Ditching the Tablet: Windows 8 Revives Netbooks

Soon before Windows 8 tablets became available I wrote about my selection process, focusing on some of the key decisions that helped narrow my choices. This was largely a consideration of WindowsRT on ARM vs. Windows on Atom vs. Windows on i-Series processors. My first few weeks with this device have been a mixed bag. I’ve now returned the tablet, replacing it with a Netbook. I can’t say I saw any of this coming, so I thought it might be good to write about the issues I faced between the time that I decided on a Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro and when I finally returned it after eight weeks. I’ll also revisit my criteria with some hands-on experience under my belt and consider how Ultrabooks/Netbooks with touch compare to ARM/Atom tablets for price/functionality/components, and how Windows 8 itself is disruptive to hardware refresh patterns. Although this post roams a bit, I hope it’s joined up by some common threads of unexpected/disruptive effects of Windows 8.

Information and Supply

Windows 8 launch has been marred by supply issues and poor coordination between OEMs, retailers and Microsoft. Whether this was a consequence of rushed delivery is a matter of conjecture that I shan’t indulge in depth, but for some time after Windows 8 GA the Windows  “Explore new PCs” site was incomplete and unfit for a global audience. Vendors and retailers displayed a further mismatch of inconsistent and incomplete information. Stock availability was only mentioned in rumour – then in early November some devices emerged with zero fanfare. After building so much anticipation I counted myself lucky that the Samsung Smart PC Pro was one of the first devices in stock. Some GA models like the Dell XPS 10 won’t be available until later this month.

When I got my mitts on the new tablet at the beginning of November I was still waiting on stock for the keyboard dock. I would need to wait at least another two and a half weeks for the full experience. I decided to press on with the tablet alone in the mean time as it would be an interesting way to immerse myself in the world of Windows 8 on a touch device.

Unexpected Findings from Windows with Touch

I was surprised by a few things during these first two weeks:

  • IE10: I like the “Metro” IE10! I simply never thought this would be so, and I still dislike the lack of advanced options and history, but it’s by far the best browser to use with your fingers on a Windows 8 device. It’s built for it and the experience is very fluid.
  • RT: Similarly, I found myself “getting” the “Metro” experience on a touch device for some apps I’d written off, like Tweetro. I actually find that to be the best Twitter app I’ve used, when using it on a touch device, even if it can be somewhat painful with a mouse.
  • Pen: As much as I thought I would get wrapped up in pen input, it just never happened for me. It turns out keyboards are pretty good at what they do. It may be that I would have felt differently about this with Office 2013 on the device, but one way or the other, I felt that this was less of a compelling feature than when I purchased the device. It wasn’t “must have” any more.
  • Office: Office 2010 is usable, but not optimised for touch input. I really want Office 2013 to hit GA so I can use it with touch. However, I didn’t feel so strongly about this that I moved from OneNote 2010 to OneNote MX. Full OneNote 2013 will be the sweet spot.

This all reinforced to me that there’s no substitute for spending time with such a different UX/system. It’s not really possible to clearly transpose a view of needs from the Windows 7 world to Windows 8, nor from Windows 8 without touch to Windows 8 with it.

Life without the Keyboard Dock

During this time, I found typing on the screen surprisingly usable, although I still wanted the keyboard for proper writing. As it happens, I wrote thousands of words of blog content on the touch screen, but it isn’t optimal. As this was one of the key uses for this device, I was pretty pleased when the keyboard dock shipped on time. But it never worked.

The Keyboard Dock Saga

The issue with the dock is that whenever you touch the screen it undocks the keyboard then “re-docks” repeatedly (accompanied by a peripheral connect/disconnect sound ad infinitum). I tried updating drivers, checked the contacts, rebuilt the machine multiple times, tested with a colleague’s tablet (same model) and in all cases the keyboard dock had the same problem. It was basically usable when on a flat, stable surface if I wasn’t touching the screen, but the device has touch for a reason, so this was pretty infuriating. It also dis/re-connected repeatedly if using it positioned on legs (like on a train), so it became equally useless for typing in transit, even if you didn’t touch the screen.

