If you can squeeze a few more months of useful life out of your old PC, keep that credit card in your pocket.
There are some significant changes coming to PC hardware and software between now and the end of the year. And as always, a new product cycle will inevitably force down the price of older computers, so even if you can’t afford, or don’t want, the newest technology, waiting a bit is a smart strategy.
There are two major developments afoot: PCs with Intel’s Ivy Bridge line of processors will be all over the stores, both real and virtual, by June, while PCs designed to work with Microsoft’s Windows 8 will likely arrive by the fall.
Navigating Windows 8: A Visual Tour
Intel Targeting Ivy Bridge Processors at Windows 8 Tablets
That new operating system may not be to your taste; I used a preview version for a few weeks and didn’t like it very much. But Windows 8 will push manufacturers to design PCs that are touch enabled, a feature that will play to the strengths of the new OS, and encourage software developers to come up with (I hope) new and innovative applications to take advantage of it.
And to be fair, I and other reviewers were working with beta versions of Windows and running it on hardware that it wasn’t designed for it. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised and find out that Windows 8 is better than we thought.
In any case, it certainly can’t hurt to wait and see on Windows 8.
Intel’s new Ivy Bridge line of processors, on the other hand, is pretty much guaranteed to be a good buy. A few Ivy Bridge-equipped desktop PCs are shipping now, but it will take a little while for laptops to appear.
What’s different about Ivy Bridge? To get geeky about it, the new CPUs have been moved to a new manufacturing process, shrinking from 33 nanometers to 22 nanometers, and they have been built using 3D or tri-gate transistors which Intel says reduce leakage and consume far less power than current transistors. The process size refers to the width of the transistor gates; the smaller they are, the less power the chip consumes and the less heat it produces.
Because the chips are so new, there aren’t many (if any) independent tests out there that would confirm or belie Intel’s claims. But Dean McCarron, principal analyst of Mercury Research, said he believes the Ivy Bridge chips will deliver significant power and performance gains. In addition, the newly designed core should also produce better graphics performance.
As always, you need to pay attention to the names of the chips. Like the current Sandy Bridge processors, the Ivy Bridge line will have three basic tiers: i3, i5, and i7. The two lines with higher numbers have four cores each, while the i3 has just two. Four cores don’t always make a huge difference, it depends on what you’re doing, but in general the i5 and i7 are much more muscular than the i3.
I’m writing this post on a laptop equipped with a Sandy Bridge i3, and I’m very happy with my PC’s performance, so don’t assume the lower-end chip won’t be good enough for you unless you know you’ll be running very demanding applications.
Because the names of the chips are so similar you should note that every processor family in the Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge lines has a four digit number. Sandy Bridge processors all start with “2”, while Ivy Bridge processors start with “3”, such as the 3405S. Don’t let a sales clerk tell you different; often they haven’t a clue.
If you’re concerned about graphics power, you may want to buy a PC equipped with a discrete graphics card. Those cards can be a bit pricey, so McCarron suggested this strategy: Go for the i3 and use the savings to pay for the card. Many games, and some imaging applications, won’t run without a separate graphics card. If you don’t have a card, the graphics functions will be handled by the main processor, an option good enough for day-to-day computing.