Opinions

What a Windows 8 Tablet should be…

* Follow-up of this article here “OEMs can’t do it, so Microsoft DID IT!”*

This article is about what I think a Windows 8 Tablet should be like.

A bit of background… My first Tablet PC was an Acer TravelMate C110 running Windows XP Tablet Edition. My current is a Fujitsu Lifebook T4210 (upgraded with Bluetooth, 4GB RAM, T7200 CPU & Self-encrypting SSD). The current machine started life with WinXP Tablet as well & was dual-booted with Vista, & finally replaced with Windows 7 Pro 32bit. SO I have a total of 8 years+ of Tablet usage.

I’m looking for a new Windows Tablet because my current doesn’t have a Touchscreen & it’s not something I can upgrade.

Based on my years of using Tablets, I have come to several conclusions which I’ll share here.

The new Tablet OS, Windows 8

Windows 8 is a rethinking of how people will use Tablets to Create Content in the future, versus, Consuming Content on the iPad & Android tablets. It’s made to run special Windows 8 applications + run your good old MS Office & Photoshop, etc.

By supporting 2 different mindsets, Content Consumption + Creation, Microsoft is trying to allow people who like iPads to enjoy ease-of-use & good battery life anywhere anytime. They are also trying to appeal to the office worker who wants a fast, stable & productive platform to get on with work to make the money to enjoy life. There is actually a 3rd mindset which isn’t well-defined yet, that of the gamer/home entertainment with XBox Live integration so we should have to wait to see how that works out.

Microsoft new vision is this. While on the move or onthe sofa, you’d be carrying a light-weight tablet that runs low-power content consumption apps from Microsoft Store & enjoy long battery life. When in the Office, you can plug it into a dock that’s connected to your Keyboard/Mouse/20″ monitor to work & run your old MS Office & Photoshop, etc.

After you’re done, you can bring the tablet home & plug it into your Home Entertainment center where you can play your games or watch streaming video on your 55″ 3D LED TV. That’s the vision Microsoft is pushing for Windows 8. Can it work? Yes! All the technology needed are there, WiDi, DLNA, 4G, HDMI…

Now Windows 8 Beta is coming out soon & should be almost feature complete. It should be interesting for people who has Touchscreen Tablets/Slate because they get to experience this vision first-hand. Some of the suggestions from Developers have been adopted in the Beta & it’ll be interesting to see how far MS goes to satisfy End-users when the Release Candidate comes out by mid-2012.

Hardware, the physical tablet must feel good & look good!

Many manufacturers have also pledged to launch Win8 Slates in H2 2012 after their Android Tablets fail to make a dent in iPad sales. If these new Slates are less than SGD$1000, it will attract buyers (with enough advertising & education.)

The current batch of Windows tablets (in Singapore), Acer W500, Asus B121 & Fujitsu Q550 all have fatal flaws that makes them unattractive to buyers. Chief among them is Windows 7 of course. There’re too much bad press about Windows 7 being a lousy tablet OS. Some of the complaints are true but many the reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about. Let me say again, Windows 7 is a competent Tablet OS when configured right.

It’s easy to configure Windows 7 to be easy to navigate using Touch. All the settings are inside the Control Panel (bigger icons/text & space in between/super large themes). StartBar can be docked to the side & gesture controls can be used to navigate the interface.

The problem, of course, is these things should be pre-configured by the Tablet makers themselves, not the end-users. Slapping a custom layer over Windows 7 desktop isn’t the answer as well! Therefore, the fault lies in these makers, Acer, Asus & even Fujitsu who just slap Windows 7 in as if they’re selling Desktops. No customisations whatsoever!

On top of that, these tablets are either too heavy or too bland or too slow. Take a look at the new Nokia Lumia 800 & 900. People naturally gravitate towards the better looking device even if the specs aren’t as fantastic as a dull looking but super-fast one! Early iPhones & iPads are the BEST examples!

The brains behind the operations, the CPU

The other flaw is CPU. Intel Atom CPU + motherboard + chipset was too expensive for its performance. Being single-core with low bus speed + a GPU that’s slower than molasses. It can’t even play a decent 720p video without dropping most of the frames.

The coming generation of Dual-core Atom CPU (Cedar Trail) should finally solve the problem unless Intel screws up somehow. Dual-core, higher bus speed, support for 4GB RAM + a PowerVR GPU should allow 720p video playback (clear enough for a 10-12″ screen or a 55″ TV). A typical person using this tablet for media consumption & business usage should have no complains about lag. Gamers wouldn’t be interested in Atom CPU of course but home entertainment is definitely doable!