I searched to see if this was a common problem or if anyone had a solution but basically turned up a number of similar experiences, including some similar problems on the Samsung Note Android devices. I initiated a return (a horrendous process through Misco’s appalling service organisation – literally three or four hours of life wasted and a sizeable phone bill) and eventually received a replacement. Same problem on the new dock. Went through the whole troubleshooting process again. This time I sought a repair from Samsung, suspecting a design flaw. They obliged, picked up the machine the next day and got on with the repair. After a few days in their service centre I received a call, explaining that a driver update fixed the problem. I explained that I’d updated them multiple times on multiple builds but they insisted the problem was fixed. I collected the device that afternoon, powered it on in front of the technician and demonstrated the flaw again within about three seconds. At this point I persuaded myself that I would never trust the docking mechanism to last the life of the device, even if I did receive one that worked. So I initiated a return (back to Misco, with only marginally less aggravation/incompetence this time) and started shopping again.

With hindsight, I’ve been able to see this period as an extended trial, now that the refund’s in-hand and I have a new device that’s working well, with only a few niggles. I’ve also managed to shave nearly £650 from my costs.

Reconsidering Keyboard Docks versus Integrated Keyboards

Keyboard docks have a number of advantages for tablets, but I think their usefulness wanes the more the device is used traditionally. Ultimately, something that disconnects and has a second battery is going to be prone to failure more regularly than something integrated. There’s more exposed stuff to break and less tested/fixed connections between components.

Looking back on my purchase, I think I was seduced by a modularity fetish when it wasn’t really what I needed. Using the tablet as a tablet was a very good experience, but I often found myself docking it even when I wasn’t creating content. I also found myself using the touch screen (or trying to) when it was docked. With some distance and the opportunity to purchase again, I found that I definitely needed a keyboard for a tablet, but I didn’t necessarily need to separate the two, or at least it was worth re-examining how much I would be willing to pay for the privilege.

Ultrabooks and the Vivobook

Having learned a thing or two about using Windows 8 with touch, I revisited my choices from the first time around. This time I was struggling to justify spending so much money on one of my second choices among the available Windows 8 tablets. I widened the search to include Ultrabooks (an Intel designation for low power, lightweight laptops and convertibles with specific size and performance criteria) with touch screens, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot to choose from at the moment, and those that appealed to me tended to pack in a number of high-end features that I don’t strictly need, pushing up the overall price of the machine.

ASUS Vivobook vs. VivoTab

Somewhere along the way I caught a glimpse of the ASUS S200E netbook, AKA the Vivobook, which shares many traits with official Ultrabooks, while adding touch, at a fraction of the cost. There’s a lot to like about this machine, starting at £399 for a Pentium (I didn’t realise they were still in production) or £449 for a Core i3 processor. This pricing puts it quite a bit below even the RT models. For instance, the ASUS VivoTab RT starts at £550 but the docking keyboard adds another £120. Since the Vivobook has an i3, I thought the ASUS VivoTab (the Atom model) would make a more interesting comparison. It starts at £700, again with £120 for the docking keyboard. So how does the Vivobook with i3 compare to its Atom VivoTab sibling, at £370 less?

Compromises

  • Lower battery life
  • Slower disk speed (5400 RPM)
    • This can be changed, but the swap may not be supported. More on this below.
  • No Wacom digitizer
  • No removable keyboard

Benefits

  • CPU speed (i3)
  • Storage capacity (500GB)
  • Components/Connectivity
    • 1x full-size USB 3.0 + 2x full-size USB 2.0
    • Full-size SD slot (Micro can always be adapted up to Full, but not the other way)
    • Three channels of graphics
      • VGA
      • Full-size HDMI port
    • Full (and rather funky) fold-down Ethernet port

Vivobook Battery Life

Of the compromises, a battery life of ~5 hours is sufficient for me. I know this is a much more compelling factor for others, but I just don’t need greater than that most of the time. I only connect to Wi-Fi networks ad hoc, as I’m typically writing or reading. I see an actual battery life in line with the estimates above.

Vivobook Disk Speed

Initially, the 5400 RPM disk speed troubled me a bit, but I’ve found a discussion about upgrading to SSD that didn’t look too onerous. I nearly plunged in to that upgrade before assessing how the 5400 RPM disk performs, and I still may do the upgrade at some point, but right now I simply don’t see the need. The slower disk just doesn’t seem to slow the system down enough that it troubles me and I gain a ton of storage capacity along the way. I’m guessing SuperFetch and other performance improvements in Windows 8 are responsible. Or it could be that the Office/Browser/RT usage I’m chucking at it isn’t causing strain. Start-up/Shut Down times are only a handful of seconds and Sleep/Resume has never taken more than a couple of seconds, typically appearing instantaneous. ASUS claims two second instant on, which isn’t far off the mark.

