Transform a Windows tablet into a full-fledged Windows PC

pw primary workstation 2
Image: Michael Homnick

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Microsoft and its PC partners are producing a seemingly endless variety of tablets, from 8-inch slates that can practically fit into a (large) pocket to 10-inch tablets that still aren’t quite ideal for long hours at a desk. They won’t hesitate to tell you these devices are full PCs running full versions of Windows 8.1. Many Windows tablets even come with a free copy of Microsoft Office!

In fact, today's Windows tablets offer such solid productivity chops that they can easily become the heart of a potent sit-down workstation with the help of a few peripherals and some smart software choices and tweaks. Even better, you can take that productive heart with you when you have to leave your desk.

Here's how to transform a Windows tablet into a full-fledged Windows PC.

A quick note on performance

It's important to temper your expectations before we dive in.

Sure, tablets can’t substitute for full-fledged gaming PCs and don’t have the power for demanding workloads like video editing, but so much of what we do with PCs can be done with cheap, power-efficient hardware.

While Microsoft's own Surface Pro 2 packs an Ultrabook-class Core i5 processor, and the Dell Venue 11 offers Core i3 and Core i5 options, most Windows laptops run on Intel's tablet-class "Bay Trail Atom" processors. Bay Trail processors provide solid performance in day-to-day computing tasks like web browsing, checking your email, watching high-definition videos, and Office-type productivity tasks.

surface 2 as pc Hal Berenson

Hal Berenson, technology consultant and President of True Mountain Group, uses his Surface Pro 2 to power a PC workstation, augmented by an Acer touchscreen laptop and a Microsoft-made keyboard and mouse.

The missing piece of the tablet-as-PC puzzle is a larger display with dedicated input devices—and it’s here that Windows tablets can shine over Android tablets and iPads, offering the full-PC power so many of us can’t live without.

Video-out options

You’ll really want a tablet with some sort of video-out port if you want it to double as a PC. Some of the cheaper Windows tablets out there don’t offer video-out ports at all, leaving you to fend with inferior wireless solutions. You’ll find different types of ports on different tablets. For example, the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 offers a micro-HDMI port, while Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 offers a Mini DisplayPort instead. You’ll need a micro-HDMI-to-full-HDMI adapter or a Mini-DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, which will allow you to connect your tablet to a standard computer monitor or TV.

Some cheaper tablets don’t have any video-out ports. You’ll want to avoid these if possible, because you’ll have to use the Miracast wireless display technology built into Windows 8.1 with them them. Miracast theoretically lets you wirelessly stream your tablet’s display to a nearby monitor. However, Miracast often doesn’t work very well, and devices that are certified as compatible may not actually be compatible. If you want to try Miracast, you’ll probably need to pick up a wireless Miracast adapter for your display, too.

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To find Windows 8.1's Miracast wireless screen projecting capabilities, open the Charms bar and head to Devices > Project

Some Android phones offer Mobile-High-Definition-Link (MHL) support, which allows you use a Micro-USB-to-HDMI adapter. This would mean a Windows 8.1 tablet with a standard Micro-USB port could output to HDMI with the proper adapter, if the display also supported MHL. However, we’re not aware of any Windows 8.1 tablets actually implementing this feature yet.

Check your tablet’s specifications to see what it supports and pick up the appropriate adapter. If you're shopping for a tablet you want to also use as a desktop PC, be sure to get one with a video-out port so you're not stuck fiddling with Miracast.

USB keyboards, mice, storage devices, and printers

Input will be easier to handle. Practically every Windows 8.1 tablet should support Bluetooth, so you can easily use Bluetooth mice and keyboards without worrying about ports.

However, there’s a good chance you'll want to use standard wired keyboard and mice, or wireless keyboards and mice with a receiver that plugs in via USB. In this case, you’ll just need to plug your USB mouse and keyboard into your tablet’s USB port.

Yes, sometimes this is easier said than done! Some tablets will have only a micro-USB port, for example. You’ll need a micro-USB-to-full-size-USB adapter to connect your USB devices to such tablets.

A powered USB hub like this 7-port Anker model makes it much easier to use a Windows tablet as a Windows PC.

Other tablets will offer a full-size USB port, but only a single one. You can get around this limitation by purchasing a USB hub. You’ll probably want an external USB hub with a power cable of its own that connects to a wall outlet. Your tablet will only provide so much power through its single USB port, and it may not be enough to power a mouse, keyboard, and all the storage devices you may want to connect.

