The line at the Microsoft Store is for the new Surface, it’s not the line to get a latte from Starbucks.
There has been the saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That must have been the way the first engineers at Xerox PARC reacted when they internally showed the first computer mouse. This is what new users felt when they used the first mobile touchscreen smartphones. This is what Microsoft hopes you will feel once you use a touch-enabled Windows 8/RT device. If you came here to help you decide whether you need a Surface tablet, an iPod or an Android tablet, then skip ahead, otherwise I’ve got some good ranting to do.
For the most part Apple has been able to drive the market with products that for the average consumer were as close to magic as possible. While they may not have invented core technologies, Apple has been able to create integrated devices that appear like every new product is magical, more shiny than the last. Even while pushing forward with product innovations like the iPhone and the iPad, Apple never brought the full touch experience (no, a big touchpad doesn’t count) to their mobile or desktop computers.
Microsoft separately had developed and experimented with many bleeding-edge products in the past, but many were too-early for their customers. When technology is too advanced folks just get scared. Microsoft‘s Surface (non-Pro) is running Windows RT on a system powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 ARM chip. That last time that we saw a commercial version of Windows running natively on a non Intel x86 was Windows NT on PowerPC/Alpha/Itanium, and those didn’t sell well. Of course that was going from the most standard chips to the least standard. It should be noted that Apple’s 2005 switch from IBM’s PowerPC to the far more standard Intel x86, really allowed Apple to match faster-improving PC specs more cheaply while retaining high margins. It was possible then for Mac users to run PC OS’s at native speeds without a pesky code translator ala VirtuaPC getting in the way.
So is this a transformational switch from Microsoft to support and push into ARM chips? ARM-based processors have been the fundamental building block used by Apple (for their A5/A6), TI for their OMAP, Nvidia for their Tegra, Qualcom for their Snapdragon chips. They are no longer only for embedded devices requiring low-power-consumption, low-clock, single-core setups. ARM designs can be integrated into multi-core monster chips purpose-built for anything a solid EE/CE can dream-up. They can also be cheap, far cheaper than what Intel or AMD may charge for an equivalent processor, and you can customize it for your needs and fabricate integrated chips yourself. That means that more inexpensive devices can take advantage of your OS as long as you support that architecture.
Why didn’t Microsoft choose to use an Intel Atom processor, you know, the x86 chips that powered the entire netbook revolution. I used to have a Dell Mini 9 with an Atom churning away for low-CPU-intensive tasks like web browsing and email. I’m not sure, although those chips were almost like a Celeron dumbing-down of their current full-power mobile chips. The recent push of Intel into ultrabooks may have confused the Atom messaging. There are some new Windows 8 tablets coming out with Atom chips, but the brand value may not show the value of maintaining compatibility with existing Windows applications.
So, why am I writing this blog post? This week I was asked by a few people, including @ImeldaDulcichPR, about Windows 8 and the Surface Tablet and how they compare versus an iPad.
For Surface, there will be two versions. The first to be released is the one running Windows RT on an Nvidia Tegra 3, and the one to be released in a few months will be the Surface Pro that will be running an x86 processor (not sure which one) and running full-blown Windows 8. Both will have the beautiful metal casing with accessories like their keyboard covers to make them “transformers” from mini laptops to touchscreen tablets.
So the question becomes, “Which tablet should I buy?”
This is a question that is dependent on your needs, and I’ll list what I think based on this selection, all of which I happen to own right now except for the two Surface products.
Buy an iPad if
…you own an iPhone, own a MacBook, bleed Apple blood. This series of devices is for you. Fully integrated into the entire Apple ecosystem, this is a beautiful and expensive device that will work with iTunes, sync everything using the Apple cloud and be an extension of your arm. The screen is beautiful and battery life is excellent. What is it missing? Swype (we’ll get to that), but with Bluetooth support you can add an external keyboard easily-enough.
Apple has been designing their own chips based on ARM licenses, and it allows them to custom-craft their processors without needing to support excess features that would require more power-hungry silicon. While a standard ARM design might have the ability to support 20 different types of I/O, Apple can decide that they only need to support a single I/O channel and remove the transistors for the other 19. Worried about an Operating System call that asks for access to I/O channel 20? No problem, they also write the OS. This means that Apple’s control of both hardware and software makes their iPad the most closed-system custom device which should be expected to have the best performance and best battery life.
Buy a Generic Android Tablet if
…you are cheap and a hacker at heart. Because Android is a “free” operating system some tablets can be purchased for as little as $50 on-sale at Fry’s. If you want something for the kids to play-with and don’t mind doing your own tech support, than this might be the bargain device for you. At this time, I might never go this route again.
