Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Paradox of Windows Tablets

There's no nice way to say this, so I'll just say it. Windows 8.1 on tablets shouldn't work. On paper, there's just nothing that indicates that this kind of device should be anything but a terribly compromised mess. For the most part, this is a completely true statement, and I really can't recommend one. So why am I writing this, you might ask? Simple; I decided to get one.

I've used a lot of different mobile devices over the years. My first, coincidentally, was a Windows Mobile 6 device. It was an HTC Touch Pro. It wasn't a great device, if I'm completely honest, but most of that came down to Windows Mobile 6. It was never really meant to be a smartphone platform. It was meant to run on mobile computers with integrated barcode scanners. It also required a stylus.

I eventually moved on to the new up and comer, Android. I even flirted with Apple and iOS for a while. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Android has always been a bit rough around the edges, but it makes up for it with nigh endless customization options. Apple's iOS is sleek and user-friendly, but it's really beginning to show its age. On my phone, I'm most definitely an Android person. The OS has matured to a point where it rivals iOS for stability and user-friendliness. On tablets, though, I've never really found a platform that fit me.

I've never cared for iPads. They're too expensive and too limited. I used a a Nexus 7 for quite a while, but it always felt rather redundant next to one of my various Android phones. As to Surface devices, The Pro was far too expensive, and the RT devices were even more limited than the iPads. Going outside the tablet box, I have also been using a Samsung Chromebook, and an HP convertible touchscreen that runs Windows 8. The Chromebook is excellent. It does what it is designed to do very well, very securely, and with no fuss. The HP is a decent enough laptop, but at 4.5 pounds it was never really portable enough for my liking. 

I still had that need to occasionally use Office, or remote desktop into my servers. There are also a few really killer apps for remote administration of web servers that Android and Chrome OS just don't have an answer for. Was it too much to ask for a really portable device that could do all these things and not cost nearly a thousand dollars? As it turns out it wasn't, but Microsoft had to let the OEMs off the leash before they could happen.

One of those devices that happened was Dell's Venue 8 Pro, which is also the device I chose to buy. Toshiba and Lenovo both have very similar devices now as well. As I said at the beginning, on paper, it just shouldn't work. Cramming a full OS into an 8" tablet should be a recipe for pain and suffering. Yet somehow, for certain users like me, it actually works.

A big chunk of that comes down to Intel finally figuring out how to make a low power x86 SoC work. Their current crop of "Bay Trail" quad core Atom CPUs are great. They perform, and they sip power. The big one, though, is that they're x86; they can run full Windows 8.1. Every piece of software you love can run on this thing. Within reason, of course. These CPUs weren't meant for serious gaming. For productivity and media consumption, though, these Atoms pack all the power you'll need.

Dell certainly had trouble with the launch of these devices, as did the other OEMs that decided to try this new type of Windows tablet. Fortunately, it seems all the major issues have now been ironed out. Some problems remain, but they're not really issues that Dell or the other OEMs can fix. Problems like having a desktop interface designed for a mouse and keyboard on a device that only has a touchscreen for input. I plan to pick up a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard soon. That will give me the option of having a laptop when I want it, or a tablet when I don't, but still a full operating system either way. It's really as close as I've come to my perfect mobile device.

Ultimately, though, I can't recommend it. These are devices that you need to be willing to make sacrifices for. You most definitely need to have some technical know how, as this takes all the complexities of full Windows 8 and crams it onto a device it wasn't intended for. However, and this is a big "however," if you're like me and consider yourself a serious power user with a need for a highly portable device, this new crop of inexpensive, small, lightweight Windows 8.1 tablets may be what you have been looking for. There is a serious amount of utility per square inch in these things, if you're willing to put up with the quirks.

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