How to choose a Windows 8 tablet that is right for you

How to choose a Windows 8 tablet that is right for you

Summary: The tablet space is about to be flooded with new devices running Windows 8 and many plan on picking one up for work and leisure purposes. The sizes and forms of these Windows 8 tablets will vary widely, and it is important to pick one that will work as desired.

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We have already seen a good assortment of Windows 8 tablets, hybrids, and convertible notebooks about to become available. Many plan on picking one up if the price is right to fill the role of both notebook and tablet. Getting the proper device that will meet the needs of the individual is crucial, so some thought should go into choosing the right device.

I am one of the rare individuals who has been using tablets for almost a decade. I used them in my full-time job for years, and that experience makes it clear that if Windows 8 tablet buyers don't approach the purchase decision properly there's little chance of happiness with the purchase.

The thought process I am covering is not about Windows 8 and its ability to meet each buyer's needs. This article assumes Windows 8 will meet those needs just fine. I am instead referring to analyzing how such a tablet will be used, and choosing the right hardware to fit that use.

The first part of the tablet purchase process should be to determine which form of device will be best. There will be slates that can be used alone or connected to portable keyboards. These hybrids, like the Microsoft Surface, are tablets first and laptop replacements second. This type of device will better serve users planning on primarily using the tablet by itself, with only occasional use of the attachable keyboard. 

My determination that any slate weighing more than 1.5 lbs. is not suitable for extended use in the hands can't be stated forcefully enough. If you expect to mostly use a hybrid as a tablet without the keyboard, avoid the larger tablets.

I know from hundreds of hours of tablet usage that any tablet weighing more than 1.5 lbs. is extremely uncomfortable when used in the hand for long periods. The only device type that makes this possible is the hybrid like the Surface where the display (tablet) an be totally removed from the keyboard. Any type of keyboard that is attached to the slate will render the tablet too uncomfortable for use in the hands for more than a few minutes at a time.

The convertible notebook form, that of an Ultrabook with a rotating screen that flips back over the keyboard, can be used as a tablet but is really for those planning on using it as a notebook most of the time. Those expecting to primarily use the tablet without the keyboard should avoid the convertible like the plague.

Package weights of three pounds will not be suitable for comfortable tablet use. Even the thin convertibles already being shown are simply too bulky and heavy for comfortable use in the hands. They will be OK for very infrequent tablet use but not much more. They are notebooks first and tablets second, a distant second at that.

Once you decide whether you will use your new Windows 8 portable primarily as a tablet or a notebook, you then need to think about screen size. We are already seeing Windows 8 tablets ranging from 10 inches to 13 inches. It may seem that the bigger the screen the better, but that is only true for those expecting to use the device mostly as a notebook.

Screen size directly affects the size and weight of the tablet plus keyboard, and that gets back to the comfort of use in the hands. While a 13-inch tablet, even one detachable from the keyboard, sounds like a nice advantage over smaller models, this will directly determine the weight of the slate. 

My determination that any slate weighing more than 1.5 lbs. is not suitable for extended use in the hands can't be stated forcefully enough. If you expect to mostly use a hybrid as a tablet without the keyboard, avoid the larger tablets. They will not be pleasing for such use. This is the one time when smaller is definitely better. Get a 10 or 11-inch slate and you will end up much happier with the purchase.

If you've already determined you will be getting a convertible with a keyboard permanently attached, it's because you will use it as a notebook first and tablet occasionally. This is when the larger display is appropriate, so go with the biggest you can afford. All of these convertibles will be highly portable, so go with the bigger screen. It will be heavier when used as a tablet but you don't plan on doing that much.

All of this may seem only logical, but in my experience people tend to underestimate how negatively the wrong decisions can affect the enjoyment of the purchase. A tablet used in the hand a lot must be as light as possible or the happiness with the purchase quickly turns sour. The same can be said with going with a convertible for use as a notebook that has too small a display. The size of the display determines the size of the keyboard so going too small has a double whammy.

