Tag Archives: tablets

Review: Acer Iconia W3 with Windows 8.1 Preview

Attendees at Microsoft’s Build conference last month were given an Acer Iconia W3 tablet, presumably because it is the earliest examples of Windows 8 on an 8″ tablet. I find it hard to assess; it seems good value but is a frustrating device.

The specs in summary:

  • Processor: Intel Atom Z2760 1.50 GHz Dual-core
  • Memory: 2GB
  • Storage: 64GB SSD
  • Card slot: MicroSD up to 64 GB
  • Display: 8.1″ Active Matrix TFT Colour LCD WXGA 1280 x 800
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator HD, shared memory
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Ports: HDMI, Micro USB, headset/speaker jack
  • Cameras: Front and rear
  • Microphone: Yes
  • Battery: 2-cell Li-Polymer 6800 mAh
  • Size and weight: 11.4 x 134.9 x 219 mm, 500g
  • Price: Around £350 or $430

Since this is an x86 device, it comes with full Windows 8.x, not the locked-down Windows RT edition. My guess is that Acer did this because Windows RT has been a hard sell, thanks to the poor selection of Windows Store apps on offer, indifferent performance, and confusion among customers when they discover that none of their existing Windows apps will run.

On the other had, do you really want full desktop Windows on an 8.1″ device? I view it with mixed feelings. Technically it runs well, and means that you have amazing capability in a small and highly portable device. The case against is that desktop Windows is designed neither for touch, nor to run on such a small screen. In order to use it, you need good eyesight and ideally a keyboard and mouse. The mouse is especially important, since targeting small desktop icons with fingers (at which I have become quite adept on larger Windows slates) is a real challenge on this tiny display.

image

There is a matching Bluetooth keyboard/dock (included in the picture above) which is available for around $80 and which was also handed out at Build. The underside of the keyboard forms a kind of case.

image

I am typing this review, naturally, on this very keyboard, and I am would not want to tackle it with only the on-screen keyboard. It feels cheap and plastic though, and I saw one Build delegate struggling with a broken key after only a day of use. Keyboards are quite delicate (some more than others), and arguably it would make more sense to protect the keyboard with the tablet, than the tablet with the keyboard.

Another issue is that the Bluetooth keyboard does not include a trackpad, perhaps because it would require a docking connector rather than just Bluetooth. However as mentioned above, the lack of a mouse is equally troublesome in desktop Windows. Therefore I have plugged in a USB mouse in order to work on this review.

Of course, once you have loaded your bag with keyboard and mouse as well as tablet, you begin to wonder whether a conventional laptop would have been easier. I admire Microsoft’s Surface design, where the keyboard cover does include a trackpad, and where the keys on the Type cover are folded inside the cover and therefore protected in your bag. The Surface Pro is far more expensive, but Surface RT not so much, and I suggest that Surface RT is a more satisfying product despite its locked-down desktop, especially with Windows 8.1 which includes Outlook.

The Iconia W3 also has a grainy screen. It is usable, but the worst screen I have seen for a while, and not helped by a high-gloss reflective surface.

Annoyance number three is the micro USB port. Few devices expect to find micro USB on the PC side, so you will need an adaptor. The Build handout included one, but I suspect this is not in the box by default. Even with an adaptor though, it is a nuisance, though I appreciate the difficulty in including a USB A port on a slim device like this.

Performance is no more than so-so, which is what you would expect from the Atom CPU. On SunSpider 1.0, for example, with IE11, the W3 scores 671.5ms, better than Surface RT at 1029.2ms but behind Surface Pro at 209ms. I think it is good enough for a device of this kind.

The device does get uncomfortably hot though, in an area at back right which I presume is close to the CPU.

The W3 does have its plus points. Battery life is good, Office Home Premium is included in the price, and it is what it claims to be: a small tablet capable of running full desktop Windows. That means you can use VLC to watch videos on a flight, or Live Writer for writing blog posts, or FileZilla for FTP, or Putty for SSH, to mention a few utilities that I miss on Windows RT.

