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Does a Windows Tablet for Business HAVE to Be Expensive?

All this week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is underway in Las Vegas, so it’s “prime time” for all the PC companies to make product announcements — especially those that target US markets and buyers. In the past few months a number of business oriented Windows 8.1 tablets have made their debut, and more are popping up every day in Las Vegas right now. What I find interesting is that tablets that specifically target business users often tend to cost more than those aimed at consumers, even though their innards may not differ much (or at all) from consumer oriented makes and models.

When a business unit does come along, it can bring more and more advanced features to such products, and those do justify some added expense. Thus, it’s not unusual to hear about support for Smart Cards, fingerprint scanners, improved durability features (heavier chassis, stronger materials, adherence to MIL-STD-810G specifications for drops, vibration, humidity, and outsized temperature ranges at both hot and cold ends of the spectrum), better manageability (vPro, Intel’s AMT), and so forth.

The FZ-M1 is an incredible workhorse of a small Windows 8.1 tablet, but the price is nothing short of staggering.

Here’s the rub: some of these business oriented models cost a small fortune. Panasonic has just introduced a 7″ Touchpad FZ-M1 ruggedized Windows 8.1 tablet, for example. It is designed to cope with modest abuse, water, and harsher-than-normal working environments, while delivering a classic “thin and light” Windows 8.1 tablet experience. It’s fanless, and includes a Haswell i5 or Celeron ULV mobile processor, offers 1280×800 resolution, supports a 128 or 256 GB SSD, with 8 GB RAM for the i5 model (and probably 4GB for the down-market Celeron model). This unit also includes 4G LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11 abgn-ac networking, with a USB 3.0 port, a microSDXC card slot, and a docking connector. Add-on options available include docking station, GPS, barcode scanner, RJ-45 Ethernet and serial ports, plus NFC, RFID or a magnetic stripe readers. It weighs 1.2 pounds (540g) and measures 0.7″ (1.8 cm) thick. Battery life is rated at 8 hours, and the battery is replaceable, so that field use may be further extended by swapping in a spare, fully-charged battery. The unit also boasts a 3-year warranty, unusual in today’s PC marketplace. But ouch, this puppy costs some serious scratch: with the i5 CPU and a 128GB SSD, sans any of the many add-ons available, pricing starts at $2,099. I’m guessing that fully tricked-out version could easily cost between $2,500 and 3,000.

Another case in point is the fascinating and feature-laden Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 I blogged about last week (“Fujitsu Makes Bold-Entry into High-end...”) Though its screen is bigger (12.5″) with full HD (1920×1080) resolution, and it offers an i7 CPU option as well — so you get more for the money — it, too, starts at around $1,500. The unit I configured for myself with i7, keyboard cover with extra battery, GPS, NFC, 8 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD came in at just under $3,000 with a $75 discount coupon to help ease the pain ever so slightly.

Problems with business uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1 aside for the moment, it’s also clear that cost is another potential hurdle which business buyers must overcome to get onto the Windows 8.* tablet bandwagon. My fundamental question is “Does it really have to be this way, or is it just a case of determining by iteration just what the traffic will bear?” So far, it looks like OEMs are starting high, and seek to be forcibly ratcheted downward, which may be a good strategy to protect them from financial exposure, but appears at least in part responsible for lukewarm market reception and uptake as well.

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