OEMs have the power to make or break smaller Windows tablets

OEMs have the power to make or break smaller Windows tablets

Summary: Consumers seem to prefer smaller tablets, and its down to the OEMs to try and turn out Windows tablets that work well at this smaller scale. But OEMs could muck it up for everyone.

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TOPICS: PCs, Tablets
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Two ARM-based tablets — an iPad mini and a Nexus 7. Is the future of Windows tablets more this size?

When I first heard that Microsoft was planning to put their weight behind smaller tablets, I was initially happy. Having owned a few full-sized iPads, an iPad mini and a Nexus 7, the smaller tablets definitely make more sense than the larger ones.

It had even struck me as unlucky that Microsoft had launched the 10 inch Surfaces just as Apple seemed to be validating the idea of a smaller tablet.

And then the horror set in.

OEMs, with their propensity to just throw rubbish at the market without any proper thought, could build some of the worst tablet hardware known to mankind. A small-scale Windows tablet just increases the chances of us all being lumbered with terrible products.

Let's look at some mistakes that they can avoid.

Windows RT

The better operating system for a tablet — by a country mile — is Windows RT. This is for no other reason than because Windows RT was specifically designed to run on low-power, high-portability devices, which is exactly what a small-scale Windows tablet is.

But there's a problem here. Whereas any Tom, Dick, or Harry can build an x86-based Windows box, Windows RT devices can only be built by very special partners of Microsoft. So if you're Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, or Asus, you can build them. But if you're a couple of lads working out of an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere — no Windows RT for you.

We know that Windows RT devices haven't been selling, and that Microsoft's special Windows RT partners have been complaining. Dell has been saying that demand for Windows RT has been weaker than had been hoped; the same low demand has kept Samsung from releasing Windows RT in Germany.

OEMs that have rights to build Windows RT devices might not fancy the risk of further development with questionable rewards. Therefore, both those OEMs and ones without rights to build Windows RT devices might feel that an x86-based device might be less risky.

And this is where they could really screw things up.

Passive-cooling

If you are an individual responsible for releasing onto the market a small Windows tablet with active cooling (ie, a fan), then — well, I've failed to come up with a pithy insult that's fit to print.

An actively-cooled, small-scale Windows tablet would have to be the most heinous computing product — no, the most heinous product of any kind — ever to be foisted upon an unsuspected market.

I can just imagine sitting in bed unable to hold the tablet whilst watching the latest Breaking Bad because it was so hot, and also being unable to hear the dialogue because the fan was going. Or having to have it plugged into the mains because it drew so much power.

Tablets have to have passive cooling — no arguments, no question. A tablet with a fan and heat vents will be an utterly rubbish abomination of a thing.

(Yes, I know Surface Pro is a "tablet" that has passive cooling. But that's not a tablet, that's a hybrid PC, and we'll get to that.)

If you're anything like me, you find keeping up with processor product roadmaps somewhat mind-numbing. However, we do need to talk about them.

ARM processors are much preferred by manufacturers of smartphones and tablets because they were designed specifically to consume small amounts of power and give off small amounts of heat. You can keep your smartphone in your pocket without a) your leg melting, or b) your trousers catching fire. (Or handbag/purse, or whatever.)

The x86 chips are designed for a world where you usually have mains power available. Therefore, you get loads of processor oomph, but you also soak up loads of energy and give out loads of heat. The x86 makes sense if you're building desktops, laptops, and servers.

What's wrong-footed Intel is that x86 was looking great until the dominant form of computing needed to be low-powered, low-energy/low-heat. Now Intel is trying to pivot madly to generate products that behave more like ARM chips, but whilst still being x86 chips. The existence of Windows RT at all demonstrates a lack of confidence from Redmond that Intel could turn their appraoch around. It now appears that Intel might be able to do this, but perhaps not for some time.

The problem that needs to be solved here is that x86-chips that can be passively cooled might be "jam tomorrow". Although Intel has proven it can create an Atom-based smartphone in the Lava Xolo x900 (by most accounts, a pretty decent smartphone), it's only in the next rumoured/leaked set of chips — Haswell — that a proper, passive-cooled tablet will be possible.

