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Windows 8 after a year: 21 hardware hits and misses

Over the past year, I've used Windows 8 (and Windows 8.1) on at least 20 different PCs in a broad range of form factors, ranging from a Vista-era desktop to an amazingly light Haswell-powered Ultrabook with a Gorilla Glass cover. Here's a quick tour of these devices, along with my lessons learned from each one.

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Topic: PCs
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1 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Samsung Series 9: one of the first Ultrabooks

This was one of the very first Ultrabooks to reach the market, and I bought one shortly after it became available. The Series 9 did a good job of matching the portability and sleek design of a MacBook Air without ever feeling like a clone. Its illuminated keyboard was a key selling feature.

It originally shipped with Windows 7, and it upgraded easily to Windows 8. Eventually I found drivers that allowed the trackpad to work with Windows 8 edge gestures, which made it much more usable.

My biggest gripe with this model is the same one I have with many early Ultrabooks. The 1366x768 screen resolution is just not enough to get serious work done. After a year of faithful service, this PC was replaced with an even lighter touchscreen Ultrabook.

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2 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

ASUS ZenBook UX31E: another early Ultrabook

This PC was another early entrant in the Ultrabook category. When I picked it up in February 2012, it was running Windows 7. I had no trouble installing a succession of Windows 8 preview releases on it, and it upgraded without incident to the RTM build of Windows 8.

There were other, cheaper Ultrabooks I could have chosen at the time. I picked this one because it offered a screen resolution of 1600x900, which was practically unheard of in its roughly $1000 price range at the time. Its keyboard was occasionally balky, and every time I covered an event in a dimly lit hall I wished the keyboard was backlit. It has since been replaced with a new, touchscreen-equipped Acer notebook.

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3 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell's 2009 Latitude Z600 flops on Windows 8

This was my favorite Windows 7 PC ever. It was amazingly thin and light for its era (late 2009/early 2010), with a big (16-inch) screen running at 1600x900, and it was one of the first SSD-equipped devices I owned.

So I was really looking forward to running Windows 8 on this device. Alas, it wasn't meant to happen. Although this device included 5 GB of RAM, it shipped with a 32-bit version of Windows 7, and its driver support for Windows 8 was nonexistent. I tried three times to make Windows 8 work on it, each time failing. I finally surrendered, restored the original Windows 7 image, and sold it at a garage sale a few months ago to someone who was looking for a great Windows 7 PC.

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4 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Acer Aspire S7-191 punches above its weight

Over the years, I've owned a few Acer devices. They've been a mixed bag, in terms of design and build quality. So I was a bit skeptical when I saw glowing reviews for this 11-inch device, which was code-named Helium.

But I decided to take the plunge, buying it to replace my wife's first-generation Ultrabook. After six months, we have few complaints.

This is a great example of what an Ultrabook is supposed to be. At 2.7 pounds, it's amazingly light and portable. It has a 3rd Generation Core i5, Full HD (1920x1080) multi-touch display, a 128GB SSD, a backlit keyboard, and a USB 3.0 port that can charge a device when it's off.

Its battery life is less than stellar, under 4 hours in practice. For Judy, that doesn't matter, because she rarely is far from a power outlet. For travel purposes, it comes with a second battery that clamps to the back and doubles battery life at a small cost in weight. And both the keyboard and trackpad are a bit finicky, although neither one is a dealbreaker.

This device will be around our household for a long time.

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5 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Acer Aspire S7-392 raises the Ultrabook bar

At this year's Build conference, I had a chance to see this device before it went on sale. After using the 11-inch version, I wanted to see whether this newer 13-inch model had worked out the kinks in its predecessors.

The answer is a resounding yes.

The outside, with a white Gorilla Glass cover, is beautiful and tough, and the 13-inch Full HD display is gorgeous. The backlit keyboard doesn't have the same issues with occasionally sticky keys that the previous version did. For me, though, the killer feature is the 4th Generation Core i5 (Haswell). This is the first PC I've ever owned that can genuinely claim all-day battery life without having to add any qualifiers. At IFA in Berlin this year, I used the machine nonstop for a day without ever needing the charger. Atnd at 2.9 pounds it's genuinely portable.