Making sense of this device means reversing your thinking about Windows. You should plan to spend most of your time in the “Modern” tablet user interface, while occasionally dipping into the desktop. If that mode of working makes sense for you, and you want an 8.1″ device, the Iconia W3 is a reasonable purchase. Take note of all the caveats though. A close look at this device makes you realise why Microsoft embarked on the Surface project.

I am done with laptops

2012 was the year I lost interest in laptops. It happened in February, when I was in Seattle and purchased a Samsung Windows 7 Slate for the purpose of testing Windows 8.

This Slate has an Intel Core i5 CPU and is a flawed device. With Windows 7 it was particularly bad, since Windows 7 is not much fun for touch control. Windows 8 is much better, though now and again the screen will not respond to touch after being woken from sleep, and a cold reboot is needed.

That said, performance is fine, and the Slate has a couple of characteristics which I like. One is small size. It fits easily in almost any bag. In fact, I can put this Slate, an iPad and a Surface RT in a bag and they take up no more room that with a typical 15.6” laptop.

The second is convenience. If you are travelling, a laptop is an awkward and unsocial thing. I have come to dislike the clamshell design, which has to be unfolded before it will work, and positioned so that you can type on the keyboard and see the screen.

I do not pretend that desktop Windows has a great user interface for touch control, but I have become more adept at hitting small targets in the likes of Outlook. In addition, many tasks like browsing the web or viewing photos work fine in the touch-friendly “Metro” personality of Windows 8.

What about when you need to sit down and do some serious typing, coding, or intricate image manipulation? This is when I pull out a keyboard and mouse and get something similar to a laptop experience.

image

The above shows my instant coffee-shop office, with wireless keyboard and mouse, and internet connection through mobile phone. Though I have abandoned the keyboard and mouse shown, preferring a Bluetooth set I picked up late last year which leaves does not require a free USB port.

I am not sure why I would ever want another laptop. When in the office, I prefer a PC under the desk to a laptop on the desk. A tablet, whether Windows, Android or iOS, works better for mobility, even if mobility means watching iPlayer in the living room rather than travelling around the world.

Nor do I like hybrid tablets with twisty screens and keyboards, which lose the simplicity and instant usability of the tablet concept. I make an exception for Microsoft’s Surface RT, particularly with the touch keyboard cover, which does not get in the way or take up significant space, but does form a usable keyboard and trackpad when needed. There will always be an advantage to using a physical keyboard, since even if you get on fine with a soft keyboard there is no escaping the large slice of screen it occupies. Well, until we can type with detected thought processes I guess.

I am told that an iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is also a nice combination, though I have not tried this yet.

Review: Cooking the QOOQ way – do you want a tablet in your kitchen?

Throw out those cookery books. What you really want is a kitchen gadget that has thousands of recipes, searchable with a few quick taps, with video demonstrations for the tricky bits and extra features like auto-created shopping lists and the ability to play background music, right?

image

If that sounds good to you, you should take a look at the QOOQ, a 10” tablet designed for the kitchen. It is splash-proof and wipe-clean, with legs that sensibly lift it clear of the surface in case any pools of liquid should appear (not that they would).

Last week I visited Unowhy, the company behind QOOQ, at their Paris head office. I also got to try the QOOQ for a couple of days. It is a great little device, but there are some caveats, and note that you need an on-going subscription for full usage. Read on to see if QOOQ is for you.

The device

A QOOQ is a capacitive-touch tablet powered by a ARM Cortex A9 dual core chipset and running Linux. No, it is not Android; it reports itself as a QOOQ-specific Linux build, and the software is written in native code using the QT framework. It is also locked down so that you cannot get access to the operating system without a service password that is not supplied. This means you cannot install applications other than a few supplied utilities. This is an appliance, not a general-purpose tablet, though it does have a web browser, an email client, a photo viewer and a music player so it covers the basics.

The device feels sturdy and well made, though note that the protruding legs make it an awkward thing for most purposes other than sitting on a kitchen surface. There is a USB port and an SD card slot, so you can add music files or photos. An obvious secondary purpose is to add some family photos and have them display as a slideshow.

