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Better Windows 8.1 Tablet Options for Business Use

In my last blog post, I lamented the high costs that come with some special-purpose (ruggedized) or high-function Windows 8.1 tablets. In this post, I take a look at what’s available on the other end of the market, both in terms of price and functionality, to explore other, more affordable options for business use. To begin this conversation, I have to observe that Intel’s new quad-core Bay Trail Atom CPU is a real game changer for this market segment. Why do I say this? Because the chip finally offers enough power (and enough simultaneous threads of execution) to cope with modern Windows in a usable and not-too-frustrating way.

Next, I’ll digress by way of historical comparison and contrast: I bought an Atom-based Asus EEE PC a few years back when the netbook fad struck the market. It was a cute little machine and worked sorta kinda OK. But ultimately, it was just too slow and underpowered for me to enjoy working on it, no matter how much I appreciated its excellent battery life, small form factor, and supreme portability. Surfing the Web was an endurance test, typing text would sometimes involve enough lag between striking the key and seeing it appear in a text window that I might lose track of my thoughts, and even navigating the file system on Windows 7 involved more patience that I really had to bring to such a no-brainer mundane task. Suffice it to say I did everything I could to speed up the EEE, including a 128 GB SSD and doubling up from 1 to 2 GB of RAM, all to no real avail. Thereupon, I gave up on netbooks with this personal summation: “Nice. Cute. Too slow. Not for me.”

Since then, I’ve been waiting for Moore’s Law and the inexorable march of technology to produce a netbook like form factor with all-day battery life, enough computing horsepower to get the job done, and enough pixels on a small(ish) screen to make looking at the UI tolerable. Touch isn’t a bad thing, either, and on a small tablet (I’ve learned to love my iPad 2, while living within its sometimes restrictive limitations) it’s reallyi quite handy. So for me — and I suspect for a great many other PC-savvy business users — I’ve been waiting for a small, light, portable PC that’s powerful enough to let me surf the Web, read and write e-mail, work in MS Office, and run the various applications and apps I use to get my job done, with enough battery power to make it for 8 hours or longer.

Until quite recently, I’ve been waiting in vain. MS came close with the Surface Pro 2, but it’s still a little too heavy, battery life a little too short, and the price tag a little too high. But in the last quarter, I’ve seen a whole slew of smaller form-factor tablets (7 and 8 inch mostly, but even some 10 inchers) that use Intel’s new Bay Trail Atom with 4 GB of RAM, a 32 to 128 GB SSD, Intel GT2 graphics, and sufficient battery capacity to keep them going 8 hours or longer when running a light or mixed workload that matches most workday use. They might not make 8 hours playing games or watching videos/movies, but many of them also offer accessible and removable batteries, so that users can swap a depleted one with a charged-up replacement and keep on going even when the first battery runs out. All I can say is “Way cool!” I plan to add several to my gadget collection, and see how they hold up in everyday use.

Of the current crop available — and there are possibly as many as a dozen already in the marketplace — these five have captured my particular attention:

1. Dell Venue 8 Pro ($299-349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740D CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, no card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available)
2. Lenovo ThinkPad 8 ($399 and up) [8.3″ display at 1980×1200, Z3770  CPU, 4 GB RAM, 64 or 128 GB SSD, micro SDXC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
3. Asus VivoTab Note 8 ($299 – 349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, micro SDHC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
4. Toshiba Satellite Encore ($329 and up) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microSDHC card reader, no info on dock or cover/keyboard available]
5. Acer Iconia W4 ($330 – 380) [8.o” at 1280×800, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microHDMI and microUSB ports, microSDHC card reader, cover and keyboard available, no info on dock]

Based on such reviews as are available and comparing the specs, the Lenovo stands out for its higher-res display, and bigger storage options. The Dell also gets great reviews, but is a little lacking on expansion options (no microSD card reader is kind of a drag, nor any video out either, except for wireless Miracast). The Acer gets dinged for sub-par construction and a less-than-bright display, and I don’t know much about the Toshiba or Asus units just yet. Stay tuned, as I keep digging further. There’s still time for some new entrants to pop up as well, as CES comes to a close today (or this weekend).

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I have Windows 8.1 on the Acer Iconia W500 (which came with Win7). It's not bad except for the docking hinge that has been completely redesigned on the W7. I would definitely consider it. // Would love to see a chart comparing features you consider important differences among these. (I'm too lazy to do it myself.)

Thanks for the feedback, Mark. I probably should go ahead and throw a features comparison table together. It will require a wait, though -- I'm guessing about a month should do it -- because a couple of the units haven't been fully documented yet, nor received many reviews (Satellite Encore and Lenovo ThinkPad 8). Once more info is available, I'll put a big product matrix together. Thanks for the suggestion!