Why the Windows Tablet Concept Doesn’t Work For Me

I keep trying Windows tablets, both small and large, convertible and not, and I keep being disappointed in some way, even if, at the time, it’s hard to put my finger on why. After spending a few months trying to like yet another new Windows tablet, I’ve decided they just aren’t for me. I’m giving up on Windows tablets for now. I’m leaving that qualifier there because I am willing to admit nothing is forever, including (possibly) my intense dissatisfaction with the implementation, if not the entire concept, of a Windows-based tablet.

What a tablet is to me

So we’re all on the same page, I need to make it clear I am a fan of the tablet concept. Except I should clarify further and say I am a fan of the tablet concept done well. After nearly 4 years of regular use of one iPad after another, I have no problem saying “tablet concept done well” means “works as well as and in the way I use an iPad.” I don’t view a tablet as a primary computing device – not when i bought my first iPad and 2010, and not today after using every iPad since, as well as two Kindle Fires and six different Windows tablets. I’m OK with a tablet as companion device, which is one reason why I’m planning on buying the next version of the Retina iPad Mini when it is (I hope) announced soon.

What a tablet is not to me

A tablet is not a device on which I want to do everything all the time. I’m not typing this blog post on a tablet, although I suppose I could if I wanted to. I don’t manage my photos on a tablet. A tablet is not my daily driver or even my primary off-hours machine. I use a Dell Latitude E7440 at the office and a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro at home. I’m sure the fact that I’m OK with all of the things a tablet isn’t contributes to my dissatisfaction with Windows tablets, as one of their largest failings seems to be that they try to be all things to all people, or perhaps most things to many people.

The right tool for the job

Here’s a couple of harsh opinions.

  1. Windows’ desktop interface works just fine with a keyboard and mouse but continues to be terrible with a touch interface.
  2. While the Modern / Metro / Tile interface is actually quite good with a touch interface, the selection of apps for it, and especially apps that I want and need, is severely lacking.

You can disagree with the second a lot easier than the first. Maybe all of the apps you need are available as touch apps for Windows. Good for you! That can’t be said for most people, if for no other reason than we’re still waiting for the next version of Office to be touch-native. I’m thrilled that the iPad version of Office is out, and even moreso that it rocks, but how sad is it that I have touch-native Office on my personally-bought iPad and not on any of the Windows tablets I have access to at work?

By the way, if you disagree with the first point above, I question the amount of time you’ve spent using the actual Windows desktop UI with touch. I use it every day, on either a 23“ touch monitor or my 14” touch screen on my laptop. Is it usable? Sure. But is it a good experience for more than the occasional tap? Nope. It’s also maddening how much of Windows 8.1 still has to be taken care of inside the desktop interface. Even if I had all of my app needs covered, I’d find myself having to go to the “real” Control Panel or elsewhere within the desktop interface.

The Windows tablets I’ve tried

Here’s a rundown of most of the Windows tablets I’ve used:

  1. Dell Latitude 10. Dell’s first crack at a Windows tablet. Atom-powered, and shipped (to us anyway) with a terrible Kensington folio keyboard case. Nearly universally hated among our users and generally a huge disappointment. To Dell’s credit, they did right by us and replaced the Latitude 10’s with Venue 11 Pro’s.
  2. Microsoft Surface Pro (the original). Way too bulky as a tablet, and again, everybody I know uses it as a laptop. Except it has to be one of the worst laptop experiences imagianable, as its keyboard simply cannot be used on a lap. Terrible battery life.
  3. Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga. I called this a “joy to use” in my review, and I stand by that. It’s a pretty good laptop the converts into a tablet I would almost certainly never use. It’s made well enough that it left me wanting to use a real Lenovo Ultrabook, just to see how good a device they could make without the compromises they had to make to support the tablet side.
  4. Dell XPS 12. I used this as my daily laptop for a few months and didn’t give it as much credit as it was due, primarily since I was still in my early days of coming to grips with using a PC at work all day. I kept expecting this it to live up to the Retina MacBook Pro I bought for home use (for hundreds less than the XPS 12, btw – myth busted) and that wasn’t fair. As an Ultrabook goes, the XPS 12 is fine, although not quite as well-made as the ThinkPad Yoga. As a tablet? It’s huge and I never used it as one for more than demonstration purposes.
  5. Dell Venue 11 Pro. Plagued by firmware issues and a keyboard with a terrible trackpad. I used one every day at TechEd and the best thing I can say about it is that, when combined with the keyboard battery, the battery life is pretty impressive. But for that battery life you get a combination that weighs more than a 13″ laptop and is arguably a pretty terrible laptop in comparison.
  6. Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Faster and better battery life than the original, but the type keyboard cover is still basically unusuable without a solid flat surface.