On the right-hand side of the unit are controls for on-off and volume.

image

On the left, the ports and headphone socket, behind a rubber cover that has an annoying tendency to come loose. You get card slot, USB 2.0 port, wired ethernet and audio. Nice to see the wired ethernet socket but I doubt this gets much use; how many households have wired ethernet in the kitchen?

image

I did not test battery life in detail but it worked fine for a few hours; however this is unimportant since it can be mains-powered during normal use.

Music sounds pretty good even through the built-in speakers. Of course you can get better sound using an external powered speaker.

Wi-Fi support covers B G and N standards and worked well for me.

Overall the hardware is excellent, well designed for its purpose. The main problem, aside from the loose cover mentioned above, is that if you operate the screen while cooking you will likely want to touch the screen sometimes with hands covered in food. QOOQ can easily be wiped clean, but a few dabs of flour or butter on the screen and it gets hard to read. A small hardware rocker for scrolling and clicking would help, so that you could avoid touching the screen itself.

The software

In the main, interacting with QOOQ feels like running a single application, though the web browser runs full screen and takes you out of it to some extent. The browser seems to be based on WebKit (like Apple Safari, Android and Google Chrome) and includes Flash player 10.1 though this is disabled by default; the system warns that it may run out of memory if Flash is enabled. Think of the browser as something basic for occasional use, though it does come into play for the QOOQ help system such as it is (more on that later). You could also look up recipes on the internet outside the QOOQ system (perish the thought) and take advantage of the device that way.

I could not figure out how to get screengrabs, so had to make do with the old point-the-camera-at-the-screen routine. Here is the home page.

image

You can see the idea. The main menu is on the left hand side, giving access to recipes, index of chefs, cooking guide, meal planner, shopping list, and the all-important search.

The home page includes  a spotlight recipe, online magazine, and on the right hand side, a customisable column of supplementary apps, including web browser, internet radio, weather app, video player, and access to local storage, though this last is limited to photos and music files.

Once into a recipe, QOOQ has a commendably clear layout. You get tabs for ingredients, utensils, and then the heart of it, preparation with step-by-step instructions. In the best case, there is a video available, to which the steps are hot-linked so that tapping a step shows how to do it in the video. Brilliant. If there is no video, then you get a colour picture of the finished dish as a minimum. There is also information on preparation time and cooking time.

image

Now the not-so-good. QOOQ is made in France and recently adapted for the English market. The biggest market is the USA, so all the weights and measures are in US-style cups, tablespoons, and imperial pounds and ounces. There was no way to change this in the review unit though Unowhy mentioned that metric measurements are on the way so there is hope.

There is also a problem with the videos. Most of the videos were recorded in French with chefs explaining their actions. In order to adapt them for English, Unowhy has overdubbed these with a rather wooden voiceover translation. You can still hear the French original faintly in the background. Not good.

Selecting Help is unrewarding for English users. You get a page not found message.

image

Along with the core recipe database, QOOQ has some other features. There is a meal planner, which works but sometimes caught us out. You cannot select Saturday and choose a meal; you have to select a recipe and add it to Saturday.

You can have QOOQ generate a shopping list and email it to you. This could be useful, though I was amused to see “13 3/8 tbs. Water” on my shopping list.

There is also a rather complex system of user profiles, tastes and techniques which frankly I never fully figured out (and help is no help as you can see above).

image

Users can build up profiles of which ingredients they like and which techniques they have mastered, which one assumes are taken into account if you use QOOQ’s meal suggestion feature, and possibly in other ways. I suspect many users will ignore this aspect of QOOQ.

Searching for a recipe

Cooking a meal is merely the last step in a process that begins with the harder task of deciding what to cook. QOOQ has a search feature that lets you search by recipe name, or by ingredient.

image

This is a little confusing. There are two search tabs. The first search tab is for “All QOOQ”.  You can search for recipes here, but only by name. If you select ingredients, you will be searching the food encyclopaedia, and end up with an entry all about onions, for example, rather than recipes containing onions. If you want to search by ingredient, you need the ingredient tab. Search shows the number of results as you type.

image

The results are shown in a scrolling list, in one of two views. The detail view is the best, and shows preparation time, difficulty, cost of ingredients, and cost to acquire the recipe if you do not have a full subscription (more on this later). You can filter the view in various ways, such as only recipes with videos. You can sort by various fields such as calories, or preparation time.

