Let’s Play the Windows Tablet Matchup Game!
If you were to carefully analyze the tablet market, you would find that there are arguably more Windows-based tablets worth buying than those sporting iOS or Android. The iPads have their strengths, particularly in certain verticals, but for business applications and sheer productivity it’s difficult to beat a Windows-based PC. With Microsoft now sweetening the deal by including the core Office suite on both Windows RT as well as 8-inch Windows 8 tablets, the value proposition offered by Windows tablets for someone seeking consumption and productivity capabilities in a single device is hard to ignore.
Speaking of ignored, hardware quality is often overlooked with tablets. While there are a seemingly endless number of options for Android tablets right now, I could probably narrow down the list to four or five choices that offer a good balance between quality and price. The Nexus 7 and 10 are obvious choices, as is the Samsung Tab line, with the remainder of decent (yet largely underwhelming) options scattered among a few of the major OEMs.
Windows tablets are a safer buy across the board, perhaps because they don’t yet try to compete with the sub-$100, off-brand Android tablets that were in every doorbuster ad this past holiday season. Sure, Windows tablets cost a little more, but the result is a wider range of options with a good blend of quality, performance, and price.
Some of those Windows tablets don’t just cost more—they cost a lot more. Unlike Android and iOS devices that operate solely on low-cost ARM processors, Windows tablets can be powered by both ARM and x86 processors. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2, for example—one of the most expensive Windows tablets available—runs the same Core i5 processor found in many high-performance Ultrabooks.
Those x86-based slates are also compatible with traditional Windows desktop programs and games, whereas the ARM-based models are not. That may sound like a big deal, but many find desktop compatibility to be far less important today than it was a year ago. For most, the modern side of Windows and the Windows Store (plus Office) sufficiently handle the tasks most users want from a tablet.
The most important part of matching yourself up with a Windows tablet is managing expectations for the things you realistically want to do with it. Sometimes people’s ideas of what a Windows tablet should do border the ridiculous. Can a Windows tablet run Adobe Premiere Pro and Hyper-V while compiling code in Visual Studio and streaming HD video from Netflix? No joke, I’ve been asked questions like that. My response is that tablets, notebooks, desktops, and other types of computers all exist as tools best suited for certain jobs. A hammer and screwdriver can build a wall, while a pneumatic framing nailer can hang a picture, but there’s no question which tools are best suited for which task.
Let’s take a look at one of the many Windows slate tablets that shouldn’t be overlooked, the pros and cons of each, and the right match for a user seeking a tablet.
Microsoft Surface 2
To be blunt, Microsoft’s first Surface tablet wasn’t much of a hit. There are many reasons why, but I’ll narrow it down to two major factors. One, the NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor that powered it was just a bit lacking to handle the broad range of functionality within Windows. And two, Microsoft’s Windows Store had just launched and didn’t offer enough apps, making Windows RT’s lack of legacy application support a tough pill to swallow. Do yourself a favor and forget the past year. Microsoft’s Surface 2 is a different animal.
Internally, Surface 2 is a much more evolved device than its predecessor. The Tegra 4 is a more capable processor, offering better battery life and plenty of power for entertainment and productivity tasks, and the screen has been upped to 1080p. I’ve always loved the integrated kickstand on the Surface line, and now it’s even better, thanks to a more lap-friendly second position. The front-facing camera is better than any notebook or tablet I’ve used in terms of low-light performance, which is largely overlooked.
Surface’s claims to fame are the click-in Touch and Type keyboard covers, both of which have been largely improved in the second generation. These covers transform the Surface slates into pseudo-notebooks without adding much to their size or weight. And, since Windows RT comes with Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, that pretty much defines the right person for this Windows tablet.
As a pure slate, the Surface 2 is simply too expensive. Its value comes when you add the Type Cover, which is a good enough keyboard to consider Surface 2 a hybrid. The Windows Store and Windows 8.1’s bundled apps have evolved enough to handle the needs of anyone who primarily lives on the Web, types a lot of long emails or blog posts, works in Outlook, and wants great battery life. For anyone who does a lot of videoconferencing via Skype, the camera in this tablet makes it ideal for that particular use case as well.
Nokia Lumia 2520
Nokia’s new Lumia 2520 is quickly becoming one of my favorite general-purpose Windows tablets, even over Microsoft’s own Surface 2 in some cases. Like Nokia’s Lumia Windows Phones, the Lumia 2520 tablet is built with the same beautiful modern design and amazing hardware quality in the 10.1-inch, full-1080p IPS HD screen that is a cut above just about anything in the Android world, fast Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor, built in-LTE, and decent-quality rear camera.
I actually prefer the feel of this tablet over the Surface 2, with the slightly tapered edges and rounded corners that combine with a light weight, making it more comfortable to hold than any other 10-inch slate.
Nokia, taking a cue from Microsoft, has also designed a keyboard cover specifically for the Lumia 2520. I can’t comment on it directly since it was not available before press time, but I’m led to believe the typing experience isn’t as good as Microsoft’s Type Cover. One major differentiator here, however, is that Nokia’s cover includes a battery that tacks on an additional five hours of run time.
