Is your business ready for the move to Windows 8? You might want to start moving users to Windows 8 to get the better security, or the option of running Windows from a USB stick with Windows To Go; they might ask for Windows 8 to get the extra battery life on a notebook. Even if you're not planning on switching immediately, given the popularity of Microsoft's Surface tablet, you can expect users to start bringing Windows RT devices to work soon and the PCs you buy will soon start coming with Windows 8.
You don't need a new PC for Windows 8. Almost any PC that runs Windows 7 – or even Windows XP – can run Windows 8; as long as you have 1GB of RAM (2GB for a 64-bit system), 16-20GB of free disk space and a DirectX 9 GPU with a WDDM 1.0 driver or better. What you need to bear in mind is the screen resolution and whether the CPU supports Physical Address Extension (PAE) and the NX (No eXecute) bit.
PAE is required for NX to work correctly, and NX is what Windows uses to mark sections of memory that are only used to store data. That tells Windows not to run any instructions from those areas of memory, which stops the most common type of security exploit – filling an area of memory with instructions that are too big to fit and 'overflow' in such a way that they get run as code.
Insisting that you have to have a PAE-NX-capable CPU means you can't install on systems with some CPUs that actually meet the 1GHz minimum speed to run Windows 8 – like the Pentium M with 400MHz Front Side Bus – but it also improves security for Windows 8.
If you want to use Hyper-V in Windows 8, you need a 64-bit CPU with second-level address translation (SLAT) and another 2GB of RAM to run the hypervisor. Most PCs manufactured before Windows Vista aren't able to boot from a USB; and that won't stop you running Windows 8, but it does mean you have to install from DVD rather than a USB drive.
The screen resolution won't stop you installing Windows 8 either (even the 800 by 600 of a netbook), but it might stop you using some of the features. You can't run any WinRT apps – including the Windows Store you need to get WinRT apps – unless the resolution is at least 1024 by 768. And if you want to snap two WinRT apps side by side on screen, you need a screen that has at least 1366 by 768 resolution.
You don't have to have a touch screen, although Windows 8 is certainly easier to use if you do. Only newer touch pads support the touch gestures for opening the charm bar, bringing up the app bar and switching applications; you need the right drivers as well. The latest drivers for the Microsoft Touch Mouse give it the Windows 8 gestures, which is probably the easiest way to add touch functionality to existing desktop PCs.
While most keyboards have the Windows key, you'll need to have a Windows 8 compatible keyboard to get the most out of the new OS, particularly if you're not going to splash out on a touch screen. Keyboards designed for Windows 8 come with keys for the different charm bar icons like Settings and Devices; new Microsoft keyboards like the Sculpt Comfort also have buttons for opening the app switching pane, snapping apps side by side and swapping them around on screen. Again, this makes actually using many of the new Windows 8 features rather easier.
There's one feature in Windows 8 you do need a new PC for; Connected Standby only works on Windows RT devices or on PCs and tablets powered by a System on Chip processor like the Intel Atom Z2760 or forthcoming AMD APUs.
Connected Standby is designed to save power by putting the PC hardware to sleep while the screen is off and using Wi-Fi or mobile broadband to receive incoming messages like email and VoIP calls so you stay up to date without running out of power. There is no way to turn on Connected Standby on existing PCs as the hardware doesn't support the low-power states and the Wi-Fi offload.
Upgrade options and upgrade help
What you can keep when you upgrade to Windows 8 depends on what you're starting with. You can keep installed applications that are compatible with Windows 8 if you're upgrading from Windows 7 – as long as you're upgrading to the same edition or higher.
So if you have Windows 7 Ultimate you have to upgrade to Windows 8 Pro to keep installed programs and if you have a volume licence for Windows 7 Professional or Enterprise, you have to upgrade to Windows Enterprise. If you upgrade from XP (SP3) you can only keep your files; whereas an upgrade from Vista means you can keep settings and accounts as well.
For simplicity, you can use the built-in Windows Easy Transfer wizard in Windows to back up files and settings to reapply after the upgrade (or to migrate a user to a new PC that feels like their old PC). If you're upgrading more than a few PCs, look at the User State Migration Tool; this command line tool captures user accounts, user files, operating system settings, and application settings, using XML configuration rules to control what gets migrated and how.
If you want to preserve programs from older versions of Windows, try Laplink PC Mover; this copies and reinstalls the applications along with files, settings and accounts – but you need to be sure all your applications will actually run correctly.
Collect data, check compatibility
There are some system tools, low-level utilities and security applications you will definitely need to upgrade for Windows 8. Defender anti-virus software is built in to Windows 8 but if you're installing third-party security software make sure it supports the Early Load Anti Malware (ELAM option) so your PC is protected earlier in the boot process. If you use XP Mode or MEDV to virtualise Windows XP programs, that won't work in Windows 8.
To see if other software is compatible before the Upgrade Assistant in the Windows installer runs, start by taking an audit of the programs in use in your business.
If you have Software Assurance, you can do that with the Asset Inventory Service in the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack although this is used so infrequently that Microsoft will take it out of MDOP in April 2013.
Using Microsoft Assessment and Planning toolkit to move to Windows 8
MAP can look at your entire infrastructure and help you plan server virtualisation and cloud migration, and you certainly won't need to use the entire toolkit to prepare for Windows 8 but you can use the Inventory and Assessment Wizard to generate a Windows 8 Hardware Assessment report that will tell you which of your PCs can be upgraded.
You can see details of which applications are in use as well as PC specs in the Hardware and Software Summary report and the Performance Metrics Wizard gives you information about processor, memory, disk and network usage.
To use MAP, you'll need to have the account name and passwords for accounts with local machine administrative rights on each PC, and you'll need to enable the WMI collector that gathers the information about PCs by hand, through Group Policy or with logon scripts.
MAP will still work if you don't have Active Directory but if any of the PCs you're assessing are behind a firewall you'll need to open the relevant ports and you may need to configure Windows Firewall to allow WMI (again you can do that using logon scripts if you don't have AD to push out Group Policy).
Check a selection of your current hardware for Windows 8 compatibility by running a pilot deployment. This also lets you see program compatibility first hand; remember to try the Program Compatibility Troubleshooter or the Compatibility settings in file properties to get them working correctly. You can check the performance of your test PCs at common tasks like copying files and browsing with the Windows Assessment Services in the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit.
Are your apps Windows 8 compatible?
As well testing software as part of your pilot deployment, you can look at the Windows 8 Compatibility Center. This covers software, peripherals and devices that Microsoft has tested with Windows 8; you can also see if other users have seen compatibility issues with particular products. Much of the information is based on preview versions of Windows 8 but Microsoft is updating the database with compatibility information for RTM.
If you need to do more formal compatibility testing of applications (especially if you have custom applications that your business relies on), use the latest versions of the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit (which is also in the Windows 8 version of the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit).
Rather than running applications on your current version of Windows and trying to predict issues, this now lets you test applications (and key websites or web apps) on Windows 8 and collect compatibility information as they run, so you'll need either a test lab or a pilot deployment that you can monitor.
ACT will do system, device and software inventories for you but you need to create inventory collection and runtime-analysis packages as MSI files that you install on individual PCs, run the Compatibility Monitor and then run your applications and analyse the results (which are stored in a SQL Server database) with the Application Compatibility Manager. If you're a smaller business using off-the-shelf software, simpler compatibility testing may be all you need.