Windows 8 Tablets: Almost Ready for Prime Time

By Hershel Kleinberg, Executive Vice President, CTO

  • Originally published May 28, 2013 , last updated March 20, 2018
Windows 8 Tablets: Almost Ready for Prime Time

Windows-based tablets offer an appealing blend of laptop functionality and tablet portability that the iPad simply cannot match. SMS Chief Technology Officer Hershel Kleinberg gives an in-depth review of Windows 8 tablets to help inform your buying decision.

The new Windows 8 tablets promise a lot of things: light weight, long battery life, touch and pen input, and the complete Windows portfolio of products all in a device the size of an iPad. It offers many things an insurance agent would value, especially the ability to capture a signature with pen input and the ability to run Windows-based carrier software. The iPad is nice, but it doesn’t have the support and software that an agent can carry around with their laptop. So do these new tablet computers live up to the promise? Almost. The reason they don’t quite live up to the promise at this point is partially a question of hardware and partially a question of software.

Three Types of Processor

There are basically three different types of Windows 8 tablet hardware based on the microprocessor used.

1. Integra or Snapdragon Processors. These are low-end processors primarily designed for smartphones and tablets and only run Windows RT, not Windows 8 Standard or Pro. Windows RT is like a mini version of Windows 8 in a similar way that iOS is a mini version of the Mac operating system. It cannot run full Windows applications, only those designed for Windows RT. For that reason, they are not really recommended. Some examples include the Microsoft Surface RT, Dell XPS 10 and Asus Vivo Tab.

2. Intel Atom Processor (Clover Trail). This is a low-power chip set that runs the full version of Windows 8 Standard or Pro. It has long battery life, runs cool (doesn’t need a fan), and can be used to make lightweight tablets. It is less powerful and therefore slower than the current chips used in laptops and desktop computers. Some examples include the ThinkPad Tablet 2, The HP Elitepad, Samsung ATIV Smart PC, and Dell Latitude 10.

3. Intel i3 or i5 (Ivy Bridge). These are the chip sets found in current laptops. They are fast and accordingly draw more power and produce more heat. They then need additional cooling and batteries which makes them heavier. Some examples include the Microsoft Surface Pro, Acer W700, and Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro.

As I said above, I would avoid the Windows RT-based tablets as they would not be able to run any carrier-specific applications. Between Atom and i5/i3 tablets, there is definitely a trade-off. The Atom processors have much better battery life and create much lighter tablets; however, they can be a bit sluggish at times. You probably would not want to manage large spreadsheets or use Photoshop with them. On the other hand, the i5/i3 tablets are much more powerful but do not have the battery longevity or light weight you would want in a tablet.

For example, the Microsoft Surface Pro with an i5 processor has about 4 hours of battery life and weights 2 lbs. without the keyboard cover. It has a built-in cooling fan, which, to be fair, is fairly silent and well concealed. On the other hand, the Atom-powered Thinkpad Tablet 2 weighs only 1.3 lbs. and lasts a good 8 hours before requiring a recharge. Good for a full day’s work. However, you may find yourself waiting around at times for applications to start or tasks to complete.

When looking at tablets for my own use, I was really looking for something to supplement my normal computer, particularly when I travel. It wasn’t going to be my sole machine back home, but it did need to be my only machine on the road. Therefore I went with an Atom based tablet. Your needs may be different and if it was going to be your only computer, I would likely choose an i3/i5 machine despite the shortcomings.

The Hardware

There are a number of different manufacturers of Windows 8 tablets including Microsoft, Lenovo, HP, Acer, Asus and Dell, to name a few. Though this makes for a lot of possible choices, it also makes for incompatibility with respect to accessories, which can make it difficult to choose a machine. You have to get your accessories from the manufacturer of the tablet for the most part. There are number of different types of accessories and features that may or may not be available for a given tablet. Some of the more popular include:

Memory. Most Atom or RT tablets come with 32GB or 64GB of memory while the i3/i5 may come with up to 128GB.

USB Port. Most tablets have a USB port available, but some require an additional dongle like the HP Elitepad, while other like the Thinkpad 2 include one right on the tablet. Others may only include a mini-USB port.

HDMI Port. Most tablets have the ability to output through HDMI to a TV or monitor either directly from the tablet using a mini or micro HDMI connection, through a dongle or through a docking station.

SD Card Slot. Most tablets can accept an SD card, which allows you to add some additional storage memory to your tablet. The Atom tablets in general only accept SDHC cards, which have a maximum capacity of 32GB, while some i3/i5 tablets can accept SDXC card, which can store up to 128GB.

Cellular Connection. Many of the tablets have a configuration that provides cellular wireless connection with 3G or LTE connections. Microsoft tablets do not have a cellular option. All tablets I have seen have wireless G at least, and some have wireless N.

