16 Feb.

Choosing The Right Windows 8 Device

In the wake of the release of Microsoft’s Surface Pro I’ve been surprised by some of the reviews and reactions, both online and in person. Perhaps the most surprising things I’ve been hearing are from those that are disappointed by the battery life and the free space available, along with those who surprised to find that the Surface Pro isn’t the perfect device for everyone. I’ll address these items in today’s post, as well as what you should take into consideration when choosing the device that is right for you.

Choosing the right computing device is all about choosing the compromises that you are happy with, and I’ll start by saying that at this point the Surface Pro is not a device I’m plannng on purchasing any time soon. Not because I think there is anything inherently wrongwith it , but rather that it doesn’t fill a gap in my current hardware lineup. As a point of reference, my primary laptop is a Sony Vaio Z – i7, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, and my secondary or should I say companion device is a Surface, and a fading number three is my third generation iPad.

A S(t)ore Point

First of all, I’ll address the issue of storage on the Surface Pro, as I view these as variations of the same concern/complaint. An installation of Windows 8 and the Office 365 trial take a certain amount of space. If Microsoft used Surface Pro as the opportunity to drastically reduce the footprint of Windows 8 without affecting functionality, all of their OEMs would have cried foul. OEM licensing for Windows is strict in many areas surrounding customisaton, and a non-level playing field would have caused a huge amount of unrest. The criticism of the amount of free disk space is something that needs to be applied to any Windows 8 device with limited storage, rather than being a criticism singling out the Surface Pro. While I can’t see the 64GB Surface Pro serving much more of a purpose than a cheaper option for prize draws, giveaways and an option on the pricing waterfall, those who won’t move it out of areas of high bandwidth connectivity may find it’s limited free storage acceptable.

More Power To You

A similar view needs to be taken of battery life. If somehow Microsoft was able to squeeze out double the battery life from a certain size battery versus other OEMs, some would have been crying foul again. Either Mirosoft would have had access to some new battery or other hardware technologies, or they would have had to use software optimisations that others didn’t have access to. Considering the long term views of laptop battery life as leaving much to be desired, Microsoft could not have waited until the Surface Pro to reveal them. Microsoft could have included a larger battery at the expense of weight, size and usability, trading one complaint for several others. I already have a laptop power supply with a USB charging port built in, and seeing it included with the Surface Pro was a nice touch.

Intel Inside. The Good Kind.

The inclusion of an Intel i5 CPU is a good choice from a balanced feature and performance perspective. Sure, an i7 would have been faster for some things, but the battery life and thermal issues would have been more pronounced. An i3 may have allowed longer battery life, but there are some hardware capabilities that the i3 lacks which mean that the AES operations that BitLocker uses would have been more CPU intensive. Again, it all comes down to tradeoffs. The Sony Vaio Z, as well as a loan unit of the recently released Acer 13.3″ S7, are both i7 based, and both have the high pitched cooling fans kick in more than I like. Cramming an i7 into the Surface Pro would not have been a great idea with today’s CPUs, but no doubt faster and cooler options will be available for use later in the year.

There are other CPU options available from Intel and AMD, including several good Windows 8 device designs based on Atom CPUs, but you are going to make some serious compromises here in terms of performance versus battery life. While Atom performance has increased since the netbook days, and battery life can approach ARM based devices. As well as the tradeoff in CPU performance, you are also limited to 2GB of RAM on these platforms. For some people this will be a showstopper, especially if paired with a slow HDD or slow Flash memory based drive, as can be the case. Why this artificial limitation? Originally it aligned to Microsoft’s Starter editions of Windows, which was licensed to run on limited hardware platforms, effectively creating a new market segment of lower priced options that were less likely to cannibalise higher margin products.

Is 4GB RAM Enough?

For a general purpose PC/Tablet, 4GB of RAM is going to be more than adequate, and combined with an SSD, even if there is some paging it’s not going to be as disruptive as it was back with older, slower mechanical drives. 4GB of fixed memory is a problem for anyone who wants to take advantage of Hyper-V on Windows 8 Pro and run several VMs at once, which I do on my Sony Vaio Z. However, the limited storage on the Surface Pro is going to limit the number of VMs you can run anyway, unless you want to lug around an external USB 3.0 drive. This raises the next area for investigation, the ultra portable compromises you will need to make, which don’t just affect the Surface Pro.

While I would have liked to have seen an 8GB Surface Pro with a 256GB SSD option for the sake of it being a better candidate for Hyper-V, we need to take thermals into account again. Running multiple VMs means a higher CPU load, which will cause the Surface Pro to run warmer with more fan noise. What this is starting to highlight is that a configuration like this would have encouraged usage scenarios that may not have really suited the form factor.