I actually spent around $200 a few years ago picking a Viewsonic G-Tablet with a Tegra 2 (the dual-core predecessor to the Tegra 3) to start testing Android and to learn more about some of the alternate enthusiast OS builds. The device initially came with a proprietary “market” app and would not let me buy applications from the Google Play (it was named App Store back then) store. That severely limited the selection of applications I could use. Fortunately the machine was easily “hacked” to another version of Android, enabling more features and usability. Unfortunately it wasn’t really very stable and I was basically throwing any warranty support out the door.
Buy a Nexus 7 or a Kindle Fire HD if
…you want a quality screen on a 7″ tablet. I’m not going to cover the iPad mini here because I haven’t seen or held one. Both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD have beautiful 7”IPS screens running 1280×800. Some reviewers have remarked that the Fire HD screen is a bit more colorful, but both are clear and colorful winners in the mini-tablet race completely crushing my 10.1″ Viewsonic screen.
While the Nexus 7 is pure Google, the Fire HD is pure Amazon. What this means is that the Nexus 7 has a pure installation of every Google application, uses Google Play, has Gmail, integrates well with Google storage and Google apps. The Fire HD however limits users to the Amazon ecosystem of Amazon App Store, Kindle Books, Amazon MP3, Amazon Instant Video (note: the Fires are the only Android tablets which can take advantage of Amazon Prime Free Videos. I can watch Amazon Instant video on my iPad, but not my Nexus). Access to Google apps and store are blocked by default.
If you are tied to the Amazon ecosystem, have Amazon Prime, have lots of Kindle books, don’t mind ads on the lock screen or mind paying to have that removed, and want to be able to set parental controls on your tablet for your kids, then the Kindle Fire HD would be the choice. I can not see using a Kindle Fire for work, only for the consumption of content from Amazon. Yes, you can download additional apps from the Amazon App Store, but the selection is limited versus the Google App Store. For the device size and features, the bigger speakers are nice, and the external micro-HDMI is a great way to project content to an external monitor or a TV, but the Fire HD is too chunky to hold with one hand. It’s not obvious how much bigger it is until you compare it directly with the Nexus 7. See the width of the black bezels in the picture above.
If you are tied to the Google ecosystem, if your company uses Google Apps, want to use third-party storage Dropbox/Box/etc…, then the Nexus would be the choice. The other awesomeness is that Swype Beta works perfectly with the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 would be my dream tablet except that it lacks video-out and lacks Amazon Instant Video support (because Amazon is saving that for their Kindle Fires). The Nexus 7 was built as a budget device but it has the full-fledged Tegra 3 chipset driving it, and it should be for the next year be the most “standard” tablet for Android users. Android 4.1 also finally removes the size limit on applications, so that rather than have only 500MB of space to hold applications and their data, the entire memory space (8GB/16GB) can be used.
Buy a Microsoft Surface with RT
…if you want to have what Microsoft considers to be their standard tablet. It’s a beautiful machine with a metal/glass exterior that feels solid, it runs quickly on a quad-core Tegra 3 chipset, and it even comes with a trial version of the ARM-version of Windows Office. There are no other tablets currently that can say they have MS Office except full x86 Windows tablets. If you want to be able to do some Excel on the tablet, than this is the only ARM solution available to you.
So it runs office, does that mean that it will run all of my current Windows apps? No, it won’t run any of them unless it was something recompiled and built for an ARM processor to be distributed by the Microsoft App Store. If you want to run existing Windows apps on a tablet, then skip down to the next section on Windows 8 machines. Much like Apple’s App Store, Google’s App store, Facebook’s Apps, Amazon’s App store, Microsoft has realized that while creating an ecosystem is good, getting revenue from everyone who participates in the ecosystem may be more profitable for them long-term. In this way they control distribution and control of their entire machine in the same way that their competitors do. Strangely this means that Android becomes the most “open” platform on ARM (since we don’t talk about linux as mainstream these days).
At this time the Surface has many applications that are now available in the Microsoft App store. There is a fantastic link to the XBOX infrastructure as-well, so you can control many aspects of your XBOX with the Surface. There is also some other technology that they developed to have the Surface as a control/display device integrated with future products. Eventually the Microsoft App Store ecosystem will be as fully populated as the Apple and Google ones are today, and you will have full choice among applications for your Surface.