I had no trouble upgrading it to the RTM version of Windows 8.1. I'll happily take a look at the new crop of Haswell-powered Ultrabooks, but it will take something special to knock this one off its perch.

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6 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch: power at a price

OK, I'm cheating a bit on this one. Although I've had some hands-on time with this device, I haven't owned one. In fact, I've shied away from most Lenovo devices, primarily because the business-class models are very expensive. Still, if you spend any time around Microsoft's Redmond campus, you will see as many of these as you see Surface Pros. This is a very popular device with the developers of Windows 8.1. 

So I asked my ZDNet colleague Jason Perlow, who owns an X1 Carbon Touch, for his capsule review. Here's what he wrote:

The Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch is the Chinese PCs giant's flagship Windows 8 Ultrabook, combining the power of the Intel Core i7 processor with a responsive and brilliant color touchscreen display. The system, which weighs only 3lbs, is made out of carbon fiber and is one of the lightest as well as one of the strongest 14" notebooks on the market, and is up to any task a road warrior can throw at it. 

Like many "executive class" Ultrabooks currently on the market the X1 Carbon Touch has on the mainboard flash storage and has a fixed amount of memory, 8GB, so it cannot be upgraded. It also lacks an optical drive as well as a hard-wired Ethernet port, both of which can be remedied by using USB 3.0-based docks and peripherals. External displays can be connected using the laptop's MiniDisplayPort connector.

Something to keep in mind is that if you need to be able to boot from LAN (such as for a system re-image) you cannot use wireless networking so you must use a USB Ethernet dongle. While Windows 8.x recognizes many USB Ethernet devices, not every one will show up as a PCI LAN device in the X1's EFI. Currently, you'll need either Lenovo's USB 2.0 USB Ethernet accessory or their USB 3.0 dock ($150, which I find ridiculously expensive for what it does) in order to do this.

While the Lenovo X1 Carbon is a great laptop I would certainly like to see the display resolution increased in the next model to full HD or higher, as at around $1800 for the system, there are other devices on the market with much nicer screens for the same or less money. I also think that having a full-sized business laptop with no hard-wired ethernet port is just asking for trouble.

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7 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Microsoft's brilliant, quirky, flawed Surface Pro

I reviewed the Surface Pro when it came out in February of this year, and the keyword in that review was quirky. Here's what I concluded:

In short, this is a great product for anyone who’s already committed to a Microsoft-centric work environment. It isn’t likely to inspire many iPad owners to switch, unless those Apple tablets are in the hands of someone who has been eagerly awaiting an excuse to execute the iTunes ecosystem.

I don’t expect Surface Pro to be a breakout hit for Microsoft. Too many people will have good reasons to say no, at least for now. But it does represent a solid, interesting, adventurous alternative for anyone who wants to spend some quality time today exploring Microsoft’s vision of the future.

The big question is how large that market is, and whether Microsoft can evolve both the Surface hardware and its accompanying apps and services so the next iteration is capable of breaking out in a big way.

The short battery life and the heat generated by the 3rd Generation i5 made the first Surface Pro less than ideal for me. I am looking forward to getting my hands on the new design and its peripherals.

You can read that original review .

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8 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

The much-misunderstood Surface RT

In my of the Surface RT, I concluded, "This is a product that will get better with age."

That turned out to be exactly right. The Windows 8.1 Preview has breathed new life into this device, thanks to the presence of Outlook, a much-improved Music app, and a user interface that is noticeably snappier.

As a result, I find myself picking up the Surface RT and happily using it more often these days than ever before. It lasted for an entire nine-hour Dallas-to-London flight a few weeks ago, as I did a little work and mostly listened to music and watched movies.

If Microsoft had priced the original Surface RT differently and been less cocky about its sales potential, it wouldn't have had to take a huge writeoff. In that alternate universe, this very slim and well-built device might have been seen, properly, as a great first effort. Instead...

