hardware. First,
you’re going to need to choose between machines based on the new ARM platform
and the more traditional, Intel-compatible platform. And second, since Windows 8
adds so many new hardware-based capabilities, you’ll want to understand what
those are and whether the availability of any in a given PC or device will color your
decision-making process.
As with any purchasing decision, you may find yourself making trade-offs. For
example, if you’ve determined that you simply must have the backward compatibility
of an Intel-compatible PC, but then find that ARM-based devices deliver dramatically
better battery life, you’ve got a decision to make. These features aren’t point-by-point
comparable, and no generalization we can make will help all readers. This means that,
in the end, you’ll need to decide which features or capabilities are more important to
you. But we can at least start the discussion.
Picking a Windows 8 PC or Tablet
ARM vs. Intel Compatible
If you’re one of the 1.3 billion active Windows users at the time of this writing, then
you’re using an Intel- or Intel-compatible PC running on what’s arcanely described as
an x86/x64 chipset.
Without getting too deep into the history of this nomenclature, it dates back to
the original IBM PC, which featured an Intel processor, an early entry in the so-called
x86 family of microprocessors. (More recent versions include the 80386, or 386, the
486, and the Pentium, which was originally called the 586.) Put simply, the x86 moniker
describes two things: Intel compatibility (since both Intel and various copycats
make the chips) and a 32-bit instruction set, which means, among other things, that
these chips typically address up to 4 GB of RAM.
The x64 chipset, meanwhile, is a 64-bit variant of the x86 family of chipsets.
Put simply, x64 is x86 on steroids: It is 100 percent compatible with x86 software,
including Windows and its applications, but provides support for an astonishing
amount of RAM: up to 256 TB (yes, terabytes).
Somewhat embarrassingly (to Intel), x64 was invented by Intel competitor AMD,
but once it was embraced by Microsoft for use in Windows, Intel had to jump aboard,
too. So when we refer to x86/x64 chipsets, we’re referring to those that power all of
the PCs made before late 2012: traditional, Intel-compatible, 32-bit or 64-bit microprocessors
and supporting chips.
NO TE If your PC came with Windows 7 preinstalled, then it’s likely that it’s
utilizing a 64-bit, x64 chipset. Many such PCs come with 6 GB or even 8 GB of
RA M, since one of the big advantages of these chips over older x86 chips is that
additional memory support.
An Intel Core i7 processor, the latest in a long, long line of
x86/x64 chips, is shown in Figure 1-1.
Most people vaguely understand that Intel-compatible
chips sit at the heart of PCs. But things are really changing
with Windows 8. Starting with this release, you can now also
purchase PCs and tablets that are based on a competing and
incompatible chipset called ARM (advanced RISC machine).
ARM is a different animal altogether. First, no one company makes ARM chips.
Instead, the ARM platform is controlled by a company called ARM Holdings that
licenses the technology for the chipsets to other companies; so unlike Intel and AMD,
ARM Holdings doesn’t manufacture its own chips.
The companies that do manufacture ARM chips—such as NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Texas
Instruments, and others—are free to make their own changes to the design. So while
ARM-based chipsets are broadly compatible with each other, they’re not compatible in
the way that x86/x64 designs from both Intel and AMD are compatible.
ARM chipsets are 32-bit designs, not 64-bit, but they run much more efficiently
than x86/x64 chips. So they consume less power, with resulting devices normally

providing fantastic battery life, especially when compared to traditional PCs. ARM
designs are so efficient that they can be used in devices as small as phones. In fact,
Windows Phone handsets are based on ARM chipsets. A typical ARM chipset is shown
in Figure 1-2.
Microsoft’s decision to port Windows to the ARM
architecture was made for one reason, primarily: The company
wanted its flagship product to run well on thin and
light tablets and other devices. And while Intel-compatible
chipsets provide amazing performance and good battery
life on a wide range of device types, only ARM provides them
with the ability to compete, point by point, with devices as
thin and light and power efficient as the iPad. A representative
ARM tablet is shown in Figure 1-3.
Of course, the Windows 8 version for ARM, called Windows RT, also comes with
compromises. ARM chipsets are not compatible
with Intel-compatible chipsets, so
the amazing array of Windows-compatible
application software that we all take for
granted on the PC side will not run on
ARM-based Windows devices.
Likewise, you can’t upgrade a traditional
PC running Windows 7 to Windows
RT. Instead, the system is made available
only on new PCs and devices running a compatible
ARM chipset.
