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 Wednesday, August 28, 2013
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I am a bit unusual in that I have extensively used four different Windows 8 tablets:

  1. Samsung Series 7
  2. Surface RT
  3. Surface Pro
  4. Acer Iconia W3

The Samsung, Surface Pro, and Iconia are all Intel based machines, so they are running Windows 8 (or 8.1 preview) Pro. As a result they can theoretically run anything Windows 7 can run, plus all the new Windows Runtime (WinRT) apps.

The Surface RT is an ARM based machine, so it can run only WinRT apps (plus Office because Microsoft broke their own rules in that case).

So you might immediately assume Surface RT is the worst of the bunch, because it can’t run legacy apps from Windows 7.

But you should also consider battery life. The Samsung and Surface Pro get 2-3 hours if I’m lucky. The Samsung has a loud fan, and the Surface Pro gets quite hot. So while both can run Visual Studio, neither is a particularly fun tablet due to noise or heat, and certainly due to short battery life.

The Iconia has great battery life (I typically charge it every 2-3 days), no fan, and it only gets a little warm. Of course it uses an ATOM processor, so I shudder to think how slow Visual Studio would run (I haven’t tried), but it does run other legacy Windows 7 apps. Its primary drawbacks are that the wifi reception is horrible, and the screen is a bit fuzzy. It is also an 8” screen – which is both good and bad. It is a really nice size for casual browsing and reading, including laying on the couch, etc. But it is pretty cramped if you actually have to do any work – data entry or whatever. So it is a consumption-only device in my view.

The Surface RT also has great battery life. I spent an entire 8 hour flight across the Atlantic watching movies on it and didn’t run out of charge. It makes no noise and doesn’t get warm, and it has a big enough screen that it is good for consumption and light work (data entry, spreadsheets, etc.). True, it can’t run Visual Studio or other legacy apps, but then neither can the Iconia in practical terms (due to its slower processor).

Right now the biggest challenge with the Surface RT is the lack of WinRT apps, not that the machine itself is flawed. In fact, I think the device itself is the best of the four – light weight, good screen size, no noisy fan, no heat during use, great battery life, good performance.

For around-the-house or on-the-plane use the Iconia is the next best thing. It has great battery life, and has the double-edged attribute of an 8” screen. It has no fan, but does get a bit warm. My big problem with it is the weak wifi reception, which is often problematic, and the issue that if I do need to edit a presentation, document, or spreadsheet the screen is just too small. I should say that I don’t have any legacy apps installed on the Iconia other than Outlook, Office, and Chrome. I just haven’t found the need for anything, because there are WinRT apps or web pages to do everything I want to do. I only installed Chrome because the preview IE11 release is often unsupported by web sites – hopefully those web sites will get it together by mid-October…

If I need to use Visual Studio or other legacy Windows 7 apps I pretty much always haul out the Surface Pro these days. It is much nicer than the older Samsung. The Surface Pro is too warm and heavy for casual use as a tablet, but it makes for a great ultrabook that can act like a tablet in a pinch.

I know a lot of the tech media has been bashing on Surface RT due to Microsoft’s write-down on their excess inventory. And presumably the device hasn’t sold nearly as well as Microsoft expected or hoped. Personally I think this is purely because Microsoft didn’t include Outlook on the device – a choice I’m sure someone is regretting in hindsight. If the Surface RT had Outlook (and perhaps a full Lync client) it would do everything needed by most managers/executives in most companies.

Of course it wouldn’t be useful for knowledge workers like developers, CAD users, etc. But those people have desktops/laptops – the primary target market for tablets are managers/executives that travel around a lot and who don’t need a big/fast machine. We know this, because those people are running around with iPads that also can’t serve the needs of knowledge workers.

And if a knowledge worker does rely on a tablet, my observation is that they RDP into a Windows 7 computer to run the higher powered software. Obviously a Surface RT is at least as good of an RDP client as an iPad :)

My point is that I very much hope Microsoft doesn’t give up on the Surface RT. Or if they do, that they provide something comparable to it in terms of battery life, screen size, weight, and so forth via an Intel processor (presumably an ATOM processor).

A secondary point I suppose, is that I’m losing hope that I’ll ever be able to carry just one device. The idea that a device capable of running Visual Studio with good performance, where the device gets 8+ hours of battery life, has no loud fan, and doesn’t get uncomfortably warm might be out of reach…

Then again, the next-gen Surface Pro devices might pull it off?

To conclude – right now I’ve been carrying/using the Surface Pro and Iconia. I actually gave my Surface RT to my Dad because he needed a good tablet, and he’s enjoying it (as much as a non-computer user can enjoy any computer). But I do kind of miss the Surface RT, because I liked it better than the Iconia in some ways…

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