My concern is that OEMs might find themselves in a position where they're compelled to release tablets onto the market before passively-cooled x86 systems are easy to develop.  

No keyboard

Another way in which the OEMs have disappointed the markets over the past six months is in their insistence that "hybrid PCs are better than tablets".

Ignoring whether hybrids are better than tablets or not (spoiler: They're not), OEMs have been lucky so far in that when they started, the de facto size of a tablet was about 10 inch, and as a result, putting a keyboard on one wasn't that terrible an idea.

That same trick with a 7 inch tablet isn't going to work. A small-scale Windows has to be touch only. No keyboard, no mouse. Whilst you're at it, you can complete my pipedream and not put the Old Windows desktop or Office on there, too.

The only people who typically have hands the size of a five-year old human are five-year old humans. If you want that to be your target market, go right ahead.

Conclusion

What the OEMs generally managed to forgo with the transition to the re-imagined world of Windows 8 was any sort of re-imagining of what they were building. All they did was say to themselves: "Yay! Let's build hybrid PCs!"

What I don't understand about "hybrid" is why, as technologists, we hear this word and think "cool". We should hear this work and think "oh, yuck!"

Hybridity means one thing — specifically, it means "compromise". The idea of hybrid anything should bring us out in hives.

Tablets — like the iPad or the Nexus devices — work because they are not PCs. They have strengths compared to the PC, and weaknesses as well. Conversely, a PC isn't a tablet, so it has strengths compared to a tablet, and also weaknesses.

If you just take those two and mash them together — ie, you create a "hybrid PC" — you don't magically get a device that's all the good bits of both.

My concern is that the OEMs will hear "small-scale Windows tablet", take the products that they have and make them smaller. Specifically, what they'll make is smaller hybrid PCs.

That would be a terrible state of affairs. It really is time now for OEMs to start applying love and thought to what they do.

Mind you, it was also "that time" six months ago... 

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: PCs, Tablets

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37 comments
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  • I don't see us getting 7" hybrids

    I don't think many OEMs are even that stupid but I do see Atom being the processor of choice over ARM chips. I also see OEMs not being able to resist and sticking loads of bloatware on them.

    Windows 8 tablets are more popular than RT ones, which have next to no apps. Even if Windows Desktop programs just don't work on tablets.

    There's no compelling reason to get a Windows tablet: RT equals no apps and Win8 equals pointless Desktop (on a tablet).

    Android is the only tablet os that interests me. I've already got a Win8 laptop.
    bradavon
    • All in One

      I agree that Atom is, currently, a better solution than ARM. It offer slightly better peformance and the same battery life, whilst offering the desktop and desktop apps, if you need them.

      For 7", ARM might work, although I find the best part about my 11" tablet / hybrid, is that I use it as a full tablet on the move, with mainly tablet apps, but when I get to my desk, I plug it into a desktop dock and it becomes a full PC, with 24" monitor, mouse and keyboard and enough power to run normal office applications.

      Yes, it doesn't have the grunt of a Core processor, but the average user doesn't need that. I still have a Core i7 for video and photo editing, but for most other tasks, the Atom tablet is enough.
      wright_is
    • OEMs have had access to haswell parts for a

      while now. There's no reason they should have any difficulty building passively cooled devices. And next year when the 14nm parts come out the lead over arm will widen even more. It will be foolish to build an arm based device, even an android one. ARM will be more for the $19-$49 disposable price range.
      Johnny Vegas
  • Thoughts...

    I think you're probably right about a 7" Windows tablet running RT and ditching the desktop. In fact, a 7" tablet might give RT/Metro the shot in the arm that it needs to start building critical momentum. However, you'd still need the ability to read Office docs, and to make edits with the addition of a small bluetooth keyboard. It may be that Microsoft should have gone this route to begin with.

    I strongly disagree with the assertion that hybrids mean compromise. To me they mean "best of both worlds." I love my ASUS Transformer TF300 and have little interest in replacing it with a standalone tablet once Tegra 4 devices start hitting the shelves and I start toying with the idea of upgrading.
    dsf3g
  • Withdrawn in Germany

    The Samsung ATIV Tab was available in Germany, but has been withdrawn.

