8-inch Windows tablets: The new budget king?

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October 3, 2014

Can tablets become more popular than laptops?

Over the past three years, Microsoft has set its focus squarely on touchscreen devices, at the risk of alienating some of its traditional customer base. The result? A user interface that is pretty well thought out for tablets and other touchscreen devices.

At the beginning, Windows 8 had some arbitrary limits prohibiting small-sized tablets from being released, but when Microsoft removed that restriction with Windows 8.1, 8-inch Windows tablets suddenly flourished. And with Microsoft making Windows 8.1 free for manufacturers to use on smaller-screen devices a few months ago, there’s plenty of diversity in this class, from unbranded tablets to tablets from well-known makers such as Lenovo, HP and ASUS. Since these little things run a full-fledged version of Windows and are priced way below normal laptops, can they now take the place of a traditional laptop and reign as the new budget king?

To answer this, let us first take a look at the options out there today.

8-inch they may be, but equal they are not

At their inception, many of these 8-inch tablets had similar specifications. 2GB of RAM came standard, as did 32GB or 64GB of flash storage space. The displays on these little things had a universal resolution of 1280×800, something that Microsoft did not allow previously. The only difference would lie in the processor: the very first 8-inch tablets came with a second-generation Intel Atom, whereas the newer ones come equipped with a much faster third-generation Intel Atom, usually a Z3740 or a Z3735D (there’s almost no difference between these two models).

Slowly, differences came creeping in. Some of these tablets attempted to differentiate themselves through the inclusion of a stylus pen. The wildly popular Dell Venue 8 Pro allows you to use an optional Synaptics stylus, though there were much complaints about its accuracy. The ASUS VivoTab Note 8, which I’ve been using for the past six weeks, comes inclusive of a Wacom Stylus pen. It’s said to be the only choice for proper note taking and drawing, though early units were plagued with an issue whereby the digitiser would fail after a few weeks (thank goodness for warranty). Some like the Acer Iconia W4 and the Toshiba Encore supports HDMI so you can easily hook it up to another display.

As Microsoft made Windows free, manufacturers became more daring in an attempt to reach the budget crowd. 2GB RAM was now seen as a luxury. Slash it to 1GB instead. 32GB of storage space? Perhaps a little too extravagant since we support microSD cards and a new compression technique allows a full Windows installation to fit in at just under 4GB (though with a little performance penalty). The result? You can now own an 8-inch Windows tablet for as low as US$81, if you don’t mind an unknown Chinese brand.

On the branded side, HP recently announced the Stream 7 and Stream 8 tablets, which are 7-inch and 8-inch tablets starting at US$100 and US$150 respectively. They also come with a more typical 1366×768 16:9 display and a year’s subscription to Office 365. Honestly, I think Microsoft just killed the market for cheap Android tablets.

Are they even useful?

Eight inches is a little small by Windows standards, but thanks to the Modern user interface introduced in Windows 8, it’s quite workable especially if you stick to Modern UI applications. The gestures takes a little while to get used to at first, but it soon feels like second nature and something you can’t live without.

You can run desktop applications, though icons may be a little hard to tap most of the time. The on-screen keyboard works well and blends in rather well with an environment, though annoyingly they seem to pop up even when a Bluetooth keyboard is plugged in. Text is pretty small, though you can adjust the text size in Windows at the expense of precious screen estate. Thus, these tablets work best when they’re rather close to your eyes.

Now, what seals the deal is that most of these tablets come equipped with either a free copy of Office Home and Student 2013, or a year’s subscription to Office 365. The former is clearly a better option (since it’s lifetime), but Microsoft seems to have moved towards the subsription business model as of late, which is understandable since they need to recoup their lost income (from making Windows free) somehow or another. This makes such tablets a productivity powerhouse.

Having used an 8-inch tablet myself, I find them really useful on-the-go. When you’re standing on a crowded train or bus, you can’t possibly whip out and use your notebook, at least not comfortably. The tablet just feels natural in such a scenario. You could, say, type portions of this article while on the long journey home.

Through the use of emulators like BlueStacks, you can also run Android applications to gain you access to a wide catalog of mobile applications and games. A word of caution, though: at the present moment, performance is pretty lacklustre.

How can they replace laptops?

The distinguishing feature of a laptop is the presence of a keyboard and pointing device. By plugging in a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse into your 8-inch tablet, you have just replicated that experience at a much cheaper price. It’s much more portable to carry around, too.

A case in point: I enjoy writing articles or making notes outside. To do so, I used to bring my heavy laptop around, something I dreaded. Now, I can do pretty much the same things, but it’s much more convenient, and as an added plus, battery life is longer. Even if you run out of power, you can always make use of a USB power bank, something that’s difficult to do on a laptop. A tip for mobile warriors: OneNote is really, really useful.

There are, of course, a few tradeoffs to be made.

For one, at least in current devices, there’s only one USB port (of the micro variant), so you can’t charge the tablet and use a USB device (say, a mouse) at the same time. Thus, a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combination (which doesn’t use the USB port) is essential for extended use.

Next, the screen is really small. With laptops, we’re used to having the screen a distance away from our eyes. With a tablet, you have to bring it much closer.

Lastly, it’s hard to match the speed of a laptop. I’m not sure if it’s the result of the processor, RAM size, or both, but things such as surfing Facebook on Mozilla Firefox (strangely, it works pretty well on Internet Explorer and Chrome) is a little sluggish, and sometimes when you type (whether in the browser or in other applications like Microsoft Word), there’s a split second, but noticeable, delay from the point you depress the key and when it appears on the screen. Mine is equipped with 2GB of RAM, so the experience on newer devices with 1GB of RAM could be sub-optimal.

Do note that current 8-inch tablets run only the 32-bit version of Windows, so you have to look elsewhere if the applications you intend to use on it do not come in 32-bit variants.

So… are they the new budget king?

The old budget kings used to be bulky, low-end laptops and the petite netbook. Now, the 8-inch tablet steps in to bring at least netbook-class performance, at a much lower price. Though it probably won’t work well as your only computer, it can definitely take the place of your computer, perhaps even for weeks at a time, when you need to be mobile. Never have we been able to do so much on-the-move at such a low price. And for that, they deserve to be crowned the new budget king.

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