Because of the differences in various ARM-based platforms, the Windows RT
machines you see on the market are actually slightly different from each other under
the hood, and Microsoft and its partners essentially have to custom-craft the OS and
applications for each device. For this reason, Windows RT devices are sold almost like
appliances, and there’s a tight integration between the device and its software.
And as noted earlier in the chapter, some Windows 8 features simply aren’t
available on Windows RT. These include individual applications such as Windows
As 32-bit 33
designs, ARM
systems can only
utilize 4 GB of RAM.
This isn’t a huge
issue for most users,
but could be limiting
for power users.
Figure 1-2: AR M
designs are integrated
into what is called system
on a chip, or SoC.
To be clear, 33
we are referring
to legacy desktop
applications here.
Most Metrostyle
apps will run
identically on both
ARM and Intelbased
PCs and
Figure 1-3: AR M-based tablets will
typically be thinner and lighter, and offer
better battery life, than Intel-type designs.
Picking a Windows 8 PC or Tablet
Media Player and Windows Media Center, as well as lower-level features such as
Storage Spaces and BitLocker. (Windows RT overcomes the latter limitation with
its own, unique full-device encryption functionality, however.)
So, which one do you choose?
In many ways, the decision comes down to need. A Windows RT device—like a
tablet—will generally provide better battery life than an equivalent Intel-compatible
device and come in a thinner and lighter form factor. Both can be turned into “full PCs”
using a docking station and attached keyboard, mouse, screen, and other peripherals.
Both can run virtually all Metro-style apps, but only the Intel-compatible machine will
be capable of running legacy software designed for Windows.
Perhaps the best way to decide from a form factor/architecture perspective is
to ask yourself a few simple questions, the first few of which will be aimed at seeing
whether you can remove ARM/Windows RT from the equation.
Are you upgrading from Windows 7?
If yes, then you simply cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to upgrade to
either Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro (depending on which version of Windows 7
you’re currently using.)
Do you need compatibility with legacy, desktop-based third-party applications
like Photoshop?
If yes, then you simply cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to choose from
the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs and devices.
Do you need to sign in to an Active Directory–based domain for work purposes?
If yes, then you simply cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to choose from
the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs.
Do you need Windows Media Center, perhaps for a living room–based DVR
(digital video recorder) solution?
If yes, then you simply cannot choose Windows RT. You’ll need to choose
from the many Intel-compatible Windows 8 PCs. In fact, you’ll need to use
Windows 8 Pro.
Those are the four biggest Windows RT blockers. If you are still a candidate for a
Windows RT-based device, your choice is now a heck of a lot less clear, unfortunately.
And that’s because it’s just really hard to know whether to choose Intel (Windows 8)
or ARM (Windows RT).
Consider this quandary. You’ve decided on a Windows RT tablet because it’s super
thin and light and it runs for days on a charge. (We’re fantasizing here; stick with us.)
So you make the purchase, discover a bunch of fun and useful Metro-style apps and go
happily on your way. You are able to connect it to a docking station and take advantage
of the large, widescreen display, external keyboard, and mouse you keep in your
home office. All is well.
But then you receive an attachment for work that includes a file type that’s not
supported by any Metro-style app, perhaps an Adobe Photoshop file or WordPerfect
document. If this were a traditional Windows 8 PC, you’d be able to install software to
open this file. But on Windows RT, you’re kind of stuck until a Metro-style alternative
There are a hundred scenarios like this where the lack of real Windows compatibility
can hurt: browser alternatives, browser add-ins, games, and more.
As a rule, the decision will often come down to the very general difference
between the Metro-style environment that will be your primary interface on Windows
RT devices and the Windows desktop, which will be far more powerful and
usable on Intel-compatible PCs (and will certainly be the primary interface as well,
especially on traditional desktop PCs and laptops). And that difference is this: Metro
is (largely) for consuming content and the desktop is (largely) for productivity. When
you want to browse the web, check Facebook, perform simple e-mail activities, enjoy
music or a movie, and perform other consumption-style activities, Metro is the place
to be. And if this is all you’re doing with the PC or device, or almost all you’re doing,
an ARM-based Windows RT device should be ideal. You need a device, not a PC.
If you need to do anything creative or productive—regularly create word processing

documents, edit spreadsheets, or make presentations, and so on—you need a Windows
8-based PC running on an Intel-compatible chipset. You need a PC, not a device.
What’s confusing is that the lines are blurring between the two types of products.
That is, there are Intel-compatible tablets, and there are ARM-based laptops. The
adoption of the ARM platform gives Windows users a choice. But it also provides a
new bit of confusion.
Speaking of which, let’s talk device types.