    I played with one at the local MediaMarkt, it wasn't bad, but the Atom based version had double the memory and a WACOM stylus for less than 100€ more.
    wright_is
  • Hybrid != Hybrid

    I agree with the author that the OEMs have a tendency to release the wrong products, and that RT is the obvious choice for 7'' tablets. However I would like to add that it is sometimes necessary to distinguish hybrids from detachables.
    Detachables like the Transformers series, the Surface, or the iPad-with-Keyboard are an enhanced tablet that can be used as a normal tablet as well, unlike hybrids such as the Yoga. The Transformer and Surface RT pull this off quite well, either by adding battery life or by only adding minimal weight with the keyboard.

    The market for detachable 7'' tablets is there, just google "iPad Mini Keyboard".
    Sacr
    • I agree Sacr

      a detachable is not a hybrid. I leave the keyboard dock on my ATIV at home, I have used it twice, I think, since I got my ATIV Atom based tablet. On the move, it is 100% tablet, at my desk, it plugs into a desktop dock and becomes a fully functioning desktop PC.

      No need to carry around multiple devices, no worrying about whether the tablet has finished syncing to the desktop, before I begin editing my notes. The notes get synced to the cloud, when there is a network connection, but that is more for backup purposes.

      Good, video and photo editing are beyond its capabilities, but it is fine for normal office duties and makes a great companion when travelling.

      Instead of having to carry a laptop and a tablet, I now have a single device which does everything I need on a normal trip and a normal day at the office.
      wright_is
  • Yeah, Blame The OEMs

    These are the same OEMs who can bring out decent Android devices and have them sell well. Yet it's their fault they can't do the same with Windows? Have you considered that the problem might be with Microsoft bringing out such an inflexible, limited and expensive OS?
    ldo17
    • Have you considered the problem is

      with you inability to see through your hatred and bias?

      I find it odd that it's always the OEM's fault if in reference to poor Android devices, but always MS's fault when there's an issue with poor Windows devices.

      Are you this hypocritical in everything you do in life, or is it just with MS, because you don't know any other way?

      Maybe it's time for you to grow up?
      William Farrel
      • Re: OEM's fault if in reference to poor Android devices

        Because there are OEMs proving it can be done with Android, but none for Windows.
        ldo17
        • Re: OEM's fault if in reference to poor Android devices

          You ignore a lot of OEMs history with Android/WebOS tablets with your success claims, but consider the following.

          The most successful line of Androids isn't made by the OEMs, but rather by an e-commerce website.
          Emacho
    • Yup, we will.

      Although that would be a bit harsh. Android tablets are not selling that well either. The Nexus 7 sells well on rock-bottom price, but the Nexus 10 for instance has sold even fewer units than the Surface RT (about 600.000 vs about 1.000.000). Apple has got the market sown up with some really good tablets with a strong app market, and it is just really hard to break into that.
      Nexxo
      • Re: Android tablets are not selling that well either

        They've already taken over half the tablet market, leaving Windows in the dust.
        ldo17
  • 7'' tablets can't be hybrids

    Hardware wise or interface wise. If MS wants to have any chance of success they must forget the keyboard or mouse pad and the dual interface - office it not important.
    Samsung is criticized to be a somewhat copy cat of Apple products, I don't know if they are copying or not, but at least they get inspiration from them. I appreciate when someone can be different and innovative, but not looking at where the market is, it's a huge mistake and sometimes I think MS just did that with current surface strategy.

    I've been saying that tablets and desktops are different, even if a traditional desktop can do everything a tablet do, they do it worse. Many are in denial about the fact that a cheap tablet can do a lot of things a lot better than any ultrabook on the market.
    AleMartin
  • MBR, you see things completely backwards. Intentional?

    First you say hybrids equal compromise, but that is a symantics game. Current mobile operating system tablets are an exercise in compromise. They work, because there was never anything better. Have you ever asked why there are so many addons dominating their ecosystems that try to force some cludgy keyboard or fold out kickstand into their case? That is because tablets in their current fashion have limitations that people want to eliminate.