As the only other Windows RT-based tablet, the Lumina 2520 competes directly with the Surface 2. All of the same arguments apply with regard to application needs, but the right person for this tablet will differ. For one, at this writing there is still no Surface with integrated LTE, making the Lumia more suited to those needing constant connection no matter where they are. I’d still highly recommend the Surface 2 to anyone with significant typing needs, but this is the right choice for people who could really use the extra run time.
Dell Venue 8 Pro
Dell came out of nowhere with the Venue 8 Pro, and after several tries at getting various hybrids and 10-inch tablets to stick, the company somehow managed to get an 8-inch Windows tablet right on the first try. For a base price of $300, you get a Bay Trail Atom processor with 32GB of storage, 2GB of RAM, 1,280x800 display with 10-point touch, front/rear cams, 802.11n, and Bluetooth. It sports a simple, yet attractive style with a solid feel and great-quality construction.
Because the Venue Pro 8 uses Intel’s Atom processor, it is x86 compatible with traditional desktop applications, but that also means that Office isn’t bundled into the OS as it is with the Surface 2 and Lumia 2520. What, for $299 did you expect to just get Office for free? Well, fine. Amazingly, Office Home and Student is included gratis. You won’t get Outlook with that deal, even though at 8 inches the Mail and Calendar apps would probably be more ideal anyway, but with an Office 365 subscription you can up this to the full Pro suite easily enough.
The x86 performance with Bay Trail is quite good, smoothly handling most PC tasks. Office for free here means productivity when needed, but I suspect most users won’t do heavy edits on an 8-inch display. The right matchup in this case is someone who wants a companion device for consumption, note taking, and document viewing, but has some reliance on a few desktop apps that just aren’t available in the Windows Store.
Oh, and if you want choice, Lenovo’s IdeaTab Miix 8 is pretty much the same thing, and it’s just as good.
HP Pavilion 13 x2
OK, I’m going to cheat a little bit here, but I’ve been tickled with what HP has done with the Pavilion 13 x2. Yes, technically this is a hybrid Ultrabook and not just a slate tablet, but isn’t a tablet with a keyboard cover pretty much a hybrid? HP has taken its Split x2 detachable Ultrabook and brought it down to a $599 base price with the Pavilion 13 x2. This isn’t as high end as even some of the tablets we’ve talked about here, but it’s interesting to think about a 13-inch tablet, which is exactly how the x2 operates when it’s detached from the keyboard base.
The guts of the x2 are based on AMD’s A6-1450, which isn’t as powerful as Intel’s Core series for processing tasks, but the integrated Radeon 8250 graphics gives it the edge in gaming. There are other internal sacrifices to get to $599, like trading the full HD 1080p display for the 768p variety, battery life, and so on, but it’s still a solid machine for nearly any task.
The right matchup here is for someone who primarily computes with desktop productivity applications, subscribes to Office 365 already or gets it through work, and wants the flexibility to leave the keyboard in the bag during presentations or when sitting on a plane watching a movie or playing Angry Birds.
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
Many Windows users seek the Holy Grail: a single device that can serve as tablet, desktop, and notebook. Arguably, for light computing there are several slate tablets that can do that with the right accessories, but for those with a need for power, the Surface Pro 2 is pretty much the only choice. The Surface Pro 2 is largely the same as last year’s model, but with a slightly better display and Core i5 upgrade to Haswell. However, from a technical perspective there wasn’t much wrong with the Surface Pro other than battery life. The Haswell-based Core i5 helps here, upping the average run time by about 50 percent, depending on use. It’s possible to get six to seven hours out of the Surface Pro 2 with light productivity use.
Let’s be clear about what Surface Pro 2 is, though. It’s a slate tablet PC, but really what Microsoft has done is squish a powerful Ultrabook into a tablet shape, so it’s far heavier and thicker than the other tablets in this roundup. It would also be silly to get one without a keyboard cover. After all, without one, a lot of the power to handle tried-and-true productivity programs like Visual Studio, Creative Suite, and others would go to waste.
For users who aren’t on the go the bulk of the day, the Type Cover is fine. For road warriors, trade up to a Power Cover when available to add a few more hours of run time. If you really want to live the dream, add the desktop base accessory, snap in the Surface Pro 2, and you have a desktop replacement. Mind you, I said “desktop” replacement, not necessarily “CAD workstation” replacement.
This dream doesn’t come cheap; even so, costs can be deceiving. Surface Pro 2 starts at $900, but let’s call it $1,100 with a cover. No doubt 64GB of local storage isn’t enough for the person who would really use Surface Pro 2 to its potential, so let’s call it $1,450 with a cover and the 256GB SSD upgrade. If you want the desktop base (you do), that’s $1,650. Yep, that’s a lot of scratch for a tablet. However, it’s not bad for tablet, laptop, and desktop combined, and it’s a lot cheaper for a business to manage one device rather than three.
So what is the Surface Pro 2? It’s either a crazy-expensive and powerful tablet or a really good deal on three computers in one.
See, it’s all about how you match up.