Installing Windows 8 on your old PC could turn it into Greased Lightning

My ZDNet colleague and long-time friend Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols thinks that old PCs need Microsoft's latest operating system upgrade like a hole in the head. I fervently disagree.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

I've known ZDNet columnist Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols going on 16 years now. Along with Mary Jo Foley, who I've known for the same amount of time, he's a writer I have utmost respect for, particuarly when it comes to writing about Open Source and Networking technologies.

In many instances, we agree about a lot of things. But over the years Steven has become shall we say... not particularly enamored with Microsoft. He's focused a lot of his writing in recent years about Linux, and he's the closest thing we have here on ZDNet to being a pure Open Source evangelist.

This is not a bad thing, this is just simply stating what he is. Saying that Steven is an Open Source evangelist and dislikes and distrusts Microsoft is like saying that Seals, which subsist on a diet of fish and crustaceans, have developed an extreme dislike for Great White Sharks. 

Sorry, I spent most of my free time watching the Discovery Channel this weekend.

So when Steven tells you that Windows 8 "belongs on older PCs like a fish needs a bicycle" you should regard this as coming from a position of extreme prejudice.

Be it as it may I also am a Linux advocate. I wrote about it exclusively in print for ten years.

However, I also make my living integrating large scale multi-vendor systems for the largest IT services company in the world, so I can't afford to hate Microsoft. It's not a position I would enjoy being in anyway.

And despite the fact I have been known to throw a couple of grenades at Redmond from time to time, I actually enjoy using their products.

So the question remains -- does Windows 8 belong on older PCs? It really depends on what you define as "Old" and what lengths you are willing to go through to gain the benefits from the new operating system.

I want to first discard the notion that the new Windows 8 user interface (that we just got used to calling "Metro" but apparently we can't call it that anymore) is bad. It isn't bad, it's just different.

And yes, it requires a considerable amount of user adjustment in order to be productive with it, even for a veteran PC user like myself.

Whether the new UI will succeed in its current form and what Microsoft may have to do if it doesn't is another discussion entirely. But let's just take that off the table for a moment and return to the subject if upgrading to the new OS is appropriate for an older PC.

So in addition to catching up with Shark Week on my DVR, I decided to install Windows 8 on several older PCs this weekend.

My victims were a 12" Lenovo X200 Centrino 2 ultralight laptop, my primary circa-2009 dual quad-Opteron "Frankenputer" workstation, my wife's Dell Studio 17" laptop (a Vista-certified system that was purchased just prior to Windows 7's release) and a Dell Precision 530 desktop with an Intel Core 2 Quad which I originally purchased from Costco for the express purposes oftesting Windows Vista four years ago.

None of these machines are current or state of the art. In fact I would say they are a decent representative sample of the type and vintage of Windows PC that most people actually own.    

Every single one of these machines installed Windows 8's release code without a hitch -- all the devices on the machines were recognized with the exception of two external peripherals -- an Epson wireless MFD Printer/Scanner that needed the usual 3rd-party Windows 7 drivers and a portable Lenovo USB Displaylink 2nd monitor for my laptop which actually had beta drivers avaliable on the Displaylink.org web site.

Even the on-board Authentec fingerprint scanner for biometric login on my Lenovo X200 was automatically recognized.

On every single one of these systems, the performance improvement over Windows 7 is noticeable. Boot up is much, much faster as well as general application and network responsiveness, particularly with the new Internet Explorer 10 browser. And all of my Windows 7-compatible application software is working perfectly.

A Fish with bicycle wheels? Hell, this upgrade is automatic, it's systematic, it's hydromatic. It will turn your old PC into Greased Lightning.

The amount of work that has gone into improving core components and introducing new technology and features with this release is considerable, and Microsoft should be commended for their work, issues with the Metro UI notwithstanding.

IE 10, the new cloud integration and the fully integrated anti-malware suite in the new Windows Defender which completely eliminates the need for 3rd-party antivirus and antispyware programs are worth the price of admission alone.

Now, the one thing that all of these systems I installed the software on had in common is that they had (at least) 4GB of RAM. I've heard of people using Windows 8 systems with less, but if you are going to bite the bullet on the upgrade -- which is a whole $40 regardless of whether you own a license of XP, any variant of Vista or Windows 7 -- you might as well boost your RAM to as much as you can reasonably afford and your system will permit.

Most 4GB DDR2 upgrade kits sell for about $60, so with the $40 for the Windows 8 software, you're looking at about $100 to supercharge your older PC. If you want to take advantage of the multi-touch stuff in the new UI, you'll also want to pick up a mouse that supports the new touch gestures.

Now, as to whether end-users will do this upgrade in the volumes that Microsoft wants and if the challanges of user acceptance actually has a negative impact on the OS's adoption rate I really have no idea. But this has no bearing whatsoever on "appropriateness" to the target hardware.

Clearly, they've made the upgrade attractively inexpensive, which is a far cry from Vista, which was actually prohibitive in my opinion because not only was the software not cheap, but a great deal of legacy hardware compatibility got left behind and most PCs just weren't powerful enough to run them.

That's just not the case with Windows 8. Four year-old machines are running on it swimmingly.

If you've got a Vista or newer-era machine with 4GB of RAM, by all means, do this upgrade, particularly if you consider yourself in the class of "enthusiast" and want to inject new life into your PC, and you want to take advantage of the new software technology Microsoft is introducing and are willing to undertake the UI adaptation process.

On the other hand, if you or have friends and family members that are perfectly happy with their Windows 7 machine, and you'd rather not take all sorts of calls when they freak out about the new Start menu and the new UI, then leave their PC alone.

Have you undertaken the Windows 8 upgrade process yet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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