Choosing a Windows 8 Tablet

Note: since writing this, I’ve changed my view on a few of these requirements, and returned the machine I selected. I’d suggest reading this second post for more information.

Since the first Windows 8 devices were announced and I had a chance to work with the Developer Preview I’ve been looking forward to the day when I could get my mits on a Windows 8 tablet. During that time, my thoughts about what I really want have crystalised somewhat. There’s been plenty written about the new OS and the devices that will launch at or near General Availability this Friday, but there seems to be a dearth of comparative information other than some useful reference materials. As I see it, these materials are excellent once you know what you want, but they don’t really help you get there. And that’s the point of this post. I reckon someone might find it helpful to step through my thought process, even if they reach a different conclusion. This is quite subjective and somewhat rough and ready, but I often find that more useful than anything else.

Windows RT

When I first read about Windows RT, and particularly Windows On Arm (WOA, as it was known at the time), I was particularly pleased that a lot of what was promised aligned with what I was after. I basically wanted a bigger version of my Windows Phone 7, but as close to the “desktop” experience as it could be where the phone is lacking. A big part of this was full or nearly-full fidelity Office 2013. Early materials suggested this would be coming. I realised there would be no legacy application support  and I wasn’t massively worried. This would primarily be used on the sofa/train rather than as a desktop replacement. I was also interested to see how the ARM devices compared to the Atom models, which weren’t discussed much initially. All told, I figured there would be some niggles but that RT would probably get me what I wanted in a tablet.

Over time, I’ve been disappointed to learn of some features that presumably didn’t make the cut with RT. The first bit of bad news was that Outlook would not be included in the bundled version of Office 2013. This was pretty much a deal breaker for me. I don’t care for the Mail app and I couldn’t see myself using and Gmail all the time. I want Outlook proper. Beyond that, I’ve never really warmed to the chrome-less RT version of IE 10. At least in the full version of Windows 8 this browser has some serious deficiencies, like a lack of History and many other controls advanced users would expect. I can’t say if that will hold true on the RT devices, but it puts me off. Lastly, I’ve not seen any RT devices that come bundled with a stylus. I’ve also read that Windows RT won’t support Wacom or N-trig active digitisers and that Palm Block technology is not available in RT (unfortunately I’ve lost these sources). This is all quite important to me, because I really want to use my tablet with both fingers and a pen.

Note: some of the info about what is/isn’t in RT is still a bit sketchy. For instance, it isn’t obvious that the Surface RT or the ASUS Vivo Tab RT don’t have digitisers. In the case of Surface, there are promotional videos and blog posts about the pen input capabilities of the Surface but they’re talking about the Pro model, which won’t be out for a couple of months still.

For what it’s worth, I do think RT has a future and that these deficiencies aren’t miles off the issues with Windows Phone 7 when it was first released. Microsoft nearly always ships a flawed v1 but make good on the overwhelming majority of those issues pretty quickly. However, in this case I’m disinclined to adopt early and wait for the fixes. My wants aren’t really covered with RT.

Key Features

Moving on from RT simplified my choices quite a bit. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted an Atom model, which would be cheaper and promises much better battery life, or if I wanted an i-series processor. Eventually, I left that decision until later, as a few vendors have models with versions for both CPUs. Having ruled out the OS and the CPU I could focus on the hardware features that would be most compelling to me. This was my first stab at the list:

  • High resolution touch screen
  • Active stylus (really important)
  • “Good” dock/hybrid design
  • Ports:
    • HDMI
    • USB3 (nice to have)
  • Wireless Display (nice to have)
  • Preference for larger screen over lower weight, up to a point
  • At least 8GB RAM for an i-Series model (Atoms all ship with 2GB, AFAIK)

Form Factor

So I want a “good” docking/hybrid design, right? What I mean is that I haven’t see a single slider or twisting implementation that I would be confident in over the full lifetime of the device. Perhaps this is paranoia, but the folding bike owner in me is very aware of the pressure applied to the weakest joint and these designs fill me with discomfort. Also, if I compare those designs to the keyboard/traditional dock designs, at least I can replace the other half if I need to and in some cases those docks come with an additional battery. There’s a lot of innovation going on here as well, like with the Surface covers and the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga’s flip. In short, I want a docking keyboard or possibly a traditional dock.

Active Digitisers

I know many people swear by iPads, but relatively few people see them as viable content creation tools, and fewer still see them as primary content creation tools. They’re good for viewing and quick interactions like Twitter/Facebook, brief e-mails, etc. It isn’t fair to say that this is just an iPad thing either. This is why people want keyboards for iPads and Android tablets. But a keyboard is just one type of input. Pen is an intuitive means of commenting on documents, of producing diagrams and for anything else that requires reasonably fine-grained input, like ticking a box in the grid of a music sequencer. These are all things I anticipate doing with my tablet. I speak about active digitisers a lot here. These styli work by over-riding the normal touch experience when the pen is close to or touching the screen. This improves the pen input experience considerably by ignoring unwanted input like the side of your hand.

i-Series Models

Having a decent idea of what I wanted, I plundered the information I could find today. It’s always difficult finding reliable information before vendors publish specs, but a couple of resources proved very useful to me. Aidan Finn’s Windows 8 Devices at GA post contains a spread sheet with known data on many models. There’s another similar sheet with slightly different information on the Neogaf fora. Ultimately, I found the Penabled spread sheet useful once I knew that I really wanted a Wacom or N-trig digitiser. In fact, there’s a good thread on that pointed me to that spread sheet in the first place. I shan’t regurgitate any of that information here. I will summarise what I learned from those resources and how it coloured my choices. Obviously this list isn’t comprehensive – these were the short list.

