If you believe what Microsoft tells you, the system requirements for Windows 8 are pretty basic. Here they are, direct from Microsoft’s site:
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster with support for PAE, NX, and SSE2
- RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) (32-bit) or 2 GB (64-bit)
- Hard disk space: 16 GB (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)
- Graphics card: Microsoft DirectX 9 graphics device with WDDM driver
On the surface, and forgive the bad pun, that would make it seem as if tens and tens of millions of existing PCs, going back a number of years, are perfectly capable of upgrading to Windows 8 and receiving what Microsoft would regard as an acceptable user experience. Indeed, those who chafe at the fact that Macs a mere four or five years old cannot upgrade to Mountain Lion might believe all is rosier on the Windows side of the tracks.
But that’s not exactly true.
You see, Microsoft’s system requirements have a number of other conditions, such as possible support for touchscreens. There is, in fact, an upgrade app that is designed to determine whether your PC will survive the upgrade in good order. This is critical to deciding whether you will have a successful Windows 8 user experience, because Microsoft’s installer is just too dumb to stop in its tracks if the PC cannot be properly upgraded.
Now you’d think a power user would realize all this, and be cautious about attempting to upgrade an older PC, say from 2008 or 2009. That’s the same age as many Macs that aren’t capable of upgrading to Mountain Lion. But look at the experiences of the All Things D’s Walt Mossberg, the “dean” of tech commentators, who evidently threw caution to the wind and attempted to install Windows 8 on an older Lenovo laptop and HP desktop.
Had Mossberg bothered to run Microsoft’s Upgrade Assistant, he would have known he was barking up the wrong tree, that his two PCs weren’t suitable for Windows 8. He could also have checked the manufacturer’s Web sites, and he’d see that they weren’t supported. The very fact was confirmed when he contacted the two companies.
The reasons are complicated and explained in the article. Most of it is about the lack of suitable drivers for various key functions. This is understandable. PC makers are bottom feeders, building hardware as cheaply as possible, and fighting for sales in a declining market. With lower and lower profit margins, they aren’t about to invest money to ensure that older computers are compatible with newer operating systems. They’d rather sell you new gear.
It also makes perfect sense that Microsoft isn’t going to invest tons of development money in making sure the vintage computers can run the new OS. They want you to buy a new PC too, although there’s a discount program for early Windows 8 upgraders, which expires at the end of this month.
Even Consumer Reports, which tends to favor the Windows world in their reviews of PCs, is warning of degraded performance when upgrading to Windows 8. Even with more recent computers, it may be a matter of driver incompatibilities, although that might just be an excuse, considering PC companies have had plenty of time to make their software compatible. Worse, Microsoft’s lax system requirements tend to deliver misleading impressions about upgrade possibilities. Yes, Windows users need to understand that an operating system upgrade is a severe and potentially dangerous process. It’s nowhere near as seamless as a Mac OS upgrade, even though Microsoft may want you to be lulled into a false sense of security.
It would, at the very least, have made sense for Microsoft to include Upgrade Assistant as part of the actual Windows 8 installer, or provide some better intelligence in the process so others won’t encounter the pitfalls Mossberg faced. Besides, if a distinguished tech journalist screws up in this fashion, what about the rest of us?
The long and short of it is that, if you want to get Windows 8, you are best advised to have it preloaded onto a new PC. That way you’d be assured drivers are compatible and that the hardware is best optimized to support the touch-enabled Modern UI and other frills and flourishes of Microsoft’s latest and greatest OS. On the other hand, it appears that Windows 8 wasn’t so high on the shopping list of holiday shoppers, and that PC sales will just continue to fall regardless.
Microsoft’s problem is not posting lax system requirements, or failing to make the Windows 8 installer smart enough to abort the process if the hardware isn’t up to the task. It’s all about building a product that many people simply don’t want. There’s even some speculation on the part of the tech media that Microsoft may, at the very least, decide to restore the Start menu in an early update. Maybe Microsoft might consider the plight of an auto maker, Honda when the 2012 Civic compact was released to tepid reviews. Rather than waiting two or three years to release a product refresh, they went to work making substantial improvements to the 2013 model.
At least in Honda’s case, the Civic was actually selling quite well despite the flaws, but the company took it as a matter of pride and future sales potential to fix what was wrong as quickly as possible. Microsoft should do the same with Windows 8 — make the critical changes needed to produce an OS that’s more consistent and easier to use. And return the Start menu.