Need to Know: The Rise of the Windows Mini-Tablet

Need to Know: The Rise of the Windows Mini-Tablet

First-generation Windows mini-tablets already show their worth

If one were to chart the rise of the mobile computing devices that have replaced full-sized portable computers and compare those milestones to Microsoft's ability to shift with the changing times, two facts would become immediately obvious. One, the mainstream computing public is rallying around smaller devices. And two, although Microsoft has been late in the game at every possible stage, its resulting solution is often best-of-breed. So how do the new Windows mini-tablets stack up?

Mini-tablets are those tablets with screens in the 7- to 8-inch range. (As opposed to "full-sized" tablets, which typically offer 9- to 11-inch screens.) The boom in tablet sales over the past two years has really been a boom in mini-tablet sales, which, contrary to then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs' 2010 assertion, were most decidedly not "dead on arrival." Devices such as the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Google Nexus 7 proved immediately popular, in fact, leading Apple to backtrack and release an iPad mini as the entire tablet market coalesced around these mini devices.

iPad mini with Retina Display

The iPad mini with Retina Display will ship sometime in November 2013

Of course, that all happened between 2010 and 2012. By 2013, mini-tablets were long the volume leaders in tablet sales, but Microsoft was just getting into the tablet business with full-sized Surface devices and various full-sized tablets and hybrid PCs made by its partners. Microsoft didn't have a mini-tablet platform in place until mid-2013, when it began allowing its PC maker partners to start shipping such devices.

A Pattern of Slowness

This slow pattern, which you're right to find a bit alarming, follows a general Microsoft slowness that greeted each recent trend in mobile computing. Microsoft didn't see netbooks coming—the devices launched initially with Linux, giving the open-source community a last gasp at desktop computing relevance—at a time when the firm was selling the bloated Vista.

But when it comes to mobile computing, it is of course Apple that Microsoft—and the rest of the industry—took a back seat to. Apple invented modern, touch-based smartphones, with the iPhone, and Microsoft's Windows Phone response took three and a half years to arrive. Microsoft also didn't anticipate the Ultrabook, which Apple launched as the second-generation MacBook Air in 2010. (Intel announced the Ultrabook spec in 2011, but MacBook Airs have consistently outpaced Windows PC battery life since their inception, despite running on nearly identical hardware.) And Microsoft of course didn't see the rise in what I now call full-sized tablets—what some analysts called "media tablets"—with the release of the iPad in early 2010. Windows 8, Surface, and the first new iPad-like Windows tablets arrived in late 2012.

If there's a positive to this pattern, it's that Microsoft has often (but not always; Zune comes to mind) succeeded by being late to market in the past.

Microsoft provided XP for netbooks until the thin and light Windows 7 was finally ready, casting Linux back to the fringe where it rightfully belongs. Windows Phone might have been late to market, but its innovative design has influenced both Android and iOS strongly—most obviously in the design copycat iOS 7—and sales have risen steadily, quarter by quarter, with Windows Phone surpassing BlackBerry as the third mobile ecosystem in the world; it's number two ahead of iPhone in some key markets, too.

Apple's MacBook Air continues to sell well, and the device is consistently a best-seller. But it hasn't helped Apple achieve meaningful marketshare gains, even in the worst year in PC sales history: In the most recent quarter, the Mac accounted for just 5.7 percent of all PC sales. And Microsoft and its partners have established Ultrabooks as the PC computing standard, with touch capabilities going mainstream as we head into 2014. On the tablet front, of course, Windows 8.1 (and Windows RT 8.1) significantly improves the Windows story on tablets in general, and Microsoft's contention that its Surface devices are the "most productive" tablets—because of Office, of course, but also because they are PCs—is solid.

And then there are those pesky mini-tablets.

Will 2013 Be the Year of the Windows Mini-Tablet?

Microsoft altered its Windows licensing this year to accommodate smaller-screen devices. The company planned to ship a Surface mini—running on CHardware, no less, thus running Windows RT 8.1—in time for the holidays, but decided at the last minute to hold off until the first half of 2014. (The reasons for this are in flux, but are thought to be related to the merging of Windows RT and Windows Phone. In addition, handset makers can now offer market-blurring Windows Phone-based "phablets" with screens of up to 6 inches in size.)

Understanding that it was already behind and that Windows 8.1 was still months away at the time, Microsoft in mid-2013 allowed one PC maker, Acer, to ship a Windows mini-tablet ahead of the Windows 8.1 launch. This device, the Acer Iconia W3, is lackluster for many reasons, and it launched with yesterday's Windows 8 running on yesterday's Intel Atom "Clover Trail" processor. But it was mostly inhibited by its terrible screen, which Acer plans to fix in an update dubbed the W4 that is shipping this fall.

Acer Iconia

The Acer Iconia W4 seeks to fix some of the shortcomings of the W3

But even in this initial, less-than-ideal form, the W3 made clear that a Windows mini-tablet could work. As I noted in my Acer Iconia W3 review from July, the device delivers excellent battery life, reasonable performance, and proof that a small screen can work with Windows—meaning, mostly the touch-first "Metro" environment, and not so much the desktop, although compatibility with desktop applications will of course help some people make this transition more easily. It was sunk by its terrible screen and slightly thick and heavy form factor, but otherwise the W3 could have been a reasonable PC companion or travel device.