The new tablets and convertibles with Windows 8 will change computing going forward. Getting the right tool for the job is vital to making a smart purchase, and being happy with it.

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Topics: Windows, Laptops, Microsoft, Tablets

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57 comments
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  • OK, hardware. Which processor, James? ARM or Intel?

    From the article:
    "I am instead referring to analyzing how such a tablet will be used, and choosing the right hardware to fit that use.

    The way Microsoft has structured Windows 8, it's really hard to ignore the Windows RT vs. Windows Core/Pro/Enterprise choice that users will have. Can we assume, for example, that a Windows RT-based tablet running on an ARM processor will have a longer battery life than a Windows Core/Pro/Enterprise-based tablet running on an Intel processor? How one uses their tablet also has a battery life dimension.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • based on OEM claims

      it sounds like atom windows 8 pro hybrids will have comparable battery life to ARM, maybe an hour less (for example, maybe 8 hours on atom vs 9-10 on ARM). i5 and i7 tablets will have much less battery life and be much heavier. and it's unclear how viable these claims are until the units are actually reviewed by 3rd parties.

      battery life is not the only thing to consider though. heat is another issue- how hot will atom and i5/i7 tablets get compared to ARM? how will this affect performance? will i5/i7 tablets need fans, adding noise and weight? again, we will need to wait for 3rd party reviews.

      finally there is the issue of the difference in the OS itself. ARM windows 8 RT tablets will only run metro apps. so far I'm not convinced these will be any more powerful than android tablets. office 2013 is a compelling reason to still go with RT over android, though it's rumored that office 2013 will come to iPads and android tablets next year anyway.
      theoilman
      • Let's see some real-world reviews.

        "OEM claims" are often specious at best.
        matthew_maurice
    • Ridiculous tradeoff for RT

      Maybe 1 or 2 hours of extra battery runtime, in exchange for loosing all the x86 programs. Basically the same price as Atom. So you get Office but loose BOTH the huge catalog of apps on something like Android or iOS as well as the huge catalog of x86 apps.

      RT just seems like a loser to me with no reason to exist. All the assumptions for needing it was based on the fact that ARM had far better battery life than x86. Everyone thought Intel couldn't catch ARM inside of 2-3 years. Well it's plain to me that Atom has essentially erased the advantage. Some Atoms at least are going to hit 9-10 hr battery. We'll have some hard data soon enough.

      IMO the choice then is clear: either go for Atom with a long battery and thinner and lighter tablets; or go up to Core i processors for a lot more power but heft and maybe 5-7 hrs battery.
      ArtInvent
  • Some Caveats

    I agree with you James on almost all points, but would like to make a few observations. Most of the people reading this column will be seasoned enough veterans to know the difference, but for right now, RT tablets are pretty much a dead end for lack of backward compatibility on the desktop. That's why so many of the sub-1.5 lb tablets you talked about are coming with Clover Trail, which despite the underpowered wheezer I'm afraid it may be, as an Intel Atom processor it can still run legacy desktop applications. Frankly, I wouldn't want to be on the return desk explaining why that neat new RT tablet just can't run Photoshop Elements, WordPerfect, or any other legacy application.

    Second, I think we have to up your weight limit to a max of 2 lbs, because even the svelte Surface Pro barely meets that criteria, and I just cannot see any Ivy Bridge based tablet, with satisfactory specs and battery life, dipping to 1.5 lbs. I've been using an 11" Samsung Series 7 Slate for more than nine month now, and although it is not a one-handed experience for extended periods of time, it is a comfortable and easy to get used to solution.