Vivobook Specs and Hardware Quality

Netbooks are typically small and light, if not always as thin as Ultrabooks. The Vivobook weight is akin to a keyboard-docked Windows 8 tablet, (1.4 kg) and at 11.6″ (1366×768), the S200E has the same resolution as many Windows 8 tablets and all of the Atom models. This is the right compromise for me between size/weight. Note: there is also a 14″ Vivobook, the S400.

For what it’s worth, the display quality is not amazing, but I don’t need that in transit. I’ve had some strange issues with horizontal scrolling on the touch screen, in that it seems really severe on the Windows start screen. It scrolls too fast/far. I’ve not had time to look in to this properly yet and it doesn’t trouble me when scrolling vertically in desktop apps, so I’m assuming this is a setting or driver issue. The ASUS tools for hardware management are lacking a bit, but I don’t think these are unsolvable issues and they haven’t troubled me much. Build quality beyond these niggles, is excellent. “Cheap” is not a word that comes to mind.

Other cool stuff

  • Wireless Display
    • Disappointingly, Wireless Display does not ship with the machine, although I’ve seen some specs that suggest it does. Evidently this is a reasonably minor upgrade, if you’re already considering cracking the device open (probably unsupported) to swap out the disk for SSD.
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1.8 GHz i3-3217U CPU
  • Touch display

Lastly, the AC adapter is really tiny – especially compared to something like a Lenovo W530 brick. It’s a nice bonus.

Netbooks with Touch vs. Windows RT

Given that price points are similar, I thought I would review some of the main differences between Windows 8 Netbooks with touch screens vs. the new Windows RT devices. If exceptionally long battery life is compelling, it might be worth sacrificing application compatibility and embrace the Windows RT model early. I really like the better Windows RT apps today. I think the model’s got a strong future, I’m just not sold that I want to ditch all of my legacy apps right now, especially since full Office 2013 (with Outlook/OneNote) will not be available on Windows RT (as we understand things today). I would also miss a good mind mapping tool, a good media player, a usable, free Twitter client and probably some other applications I’m still using exclusively on XP, which I will move to Windows 8 soon. These are the basics of the trade-offs. I think Netbooks are coming out well versus both Windows RT and the new Atom  devices on these terms, so long as extremely long battery life is not a firm requirement.

Optimisations and the Effect of Netbooks on Windows Itself

Windows 8 ‘s performance optimisations grant lower-spec and older machines a new viability. These optimisations are typically discussed on higher-performing devices, yet I think the primary benefactors are the lower-spec  and ageing machines that would otherwise gather dust. When you combine these improvements with the synchronised Windows 8 experience across devices and the low cost of the license, we get a new latitude to focus more clearly on form factor, components and total cost when looking for new devices, while finding new, targeted uses for old kit. Examples:

  • The tablet I wanted to buy is now actually an 11.6″ Netbook with touch.
  • My six-year old 15″ laptop is going to be pretty stationary, and will effectively become a desktop replacement.
  • My 9 year-old desktop can continue to gobble up disks from otherwise-disused stuff, as a rarely powered-on storage archive. I’m still unsure if I’ll leave it on XP, upgrade it to Windows 8 or install Windows Server 2012, taking advantage of the de-duplication benefits of the new file server role, but I’ve got some interesting new options with the new Operating Systems.

Where circuit boards go to die
Images of recycled circuit boards in China

Circuit Boards, Guiyu, Guangdong Province, 2004

In all of these cases, it’s the optimisation of Windows 8 that’s allowed me to rethink an optimal use for some ageing kit and be satisfied with a lower spec for a new device. Interestingly, since I drafted this, Paul Thurrott wrote about the effect of Netbooks  on Windows sales. I don’t agree with the idea that less new devices = bad. The rate of device refresh we’ve seen since the uptake of personal computing has never been sustainable. It’s a good thing if older kit can continue to provide value over a longer lifetime. Similarly, it’s good if Windows can operate well on lower-cost new devices, such as the Vivobook. Windows shouldn’t be an exclusively premium experience and should continue to provide an improved experience on older hardware.

3 thoughts on “Ditching the Tablet: Windows 8 Revives Netbooks”

  1. Interesting that you don’t mention the Surface RT in your review. Having been given one as a gift due to an easy purchase from John Lewis they are worth considering.

    Adding 64Gb SD Card for less than £40 has increased the storage space and a detachable keyboard means I can watch films on the train and then get home to complete timesheets for work and blog replies always viewing the full screen. Battery means I don’t have to charge it every night and weight means it is easy to carry around. Sure their are downsides but actually it may well cover some areas you mention.

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