Windows 8 Tablet: Hands On

The Samsung Series 700 tablet will be coming soon, and when it does, it will have Windows 7 on-board. But Samsung likes to get products into developers' hands, as evidenced by its Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Chromebook giveaways to attendees at Google's I/O developers conference.

Microsoft's new flagship gets no less royal of a treatment, with each of the 5,000 attendees of Microsoft's BUILD conference getting a 700T Windows Developer Preview tablet PC and Bluetooth keyboard combo. Unlike the Galaxy Tab and Chromebook, though, this special version is by no means representative of a shipping product—Windows 8 is in way too early a stage for that.

Samsung's 7 Series slate with Bluetooth keyboard and stand.

Rather than attempt to outright review this mythical piece of hardware, I'm going to instead identify five things each that I like and don't like about it, as configured with the developers' preview of Windows 8. The bottom line is that the future of Windows on a tablet is looking up, with the coming of Windows 8, but Microsoft and hardware manufacturers will both have their work cut out for them to make Windows 8 appeal to consumers ready to open their wallet for an iPad.

The Pros

See our full Windows 8 coverage
Interoperability. It's a word I've used a lot lately. What I like about Windows on a tablet is the ability to plug in a hard drive or flash drive into the USB port, and then access data as if it were your PC. Yes, a few Android tablets offer this capability (Toshiba Thrive, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet), but after a nasty experience with Android 2.x corrupting an SD Card on a Dell Streak 7, I tend to approach plugging into an Android tablet with no small measure of hesitation. The file system approach is different on Android, but Windows is, well, Windows.

Sadly, the plug-and-use experience is more than a bit raw on the 700T's current version of Windows 8. Plug in, and you have to manually hop over to the old-style desktop view in order to do anything with it; I look forward to seeing how file browsing and transfers are handled in the new Metro interface in Windows 8. That said, file transfers from USB seemed speedy in my observations, and images looked great on the 11.6-inch, 1366 by 768-pixel display.

Image and text rendering. Microsoft has had a ton of experience here. And after seeing the same images, Web pages, and text on the the hardware-accelerated 700T with Windows 8 compared to the Apple iPad 2 (iOS) and Galaxy Tab 10.1 (Android 3.1), I have to say that, for the most part, I found the text rendering on Windows 8 to be better; I could still see the pixels, but it wasn't as bad as on iPad 2 (atrocious by comparison), or Galaxy Tab (annoying).

Images looked great, too--sharp and with good color balance. Photos on the Galaxy Tab looked slightly sharper, but as always, oversaturated to a fault. The iPad made images look comparatively soft, but it had similarly good--though not identical--color reproduction.

Things changed when I switched to the Web browser view, though. In the browser, the renderings of the Google home page and Google News home page were surprising different between the tablets. While the pages as displayed on Windows 8 were closer to what I'm used to on my PC, the Android browser also did a fine job rendering and presenting the images and text.

That said, it was almost hard to believe that I was looking at the same Web pages. Clearly, rendering remains a black art; I'll be interested to see how Microsoft tweaks its rendering engines as we go forward.

Ports on the side of the 7 Series slate.

Size. The 700T is the first tablet I've tried with an 11.6-inch display, and it certainly felt roomy and appealing for reading and viewing content. There's a dark flip side to this positive, though…

Interface. Score one here for Windows 8. The modernized Metro style interface present in the Developers' Preview felt well designed and was intuitive to use. Even the handwriting recognition, which took about two steps more to reach than I would have liked, worked well with my chicken-scrawl penmanship.

I liked various aspects of the interface, design--the active tiles that display live information and continue to evolve on the home screen, the five navigation "charms" that pop out of the right side, the "sliding" multitasking, the wholly redesigned Internet Explorer 10 (with the URL bar at the bottom, far more efficient than up top), and the touch keyboard design (a numeric keypad!).

But this implementation felt incomplete, with lots of dead ends. Many features weren't yet fully implemented: the Metro-style file browser, picture gallery, e-mail, contacts, calendar, and music player weren't anywhere to be found; and basics like cut-and-paste weren't even in place yet. Still, the hints of the future were there, and I liked what I saw.

Performance. Microsoft touts Windows 8's fast boot times, and the 700T's startup time, while not quite as impressive as in the Windows 8 demos, was certainly fast. I was more impressed with the responsiveness of, well, everything.

The touchscreen responded well to my touch-typist typing, swiping between open apps was speedy, and when I did a file search for images I loaded to the tablet, the results could scroll by and redraw faster than I could process them. This Developer Preview PC from Samsung came loaded with Intel's second-generation Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 64GB solid-state drive--it's clearly beefier than typical Android Honeycomb tablets, which have 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processors, 1GB of memory, and between 8GB and 32GB of flash memory (which is not necessarily managed as a true SSD).

The Cons

Design and Interface. I'm surprised by the oversights here. Samsung usually gets the design details down, but some elements of the 700T's hardware are still rough. It has a USB port cover that's useless, buttons that are inset just by that extra millimeter or two that makes them hard to press, and a microSD card slot that has no real protection. And Windows 8 itself still needs work: Microsoft needs to make the transition between the modern, immersive Metro app experience to the Windows desktop a smoother one; as it stands today, the two worlds feel very separate and mashed together--and not in a good way.

Size and weight. At two pounds, this is the heaviest of the tablets we've seen, albeit one that has a solid-feeling build quality (no flexing plastic, for example). That 11.6-inch display adds to the heft, and to the sense that this is too heavy to hold in one hand for any length of time. But it sure looks purty...everything is a trade-off.

Noise. You know how your laptop fan kicks in, and just spins and spins and spins? Yup, that's what the 700T did with Windows 8. Let's cut some slack--this is nowhere near final--but it does bring up the valid question of, will anyone want a tablet that makes a racket? The fan rarely shut off while I used the tablet in my hands-on, and the constant whirring noise was an unwanted distraction compared with the blissful silence of the iPad 2 or Galaxy Tab 10.1. It's the price of having beefier components inside that need to be cooled...Speaking of which...

Heat. Even though the fan engaged often (and loudly), the 700T got super toasty. Sure, it needs to cool that hot Intel Core i5 CPU inside, but the heat, coupled with the fan noise--and the next point, battery life--are tradeoffs that many consumers won't want to make on their tablets. The display emanated heat, and the back was warm to the touch, in spite of the generously sized air vents at back. It wasn't hot enough to cook my breakfast scrapple on, but it sure was too hot for its--and my--own good.

Battery life. The battery life on this preview unit was abysmal. Windows' desktop interface reported about 2.5 to 3 hours of battery life, and it drained down fairly quickly in use. (The Metro style interface shows a battery gauge icon, but it doesn't let you see the percentage remaining at this time. Presumably, Microsoft will fix this oversight.)

While Windows 8 has a lot of work to do in power management, so too does Intel. Hopefully, we'll hear more news about forthcoming low-power chips from Intel's Developers Forum this week, and Intel will be able to ramp up its game to make fast, computer-like tablets like the 700T viable when Windows 8 is ready to launch. And of course, the past three complaints may be solved outright by the use of ARM chips inside a Windows 8 tablet. But as it stands today in the Samsung 700T preview unit, Windows 8 is a severe disappointment compared with the quiet, 10 hours (roughly) you can get with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or an Apple iPad 2.

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