Despite the richness of the information, QOOQ’s search could do with some work. It is disappointing that you cannot filter by specialist requirements such as vegetarian or gluten-free meals. The search is also too complicated. QOOQ should learn from Google and have a single search page with intelligent results. Another limitation is that the recipe search does not account, we think, for synonyms, so you might have to experiment. Still, it is good enough and you will likely find what you want if QOOQ has it on offer.

Note that some of the recipes are on the internet and will be downloaded on the fly. This aspect works seamlessly, and any background downloads are invisible to the user.

The recipes

This is the heart of it. How are the recipes?

This is a collection for serious cooks. Note that Unowhy has focused on chefs, and persuading well-regarded chefs to share their techniques and recipes under the eye of a video camera. That is fantastique and beyond price for professionals or ardent throwers of dinner parties. I found QOOQ better than any cookery book I can think of for suggesting cooking ideas and enabling me to judge how feasible each recipe would be, bearing in mind available skills, ingredients, and batterie de cuisine.

That said, QOOQ leans strongly towards the high end of cooking. My search for a lowly Christmas Pudding came up blank; and the synonym Plum Pudding was no better.

image

I also looked in vain for general techniques like how to roast a duck (having enjoyed duck brûlée on a recent occasion); the duck recipes are all more advanced and interesting than that.

In other words, there are many wonderful recipes here that will inspire you, but I am not sure it is ideal as an everyday companion for the less expert, though this could easily be fixed by adding more content.

You are meant to be able to add your own recipes using software downloaded from the QOOQ site, but I could not find it; the French language site is more extensive so it is probably there somewhere.

The cost

Is QOOQ worth it? That is the question, and to answer this we need to look at the cost.

A QOOQ costs $399 which is about £260. For this you get the tablet and 1000 “recipes, videos and techniques”.

My loan QOOQ was able to search 3681 recipes. What about recipes beyond the supplied 1000?

Here you have two choices. You can purchase an all-you-can-eat (ho ho) subscription which is $99.00 (£65) per year or  $9.90 (£6.50) per month. Alternatively, you can buy individual recipes for credits. Recipes seem to cost between 2 and 8 credits, and a credit costs $4.90 for 20, so that means recipes cost from 50c to $2.00, or from about 30p to £1.30. Once purchased, a recipe is yours for ever.

Unless you are a professional, the individual recipes strike me as better value, especially as you can use them again and again.

Bear in mind though that there are countless free recipes on the internet, which you can even view on the QOOQ using the built-in browser. Certainly the QOOQ offers a premium experience and its recipes are exclusive. Having an expert chef explain a recipe to you in the comfort of your own kitchen is worth a lot. But this is not a mass market proposition.

A Google Nexus 7 or Nexus 10  device propped up against the toaster is not quite so good for cooking, but works in or out of the kitchen. A quick search for “splashproof iPad case” got me some results too.

Final thoughts

A QOOQ is a smart device with some fabulous content; yes it is the ideal gift for the cookery enthusiast who has everything. It is somewhat quirky and the transition from French to English is frustrating and incomplete in places.

Is it for the rest of us though? In its current form, probably not. That said, there is potentially a wide market for these recipes and videos, particularly if the company can build up a bigger collection of true English videos or improve the production of the French videos with English dubbing.

QOOQ would also benefit greatly from true social media integration. Currently you can rate your own recipes, but you cannot see other people’s ratings. I would like to see user ratings and discussions fully integrated, so you can learn what other people liked, what went wrong, discuss alternate ingredients and techniques and so on.

In the end it is all about the content, which is why the company would do well to promote its content more strongly apart from the device. We were told in Paris that users can subscribe to the web site and get recipes without having to buy a QOOQ, but I cannot see any way to do that currently (perhaps you can do this in French). This is needed, along with iPad and Android apps.

The QOOQ was born not out of a desire to make a kitchen tablet, but because the founders wanted a way of preserving recipes and skills. It was “how to immortalise recipes before you die”, as explained by company co-founder Guillaume Hepp.