    DO NOT BUY A TABLET WHICH DOES NOT HAVE AN ATTACHABLE KEYBOARD SOLUTION! I can't state this one strongly enough. This comes from that same 9 month test of the Samsung Slate. Even Windows 8 is an incomplete solution for anyone who has moved beyond web surfing (and that includes even light email responses). You will crave a real keyboard for any extended use - I guaranty it - and even a Bluetooth solution will not suffice. I have to admit I am smitten with the Surface Pro, BUT I still have reservations about a cover only keyboard solution. For me, the ultimate would be an exact duplicate of the Asus Transformer Android notetab, only with an i5 processor, 4gb ram, and a 128gb SSD - nirvana.
    dksmidtx
    • Who wants desktop

      I'm surprised by your response, myself having also used the Samsung tablet I received from Build for the last 12 months. Based on my experience, Windows RT seems like the only sane choice if you're interested in a tablet over a notebook that can serve the rare occasional tablet use.

      This slate is too heavy, has awful battery life, and gets too hot to comfortably hold while using it for extended periods. In exchange for all those compromises, you get compatibility with a bunch of desktop software that offers a touch-based user experience that's so overwhelmingly poor I can't picture myself wanting it even for emergency backup purposes. In short, you get a crappy hardware experience just to enable the privilege of a crappy software experience.

      I, for one, can't wait to trade in this bulky and inconvenient Windows 8 tablet for a light and graceful Windows RT tablet. I imagine most "average" users would agree.
      chefgon
      • Last gen...

        You're basing your decision off of last gen tech... There are solutions coming out that will not get as hot or have poor battery life even with ivy bridge chips. I'm not sure we'll see them get much better on weight until the Haswell chips though.

        My experience with touch on Windows 8 has been absolutely delightful, particularly with the inclusion of the Wacom pen.

        More importantly, you can avoid all of those 'compromises' including weight by going with a Clover Trail device and still not have to compromise on the OS.
        Carvega
    • It is a joy to read a comment based upon experience, dksmidtx

      But you do raise important issues regarding overall system weight and I can't help but think that your desire for Intel Core I5 performance has severely biased your objectivity regarding the great tablet performance vs system weight compromise.

      I will not debate the usefulness of the Samsung Slate or the Microsoft Surface Pro tablets. I will debate their usefulness as a stand alone tablet - especially if they must conform to your requirement for a physical keyboard. (Regarding that last point, do you use a physical keyboard with your Samsung Slate? And, if you do, wouldn't the Ultrabook class machines better suite your needs especially if one of the newer Win 8 external track pads supporting multitouch gestures are used?)

      Although James has seven years more experience than I do using tablets, I have used all three versions of the iPad from "day one" so my three years of tablet experience has taught me a few things about the performance vs overall system weight compromise choice.

      The iPad 2 was (and still is) a much better ergonomic tablet solution than the iPad 3 design. However the retina class display is fantastic in use and because of that fact, I can put up with the heaviness of the iPad 3 for extended periods of time. (Much like your user habits "put up" with the system weight of the Samsung Slate.)

      The question is, with the optional membrane keyboard, will the Surface Pro (at 2.0 lbs) be a viable tablet choice for long use? James and I both have my doubts on that point. (But as an ultraportable laptop coupled to a better external keyboard - like the new Logitech ultra thin keyboards for the iPads - it might enjoy better commercial sales success.)
      kenosha77a
      • We are in two different worlds.

        World one around ZDNet is the world of the informed, and its also the world where most writers and posters will be interested in just how much "real" practical work they can comfortably be able to get a tablet to do. This also applies to any tech savvy purchasers who live a similar life to those who work and visit ZDNet.

        World number two, the entire outside world, is a completely different situation and that world will buy approximatly about 1000 times more tablets than the tech savvy who haunt the pages of ZDNet and other tech related websites. Those people dont care nearly as much about getting real work done on a tablet because thats not why they purchased a tablet for the most part. Those people have typically have purchased a tablet "because they can". Those people just mostly want a tablet to do stuff. The more stuff it can do and the better and easier it can do it is mostly what will appeal to them. Weight will not be a major factor, and quite frankly, and somewhat oddly enough even an hour, or two or three difference in battery life is seldom a critical feature for them.

