Today's PCs may look similar to their predecessors, but a closer look reveals substantial differences. Over the past year or two, the PC ecosystem has been adopting new software and hardware standards that can make these devices significantly more reliable and more secure.

I've been poking through the specifications of the most recent generation of new Windows 10 devices lately and have identified five features that should be on your must-have list.

1: Windows 10 Pro

If your business runs on Windows, you should be purchasing new PCs with Windows 10 Pro licenses. That option gives you the right to downgrade to a previous supported version (Windows 7 or Windows 8.1) and also is eligible for an upgrade to Windows Enterprise edition.

One surprising recent change is the end of support for earlier Windows versions on systems built with the latest Intel processors. For 6th Generation Core CPUs (Skylake), support for Windows 7 and 8.1 ends on July 17, 2017. Microsoft will support only Windows 10 on processor models that succeed Skylake. If you plan to continue using Windows 7 past that date, your best bet is to take advantage of bargains in the 4th and 5th Generation (Haswell and Broadwell) Intel processor families. Microsoft says PCs built using those CPUs will be fully supported for the entire 10-year lifecycle of all Windows versions.

2: Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0

A TPM is a hardware encryption device, typically embedded on the motherboard of a PC. TPM support is still optional for Windows 10 devices, but it's a de facto standard on business-class Windows notebooks, where it enables the use of BitLocker full disk encryption. (You won't find a TPM on any current Apple products, however.)

The TPM 2.0 standard is a major upgrade to the previous 1.2 specification. You won't notice a difference in everyday tasks like securely booting up or unlocking a BitLocker-encrypted device, but the advantages will become apparent over the next few years as enterprise features begin to take advantage of TPM capabilities.

3: Biometric authentication

The Windows Biometric Framework has been around since Windows 7 and was significantly enhanced beginning with Windows 8 to add support for authentication via fingerprint readers to the operating system.

Windows 10 adds a new biometric support option, using cameras that combine conventional and infrared imaging to produce accurate facial recognition that's difficult to spoof. It wraps the biometric logon feature in a new interface called Windows Hello.

All models of Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 support facial recognition and offer an optional Type Cover with an integrated fingerprint reader. An increasing number of notebooks from other manufacturers, including HP, Dell, ASUS, and Lenovo, are equipped with Intel RealSense cameras that support Windows Hello facial recognition.

Biometric authentication is an excellent addition to your corporate security, giving you another way to use multi-factor authentication. In combination with a TPM, it supports an emerging standard called Microsoft Passport, which uses biometric information and a PIN to control access to secure websites and cloud-based services without requiring the user to continually re-enter long, complex passwords. Figure A shows how this combination works.

Figure A

Passport
Image: Microsoft

Image: Microsoft

4: HDMI 2.0

HDMI debuted in 2002, offering a way to deliver high-definition video to compatible displays. Since its debut, the HDMI standard has evolved significantly. The current revision, HDMI 2.0, supports 4K resolutions at 60Hz. (The previous standard, HDMI 1.4, also supported 4K displays, but only at 30Hz.) Newer HDMI equipment also supports a full range of multichannel audio formats.

Because TVs and external computer displays tend to last a long time--typically much longer than the average computer--they are often the last link in the HDMI chain to be updated. One hidden cost? Your old HDMI cables will still work with Full HD displays (1920 x 1080 resolution), but you need HDMI 2.0-compatible high-speed cables to take advantage of 4K displays at 60Hz.

5: USB Type-C

Speaking of new cables... The overwhelming advantage of the new USB Type-C plug is that the connector is reversible, which means no more fumbling to find the right orientation when plugging in a power or data transfer cable. Figure B shows a USB 3.0 cable (with its distinctive blue color-coding) alongside the new Type-C connector.

Figure B

USB

  • The first wave of devices containing USB Type-C connectors have already arrived, in the form of phones like Google's Nexus 6P and Microsoft's Lumia 950 XL, as well as laptops like the Dell XPS 15. What you can do with that connection isn't immediately obvious, however. USB-C is strictly a connection standard. That port can unlock any of the following new standards:
  • USB 3.1 support allows you to transfer at speeds up to 10 Gb/sec, which is double the transfer rate of USB 3.0.
  • USB Power Delivery supports device chargers of up to 100W, making it possible to charge phones and even power-hungry laptops from the same USB Type-C power source.
  • Alternate modes allow the use of DisplayPort, Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), and Thunderbolt 3 display connectors at full resolution.

The only way you can be sure which of those options is supported is to dig into the detailed specs of a new device.

In fact, that advice applies across the board for new PC hardware.