    Any hybrid windows8 device extends the capabilities of current tablets. Both in terms of hardware and software, because those considerations were taken into account when they were designed. Not as some sort of after throught as in iOS for example.


    Likewise, why do you focus on WindowsRT and ARM cpus so much? Intels z2760 atom cpu is just a power effecient and powerful as current windowsRT tablets using ARM cpus. Windows8 has all the interface elements of WindowsRT and allows the option for the desktop and legacy programs. As long as the pricing for an Atom is comparable to an ARM cpu then I can't think of any reason why anyone would use WindowsRT over windows8. Especially considering that the chief complaint about WindowsRT is that it doesn't run legacy programs.

    Furthermore seeing that the most affordable Windows tablets run Atom CPUs and compared to WindowsRT tablets they genrally have more storage and better hardware, what purpose does an ARM cpu or WindowsRT serve?

    I do agree that the OEMs still do not seem to understand the situation they are putting themselves in by pushing out equipement that isn't fully thought out, but that isn't true for all.
    Emacho
    • ARM / x86

      I think a rename of Windows RT to Windows Home/Tablet/Starter/Light, which is supported for both ARM and x86 is not entirely unlikely. That version would not allow the installation of desktop apps for either platform and therefore allows the OEM to chose the processor they want, be it Kabini, Bay Trail, or any of the ARM CPUs.
      Sacr
      • x86

        Sacr, I hope they won't follow your idea.

        I currently use an Atom tablet. On the move, I use mainly Apps, but when I am at my desk, it plugs into a desktop dock and becomes a fully functional PC, running Windows desktop on an external 24" monitor and either extended desktop or an app on the internal monitor. With keyboard and mouse attached, it is a great device for everyday office work, which I can simply unplug and take with me, when I go to a meeting or on the road.
        wright_is
        • Desktop will remain, but will have the same price tag it always had.

          It's not so much an idea than an observation. And don't misunderstand, I don't see them dropping support for the desktop - the desktop will continue to be relevant for 10+ years and Microsoft will continue to support it in new releases because dropping support for desktop applications within the next 10 years does not make sense in any scenario. If a "techwriter" claims otherwise she's usually clickbaiting.

          I do see Microsoft introducing a cheaper line of Windows on companion devices (which they did with the horribly branded RT). The "cheap Windows" lacks support for traditional desktop applications. It is intended for companion devices and is primarily used to push the App Store and to defend against Android and iOS. It makes sense that this gimped version of Windows is not limited to ARM processors, except that the current generation of Atom is still inferior to the current generation of ARM processors.
          Sacr
    • Don't get me wrong

      But you have completely missed the point of the article.
      You are right tablets are compromised devices in the sense they are not suited for many things. And you are also right there are addons to make their use larger.
      The point is that tablets are great for what they can do well, and no Windows/linux desktop can beat them, not those costing $300, neither those costing $1500.
      Tablets are still portable, they can take photos, you can browse the web in the sofa, battery lasts for an entire day, average resolution is bigger, ... and many more things. Yes you can browse the web with an ultrabook in the sofa or in the train, ... but the experience is a lot worse - is in that sense they are a compromise.

      Battery is an issue - a big one, and tablet OS are derived from phone OS (except RT), they are simple, lighter, even more snappy sometimes even running on "smaller" processors. That is a huge advantage, batteries are not getting much better with time so solutions must be found elsewhere.
      I'm not aware of how efficient are the new generation of Intel processors are, but if I was Intel I would be working really hard to make very efficient processors.

      You are very right about one thing, Windows RT as we know it, doesn't make much sense. Maybe in a 7 inch tablet without desktop mode.

      In the end you were very right :) with small details IMO.
      AleMartin
      • Power

        "I'm not aware of how efficient are the new generation of Intel processors are, but if I was Intel I would be working really hard to make very efficient processors."

        They've been working on that for the last 5 years, the results will be on the market only later this year (June resp December for Core resp Atom). We already know they will be comparable in power drain on 10'' tablets, but since the smaller screen on a 7'' tablet sucks that much less power - and the battery is that much smaller - energy efficiency of the chip will be even more important on the smaller tablets.
        Sacr