Windows 8 Hardware Shopping Adventures

Where should SMBs buy new Windows 8 devices? Here are 6 lessons learned from my dive into retail and online options.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

November 1, 2012

9 Min Read

Microsoft Pop-Up Stores: Hands-On Look

Microsoft Pop-Up Stores: Hands-On Look

Microsoft Pop-Up Stores: Hands-On Look (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

I'm in the camp that thinks if you're going to take the Windows 8 plunge, you should also upgrade your hardware.

Sure, I could run Windows 8 on my current laptop. But that doesn't mean I should. An optimal Windows 8 experience includes touch, no matter the form factor. As Cindy Bates, Microsoft's VP for small and midsize business, told me in a recent interview about Microsoft's broader SMB strategy, "Touch is absolutely how Windows 8 comes alive."

For me and many other Windows users, touch means a hardware upgrade. I've decided to stay put with Windows 7 for now, but I do see the upsides in Windows 8. So the recent launch-related fanfare got me wondering: If I did buy new Windows 8 gear, where would I go to find the best deal? Like a lot of small businesses and self-employed professionals, I'd buy at retail rather than on a commercial account. And like most big-ticket retail purchases, it would be well worth my time to shop around for the best combination of price and configuration.

So I went window -- er, Windows -- shopping. In a nutshell, I wasn't wowed by my Windows 8 retail experiences, online or off. I found no Godfather offers. That's not too shocking with new technology. You'll find more discounts on Windows 7 hardware, though I definitely didn't see any fire sales.

[ Get expert guidance on Microsoft Windows 8. InformationWeek's Windows 8 Super Guide rounds up the key news, analysis, and reviews that you need. ]

Based on my browsing, however, here are six things I would keep in mind if I wanted to buy Windows 8 hardware today.

1. I would wonder where all the ultrabooks and tablets are. I'm predisposed to purchasing PCs and related hardware online. But with the combination of the Windows 8's new "Modern UI" and a dizzying menu of new hardware options -- all-in-ones, touch PCs, ultrabooks, tablets, and hybrid models -- I was curious to see some in-store retail displays and find out if they increased my interest in Windows 8.

I stopped by a Best Buy near me. The electronics chain is leveraging its existing trade-in program, offering "at least $100" to buyers who trade in a working laptop and purchase a new ultrabook. There are, of course, conditions -- for example, Best Buy must have carried your trade-in model in the past. Also, you have to go to a brick-and-mortar store. (Best Buy offers a trade-in estimator online.)

For all the hubbub about ultrabooks -- Intel has said it expects to see 110 of them on the market in 2013 -- I found only four Windows models at the Best Buy I visited. And speaking of hubbub, tablets were even scarcer: I actually found no Windows devices, just a slew of Android-based models and an Apple display. The Windows hardware was still dominated by laptops and desktops, including touch-screen models.

A sales associate eventually passed by while I was gawking and asked if I needed help. I said I was interested in Windows 8 and asked if the models on display were all they had. (I did not identify myself as a reporter.) Indeed, it was. I asked if they were running any promotions around the launch. She said they were offering a discount on Geek Squad services for Windows 8 purchases. (I'm pretty sure it's the same offer they're offering on non-Windows 8 gear, too.) And I asked if they'd been selling much Windows 8 stuff. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, "We have." I thanked her, and that was that.

I also stopped in the neighboring OfficeMax because I noticed the "Windows Reimagined" sign in its storefront. There I found only one ultrabook: a Windows 7 model from Toshiba, selling for $749. (Seems a bit steep for hardware that is already obsolete.) There were no tablets in sight, nor was there anyone who seemed likely to ask what I was looking for, so I left.

Finally, I whisked through a Wal-Mart in the same commercial complex, but its computing section resembled an island of misfit PCs.

I mentioned my brief, dissatisfying retail experience in an email exchange with Techaisle CEO Anurag Agrawal. His response: "Business PCs are not available at retail stores." Well then.

2. I would buy online. Indeed, I've never purchased a business PC in a physical store. And I wouldn't start with Windows 8; I see no upside in buying off the shelf.

Online, the supply is obviously much greater -- but it helps to know what you're looking for. Otherwise you'll spend a ton of time parsing through a dizzying amount of search results, reviews, recommendations and so forth. Search "Windows 8" on sites like or even an aggregator like Google Shopping, and suddenly filters and keywords become precious commodities. has tablet fever, though it's not pumping Windows hardware on the homepage. Rather, it has been pitting the Kindle Fire HD against the iPad Mini in a side-by-side comparison graphic. (Guess who wins?) Some cursory searches there were a bit puzzling. "Windows 8 PC" returned a hodgepodge list that included a Seagate external hard drive fourth on the list and something called a "Skytab S-series Windows 7 Tablet PC with ExoPC UI" in fifth place. "Windows 8 tablet" produced slightly more relevant results, with an emphasis on slightly. Page one of nearly 18,000 results included anime production software and the aforementioned Skytab tablet. When you do find an actual Windows 8 device, like Acer's Iconia line, don't expect Amazon's usual price cuts. (The Iconia models were out of stock, to boot.)