I don’t include the Dell Venue 8 in this list, which I also reviewed, because it’s too tiny to be used as a laptop replacement and I only know of one person who has one and really likes it. Everybody else I know has tried it then put it down, never to pick it up again.

You don’t know what you want

I work with folks all the time who already have or say they want a Windows tablet. Except that’s not what they want. With the possible exception of my Dell account exec, I have never seen a real human being use one of the Windows tablets we buy as a tablet for any real length of time. They may hand it to someone and demonstrate sliding through the start screen, or closing an app by grabbing it and swiping it down. But when it comes to actually using the “tablet” they all do the same thing. They use it with a semi-permanently attached keyboard, mostly in meetings, sometimes for extended note-taking at conferences, and anywhere else they may take it. But do you know what a tablet that is only ever used with a keyboard attached really is? It’s a laptop. And in nearly every case, it’s a crummy laptop.

Near as I can tell, whether you’re talking about someone in IT or not, when they say they want a Windows tablet, what they’re picturing is someting as inexpensive and light as an iPad, but running Windows (so they can get “real work” done – whatever that means today since Office is now on the iPad), and with a keyboard so they can type, since most of the work they need to do actually requires typing. It reminds me of the project management joke – “Fast, Cheap, Good – pick two.” None of the pure Windows tablets I’ve used deliver all three of “Inexpensive & Light, runs Windows, works well as laptop” in my opinion. Most of them only deliver on the running Windows part, and in that case, I keep repeating myself to people who ask me about them:

If you’re going to use it full-time with a keyboard, what you want is a laptop, so get a laptop. It may cost a bit more, but you’ll get a good single purpose (or convertible) device, not a (possibly) cheaper hybrid that you will likely never use as a tablet.

But what about the Surface Pro 3 (or any future device)?

I’ll admit I have not tried a Surface Pro 3. Unlike Dell and our vendor who supplies us with HP and Lenovo products, I can’t just ask for a loaner from Microsoft, and none of my coworkers or friends who would let me borrow one for a day or two have an SP3 either. What I do have are numerous reviews, both from major tech blogs and websites, and more importantly, comments from folks I know and respect. Here’s a collection of both:

  • Engadget Surface Pro 3 Review

    “It’s tough to say who should buy the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop alternative when the very thing that makes it a notebook replacement – its optional keyboard – offers a subpar typing experience and a frustrating trackpad. Adding insult to injury, it’s not even included in the box; it’s an optional $130 accessory that helps drive up the cost compared to similar PCs.”

    “If Microsoft could just figure out the keyboard thing (and start throwing it in for free), I’d be more inclined to recommend this as a laptop replacement. For now, unless you want a tablet and laptop in equal measure, and sincerely enjoy using Windows Store apps, a touchscreen Ultrabook is still your best bet.”

  • Anandtech Surface Pro 3 Review

    “Surface Pro 3 is much easier to position properly on my lap compared to any previous Surface device. While the latter were all ultimately a pain to use on my lap, Surface Pro 3 is passable. I still prefer a laptop, but the gap has been narrowed considerably.”

    “The downsides for Surface Pro 3 are obvious. Windows 8.1 remains a better desktop/notebook OS than a tablet OS. Yet in a device like Surface Pro 3 where you’re forced to rely on touch more thanks to a cramped trackpad, I’m often in a situation where I’m interacting with the Windows desktop using the touchscreen – a situation that rarely ends well.”

  • Microsoft Created a Spork – by Dan Brinkmann

    “As a laptop the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is fast, (especially compared to a 3 year old MacBook Air) light, compact, with a beautiful screen. However I’d still prefer a traditional laptop over the magnetically attached keyboard, small trackpad, and novelty kickstand.”

    “As a tablet this thing sucks. It is too large, too heavy, the app ecosystem lacks most of the applications I use on my other tablets, and I keep ending up on a desktop when I want to use it as a tablet. Even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser never seems to understand how I want to use it, popping into tablet mode when I’m using it as a laptop and vice versa. Looking back I’d rather have purchased a laptop like the Lenovo X1 or Yoga, great laptops first.”