The QOOQ should be a premium way to get the content, rather than the main delivery channel.

You can get your QOOQ here.

How bad is the Surface RT?

I have just read this piece on Slate entitled Why is the Surface so bad? after using the device for most of yesterday, on a train and at a technical event.

image

Oddly, I like the Surface RT increasingly, though I too am puzzled by some of its shortcomings.

Here are some of the issues I am aware of:

  • The apps. This is the biggest issue. Where are the delightful apps? For example, the mail client is barely adequate. The music app is annoying, though there is plenty to stream if you have an Xbox Music Pass. It cannot play FLAC files, which I use for my Squeezebox-based system at home.

    How hard is it for a company the size of Microsoft to write a superb mail app and a superb music app for its critical new product? I would guess that a small fraction of the advertising budget would have been enough. Why was there no one at Microsoft with the guts to throw them back at the team that developed them and say, “Not good enough, we do not have a product.”

  • Performance is so-so. It is not terrible in my experience, but at times makes you wonder if Windows 8 is too much on a Tegra 3; or whether it needs a whole lot more optimisation. Battery life is also OK but could be better. I got 7 hours or so yesterday, with wi-fi on constantly, and some of the time powering a phone being used as a wi-fi hotspot.
  • I got errors updating Microsoft Office. Mostly fixed by exiting the Office Upload Center. There’s no excuse for that. This is the appliance model. Microsoft knows exactly what hardware I have and what software I have, and has locked it down so I can only install sandboxed apps from the Store. Testing various update scenarios is easy.
  • For that matter, why is there an Office Upload Center? It is dreadful error-prone software. Dropbox has no Upload Center. Is it so hard to sync documents with SkyDrive or SharePoint – how long has Microsoft been batting at this problem?
  • I am concerned by reports of early keyboard disintegration, though mine is still OK

Enough griping though. Here is why I like this device.

First, I have no problem with the weight and I like the solid feel of the unit. The Surface is compact. The Surface with its keyboard is about 350g lighter and 4mm slimmer than my Samsung Slate without a keyboard; I am including the cover because I would never travel with a slate without a cover.

Second, unlike the Slate (magazine) reviewer, I do think the keyboard cover is a breakthrough. The Touch keyboard provides a usable full keyboard and trackpad while not adding any significant bulk; it forms a useful cover when closed, and when folded back it does not get in the way while you use Surface as a slate. I find myself using it in Slate mode frequently. Do not believe those who say you need keyboard and mouse to operate a Surface; there is only an argument for this if you never venture out of the desktop.

I can do more than occasional typing on the Touch keyboard; it is fine for longer documents as well.

Third, I can do real work with the Surface. Yesterday I sat with Surface on my lap, typing notes into Word, with Mail docked to the left, and Twitter open in desktop IE alongside Word. For all its faults, I found that the Surface worked well in this context.

Fourth, if you know Windows, there are things you can do that are difficult with other tablets. VPN to my office and remote desktop to a Windows 7 machine there is built in and works well. SharePoint via WebDAV is a shortcut in the Windows File Explorer.

Of course you could do all this with a laptop. So why not have a laptop, which you can buy for less money than a Surface? It is certainly an option; but as I have adapted first to the Samsung Slate running Windows 8, and now to the Surface, I find laptops bulky and inconvenient. I think of a laptop more as I used to perceive a desktop PC, something which is best suited to permanent siting on a desk rather than being carted around.

Further, the Surface really is a tablet. Imagine you want to show some photos to a friend or colleague. On a laptop that is awkward. The keyboard gets in the way. On a tablet like the Surface it is easy; just open the folder in the full-screen photo app and swipe through the images, with the keyboard cover folded back. Pretty much any tablet will do that equally well – or better if you have a Retina iPad – but it shows that Surface is not just a laptop in disguise.

There are reasons why I get better results from the Surface than some. One is that I know Windows 8 well, having used it intensively for many months. Another is that I am familiar with Windows foibles, so when these appear in the Surface I am likely to know what to do. Of course they should not appear at all; see above.

Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.

