Is the era of Windows tablets over?

Once upon a time, tablets were large, clunky devices that weighed a ton, had fans cooling them, ran out of battery after a few hours of use and ran Windows. You used a stylus to navigate, constantly fought software that was made for a mouse and pretty much had to be a millionaire to afford one. These days everyone, their grandparents, toddlers and cats have iPads, Kindles or similar devices and it seems that the age of $1500 Windows tablets and $1000 Windows UMPCs is over.

Being the proud owner of a Windows 7 based Viliv S5, I’m the first to point out the advantages of a Windows based tablets. At this point I don’t think you can claim to have more (common) software, but the software you have is more powerful. As much as Photogene on the iPad has served me well for resizing and cropping pics, it’s not Photoshop- and neither is Photoshop Express on iOS, for that matter. A Windows tablet is also completely self sustained, being able to get any sort of content on its own and handle all aspects of backing up and restoring the device without a host computer. Even the rather weakly Poulsbo-based Viliv S5 can do non-optimized HD video easily, which the iPad can’t though most other tablets can.

However, the list of advantages seems small compared to the disadvantages. Price is one, as the same money that buys you a top-of-the-line Android tablet will only get you a netbook-spec’d Windows tablet. A portable OS is a lot less resource heavy, but Windows still needs all the bells and whistles to even get up in the morning. Even ignoring the fact that the ARM (or Apple A4) based all-in-one chips can’t be compared directly to normal PC components, you still need to at the very least quadruple the clockspeed and RAM amount of current “portablets” to get something that can run Windows at a speed that doesn’t make you think you didn’t press the screen hard enough as you’re waiting for the browser to start up. The same goes for screen resolution, as even though 1024×600 looks absolutely amazing on the 4.8″ Viliv S5 and even works decently on 9-10″ netbooks, that doesn’t change the fact that some Windows software simply refuses to run at that resolution and others won’t display properly, with half the window being below the actual screen real-estate and impossible to access. While I personally think 1024×600 is a dumb resolution to put on a “portablet” as well- since you can’t read A4-formatted documents on that resolution- at least it doesn’t stop software from working properly. In fact, 1024×600 is such an high resolution that it’s more than what most current Android-software is made for, which is why Android 3.0 is such a big deal with introducing true tablet support.

All this beefed up hardware also comes at a cost, both in terms of monetary cost, power consumption, heat generation and physical size. The Viliv S5 and a couple of similarly sized Windows UMPCs are incredibly small for something that runs Windows, yet volume-wise they’re clunky pieces of design-fail compared to “portablets”. They also get very hot because there’s no room for a fan- something that would normally kill a Windows PC, but in this case the slow, low power Atom CPU makes it possible. “Portablets” on the other hand, can stay perfectly cool without a fan. Heat doesn’t just appear out of nowhere though, and is a bi-product of hardware that consumes more power. That means shorter battery life, and even though power optimization has come a long way since the first netbook was released no one can compensate for the higher performance, more power consuming hardware that’s needed in a “real PC” without strapping the battery-equivalent of a nuclear power plant on the back of the device. I have one of the most power-friendly ultraportable laptops on the market, a non-netbook spec’d 13″ one that can actually run for 10-12 hours if you turn on power save mode and turn down the brightness. To be able to do that, it has a 80Wh battery on the back. In comparison, the iPad can run for 10-12 hours without really paying much attention to what you do or at what brightness level you do it, and it only has a 25Wh battery.

The final nail in the coffin for Windows however is software. Ironic, as it’s one of the things I pointed out as being an advantage of Windows. While the software is often more powerful, it’s not made for touchscreens. Most Windows tablets still have resistive touchscreen, simply because icons, buttons, menus and all that stuff is too small to work well with capacitive touchscreens- and resisitve touchscreens don’t work well without a stylus, so there goes finger control altogether. Even with a good resistive touchscreen, you’re still left to hunt-and-peck your way through everything you don’t need to get to the things you do need, such as the browser. Even with touchscreen optimizing plugins, the browser experience in tablet mode on a Windows tablet is not optimal. On-screen keyboards are not very easy to use on a resistive touchscreen, and if you have one of the infamous 1024×600 screens on your tablet you’ll quickly notice that the Windows task bar, window bar and all the tool bars take up more of the screen real estate than what seems reasonable. In the end, Windows is made for using with a mouse and keyboard, and that comes back to haunt it with everything you try to do on a Windows tablet. Lack of touchscreen optimization- or bad attempts at forcing touchscreen optimization on top of the existing OS- is what killed Windows Mobile and Symbian (though Nokia doesn’t seem to have noticed) and it’s what is going to kill Windows tablets as well.

In the end it all comes down to what you want to use your tablet for. Since many of the expensive, full-sized Windows tablets are convertible laptops, you really have a laptop with an extra trick rather than a useless wannabe, but you’re still not getting the best of both worlds as much as you’re getting a mixture of them. That’s why many people choose to have a laptop and a “portablet” rather than a convertible laptop, especially because you pay quite a hefty premium to get the convertible feature on a normal laptop. Maybe Windows 8 will bridge the gap between the desktop OSes and portable OSes by redefining the way a desktop OS works, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.