So you think this guarantees you maximum future compatibility Yes, for this version of Windows RT. Unfortunately buying Microsoft hardware does not guarantee that they will support it with the next version of an operating system. Talk to all of us who had bought the original series of Microsoft Sidewinder Joysticks and Control pads. These were some of the most configurable devices made with excellent software. All that ended when Microsoft made an OS upgrade, and they didn’t bother to retain anyone to update the drivers for these old products. Our very expensive toys were reduced overnight to paperweights. A similar story can to said of those who bought the first Microsoft Phones who were similarly blocked from an upgrade path.
Buy a Microsoft Surface Pro or Other Manufacturer Windows 8 Tablet or Convertible
if you don’t care about 8 hour battery life and you want full support of all your existing PC applications and want all the benefits of the new Surface. Buy a Windows 8 machine with a touchscreen or a Surface Pro. I have been running early builds of Windows 8 on my ASUS EP121, and it has been excellent. The Windows 8 experience is highly optimized for touch control and side swiping, and while I decry the loss of the start button (and I believe that this will lead to massive consumer confusion) it has served all of my basic needs.
Because this is Windows, you can use ANY browser you want. You can view any media, whether it is Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or just the free version of Hulu. There is no need like other mobile tablets to pay for Hulu Plus (unless you want the historical content). Have a Japanese Anime that requires an unusual codec? No problem, the Windows 8 tablet can run any video decoder the same as a regular Windows box. Want to play a flash-based Facebook game on the tablet? No problem because it’s a full PC. Want to play an Android game on the Windows 8 tablet? Sure, you can run the SDK or one of the other apps that run Android on a PC. Want to run MAME? Well you get the idea.
So with a new x86 Windows 8 touchscreen tablet/convertible you have a machine that may sacrifice battery life but provides continued functionality to “classic” windows applications and games that you are used to running on your XP/Vista/7. Additionally you get the benefit of the touch-screen experience, so that sounds like a pretty good deal.
If you don’t want to wait a few months for a Surface Pro, then there are many other options. Head to Dell and consider an atom-powered Latitude 10, or head to ASUS/HP/ACER and see what they have. I’m actually drooling over the ASUS Taichi right now.
The Best Windows 8 Desktop Experience
I don’t like using Windows 8 with just a mouse. A touchscreen is really required, even for a desktop. At the Microsoft store I drooled over the Dell XPS One 27 with multitouch and Windows 8. I already own too many computers and too many tablets. I have no justification for even thinking about another desktop system, but the Dell XPS One 27 really provides the single best sensation using Windows 8 that I’ve yet experienced. The screen running at 2560×1440 is beautiful, the fast i7 is responsive and the touch integration gives me the control of the machine that I really want. It also comes with the still all-too-necessary keyboard. If I wanted a new system or two, then these would be my choice.
I’m hoping that manufacturers will start churning out some 24″ monitors with multitouch touchscreen support via secondary USB connection. I’m really curious to see how our peripherals will change with this next evolution in Windows.
Apple fan = iPad (any flavor)
Amazon fan = who absolutely needs Instant Video, Kindle Fire HD
Google fan = Nexus 7 (it also does 90% of what the Fire does)
PC Office non-power user = Windows RT tablet = Surface
PC Power user who doesn’t mind carrying around a power brick = Windows 8 tablet with multitouch
Pricing Notes Including Video Out, Plug-in Power Adapter and a Keyboard When Necessary
|Apple||iPad Retina 16GB Wi-Fi||$499.00|
|Leather Smart Cover||$69.00|
|Apple 12W USB Power Adapter||$19.00|
|Additional Lightning to USB Cable||$19.00|
|Apple USB Keyboard||$69.00|
|Lightning Digital AV Adapter||$49.00|
|Microsoft||Surface with Windows RT 32GB||$499.00|
|Surface Type Cover||$129.99|
|Surface 24W Power Supply||$39.99|
|HD Digital AV Adapter||$39.99|
|Nexus 7 16GB (price updated 10/29/12)||$199.00|
|Generic Micro-USB 2A Power||$10.00|
|Swype Beta (no need for a keyboard)||$0.00|
|No External Video||$0.00|
|Amazon||Kindle Fire HD 7 16GB w/o Offers||$214.00|
|1st Generic Micro-USB 2A Power||$10.00|
|2nd Generic Micro-USB 2A Power||$10.00|
|Consume Media, no keyboard needed||$0.00|
|Micro HDMI to HDMI cable||$8.99|
|Apple||iPad Mini 16GB||$329.00|
|iPad mini Smart Cover Poly||$39.00|
|Apple 12W USB Power Adapter||$19.00|
|Additional Lightning to USB Cable||$19.00|
|No Apple USB Keyboard||$0.00|
|Lightning Digital AV Adapter||$49.00|
What would you buy?