At work, I'm part of a team responsible for thousands of Windows desktop and laptop computers used across a University campus by staff and students. A few years back, we migrated from Windows XP to Windows 7, skipping Windows Vista entirely. Us techies are an opinionated bunch and getting a unanimous decision can often be a challenge, but we all agreed that Vista was a world of pain with no obvious business case; or indeed demand.
Jack of all Trades?
Whilst we were migrating to Windows 7, Microsoft was releasing Windows 8. Perhaps the biggest revamp to the user experience since Windows 95, it married the two worlds of touch computing and the classic Windows desktop together into one operating system.
I think Microsoft saw it as a stepping stone. One that would not alienate traditional computing demand (it supports all the legacy applications from earlier versions of Windows) but would also act as a draw to those who had fallen for the charms of the iPad with it's simple but excellent touch-based user experience and apps.
Master of None
To me, it was an abomination, doing neither well. It was, and is, a jarring experience on a typical desktop PC. Whilst consumer demand for PCs might have dropped, there was no way I would consider rolling it out across the thousands of PCs at work (plenty of demand there) and again, my colleagues are all in complete agreement. So, it seems, was the rest of the market, as take up of Windows 8 has been pretty slow.
Since that initial false start, Microsoft has been working hard and the latest update, Windows 8.1 does start to right some of the wrongs, most significantly allowing users to boot computers into the desktop interface, rather than being constantly pushed into the touch environment where keyboard and mouse do not belong.
More interesting though has been the response of the manufacturers, who have started to create myriad hybrids that attempt to merge the best of the laptop with the best of the tablet. At first, I saw another abomination in these convertables. Heavy laptops with ungainly hinges that allow you to release the monitor and use it as an ugly and bulky tablet? Big whoop. Apple clearly had nothing to fear and their decision to keep their laptop and tablet environments completely separate seemed wise indeed.
However, just like Windows 8, the manufacturers seem to get better with every attempt and although some of the most technically successful are still way too expensive, we're now starting to see devices that compare favouribly with the price of an iPad, but potentially offer a full desktop computing experience, as well as the more informal and convenient nature of a tablet.
Two Gadgets for the Price of One
Take the T100 from Asus for example. For £349, this attractive looking gadget promises, and largely delivers the best of a netbook (remember those?), tablet and for some, a full laptop all for less than the cost of the basic iPad Air.
Weighing in at 1.2Kg, the T100 is a netbook sized device, with a detachable screen so you can work with just the touchscreen when the keyboard and mouse is not needed.
One of the key reasons I think tablets have been so successful is that they switch on in an instant and the battery life will last pretty much all day. Well, I was pleased to find that, despite running the full version of Windows (not the awful RT version), the T100 was able to boot up and be ready to go in about 15 seconds. From sleep it was far quicker and the battery life has just slipped into double figures at 10 hours, making it comparible to most decent tablets.
NetBook Reborn ... and Finally Useful
With the keyboard attached, it's a fine netbook. The on-board atom processor is of the latest generation and word is that it rivals the entry level business class processors of only a couple of years back. What I can tell you is that using Microsoft Office 2013 (included in the price), surfing the internet and using web-apps through Google Chrome is a pleasure. The keyboard is a little cramped, but typing speeds improved with practice and the keys have a good feel.
The screen is of a bog-standard 720p variety, typical of a budget laptop. At 10.1" it's about the same size as an iPad Air screen, but arranged in a widescreen aspect as is the norm for laptops. It looks fine on my lap, the brightness is ample for most light conditions (I can't test outside as England is currently enjoying storm after storm) and pictures, text and video all look okay.
Moving to tablet mode is very easy. Push one button and lift the screen at the same time and it pops out of the excellent hinge with little resistance.
Missing My Retina
Now the thing about tablets is that they will spend more time closer to your face than a laptop and in tablet mode, the shortcomings of the T100's screen are more apparent. Those super-high resolutions boasted by the best Android tablets and the retina display on an iPad Air keep all the vivid detail of photos and video as you bring the screen closer and text continues to look as good as the printed page. Not so here I'm afraid. Text looks a little rough and photos not so sharp. That said, it was still very comfortable to use and reading for decent periods on it is fine, we're just not talking premium grade.
In the hand, the tablet is very light thanks to its plastic construction. It doesn't feel particularly special, but it also doesn't flex much under pressure, or feel badly made. It did make me wish for the iPads 'normal' aspect ratio however. The iPad is excellent to use in both horizontal or vertical orientation. Holding a widescreen horizontally with one hand just feels weird as the weight is unbalanced. It's very comfortable when held vertically, but the widescreen aspect makes it feel very narrow. I adjusted a bit whilst using Win8's excellent newsreading app, but web-browsing was less than satisfactory as I couldn't view a whole page comfortably without needing to scroll around more in all directions.
Well, whilst that battery life was great, I got no warning before it ran flat. Windows just shut down on me whilst I was using the newsreader app. A bit annoying, especially as you can't use the T100 whilst it's charging. That could get very frustrating here and there with a full top-up taking over 4 hours.
Underneath the keyboard are four rubber feet that keep the T100 in place on your table. Well they do when you're not using it. Flip open the lid and the hinge lifts the keyboard up slightly, clearing the back feet. Because the hinge has no feet of its own, the T100 got a whole lot more slidy, especially on my plastic laptop tray used for sofa-based blogging.
Finally, as a potential replacement for a laptop, the T100 is very short on storage. This 32GB model sounds reasonable for a tablet, but Windows users expect far more and will likely to be shocked to hear only 11GB of that is available to the user. Migration to cloud services will help in some cases (Asus themselves include one as part of the purchase, but I think the free bit is time limited) and there is a microSD-card slot which makes for a relatively cheap method of improving things, with a 64GB card costing around £35. Think excellent netbook than laptop replacement.
I'm happy to report however that the dislike list really is that short and otherwise I've found the T100 to be an excellent little device. I'm even starting to like Windows 8 with the 8.1 update.
Whilst I love my iPad, my productivity demands led me to sacrifice its tablet form and it now lives permanently in a Zagg ProFolio+ keyboard case. The T100 easily switches between forms, but gives me the same mobile writing experience with the possibilities of more. With my iPad, I've still kept an old laptop for when I need a desktop application, for example converting mp3s or videos between formats, or photo editing. With a little patience, the T100 can handle all of that and any accessories that I need, for example hooking up to a USB stick or portable hard drive, connecting out to a full sized keyboard, mouse or monitor are all available cheaply via the USB3 socket and HDMI outputs found on the side.
So, would I switch? Well, I'm tempted and that's a bit of a shock to me. Whilst I still have a laptop to fall back on, I think the iPad is still ahead. The amazing screen and my app library, which would be lost keep me from falling out of love with the Apple slate. It's also a much better gaming device, something which the T100 doesn't really feel designed for but as a productivity tool the Asus T100 is astonishing value and it achieves an awful lot at the asking price without sacrificing the user experience. With a better screen I really could consider a switch.
Asus and Microsoft deserve to do well, but there is still more work to be done to achieve the ultimate mobile device. Maybe the T200??