Makers of tablet (Asus) also shouldn’t be using Core i5 in their Tablets. It adds weight & $ cost for heat dissipation & reduce battery life, or they have to use a bigger battery thus increasing weight. Considering Core i5 + chipset uses >30W while Atom + chipset uses <10W. A 4-cell battery powering an Atom N2800 should last >4 hours of actual usage with WiFi on & screen at half-brightness.

SSD prices have come down by a lot on the lower-end, 32-64GB. If storage is not enough, a 32GB SDcard or MicroSD is also dirt cheap. With all these drop in prices, I do not see why a Win8 Slate should be more than $1000.

Let’s guesstimate the costs of the perfect Windows 8 tablet…

MS Windows 8 Home OEM license – $130
Intel Atom N2800 CPU – USD47
4GB DDR2/3-800 SODIMM RAM – $50
Kingston SSDNow Self-encrypting 32GB – $100
IPS 10″ LED screen – est. $150
Li-ion 4-cell battery – est. $100
Motherboard + WiFi + Bluetooth – est. $80
Chassis + Gorilla glass + Touchscreen + Active Digitizer – est. $120

Total around $800 including box + packaging! Maybe I’m optimistic but I think $1000 for this Tablet is entirely possible! If you include branding/advertising, it’s still an additional $100 at most. Still near to the price of a White iPad 2 32GB. Tablet makers can even throw in a 32GB SDcard to act like a secondary storage & only add another $20 to BOM cost.

We can see from the Android camp that users are demanding higher & higher performance by using Quad-core CPUs & integrated high-performance GPU to save power & improve Android’s laggy nature. The irony is, Windows 7 is super optimised already & Intel is simply lagging behind on the low-power front. Nobody I know liked their Netbook due to the many (artificial) limitations that Intel put on the Atom CPU. The only decent Atom is the Cedar Trail CPU that I just mentioned but the price is not low either.

Intel should watch out since Windows 8 will be able to run on some ARM-based platform like Nvidia Tegra & Qualcomm Snapdragon S4. I’m not mentioning ARM-based Windows 8 because older Wintel apps like MS Office cannot run on ARM-based Windows 8 unless Microsoft emulate x86 platform on ARM which will be a major engineering undertaking, not to mention the high licensing fees they have to pay Intel. I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure MS will not do this for many years to come.

Conclusions

So the question is, why aren’t PC makers chunning out great tablets? Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a strong enough vision until Apple launched the iPad or Microsoft was so pre-occupied with the Anti-Trust lawsuits that they didn’t listen to customer demands for the past 10 years. Or even maybe because Bill Gates has left the building.

We have been pushing for lighter tablets with better battery life for the longest time but while Sony & Lenovo have 1KG laptops with >8 hour battery, they didn’t translate these to the Tablet form factor. It has been extremely fustrating for Tablet users like me for the longest time, but finally it seems that our prayers are being answered with Windows 8.

In conclusion, 4 things must come together for the Windows 8 Tablet to be successful or better yet, be desirable.

1. Windows 8 is already super efficient in terms of CPU/Memory performance. It’s the Interface that’s the biggest bet for Microsoft. So far the Metro design language seems to be winning praise from Press & developers. Windows 8 has 2 interfaces, Metro for media consumption & traditional for media creation. If Microsoft listens to End-users during the Beta & makes the necessary adjustment, Windows 8 Metro could be wildly successful. Many people are already praising the Metro interface on the Xbox 360 & Windows Phone 7 Mango, so chances are good.

2. Hardware makers MUST make their tablet shine! Nokia has shown that with a beautiful device like the Lumia 800 & 900 + enough advertising, people will WANT to get it! Apple basically made a name for themselves around simple beautiful design with tons of advertising. That’s why there are calls for Nokia to make a Win8 tablet based on that polycarbonate shell! I certainly would love a Lumia tablet but that HP Slate is cool as well!

3. Intel must support Windows 8 by making a CPU/chipset that’s fast enough & cheap enough. So far the Intel Atom CPU has been a joke in the market. More than anything, users were not satisfied with Netbook due to lag. It’s ok for the processing to be slow but it’s NOT ok for the mouse to stop working after clicking something. This is the problem with a single-core CPU on a desktop OS.

4. Price. Fujitsu Stylistic has been the pinnacle of TabletPC in the Slate format for many years, but few companies & even fewer individuals can afford the $5000-6000 price tag. So long as manufacturers stick to Intel Atom Cedar Trail, they can afford to use cheaper components. These few years has battled the economy of many countries. Having a fast enough tablet at an affordable price will be a major factor in determining how many buyers they can attract which will further drive adoption rates.

To say that I’m excited about new Win8 product launches later this year is an understatement, especially with all the cool Ultrabooks that these same makers can make. If they (Microsoft/Intel/Manufacturers) get the above 4 points right, we could get a iPad killer. Until then, we can wish & pray.

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