I figured that headline would get your attention. You are probably thinking, “Who in their right mind would think that Microsoft is ahead of Apple and the various Android tablets when the market data says the exact opposite?” I can explain it in five words:
Windows 8.1 on a tablet!
Now some of you are probably wondering why is that such a big deal, Windows tablets have been around since 2010. Well not really: Based on size, weight, and battery life, every so called “tablet” that ran Windows 7 or 8 — up to and including Surface Pro which came out last February have basically been laptops with touch screens.
To me, and most of the buying public, tablets are defined by the original iPad: 9.6″ x 7.5″ x 0.5″ (24cm x 19cm x 1.3cm) weighing 1.5 lbs (0.7kg). It’s the defining upper limit size for portable and mobile devices.
Until recently, “laptops with touch screens”, had to exceed those dimensions because the Intel class processors needed to run them required a larger cases. That changed with the recent introduction of the Intel Atom quad core processor.
Up until now all “tablets” (both iOS and Android) ran on ARM processors primarily designed for smart phones, which are getting faster and more powerful and approaching PC speeds, but real computers run on Windows or OSX (or Ubuntu) which are not compatible with ARM architecture. To find out why, ask someone who has a degree in Computer Science, but the answer for now is “they just can’t, OK?”
I hold in my hands a Dell Venue 8 Pro, sized 8.5″ x 5.12″ x 0.35″ (21.6cm x 13cm x 9mm) weighing 0.87 lbs (0.4kg), and it runs Windows 8.1. Slightly bigger than the iPad Mini (7.87″ x 5.3″ x 0.28 at 0.69 lbs) and costing the same as an iPad Mini on sale, it is a real tablet. The first small Windows 8 tablet (Acer Iconia W3) was rushed out this summer to poor reviews, but the newest ones from Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo are getting better reviews. Microsoft, Dell, Asus and Samsung have 10″ tablets comparable to the iPad, at about twice the price.
Why is this such a big deal? Tablets have been around only since 2010, and have been huge sellers. Up until now tablets have been upscaled smart phones, relying on “apps” designed for smart phones to supply the software to run on these tablets. Windows 8.1 tablets represents a new trend: Downsized PCs that can run all PC software natively. That is huge! Microsoft agrees with my assessment, but the tech gurus still don’t seem too convinced.
Recently ZDNet ran lists of 10 advantages and 10 disadvantages of Windows 8.1 tablets. The truth is there are a ton of advantages not listed, like file and printer sharing between your PC and your tablet. That means easy wireless transfer of files from your PC to your tablet without any messy USB patch cords. Meanwhile, on the disadvantage list, 3 of the 10 disadvantages are the same thing: the lack of a decent app store, and the other 7 are bogus.
App stores are controlled and censored by corporate know it alls. I’d love to sell my visual novels on Google Play and Apple Apps, but they would reject them due to “adult material”. I have a two year old Android tablet that will not run iTunes purchased videos because iTunes can only run on iPads. Guess what? iTunes also runs on Windows!
The point is that if your tablet is a downsized PC, there is not much need for an app store because there is a huge uncensored library of software already available. In fact I am predicting this is the beginning of the end of the whole “app store” model.
Apple’s response to the threat posed by “downsized PC” tablets was to release iOS7, a more robust OS that is still primarily designed for phone use. I would be shocked if Apple did not already have a prototype of an iPad running OSX Mavericks sitting in their development lab right now. I’ll even go out on a limb and predict just such a device will be released by Apple within a year.
It’s only a matter of time before smart phones themselves are running operating systems designed for work PCs as well. Eventually these pocket sized PCs will be powerful enough that we do not even need a PC. This tiny Dell that I have in my hand will connect wirelessly to bluetooth keyboards mouses and speaker systems, and monitors via Miracast. Plug a USB hub to the micro USB slot and you can connect external hard drives and DVD drives. Suddenly, I am running a complete desktop PC setup off of a tablet sized computer.
Can’t do that with an android or iOS tablet (well you can but there really isn’t a point to it.) I said it before, tablets are good at retrieving content, but you need a PC to create content. “Dummy” workstations that you plug your phone sized PC into will become the norm for your content creation needs, while the PC itself can go with you.
The difference between Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT are HUGE!!
On another matter. Yes, I know I have said a lot of hateful things about Windows 8. I still believe that Windows 7 is the superior OS on desktops and non-touchscreen laptops. The touch screen friendly “start menu” happens to be great on a Windows 8.1 tablet, which is what it was designed for, but Microsoft should have made it optional. My desktop remains Windows 7 and luckily the PC and the tablet get along well with each other.
I still have much hatred for Windows “RT”, just as much as Windows CE a few years earlier. Windows 8.1 RT is not Windows 8.1, be very careful if you are in the market for one of these tablets. “RT” is a version of windows developed to run on the above mentioned ARM processors, but cannot run Windows programs designed for Intel architecture. Result: you are stuck using an “app store” to get software. Microsoft itself seems to be the only company still supporting “RT” and I am guessing the Surface 2 will be the second and last tablet to use it, though it still may show up on future Windows phones. The more expensive Surface 2 PRO does not use RT. So if you are in the market “Pro” is good, “RT” is bad.
On The Negative Side…
The biggest problem with a sudden focus from “big phones” to “small PCs” with tablets is that the accessories and software market isn’t ready yet. Most of the games and other programs for PC are written with keyboard and mouse setups. Older games want you to keep the original disk in the drive while you play, and in case you didn’t notice, there are no drives on tablets. The USB port on my tablet isn’t very useful except to recharge my tablet, so a USB connected DVD player is probably a waste of money. Newer games want you to have a hefty graphics card in them to play, which the tablet has generic “Intel graphics” which are better than I had expected, but no match for my PC’s Nvidia graphics.
That means if you want to play games on the tablet you are limited to games that don’t require DVD drives or hefty graphics, which limits your choices considerably. In other words, tablets aren’t good for PC gaming.
And if you do try to play games or other PC based programs, you will probably want to invest in a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to run programs designed for PCs. I have been able to get Second Life to run and it is fairly smooth graphically, but the client isn’t designed for tablets, the on screen walk and turn icons are too tiny for finger touching, but once I turned on my Bluetooth Mouse it started working a lot better.
I tried playing Something’s In The Air on the tablet and made the mistake of running it in full screen mode. When it asked me to enter a name for my character, the pop-up keyboard would not pop-up. Bluetooth keyboard to the rescue this time, but I’m probably going to need to add a soft keyboard to the game to make it usable on tablets. (making an Android version is still on my to-do list)
There are a few games designed to be played on Windows Tablets available in the XBox store, and the previously mentioned Windows App Store but the pickings are currently slim. I am still very happy that keyboard and mouse PC gaming is still very popular, and I hope it stays that way, but as Apple Apps and Google Play demonstrate, there is room for tablet based PC gaming too, but the big money is still on the “big phone” ARM based tablets, so that’s where all the tablet gaming development is going these days. “Small PC” tablets are so very obviously the future of tablets, and it is only a matter of time the market will be addressed.
A few pro tips I have found:
Change the default settings on mp3 and mp4 files to play with Windows Media Player, or you will get spammed with ads whenever you play a song or video.
I manged to set up windows media player libraries using my NAS as a source, which is way better that installing PlugPlayer to access media on Android and iOS.
Install Java before installing iTunes, and it will work a lot better.
Set up shared folders on your PC and on your tablet for easy file swapping. If your wireless network is up to the challenge, you may not need to do this much, as the tablet can stream audio and video right off my PC without copying files over.