Tablets, laptops, smartphones: which form factors will win?

There have been several thoughtful pieces recently on device form factors and what you can and cannot easily do with tablets versus laptops versus smartphones.

Richard Gaywood says the iPad (it’s an Apple site) is “heavily skewed towards, but not entirely about, consumption” rather than creation. His observation is based partly on app statistics, partly on the lack of a keyboard (if you add a Bluetooth keyboard, he argues, an iPad becomes as bulky as a laptop), and partly on weak multitasking and the lack of an accessible file system.

Tim Bray currently carries a laptop, a small tablet (a Nexus 7 I guess) and a phone. He does not seem to be considering abandoning the laptop, but suggests that he might be able to manage without a phone:

I spent several months back in 2010-11 carrying around the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, which may have only been Gingerbread, but included a first-rate phone, and my handset rarely left my pocket.

John Gruber writes at unusual length about why Apple might or might not do a smaller iPad.

On the eve of the Windows 8 launch this is an interesting discussion. Windows 8 will renew the debate: is a tablet all I need, at least when travelling? And where will Google’s 7” Nexus fit in? I foresee this selling well simply because it is great value, but will it be packed in the flight case alongside a laptop and a phone, or left at home, or could it even replace laptops and bigger tablets?

We in the the great unknown; but I will make a few predictions.

First, laptops and indeed desktop applications (that is, not apps) are in permanent decline. That does not mean they will disappear soon, just that they will be used less and less.

The implication is that tablets will be used for content creation as well as consumption, and for work as well as for play. Will developers and designers still want huge multi-display setups? Yes, of course; but most people will get most of their work done with tablets.

Second, that unadorned tablets will win over complicated solutions like laptops with twisty screens (the old Tablet PC concept), styluses, transformers, and the like. My guess is that we will see lots of clever and expensive Windows 8 x86 devices that will only achieve niche sales. The ones that succeed will be the slates, and the traditional laptops.

Third, there may be merit in the keyboard case concept, particularly when the keyboard is very thin, as in Microsoft’s Surface with Touch Cover. On the other hand, keyboard cases that make tablets into laptops, like one I tried for the iPad, also tend to give tablets the same disadvantages as laptops: clam shell design, difficult to use without a desk, and so on. I have found that I prefer a loose keyboard in my bag. It does not take much space, and does not get in the way when not needed.

What about mid-sized devices like the Nexus? I am not convinced. They are too small for all your work, and too big to be phones. The large-size Smartphones like Samsung’s 5.2-inch Galaxy Note sort-of work: they sell to people who do not mind having a large phone. But most of us will end up with two devices in constant use, a phone and a tablet. In the office or study, add a large screen and keyboard to taste.

Just three Windows 8 on ARM tablets at launch? Not good for Microsoft

image

Bloomberg reports unknown sources stating that only three Windows on ARM (WOA) tablets will be available at launch:

There will be fewer ARM-based devices in the rollout because Microsoft has tightly controlled the number and set rigorous quality-control standards, said one of the people. The new version of Windows will be the first to use ARM processors, which are most commonly found in smartphones. Windows 7, the current version, only works with Intel’s technology. Three of the Windows 8 ARM devices will be tablets, the people said.

This may be nonsense but I can see this playing out badly for Microsoft. I am making several assumptions here:

1. The design of Windows 8 is all about tablets. If it fails on tablets, then it has failed.

2. Windows 8 Intel tablets will not compete with the Apple iPad and will probably not do well. The main reason is the old one: Windows desktop is mostly unusable with touch alone. I mean, you can get it to work but it is not much fun, and that will not change.  Supplementary reasons are that Intel CPUs are less efficient than ARM which means shorter battery life, and that traditional Windows applications expect lots of disk space and RAM, and that OEMs will want to pre-install anti-malware and other foistware, and repeat the mistakes of the past that are driving users with relief towards iPads.

I can also imagine Windows 8 Intel tablets being sold with add-on styluses and keyboards that are necessary to operate desktop applications, but a nuisance in all sorts of ways.