Get Ready To Accessorise

When Apple introduced the MacBook Air, the number of standard ports that weren’t available natively were noted by many. Over time the world of Ultrabooks has adopted this approach, with mini VGA and HDMI connectors and USB ethernet adapters, increasing the number of accessories you need to carry around. Add a USB hub to the mix, potentially a powered one with it’s wall adapter, and this whole ultra portable story isn’t quite as good as it seemed. Maybe going for something slightly larger, and getting a better keyboard instead of some of the weak keyboards on ultraportables, and you may end up with a better computing experience. Of course it won’t look as good though, but hey, if you were doing this to look good, you wouldn’t have read this far.

While the Sony Vaio Z isn’t perfect, it does have full sized GBe, USB 3.0, USB 2.0, VGA and HDMI ports, so adapters aren’t required. The USB ports are too close to each other though, and I rely on USB extension cables more than I like when using wide USB devices. But at least it’s two free USB ports. The Acer S7 has different pros and cons with the USB ports. The pros are that they are further apart and are both USB 3.0. The downside is that the thinner base of the S7 means tha thicker USB devices really need to be used with a USB extension cable. You also lose one of the ports when you use the included USB to Ethernet adapter, which is only 10/100, not GbE. Trying to do network based installs using this approach can be problematic at worst, and slow at best.

Keyboard and Touchpad Considerations

I made the mistake of buying the Sony Vaio Z online without having first tested the keyboard. The minimal travel of the keys, and my constant brushing of the touchpad make me regret this decision sometimes. The other thing you really should check with the keyboards is the key layout, especially things like arrow keys, page up, page down etc, depending on your usage habits. If you are using multiple devices you will find that it can be less frustrating if you choose devices with similar layouts.

Another keyboard issue you need to take into consideration with the Surface and Surface Pro is that neither of the keyboard options provide backlit keys. This isn’t always going to be a problem, but there are some scenarios where it is going to be an issue. I would also strongly encourage the type keyboard with the more traditional keys, it transforms the typing experience on the device.

If you want to use touch gestures on the touchpad, make sure that the touchpad is big enough to support these gestures without the gestures making the touchpad unusable. Going back to the Sony Vaio Z as an example, it supports Windows 8 gestures with recent Synaptics drivers, but it can be frustrating to use because it’s not  a large trackpad. This isn’t an issue on the Acer S7, the touchpad is large, so it’s easy to use the touchpad without triggering unwanted gestures.

Screen Resolution

At the time I was buying I purchased this based on it having the smallest 1080p display and TPM so that I could use it with Windows 7’s DirectAcces capabilities. The Surface Pro now meets this requirement, but I wonder about the usability of the Windows desktop at 1080p on such a small screen. I’m not a fan of the text size scaling capabilities that Windows hasn’t really gotten right after multiple attempts, and in many ways I still view 1080p as a compromise after running 2560*1600 at home for five plus years. Things get interesting when you start working in the Windows 8 apps, where screen resolution is less of an issue, and you don’t necessarily need as high a resolution display. Unfortunately I don’t spend enough time working in these apps for it to be a major factor in my decisions or recommendations, but over time this is something that could become an important factor.

The other factor that I knew would be problematic with the Surface and Surface Pro is the fixed angle kickstand. I learned this almost two years ago when I received an Acer Iconia W500. An interesting device under Windows 7, with way too many compromises, but with the Windows 8 pre-releases installed it was my primary Windows 8 machine for quite a while. I wrote about some of my Windows 8 experiences on my old Microsoft blog, you can read them here, here and here. Windows 8 couldn’t magically fix the design issues of the device, but it did highlight how well the Windows 8 interface could utilise the graphics capabilities of the AMD APU as opposed to getting bogged down by the CPU capabilities.

Touch

I’ve left touchscreen capabilities until last even though they are a major element in Windows 8. Despite what you may think, Windows 8 works incredibly well for non-touch devices. Whether it’s new mouse capabilities that have been added, gestures on the touchpad, or keyboard shortcuts, touch isn’t always the best way to do things. I don’t think Windows 8 laptops need to have touchscreens for all usage scenarios, and before long it won’t be much of a cost consideration. When in laptop mode or on the traditional Windows desktop I don’t use touch much at all, but as soon as I’m in tablet mode or using Windows 8 apps, touch is natural.

Putting It All Together

Hopefully this post has highlighted some of the things you need to take into consideration when choosing an ultraportable laptop, slate or convertible for Windows 8. Thin and light usually means tradeoffs have been made, but only you can decide which tradeoffs are worth it for you. In the rush to go small don’t forget the extras you may need to carry around, such as USB ethernet adapters, mini HDMI to VGA connectors, external storage and USB hubs. These can also add to the cost of the device, as well as replacing the extras that you may lose. Weigh up all the pros and cons, and feel free to ask for help in making a decision.

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