        Dont get me wrong, if they are getting perks like more battery life, less weight or even a higher resolution screen all that is nice if it dosnt cost a lot more money, or it dosnt cut down in any way the amount of different "stuff" the tablet can do, or how well or fast it does it. I know a few different families who put money into an iPad. Just for reference, I believe none of them are owners of an iPad III, so these were earlier on purchasers and these are just run of the mill families who have low to moderate knowlege of tech in general but had the money to get one I guess.

        They all seem to like their iPads, but one thing is clear, they dont think there is any magic in there like the iPad was promoted as having. While none of them have expressed any actual disappointment, its actually been clear from a few things I have heard said from more than one of the people in these families that the one problem with an iPad is that from time to time they find "it cant do that", as in like what they would do on a computer. It seems clear to me, as I always suspected, that the glass ceiling for tablets is the fact that up until now there are just too many instances of "it cant do that". If Windows 8 Pro can eliminate the "it cant do that" factor, I can say without a doubt that when many families find out that Windows 8 Pro tablets can do that, it may very well be the real stimulus for upgrading to a Windows 8 tablet for many families who bought an iPad expecting magic only to find that not only was there no magic, it wasnt even as good as their laptop.
        Cayble
    • "you need keyboard on tablet"

      This is not true. I am myself heavy e-mail user and have found an iPad *without* keyboard to be very capable to meet that task!

      You don't do e-mail with "5 processor, 4gb ram, and a 128gb SSD" -- you do it with adequate software.

      Also, I would very much second James's suggestion for lighter tablet. Anything heavier, will make you less productive, unless you 'dock' it.. in which case you do not need a tablet, but rather an ultraportable.
      danbi
      • Likewise, a tablet does not need a keyboard... it needs a dock!

        I agree that a tablet does not need a keyboard. In fact the Windows 8 keyboard is brilliant for typing with touch. I travel regularly and rarely use a keyboard for days at a time with Win 7 and 8 tablets.

        But you're wrong about weight and processing. Like James, I am one of the few who has been a tablet as a primary computer for the last 10 years. 2 pounds is just fine. At my home we have an iPad, a Samsung Galaxy Note and a Series 7 Slate (Win 8). No one device ever gets picked up more because of weight. My kids from 2 - 11 just go where the apps are (games). Windows 8 is winning at the moment, stangely!

        As for email, single tasking email on the iPad is rubbish. Web browsing on the iPad is so constricted that it's not funny. But it would be fine if you didn't know any better.

        The processor choice as another commenter stated is simply about stopping the "I can't do that with this" moments. Even simple things like web browsing work so much better (for example holding multiple web tabs in memory without having to reload every time).

        With Win 8 and a pro series tablet you never have those moments. You'll forget all about weight when you have this.
        tabeltpc
  • No about the version of Windows

    This is strictly to get folks thinking about the basics of the hardware, not whether (or which version) of Windows is right for the job. Most folks I speak to don't realize how getting the basic hardware right is so crucial for tablets.

    BTW, It is almost a given that ARM devices will get much better battery life than any Intel version.
    JamesKendrick
    • Depends on the intel chip

      I have seen a few tablets with clover trail chip (I think) making claims of 10+ hours of battery life.

      Either way, if the battery life on any intel based windows tablet is over 8 hours, priced similar to winRT tablets and the weight is comparable, then I can't see any reason to get winRT over full win8.
      Emacho
      • Exactly

        This is exactly why I'm on the fence when it comes to Windows 8 vs. Win RT. My experience with my AUS Tranformer TF300 tells me that an ARM hybrid tablet/laptopmakes for an excellent, super portable, long-running device. Those will be the benefits of RT. The downside, of course, is you've got to toss all your legacy apps, and hope good Metro alternatives exist or show up soon. OTOH, if the x86 platform can be engineered to offer comparable battery life, heat, weight, and performance, then there's simply no reason not to go with x86.
        dsf3g
      • *if* being the key word

        There is no way any Intel CPU at the moment can beat ARM at battery life, unless most of the battery is spent on the display/other hardware.