  • A series of tweets from Shaun Ritchie

    Think I am going to return SP 3, nice build but too heavy to chuck in my bag every day, lack of tablet apps, & confusing tablet interface

    @Easi123 Think I will get MacBook Pro & iPad mini.

    @mikestanley If I could only have 1 device and some1 else was buying it I would want SP. But at mo there is no 1 device fits all I think.

So I take all that, combine it with my previous experience, and think I have a pretty good idea of how the Surface Pro 3 would work for me, and it’s not good. It might be a great device for some people. But it sure sounds to me like most agree the “lapability” issue still hasn’t been solved, not to mention the fact that the pricing on the SP3 continues to be fairly deceptive, since in order to use the device as it is marketed, you really have to tack $129 onto the price. Nobody I trust is satisfied with the availability of Windows tablet/modern apps.

As for other devices, I can see some minor utility in a device like the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga or the Dell XPS 12. But for me, I’d rather have a great laptop and a separate great tablet.

Pricing of “tablet” vs Ultrabook

Here’s a quick comparison between what I’ve seen folks buy and use and what I would recommend as a better device based on how they actually use the tablet.

Dell Venue 11 Pro – $1,025.99
i5 CPU, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 11″ touch screen, keyboard. Weight – 3.32lbs.

Dell XPS 13 with Touch Screen – $1,149
i5 CPU, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 13″ touch screen. Weight – 2.95lbs.

The Venue 11 Pro is cheaper by $123. It’s also got half the RAM and a 2″ smaller screen. For the $123 extra, the XPS 13 would give me double the RAM, a larger screen, and less weight.

The choice for me would be clear. I would argue that if you’re going to keep that 1.75lbs battery+keyboard connected to the 1.57lbs Venue 11 Pro, you’d be better off spending a little more money and getting not only a better machine, but a machine that is designed to do one thing well, not two things decently (if that).

Conclusion

I don’t claim my opinion on this topic is gospel or that it should be accepted as such by anyone else. I just know that I see people using Windows tablets as not very inexpensive, mediocre laptops. I have no interest in doing that, and when it comes to my own money, for now I’m going to continue to use a laptop that is an awesome laptop and a tablet that is an awesome tablet. That might make me the butt of a joke in a Surface Pro 3 add, but it’ll also make me somebody using devices that each do exactly what he wants them to do.

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5 Responses to Why the Windows Tablet Concept Doesn’t Work For Me

  1. Justin says:

    This is the same conclusion that I have come to but without as much testing as you have done on the Windows tablet front. I am glad to see that you have had more time to test the various devices and still arrived at the same conclusion. Thank you for sharing!!!!

    • Mike Stanley says:

      Happy to share my thoughts on this, even without the 31 day blog post challenge I’m participating in!

      I think for some people, they bought into this (mis)perception about the iPad – that it was fun and useful for some things, but in order to “get real work done” they needed Windows. And don’t get me wrong – I understand that because we’re an almost completely Windows shop, and that makes good business sense for us. But folks get these devices they thought would be like “iPads but with Windows, so better” and they end up using them like laptops – mostly because they stink as tablets. Just get a laptop, I say.

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  3. My wife has the Yoga 2 and has used it in “tent” mode to give an ad-hoc presentation at a conference and in tablet mode to read digital magazines on a plane. In this use case, it beats carrying 5 magazines or an iPad. Plus that tent mode is just a bit more useful than a laptop for presenting or trying to watch a movie on a plane.

    But in general, i would say that the proper use cases are narrowly focused and the expectations by the masses (what MS is pushing actually) is out of step with the experience.

    • Mike Stanley says:

      Fair points. I was impressed by the ThinkPad Yoga (does your wife have the IdeaPad or ThinkPad version?) and could see myself using one, or at least being comfortable recommending it. I just doubt I’d use the pure tablet functionality, although I may well find a reason to use it in tent mode.

      BTW, eBooks/magazines on Windows tablets are a no-go. The Kindle reader doesn’t (or didn’t last I used it) support periodical subscribed content, so my subscription to Poets & Writers might as well have not existed. I could use a different app for magazines, but I don’t care to change reading apps just for that when all my digital books are via Amazon & Kindle.

      And yes, what MS seems to be selling is not what most people seem to want – which is probably why sales of the Surface line as a whole have been so abysmal.

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