The best bet: Do your homework on form factors and configurations, decide what you need, and then figure out which manufacturers make it. I've found a tried-and-true formula is to shop the manufacturer's site directly while checking deal-hunter sites like Deals2Buy or Retailmenot before completing the purchase. Don't expect many deals on brand-new Windows 8 devices -- they're non-existent at the moment, as far as I can tell -- but you will find discount codes for Windows 7 models. Online or off, you're going to pay the early adoption tax for Windows 8 hardware right now; my guess is that won't change until next year. (And if you've got a better buying method, by all means, do share.)

The online purchasing route requires a good dose of the do-it-yourself ethic. Short of that, SMBs interested in Windows 8 are likely going to rely heavily on the vast universe known as "the channel" -- third-party IT providers that many smaller businesses rely on for support -- to advise them on what to buy. That might be good news for Microsoft, which currently counts around 10,000 such partners in its fold, according to Bates.

3. I would check out a Microsoft Store before buying anything. I've been somewhat skeptical of the increasing number of physical Microsoft Stores; the pop-up versions, in particular, seem a little gimmicky. But they have been getting generally positive reviews. Beyond the obvious consumer angle, Bates told me Microsoft is allowing some of its partners to hold customer events in Microsoft Stores, adding that there are currently 59 of them and counting. The partner events are often aimed at helping SMBs get a better handle on Windows 8.

I haven't been to the store in my area yet, but after looking elsewhere I'm starting to think I should. "Check out the Microsoft stores," Techaisle's Agrawal advised. "They are really good." 4. I would be tempted to keep things simple with the Surface. To Microsoft's credit, one of the more straightforward pitches out there, in my view, is for its own Surface tablet running Windows RT. Of course, all three models are backordered by three weeks in the online Microsoft Store, and there's the legacy apps issue. But Surface presents the clearest, cleanest set of choices: Three models for three prices: $499, $599, and $699. That's the menu. (I wonder where they got that idea?) Surface seems like the "safe" pick for a Windows-based tablet at the moment, and that's bolstered by some solid reviews.

5. If I were taking the touch PC plunge, I would go big. A potential positive from my generally blah retail experience: I was impressed by some of the large-screen desktops and all-in-ones. I'm still unsure why I'd want a touchscreen laptop, but the larger touch monitors, like HP's 20-inch Envy TouchSmart all-in-one and Dell's 23-inch Inspiron all-in-one, kept catching my eye. With the right mix of apps and non-mobile use cases, a giant screen (relative to a smartphone or tablet) is enticing. The price tags--$899 and $999 for the HP and the Dell, respectively--are a bit hard to justify, especially given that they're basic configurations better suited to home users. Businesses that want more memory, a bigger hard drive, and other specs are going to pay more. If I'm eventually swayed by the touch PC, I'd get greedy for as much real estate as possible -- like the 27-inch touchscreens currently offered by Lenovo and Dell's XPS line. These carry hefty price tags in the $1,500 neighborhood, something that inspires a bit of sticker shock given the downward trend in desktop popularity. But the large-screen touch experience stuck with me. It will just take some time to connect my imagination to a bottom-line ROI.

6. I would not be in a huge hurry. The best bet for Windows 8 buyers? Take your time. The best hardware, apps, and prices are probably yet to come. If I had to upgrade now, I'd try to do so incrementally -- a single department in a 50-person company, for example, or a single device for an individual user like me. Plenty of cool new devices have been announced but not yet released. The apps are coming, but they'll take some time.

I'm also curious to see what happens to retail hardware prices if Windows 8 isn't a hit with consumers. A recent Associated Press/GfK poll suggests that scenario is quite plausible. More than half of the 1,200 U.S. adults surveyed hadn't even heard of Windows 8, in spite of a steady diet of TV ads and other marketing.

Upgrading isn't the easy decision that Win 7 was. We take a close look at Server 2012, changes to mobility and security, and more in the new Here Comes Windows 8 issue of InformationWeek. Also in this issue: Why you should have the difficult conversations about the value of OS and PC upgrades before discussing Windows 8. (Free registration required.)

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About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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