Microsoft Surface Pro

In short, I ruled this out because I don’t want to wait until next year to buy it. It looks rather good, but I would want to see a full spec before singing its praises. I’d also like to know more about the stylus, which isn’t clearly known yet.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga

This is  more touch-capable Ultrabook than tablet, but I love the flip design. I only wish it shipped with an active digitiser. That basically ruled it out for me. Otherwise I would have gone for it, especially since it’s one of the few models that supports more than 4GB RAM (up to 8GB).

ASUS Transformer Book

As always, the ASUS website is in a shocking state. The Transformer Book seems like it will be in the same league as the Surface Pro, but we need to confirm specs. From what I could glean from scattered information, this has much in common with the Android Transformers, but it didn’t stand out among these devices as it does among the (cheaper) Android tablets.

Acer Iconia W700

Spec-wise it’s not massively interesting relative to the competition other than 1920×1080 resolution. I find the “cradle” strange. No stylus. Again, clear details are lacking.

Fujitsu Lifebooks

There are a couple of fairly interesting Fujitsu Lifebooks, including one with up to 16GB RAM. For me these are more like full-size laptops and the features are focused squarely on the enterprise, especially the security stuff. These look quite good, but the added weight put me off slightly and the features weren’t as compelling as some of the other models. The bigger of these comes with a new N-trig active digitiser, which gets some good reviews, although its novelty means that they haven’t really been measured well against the Wacoms. I like a lot about the heavy, up to 16GB model but I can’t get past the swivel.

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro

My favourite! Discussed in more detail with the Atom model below.

Atom Models

Note: all Atom models seem to come with 2GB RAM and 1366 x 768 resolution.

Asus Vivo Tab (f/k/a  Tablet 810)

Allegedly the Vivo Tab (but not the Vivo Tab RT) comes with an active Wacom digitiser, or at least supports it (there is no silo). As Atom models go, this is very high up there for me and it sounds as though this model has some improvements from the Transformer Book lineage. The 11.6″ screen is the right size for me and the digitiser input videos on YouTube look good. I never really ruled this model out, although I haven’t seen anything concrete about pricing/availability in the UK and again, the ASUS site had info on the Vivos for a time but it’s been retracted. If I were still interested in an Atom model I might be looking more closely here still.

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2

From early on I had my eye on this tablet. It’s very similar to the Vivo Tab and the Samsung ATIV Smart PC except that it’s slightly smaller at 10.1″. The main reason I ruled it out is that it’s a pure tablet with a dock or a Bluetooth keyboard dock. It’s also not listed on the Lenovo site in the UK, despite the other new Windows 8 models appearing there not long ago. The Wacom digitiser with this model is optional (no cost yet), although there is a silo. These were all edge considerations, but added up they were dissuasive relative to the ASUS Vivo Tab or the Samsung ATIV Smart PC (among Atom models).

Samsung ATIV Smart PC

There’s a lot to like about this model. It ships with the S-Pen active stylus, it comes with up to 128 GB SSD, it’s lightweight, it has an 11.6″ screen (1366 x 768). It has good 3G/4G (LTE) connectivity options, dual cameras and it looks very nice. There really isn’t much down-side to it other than that the keyboard dock looks like an open wound. I can imagine that would get very dirty over time, but it doesn’t really put me off. Among the Atom models this is my favourite. I got a final vote of confidence for the ATIV line recently when I asked a colleague about his experience with the Samsung Series 7 (very similar) with Windows 8 over the last year. It was recently stolen and he is now looking to buy an ATIV – passing the “would you buy it again” test.

Choosing a CPU/Screen Resolution

Clearly, the CPU is important in terms of pure grunt, but it also becomes a key dependency for battery life, Maximum RAM options and even screen resolution (at least for the Windows 8 Tablets on the market today). But the i-series models also tend to come at a considerably higher price tag. Once I got my head around the idea of spending £800+ on a tablet with 2GB RAM and an Atom CPU (after recalling that my phone cost £500), I needed to assess whether an extra £300 would be justifiable for the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro. This model ships with an i5 CPU and 4GB RAM at the expense of lower battery life and greater weight. However, I was really interested that the same 11.6″ screen size displays 1920×1080 on the Pro model and it also offers USB 3. The higher resolution really sets this model apart. The only other comparable model is the Dell XPS Duo 12 and that has a ridiculous swivel design.

In the end, I just don’t know if I’m going to need the extra grunt of an i5 on a tablet. I don’t tend to do loads of CPU/RAM-intensive stuff on my home machines, although I would certainly miss the CPU if I cracked open anything DSP-intensive like Traktor or Ableton. I doubt the Atom would cope well with that. I also worry that even if today’s Atom is sufficient, it may not be in three years time, or six years (which is actually how long I’ve got out of my current laptop). These concerns coupled with much higher resolution mean that I’m 99% certain I’ll go for the Pro model.

Final Compromises and a Clearer View of What’s Important

As always with portable devices, something wasn’t going to sit well; it’s invariable with devices that are so small and difficult to customise. In this case I’m struggling with the idea that I’ll spend over £1000 on a computer with less than 4GB RAM. But the alternatives that offer more than 4GB RAM are more like full laptop size/weight. I would find it much harder to live with those compromises. I also have to settle for a model without Wireless Display. This would be a compelling feature for me (especially thinking about the future), but I’m not seeing it on the models that otherwise interest me.

I’m sure that over the next year+ there will be models that solve for all of this and much more, but right now I’m desperate for touch, pen and something I can use on the sofa without annihilating my back. The one thing that’s become most clear to me through reading about so many devices is that touch, pen input and a good display are probably the most compelling things I’m after in a Windows 8 machine. I’ve been using the operating system for a while now. There is no application that makes me need to upgrade (yet). What I really want is a new way of interacting with my machine.

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