Printers can be connected directly with USB, too. Plug that printer into the USB hub—or directly into the tablet—and you’ll be able to print.

choose printer pc

You can connect a wide variety of peripherals to your tablet PC with via USB. For example, you could read and burn optical discs from a tablet if you buy an external optical drive and connect it via USB. Leave your peripherals plugged into the USB hub and you’ll only have to disconnect a single USB cable from your tablet if you ever want to pick it up and walk away.

Headsets, additional storage, and docks

Windows 8.1 tablets generally have a single combined headset-and-microphone audio jack, like iPhones, other smartphones, tablets, and even Ultrabooks do nowadays. If you’re old school and have a headset with separate audio jacks for the headset and microphone, or if you have a pair of headphones and a separate mic, you can purchase an audio splitter adapter—like this one—that allows you to connect an audio-out and audio-in connector to the single audio port on a typical Windows tablet.

Tablet hard drives tend to be far skimpier than PC drives, often topping out at 32GB or 64GB. Your tablet probably has a microSD card, so you can consider using it for additional storage. Simple USB flash drives or external hard drives can also augment your tablet's storage capacity, and you can leave them plugged into your USB hub if you'd like.

dellvenue11pro 6 Image: Michael Homnick

Dell offers a docking accessory for its Venue 11 Pro that adds three USB 3.0 ports (two in the back, one in front), both HDMI and DisplayPort connectors for attaching a second (or third) display), 10/100 ethernet, and analog audio and video connectors.

Some manufacturers produce docks designed to make all this easier, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 dock or the tablet dock Dell offers for its sublime Venue 11 Pro. The dock connector on the device connects to the dock, where you can plug in your various cables. This makes it easier to remove the tablet without disconnecting multiple cables each time. You may also find third-party docks for some tablets.

External monitor setup

You can use your external monitor in several different ways. Your tablet can become one of your two displays in a dual-monitor setup, or it can simply mirror its contents to the larger display.

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Fiddling with multiple monitor options in Windows 8.1.

Adjust these settings from the display control panel. Right-click your desktop and select Screen resolution to access it and see your connected external displays. You can drag and drop them to rearrange them—for example, if the second monitor is currently located to the left of your tablet, you’ll want to drag and drop the second monitor to the left.

windows 8 taskbar options multiple displays

The "Multiple displays" section of the taskbar's properties tab lets you customize how the taskbar behaves across two or more monitors.

Windows 8 also includes better support for multiple monitors, so it can extend your taskbar across multiple displays. Right-click your desktop taskbar, select Properties, and use the options under Multiple displays to control how your taskbar behaves with more than one display.

Windows 8.1 automatically sets DPI settings appropriate to the size and density of each display you use, ensuring interface elements don’t appear tiny on high-resolution screens. It will automatically choose different DPI elements for each display. However, you can also adjust these DPI scaling settings yourself. Select the display you want to adjust in the display control panel, click Make text or other items larger or smaller, and adjust the scaling to your desired level.

Optimize that tablet for the desktop

Windows 8.1's recent update attempts to use the ideal settings for the specific device you’re using. This means booting to the desktop on desktop PCs, but it also means booting to the Start screen and using the “Store apps” by default on tablets. Luckily, you can still adjust these settings yourself.

This part is pretty quick, and is much simpler than it once was. Right-click the desktop taskbar, select Navigation, and use the options here to boot to desktop and tweak how Windows 8.1 works on your PC.

To use desktop applications as your defaults, open the Charms bar and head to Settings > Change PC Settings > Search and apps > Defaults to select your desired default applications. You'll need to download some killer desktop software first, of course.

Stardock's ModernMix software lets you run Metro apps in desktop windows when you're using your tablet as a PC, but also lets you switch apps back to full-screen mode when you're on the run.

If you like using the new Store apps on your tablet, but prefer using traditional desktop software when using your tablet as a PC, try Stardock’s $5 ModernMix. It lets you use confine those touch-first apps to traditional desktop windows when you're using your tablet as a PC, at the mere touch of the F10 button on your keyboard or menu bar introduced by the software.

Beyond MetroMix, you can also use Windows 8's built-in Snap multitasking feature to run Modern-style apps alongside the desktop, or just display Modern apps on your tiny tablet display and the desktop on your larger display. Both screens can be used at the same time in a tablet-as-PC setup, which can create some handy scenarios if, say, you want to use the touchscreen potential of the tablet itself to create diagrams, take notes, or mark up PDF files.

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