3. Windows on ARM has more potential to be a compelling iPad alternative. Metro-style apps are designed for tablets and will work well with touch alone. ARM devices may be lightweight and with long battery life. The locked-down Windows Store is some protection against excessive OEM interference. With Microsoft Office compatibility thrown in, these might appeal to a business user who would otherwise buy an iPad.

Despite the above, my guess is that Microsoft’s OEM partners will instinctively put most of their effort into Windows 8 on Intel tablets, because that it the way it has always been, and because of an assumption that someone buying a Windows 8 device will want to run Windows applications, and not just Metro-style apps.

The problem is that such people will try Windows 8 on Intel tablets, hate them because of the reasons in (2) above, and end up buying iPads anyway.

The counter argument? That Apple conquered the tablet market with just one model, so perhaps three is more than enough.

Imperfect Samsung Slate 7 tablet shows challenge facing Windows 8

I took advantage of a trip to Seattle to purchase a Samsung 7 Slate, similar to the one given to attendees at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last September, though missing some of its sensors.

image

It is a decent machine, fast and well-specified, but not one I can recommend unless, like me, you are keen to give Windows 8 Consumer Preview the best chance to impress, and cannot wait the short interval until machines that are actually designed for Windows 8 turn up on the market.

This is a Windows 7 slate, and that is the main thing that is wrong with it, since Windows 7 does not work well with touch control. Samsung’s solution is to cover all the bases:

  • A stylus is supplied so you can use pen control as with earlier Windows tablets
  • There is a matching Bluetooth keyboard
  • Samsung has created its own touch-friendly desktop with a selection of apps, so that you can avoid the classic Windows desktop

image

All these options make this an expensive device, but there are nevertheless a number of flaws and annoyances, some of which make you wonder “what were they thinking?” Here are some I have discovered in a few days of use:

1. There is an illumination sensor towards the top right of the screen bezel. This is a battery-saving measure, which adjusts the screen brightness according to the ambient light. Good thinking; except that if you are right-handed and controlling the slate with touch, your hand will often pass in front of the sensor. When that happens the screen dims, because it thinks the room is darker. The effect is that the screen constantly brightens and darkens in use, which is unpleasant. Fix: disable the feature and set the screen to a fixed brightness.

2. The on-screen keyboard is poor. This is the fault of Microsoft, not Samsung. If you have the keyboard set to float, the keys are too close together for fast typing. If you dock the keyboard, it becomes bigger, but impossible to use because it covers the bottom third of the screen. For example, it covers the search box on the Start menu when docked, so that you will be typing into it blind. Fix: Windows 8.

3. I got the matching Samsung wireless keyboard and found that the first key you press sometimes does not register. This is infuriating, especially for things like passwords. The reason, I discovered, is a setting in the Bluetooth card configuration “Allow the computer to turn off the device to save power.” When set, if you pause typing for 30 seconds, then the next key you press is in effect the on button and does not appear on the screen. Fix: uncheck this setting.

image

4. When using wifi at a meeting, I found that every two or three minutes I had to re-enter the username and password for the wifi hotspot. Nobody else had this problem. Fix: I am not sure, but updating the driver for the Intel wireless adapter plus sundry other Windows updates fixed it for me.

5. It is difficult to run without full administrator rights on the machine, as several Samsung utilities prompt for elevation.

6. There is no security button. This is the button that emulates Ctrl-Alt-Delete when you log on to Windows. Instead, you hold down the Windows key and press the power on switch – when you have discovered that this is what you have to do. It is not mentioned in the quick start leaflets. To be fair, this is only likely to be an issue if you do as I did and join the machine to a Windows domain. Samsung does include a Touch Logon application which lets you secure your machine with a simple code instead.

7. The pen sometimes stops working, or more precisely, the screen stops responding to the pen. Fix: pressing the screen rotation lock button seems to kick it back into life.

8. There is some clever coding that disables finger control when you are using the pen, which is a Wacom digitiser and not just a stylus. The idea is that you can rest your hand on the screen when using the pen. This mostly works, but I still find pen control less good on this device than on older Tablet PCs which respond only to the digitiser. The problem may be that when you lift the pen away from the screen, touch control turns back on. Whether or not this is the problem, I find it too easy to get unexpected behaviour.