Well, that and the Windows 8 ecosystem. One of the issues with such a device is that you must largely rely on the apps and services that are offered in Metro. And when you compare those with what's available on Android or iOS/iPad, Windows does of course come up short.

The New Breed

Heading into late 2013, a number of things have changed. Windows 8 has been replaced by Windows 8.1, which offers numerous enhancements over its predecessor, but most especially—for mini-tablets—a new formal support for the portrait mode orientation that will be both common and the default on such devices. Intel's lowly "Clover Trail" processor has been replaced by a new Atom that's so much more powerful that it should have been rebranded. The new Windows mini-tablets all run on the Atom "Bay Trail" processor.

And yes, I wrote "tablets" there. By the end of the year, you'll have several Windows mini-tablets to choose from, including the Acer Iconia W4, Dell Venue 8 Pro, Lenovo Miix 2, and Toshiba Encore. And each of these, nearly identical, provides further reassurance that a Windows mini-tablet doesn't just make sense but can offer important benefits over the Android and iPad competition.

Lenovo Miix 2

Lenovo Miix 2

Windows 8.1, for example, means that users can more easily transition to this device because their existing Windows desktop applications and hardware devices still work. Few people would be interested in running "big" desktop applications such as Photoshop or Visual Studio on such a device, of course, but the ability to at least run something like iTunes, Windows Photo Gallery, or Google Chrome—none of which work on Windows RT—will mean the difference between "yes" and "no" for many users.

Windows mini-tablets, like those based on Windows RT, come with a free copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013, which is a tremendous value. This suite includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote (but not Outlook, which is part of the RT version), and although the 8-inch screens on these devices are likewise not ideal for long hours of work, they're at least available for those who need them. (Microsoft also offers excellent, and free, "Metro" versions of OneNote, Lync, SkyDrive Pro, and other apps.)

Each of these devices offers very similar hardware components, including an 8-inch screen running at a lowly resolution of just 1280 x 800—the Google Nexus 7 offers a superior 1080p screen, whereas the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX goes even higher at 1920 x 1200. But the quality of these screens is generally excellent, and available IPS technology goes a long way toward helping mask the relatively low resolution. Each runs on a Bay Trail processor, as noted, with 2GB of RAM, which is solid for such devices. You'll generally—but not always—find micro-SD expansion, micro-HDMI for video-out, USB-based charging, but not full-sized USB ports for connecting devices.

Toshiba Encore

Toshiba Encore

Important for this type of device, most Windows mini-tablets deliver 7 to 10 hours of real-world battery life. This is comparable with what we see in the competition, including the iPad mini with Retina Display, which reportedly achieves up to 10 hours of battery life. (This device doesn't ship until late November.) They are generally very thin and very light, and they're comparable to the competition.

These devices are also real, albeit tiny, PCs. This means you can, if needed, attached a standard Bluetooth-based PC keyboard and get to work. (Assuming your eyes can handle it.) You can connect them to larger screens, although the limited USB expandability will generally short-circuit attempts at turning any of the current devices into miniscule mobile workstations.

Not Perfect

Highly portable, familiar, and ostensibly productive, the new breed of Windows mini-tablets does, however, fall short in a few key areas.

The first and most obvious is the Windows "Metro" ecosystem, which continues to lag behind the app and services offerings on Android and iPad by a wide margin. Compatibility with desktop applications, as noted, somewhat mitigates this, but only somewhat: Using the desktop on such a device is often painful. And even when the correct apps are present, they're often less full-featured than their Android and iPad relations. The Kindle app from Amazon is a great example. The Metro version is decidedly lacking.

Second, PC makers are missing a golden opportunity to take advantage of a decade's worth of improvements to the tablet PC handwriting and handwriting-recognition capabilities. Instead of shipping with support for an electromagnetic stylus, each of these devices supports only a lackluster capacitive stylus, which is no better than touch, and doesn't offer any handwriting capabilities. Those who would love to use a mini-tablet as the ultimate mobile note-taker are out of luck.

What's the Value Proposition Here?

Although I haven't tested most of these devices yet—I do have a Dell Venue 8 Pro in for long-term eval, and I hope to see the Lenovo Miix 2 soon, in addition to the previous-generation Acer W3—it's pretty clear that such a device has its place. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine Windows mini-tablets taking off in their respective market, just as they did previously with Android and iPad.

Dell Venue 8 Pro

Dell Venue 8 Pro

The key strength here, ultimately, is versatility. For many users, a mini-tablet represents an ideal compromise of size, weight, and portability. You can carry it with you easily and yet get real work done—email, web browsing, social networking, word processing, and other content editing—when needed. Although some people will always need bigger and more powerful devices, the majority of users can likely get by just fine with something much smaller and lighter.

It's also notable, perhaps, that none of the initial Windows mini-tablets are using Windows RT. This suggests to me that the current generation of devices is transitionary, much like Microsoft using XP on early netbooks, because the Windows RT (purely "Metro") ecosystem simply isn't ready yet. That could and should change by this time next year, thanks in part to the release of the Metro-based Office "Touch" next year.

But that's next year. If you've been waiting for a Windows mini-tablet, you suddenly have some very interesting choices. Whether the performance, portability, battery life gains, and desktop compatibility of these devices make up for the Metro ecosystem challenges is, of course, a matter of opinion. But this first real generation of mini-tablets is already an excellent step forward for the platform.

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