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Spotlight

Cheap Windows tablets: Are they the new netbooks?

With so many new 8-inch tablets running Windows 8.1 coming up, is it time to get one?

Published on Apr 15, 2014 5:08 AM
 

You may have seen them in stores - small, sleek 8-inch tablets that run Windows 8.1 instead of the ubiquitous Android.

Their siren call: a free copy of Microsoft Office and the implicit promise that these tablets are suitable for both work and play.

So far, there have been few takers.

Figures from market research firm GfK indicate that these 8-inch tablets generated around $289,000 in local sales last year. In comparison, the local Android tablet segment is valued at $2.9 million.

Things were not much different for the rest of the world.

More than four million Windows tablets - of all sizes - were sold worldwide last year, according to market researcher Gartner.

While this was a threefold increase over 2012, sales of Windows-based slates were just a drop in the ocean, at 2.1 per cent of the market last year.

To be fair, these figures may be skewed as most of the small Windows tablets were launched only in the last quarter of last year.

That was when Microsoft released Windows 8.1 and made this operating system compatible with smaller screen sizes.

Around the same time, Intel introduced a new quad-core Atom processor codenamed Bay Trail. This new chip is designed for mobile devices and claims a battery life comparable with the Arm processors typically used in smartphones.

Today, there are a handful of such small 8-inch Windows tablets, with more slated to arrive in the next few months. These tablets will likely be powered by the Bay Trail Atom chips and have just 2GB of RAM and between 32GB and 64GB of internal storage.

Price and power

Averaging $600 apiece, these tablets are not exactly cheap, as Android equivalents can be had for about half the cost. But Microsoft has sweetened the deal by bundling a single-use retail licence of its Office Home/Student Edition (worth $189) with each of these 8-inch tablets.

Microsoft had previously included Office for free with Windows RT tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface RT, but those devices flopped.

The crucial difference is that unlike RT devices, which use a stripped-down version of Windows 8, the new Windows 8.1 tablets use a platform (x86) similar to your home PC and can use apps made for the desktop.

Add a keyboard accessory to one of these tablets and it may even remind you of a netbook. These small tablets can be held easily in one hand, making them suitable for reading books and magazines.

In landscape mode, the 8-inch screen is ample for games without being too hefty. I can even thumb type on the on-screen keyboard.

Battery life, a key measure for tablets, is generally good. You can expect seven to eight hours of uptime on these tablets, comparable with the Apple iPad mini with Retina display.

The quality of the screen is also as good, as most models offer in-plane switching (IPS) panels or their equivalent. In general, you should experience wide viewing angles, though some may have fairly reflective displays. But their screen resolution tends to be at a lower 1,280 x 800 pixels, inferior to the iPad mini's 2,048 x 1,536-pixel Retina display.

Another difference between these Windows tablets and their Android or iOS competitors is in their hefty internal storage capacities. Where 16GB seems to be the base for non-Windows slates, the Windows ones usually offer at least 32GB.

While a significant portion of this storage is taken up by the Windows 8.1 operating system, a good rule of thumb is that 32GB storage on a Windows slate is equivalent to about 20GB of free space. Fortunately, users have the option of increasing storage space with a microSD card on most of these devices.

Apps for these devices are available in Windows Store and are usually touch-centric apps that work well with Windows 8.1.

Lacking apps

One advantage of Windows tablets is that you can install desktop apps on these tablets, as on a PC.

Microsoft Office runs reasonably well on these tablets and you can also install other popular programs, such as Adobe Photoshop. The only catch is that users are limited to the built-in RAM on the devices.

Similarly, you can also install Steam and run older PC games, such as Left For Dead 2, on your Windows tablet.

If you intend to go down this route, a keyboard is a must, though not all manufacturers sell official accessories.

This makes up for the lack of other apps on Windows, as you will not find Google Maps, Candy Crush Saga, Plants Vs Zombies 2 or YouTube in Windows Store.

The biggest drawback is probably the small screen size, but a potential niche for these tablets is running collectible card games such as Blizzard's upcoming Hearthstone. This Windows PC game supports touch, but is not available on other platforms like iOS and Android, though it works fine on any Windows tablet.

Upcoming tablets

Five free apps to get from Windows Store


REVIEWED BEFORE AND AVAILABLE NOW

All the tablets here come with an Intel Atom Z3740 (1.33GHz) chip with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage


Lenovo Miix 2

8" Tablet

$699 ($599 for Challenger members, available exclusively at Challenger stores)

DL rating 3/5

The Lenovo Miix 2 is touted as the first Windows 8 tablet to have 3G connectivity, though it faces competition from 4G-capable non-Windows slates such as the Apple iPad mini with Retina display.

With its lightweight chassis (350g) and relatively slim bezel, the handy Miix 2 does give the iPad mini a run for its money.

The 1,280 x 800-pixel IPS screen has good viewing angles but the power button was stiff and difficult to press.

Lenovo offers a useful cover accessory that both protects the screen and props up the tablet for $39.90. It seems like a good deal.

Performance-wise, it is on a par with the other 8-inch Windows tablets in the market. However, I was a bit concerned that the battery provided only 51/2 hours of uptime, which seems relatively low.



Toshiba Encore WT8

$599

DL rating 3/5

My first taste of an 8-inch Windows tablet was the Toshiba Encore WT8. Unfortunately, I was far from being blown away by its chunky build and sluggish screen rotation.

At 435g, the Encore is just slightly lighter than the 9.7-inch Apple iPad Air (469g). Even among 8-inch Windows tablets, this Toshiba slate is pudgy. You can still hold it with one hand, but it puts a bit more strain on your arm.

The 1,280 x 800-pixel screen takes roughly two seconds to rotate between landscape and portrait modes, which is slow compared with smartphones. But after trying other similar Windows 8 tablets, it turns out that the sluggish response is not unique to the Encore.

Toshiba's tablet is differentiated from its rivals by its HFFS (high performance fringe-field switching) panel, instead of the usual IPS (in-plane switching display) screen.

Viewing angles seem just as good. But the display is fairly reflective because of the air gap between the screen and the protective glass cover.

The Encore will not win any awards for its battery life of 8hr 14min. But this is a respectable amount of uptime for a tablet.



Asus Transformer Book T100TA

$599

DL rating 4/5

Of all the Windows 8 tablets featured here, the Asus Transformer Book is the closest to a laptop substitute.

This is due to the Transformer Book having both a removable keyboard dock and a larger 10-inch screen that practically turns it into a netbook.

As a result, this device is not as handy as the 8-inch models.

The 570g weight is acceptable for its size. But I am not a fan of its glossy plastic back that shows up fingerprints and grease marks. The screen resolution is a modest 1,366 x 768 pixels, which is acceptable for its screen size and $599 price tag.

The keyboard and touchpad are useful if you intend to use it for apps such as Microsoft Office, but you can rule out intensive tasks such as video editing.

The small keyboard and touchpad take getting used to. The touchpad supports multi-touch gestures, but they are hard to pull off as the buttons are stiff while the keyboard lacks travel.

Unlike other Asus Transformer devices, the Book's keyboard dock lacks a built-in battery. But it does not really matter as the tablet still lasted an impressive 12 hours in Digital Life's battery test.

By Vincent Chang

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 12, 2014.