Docking Station. Many of the tablets have available docking stations, which allow you to connect an additional monitor, network connection, and USB devices like keyboard, mouse and external drives. They have a power connection and can charge the tablet as well.

Pen Input. The Windows 8 tablets are very touch-centric and all have touch screens. However, several of the tablets also have a digitizer and a pen, which provides more precise interaction that is often needed for desktop applications. Also, this would be the preferred method of capturing a client’s signature.

Keyboards. There are cover keyboards, keyboard sleeves and unattached Bluetooth keyboards in different shapes and styles. Lenovo probably has the best keyboard, but it doesn’t attach to the tablet or act as a cover. Microsoft has two different innovative cover keyboards. One flat and one with raised keys. HP will have a sleeve that goes around the tablet with a keyboard turning it into a little laptop, but there is no clue as to when that will be released.

All of these features are done in different ways on the different tablets. Also, none of the tablets have really reached a critical mass of acceptance. Accordingly, there really aren’t a lot of aftermarket accessories available for any of the tablets like there is for the iPad or even the Google or Samsung Android tablets.

For my personal use, I wanted a light Atom tablet with an easily removable keyboard cover, pen input and a decent docking station. USB/HDMI on the device was nice but not a requirement. There really wasn’t a device that fit all of those. The Microsoft Surface Pro is probably the nicest Windows 8 tablet out there. Good construction, a good set of ports on the device, and a great pair of keyboard covers available. The problem is it is too heavy for a tablet (2 lbs.), only really gets 4 hours of battery life and costs over $1,000 with a keyboard cover.

I started with the HP Elitepad. It had a form factor closer to the iPad — 16:10 v. 16:9 (HD format), which I thought might work better for document editing in landscape mode. A problem with that format, I later discovered, is that Windows 8 won’t let you use the snap feature in that format. The snap feature allows you to dock a small version of an app to the edge of the screen. It was to have pen input and a special sleeve that would add an attached keyboard when needed. It was constructed of aluminum and appeared to be solidly built. The USB connector is not on the tablet but accessible through a provided dongle. The first dongle was defective and they couldn’t just replace the dongle so I had to send the whole thing back. Once the second one came in and I had a chance to set it up, I got a notice that the digitizer pen accessory was discontinued. They were having problems with them so they stopped manufacture and have yet to announce a replacement. They have not announced any availability time for the keyboard sleeve either. I sent that one back as well.

Next I tried the ThinkPad 2. It really is a very light, well-built device. It has multiple ports including USB, mini-HDMI, Micro-SD, SIM card and dock connector right on the tablet. Mine was not cellular-ready, so I wish they had left off the SIM slot, as I keep getting SD cards stuck in it by mistake. The keyboard, although very nice, doesn’t attach like a cover, but is instead a separate device that the tablet can rest on. You then need a special carrying case to bring the keyboard and tablet together. I did not order the keyboard, but I did get the docking station and I was able to find an aftermarket case. I have found it much better than HP Elitepad in feel as well.

                     

It does have its issues though. Sometimes the orientation gets stuck and won’t change. When you put it in the dock, the orientation will lock, but I’ve had it oddly lock in portrait mode. The wireless is sometimes very slow to connect. When using the docking station, it sometimes has problems syncing with my monitor at its higher resolution when extending the desktop. Duplicating the display to an attached monitor does not seem to be an issue. When starting an application, I have to realize it may take some time to appear, so I shouldn’t be too impatient.

Apart from those issues, I was able to get work done using it exclusively on a week-long trip. It was good for taking notes as well as working on document editing in Word, spreadsheets in Excel and a PowerPoint presentation I was editing. With a few issues, I was able to do what I needed to get done, but I definitely would not want it as my only machine. Apart from some of the odd behaviors that may be due to a new product coming out, the Atom processors are really too slow for real Windows 8. Media can play back fine with the metro apps, and many of the apps work fine once you can get them started, but others have more issues. iTunes, for example, can’t play back video well, and starting certain applications can take an inordinate amount of time to begin. Although I thought I didn’t need the power for a supplemental computer, once you start running real Windows applications, you really miss it.

Don’t fret; there is a solution on the horizon. This summer and fall, products will begin to appear based on the brand new Intel Haswell chipset. This is supposed to provide more speed while drawing much less power. If Microsoft can come out with a Surface based on the Haswell chipset with a touch cover, more than 7 hours of battery life and a weight under 1.5 lbs., I think that may be a real winner. If they can also come out with a docking station, a place to store the pen within the device, and cellular wireless connectivity, then they will really have something.

In my next article I will talk more about Windows 8 and some of the issues working in its schizophrenic dual-nature environment on a tablet, as well as the latest version of Microsoft Office and the joys of SkyDrive. I will also hint at the next iteration of Windows 8, code-named Blue.