At any rate, I'm looking forward to Surface 2 more than the Surface Pro 2. I can't be the only one.

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9 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

HP's Envy X2: one of the first Windows 8 hybrids

I first saw this hybrid back in September 2012, a month before Windows 8 was officially released. My first reaction when I picked it up was “Whoa. This thing is light.” And because it has one battery in the detachable base and another in the tablet portion, it got about 14 hours of use between charges in my testing.

My original review noted:

Overall, I had high expectations for the Envy X2. Maybe they were too high for the device itself to live up to. In use, the hardware limitations occasionally made themselves very noticeable, with tasks that would take seconds on a Core i5 or i7 dragging out. The limited RAM and storage exacerbated that feeling.

A bigger problem with the Envy X2 is the same issue I felt with the Samsung. Because the system was designed, by necessity, with all of the electronics in the display, the unit feels top-heavy and slightly unbalanced when used on a lap.

On a desk, the hinge mechanism lifts the base and keyboard to a nice angle for typing, and the weight is well balanced. But on the lap the display has a tendency to tip over backwards, leading to one inadvertent crash test on a carpeted floor. (The Envy X2 passed, thank goodness.)

 Read the original review here.

 

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10 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell's XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook thinks outside the clamshell

This was another review unit. Here's the money quote from my original review:

Make no mistake about it: This is a PC first, and a tablet second. At 1558 g (3.4 lb), your arms will tire if you try to hold this thing for too long. But it’s quite solid in your lap, and it’s perfect on an airplane tray table with the screen flipped to the back and tilted up to a comfortable viewing (and touching) angle. That’s great for watching a movie, reading documents, or doing light editing in coach seats where a full-size Ultrabook won’t open properly.

Give Dell credit for creative thinking with this design, but the short battery life and 3.4-pound weight were offputting for me. Since then, Dell has refreshed this model with a 4th Generation Intel Core CPU, and I'd look at it again.

Read the original review here.

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11 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Samsung's Ativ Smart PC Pro: another take on the hybrid

This was a review unit I received from Samsung in early 2013. At the time, I said: "Samsung’s ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T looks like a slightly clunky, generic black Ultrabook at first blush. Until you detach its keyboard base, that is, and it turns into a sleek and powerful tablet with better battery life than a Surface Pro."

The top-heavy design and the odd arrangement of ports were dealbreakers for me. The review unit went back to Samsung.

You can read my original review here.

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12 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Samsung Series 7: the official slate of Windows 8

The Samsung Series 7 might look a bit dull today, but it was one of the very first pure Windows tablets. And if its design seems familiar, well, it should be: it's the commercial version of the unlabeled device that was given to every paid attendee at Microsoft's 2011 Build conference, where Windows 8 made its public debut.

The 2nd Generation Intel i5 chip in this device tends to runs hot, and its battery life was less than stellar. Still, it was a proper introduction to what Windows 8 can do on a pure tablet.

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13 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell's Latitude 10: brilliant engineering in a drab package

I love this little tablet, which has the sort of gray-flannel, businesslike design Dell is known for. It won't turn any heads in an airport waiting lounge, but it works spectacularly well as a tablet and (with the optional dock, shown above) it fits nicely on the desktop.

The Atom processor in this device means it gets very good battery life, nearly eight hours in my typical usage, although the Atom's low power requirements also equal occasionally low performance. I've added a 64GB SD card filled with music, which means it plys as well as it works.

But the killer feature for me is that the battery can be swapped out (this feature is only available on the business edition of the Latitude 10, not on the Essentials model). I picked up an optional second battery that bulges out a bit from the back and allows the device to run another 12 hours. Even with that larger battery the device weighs well under 2 pounds.

For travel, I carry a Microsoft Bluetooth Wedge keyboard that also doubles as a stand, and this device is good enough to be the only one in my bag.

