At the time of writing, Microsoft, Apple and Google have recently all launched new premium tablets to show off their latest operating systems.
Whilst Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is an evolution of something they’ve been working towards for a while - a tablet that can replace your PC, it would appear that both Google’s ‘Pixel C’ and Apple’s iPad Pro are admissions that many people want tablets that are a bit more like laptops and the new iPad, like the Surface, is BIG!
Tablets have had a good run since the iPad showed up in 2010, but laptops have evolved into light and portable devices whilst remaining productivity powerhouses. In a saturated market, these ‘Pro’ tablets are looking to the one area where there may still be room to grow sales - the professional and enterprise market.
But is a massive tablet screen and a detachable keyboard what we really need? Sure, the above devices are beautifully engineered and very desirable. Easy to want them - but do we actually need them? What if you were to strip all the shiny stuff away and just have a plain device with the same functionality and see whether it really is a good idea over a typical laptop or tablet?
Well, that must have been what Dell were thinking when they conjured up the Latitude E7350.
Whilst not the last word in cool, PC manufacturer Dell are perfectly able to make a desirable device. My daily runner, the Latitude E7250 is a great little ultrabook with understated good looks and the consumer XPS 13 is gorgeous, both to look at and to use. This E7350 is certainly not a looker. In an age of machines hewn from single pieces of aluminium - this jumble of ports and connectors over the surface of the case makes it look like a throwback to 2003.
On the back, mounted on a plastic black strip is an 8mp camera and a (optional) smartcard reader. Next to the smartcard reader, a (equally) fingerprint scanner looks almost lost and on the sides, where they should be, sit a headphone socket and volume rocker.
Why did Dell choose to put the readers where they did? Well, that big 13” screen detaches from the keyboard and presumably the office warriors that this is intended for, still need those things when they leave the keyboard behind.
Rather than a folio/cover type keyboard (Surface and iPad Pro), the E7350 is very much going after a full laptop experience when docked like Google have with the Pixel C. The chiclet keys are very much up to Dell’s normal high standards and with backlighting and a large touchpad all present and correct, it’s easy to do proper work without hitting too much tablety compromise.
I can’t say that there is no tablety compromise sadly. Before I’ve even detached the screen, I have found a few.
Despite sturdy looking hinges, I found the top-heaviness of the screen, due to all the chipset gubbins being here, made it less comfortable to use on my lap. In fact, if I was really typing away, I found the screen would get into a kind of rocking motion and then I could hear plastic starting to creak. Dell’s are generally very well put together, so this is surprising and disappointing. The E7350 doesn’t feel like it will break, but it feels a bit budget build. The choice of an Intel Core M processor means that the daily office applications will run as fast as you want them without the intrusion of nasty fan noise. Indeed it’s such an efficient chipset that Dell have not had to include any venting for cooling at all. People may imagine the iPad Pro to be way more powerful - but this will do a much better job at running most company’s existing applications including full desktop versions of Microsoft Office.
So what of big screen tableting? After my fortnight with the £1000 E7350, am I going to race out and buy one, or one of its big slab competitors?
Well, no and maybe.
The E7350’s screen undocks easily with the flick of a mechanical switch. The 1080p screen, which looks as good as any other I’ve seen, loses a bit of its appeal in tablet form. Sitting more closely to it makes you realise why tablets ended up with insanely high resolutions, after all, they’re much closer to your eyes. 1080p televisions offer a great HD experience, from a distance. But have you ever looked at a 50” TV right close up? Awful!
It’s the same thing here - but I would say poor rather than awful. We don’t like to see individual pixels anymore.
One nice thing about a big tablet is a big touchscreen keyboard and a very immersive experience. With a little practice getting used to the lack of keyboard feedback, I found I quite enjoyed working on the tablet. Windows 10 plays its part here, it’s so much nicer than Windows 8. The new email and calendar apps plus excellent task manager, Wunderlist, are as good as any iPad app and surfing the web with Chrome or indeed the new Edge browser are perfectly well suited to finger based exploration whilst the mouse is temporarily ditched.
At home, I experimented with the Readiy app, which pulls RSS feeds (think website subscriptions) from the Feedly service into Windows 10 in a tablet friendly way. The split screen mode available to Windows 10 apps meant I could have the article list on the left and a browser window on the right to work my way through. It was great, until about 15 minutes in, when I realised my arm really hurt. This is a bulky beast of a tablet to hold onto and it slides around on your lap.
I think it’s happier being used on a table, or placed on a stand. The trouble is, you don’t particularly want to carry round a stand. Other manufacturers have got round this by allowing you to reverse the screen so it points away from the keyboard and have that hold the tablet up for you, but sadly Dell haven’t gone down this route. A case might also solve the issue, but only if you’re happy to go anywhere without bringing the keyboard along. The keyboard is useful, not just for providing the ideal typing experience, but it also houses additional batteries AND the only two USB sockets available. So basically, it’s always coming too.
Tablets to some have always been a laptop without a keyboard. But it’s not only the touchscreen interface that makes it useful - it’s the ability to annotate, scribble and draw directly onto the screen with a stylus. I’ve been doing this for a while on the iPad, even though it’s not designed for it and I’ve reviewed some great apps in the past for taking notes with.
Microsoft supply an absolutely fantastic notetaker called OneNote and the E7350 has an optional active stylus that allows you to scribble notes or annotate documents to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, my heart wasn’t massively contented. I know I’m a left-hander and as such hold my pen ‘wrong’ - but I found myself constantly fighting the system as my hand was detected by the touchscreen rather than the pen. I didn’t last one meeting at work and no amount of practice at home has improved things. Working in ‘portrait’ was even worse as my hand got in the way of the light sensor, causing the screen to constantly dim.
I’m not sure what’s wrong here, as I’m also using a Venue Pro 10 tablet from Dell and its stylus is one of the best I’ve ever used!
If the E7350 were the only large screen tablet on the market, I’d not only write it off, I’d write off the idea. But Samsung’s ‘Galaxy Pro 12’ running Android has been on the market for a while and I really got to like one I spent a week with not long back. Windows 10 has a few decent productivity apps making tablet mode quite nice in the office and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is a fantastic, if flawed, device (with a cheaper starting price).
There’s definitely room in the world for a big screen 2-in-1. We’ll have to wait to see which is the best one and which operating system it will be running. But if Dell themselves want to be in the running, they’ll need to pick up stylus and return to the digital drawing board. The E7350 is a miss.