        Many Intel based notebooks claim huge battery life, only for users to discover that in real life, that's under very controlled conditions.

        One of the bad things here is the "compatibility" with desktop applications for Windows. These applications are designed with the presumption that unlimited amounts of power and cooling is available and the CPU can spin all the time. None of this is true for tablets.
        danbi
    • But...

      Windows RT will be a VERY different animal to Windows 8 or 8 Pro. I think the choice of architecture is (unusually) central to the buying decision.

      I'd have to say having seen Microsoft's Wedge Keyboard (though not the mouse yet) I have VERY high expectations of "Surface". Their keyboard, while expensive, is really wonderful. The design is striking. The materials exude quality. The whole thing comes together as a harmonious object of desire. If this is the quality that Microsoft are putting in then Surface should be very good indeed. Yes there is a price premium with this keyboard, but when you see/touch it - you want it.

      I'd not want to buy a Windows 8 "Tablet" before seeing Microsoft's effort. I have no interest in Windows RT - we're already invested enough in iPad, a "new" platform isn't interesting. But there is certain "utility" about a machine that runs existing applications.
      jeremychappell
      • Therein lies the truth!

        For the average person who purchased a tablet, and when I say average, I mean the millions who are not tech savvy and purchased what they thought was a device that was beyond normal computing because it was "magic", the largest disappointment was to find that not only did the iPad fall far short of magic, it fell far from being as useful as an average laptop. One girl I know was horrified to find out I could do more on my half price netbook than she could on her 32GB iPad. The words "If I had of known that..." literally came out of her mouth.

        I hate to inform Apple, but the fact is that after creating a market for “magical” tablets, the first one who puts a tablet on the market that can do pretty much exactly what a desktop can do will have created a tablet that will come across as magical next to an iPad, or Android tablet for that matter.
        Cayble
        • Ooh...

          Here I really disagree, the iPad's ecosystem is so mature at this point that I can't see the point of buying a Windows RT device (this might be different in the future, IF developers create applications for "modern UI").

          However, "legacy Windows" has a huge number of compelling applications. This is the "utility" I'm talking about.

          But Windows faces the "Apple III" problem. The Apple III ran Apple II applications really well, so developers never created compelling applications that REQUIRED the Apple III - so buyers were never given a compelling reason to buy the Apple III over the cheaper Apple II. Windows 8 has to get over that hurdle. Given how strong a ecosystem Windows 7 has, this isn't assured. Microsoft need to give compelling reasons to move from Windows 7 to Windows 8, but push too hard and they will alienate the very customers they need. This IS tricky, and it is too early to tell how successful they will be.
          jeremychappell
    • Currently true, however......

      With the next gen "Core i" chips (Haswell) coming out mid/late next year the processing power contra battery consumption equation gets a lot more interesting and will like lead to many consumers (who need x86 intrinsically greater processing power) arguing that the battery life is "good enough". It then will likely get *very* interesting with the quad-core atoms coming at the end of 2013 ("Bay trail"?) - they will in all likelihood present ARM with a major mass-market challenge when it comes to absolute battery life. Even now with the current "new gen" atoms likely giving (roughly) 8 - 9 hours, the advantages of being able to run conventional apps/programs are huge and (IMHO) are likely to outweigh for many (all though not all) customers the 10 - 12 hours battery life you get with ARM.
      FrederickLeeson
  • RE: Not about the version of Windows

    "BTW, It is almost a given that ARM devices will get much better battery life than any Intel version.

    James, then it *IS* about the version of Windows 8, because if a user has a requirement for long periods of tablet use between charges, then a Windows RT-based tablet with an ARM processor will be a given.
    Rabid Howler Monkey