 

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14 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Acer Iconia W3-810 is tiny and flawed

This device is the first 8-inch tablet to appear on the market. It was made for the new specs of Windows 8.1, which lowered the minimum screen resolution for these devices, and I was really looking forward to testing this after picking up a review unit at the Build conference this year.

Alas, Acer needs to go back to the drawing board. This device might tick all the right boxes on the spec sheet, but it fails in practice, thanks to a fuzzy low-resolution screen that hurts my eyes after an hour or so of use. The price of this unit has dropped to $299 but I still can't recommend.

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15 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

HP Pavilion Elite m9600t: Vista-era desktop flops on Windows 8

This tank of a desktop PC was my main workstation in the final year of Windows Vista and the first year of Windows 7. It has a first-generation Core i7 and plenty of RAM and storage. So in theory it should be just fine with Windows 8.

In practice, not so much. Windows 8's fast startups are lost on a device like this, which takes 20 seconds or more just on text-based startup screens. And the Windows 8.1 Preview has a terrible bug with this model that causes it to crash every time it tries to resume from sleep.

The real killer for me, though, is the terrible interior design of this box, which is a tangle of cords and cages where I have cut myself more than once. This one will be recycled soon.

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16 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell XPS 8500 is a dream desktop

In case you haven't noticed, I like Dell PCs, and this one might be my favorite desktop ever. Inside, it's clean, uncluttered, and incredibly easy to work with. That sort of easy upgradeability is the point of a desktop machine, and Dell gets that.

This box has a 3rd Generation i7 processor and a couple of SSDs, making it wicked fast. It's also been flawless with every build of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 and even has a good selection of Windows 8 drivers. The killer feature in Windows 8.1 for me is its vastly improved multi-monitor support, which is ideal for desktops. I might replace this box someday, but it won't be soon.

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17 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell's XPS 18 successfully mashes up tablet, all-in-one

The first time I saw this device, I was skeptical. An 18-inch tablet? On a stand?

Surprisingly, it works. If you think of this device as an all-in-one that can move into another room when needed, it makes more sense. This is a review unit, and I'll have more thorough coverage coming up shortly. But suffice it to say this is a good PC that anyone looking for an all-in-one should consider.

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18 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Dell's Inspiron 2320: a boring, cheap, reliable all-in-one

Dell's Inspiron line is its budget brand. This box is one I purchased from the Dell Outlet as a second office PC. It's got a touchscreen,l a decent webcam, and an unassuming design. It won't win any awards for its looks, but it gets the job done. And it's refreshing to see how little crapware came with it.

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19 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

HP Elite One 800 G1 puts an all-in-one in business class

This review unit just arrived, and I'm excited to take a closer look at it. Most alll-in-ones are aimed at the consumer market. This is the first I've seen that is built for business. I'll have a more detailed look shortly.

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20 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Intel's NUC is the tiniest Windows PC ever

Man, this thing is tiny. It makes the Mac Mini look gargantuan in comparison, and it comes in at half the price.

Inside, it has an i3 processor, uses standard notebook-class memory, and saves the most space by using mSATA storage instead of an SSD. All told, I think I paid less than $350 for this full PC that fits in my hand and is more powerful than most desktops from five years ago.

In fact, if the NUC had arrived five years ago with this sort of performance, I would have loved to put it in the living room and use it as a Media Center. Today, it's more a curiosity than anything. Still, it works great with the Windows 7 and Windows 8 flavors of Media Center, and if you're pressed for space it's an interesting option.

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21 of 21 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Yes, Windows 8.1 runs on a Mac

As I've pointed out elsewhere, there's a big difference between PCs designed for Windows 7 and those made for Windows 8 and 8.1. Nothing shows off those differences like Mac hardware. Apple released a Boot Camp update a few months ago that allows Windows 8 to be properly installed on a Mac. I did that on a Mac Mini just to see for myself.

The more common scenario, of course, is to run Windows on Apple's MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Still, I can't imagine myself doing that. The keyboard differences alone drive me nuts, and I can't go back to a portable PC (even a beautiful one like a MacBook) without a touchscreen.

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