9. Navigating the BIOS is difficult without a USB keyboard. It can be done. Volume up and down substitutes for the cursor keys, the Windows button is ESC and the rotation lock is Enter. The hard bit: switching between pages with volume and rotation button together. Fix: a USB keyboard.

10. The one solitary USB port has a tiny loose plastic cover which will soon get lost. For that matter, I will probably lose the expensive digitizer pen as well since it does not clip into the slate nor into the official Samsung case.

Is this a poor device then? Not at all. It is powerful and light, and works very well indeed if you pop the slate into its dock and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse. In this guise though, it is more like a desktop PC.

When used purely as a slate though, this machine is far less usable than either an iPad or an Android tablet, both of which are also much cheaper.

Even some of the good ideas do not quite work properly. If you tap with three fingers, a floating panel appears with common actions that are otherwise tricky with touch, such as Ctrl-C for Copy. A great use of multitouch, except that if I do this in Windows Live Writer, it also registers as a zoom command which enlarges the text. Annoying.

image

All this is thought-provoking on the eve of the Windows 8 beta launch. Windows 8 in metro mode fixes the usability problems in the operating system, but will not prevent OEMs implementing half-baked ideas like Samsung’s illumination sensor. Further, people will buy Windows 8 tablets in part so that they can run desktop applications. How well will that work without docks, keyboards, pens and/or wireless mice, and high prices?

That said, Microsoft is aware of these issues which is why the Metro side of Windows 8 exists. The goal, I imagine, is that you will be able to stay in Metro all the time when using Windows 8 as a slate.

Where are the tablets for Windows 8 Consumer Preview?

Microsoft will deliver Windows 8 Consumer Preview shortly, probably on February 29th, since it has been promised by the end of this month and there is a launch event at Mobile World Congress.

The Windows Consumer Preview, the beta of Windows 8 on x86/64, will be available for download by the end of February. This next milestone of Windows 8 will be available in several languages and is open for anyone to download.

says Windows President Steven Sinofsky

The name of the preview suggests that Microsoft intends this release to be broadly downloaded and tried, in contrast to the developer preview with its more specialised role.

In preparation for the preview I looked around for a suitable tablet on which to test it – noting that it must be a Intel x86 or x64 tablet, since the ARM build (WOA) is not for general release, but only for manufacturers.

WOA will not be available as a software-only distribution, so you never have to worry about which DVD to install and if it will work on a particular PC.

Sinofsky writes.

So what is available? A quick Twitter consultation turned up a few options, such as the Acer Iconia Tab W500, the Asus Eee slate B121, and the Samsung Slate 7.

However, of these only the Samsung is really suitable, because it has a 1366 x 768 display. The others have 1280 x 800, and while this will run Windows 8 and the new Metro user interface, it will not support the Snap feature which gives you two applications on screen together:

The resolution that supports all the features of Windows 8, including multitasking with snap is 1366×768. We chose this resolution as it can fit the width of a snapped app, which is 320px (also the width designed for many phone layouts), next to a main app at 1024×768 app (a common size designed for use on the web).

Yes, it’s Sinofsky again.

Unfortunately the Samsung Slate 7 is not fully released in the UK, though I did find it on offer at ebuyer.com, for the not too unreasonable price of £973.19.

Samsung XE700T1A Series 7 Slate Tablet PC, Intel Core i5-2467 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 64GB SSD, 11.6" Touch, Intel HD, Webcam, Bluetooth, Wifi, Windows 7 Home Premium 64

That is still expensive, and it is hard to see it becoming a mass-market bestseller as Windows 8 fans rush to try out the new OS.

The consequence is that most users will try Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a virtual machine, or on an ordinary PC or laptop, or possibly on one of the cheaper 1280 x 800 tablets.

Since Microsoft’s main focus with Windows 8 has been on the new Metro touch user interface, this will not show the new operating system at its best.

I can personally testify to this. The Samsung slate handed out at the BUILD conference last September, which I had on loan for a few days, was delightful to use, whereas Windows 8 Developer Preview (the same build) is nothing special in a virtual machine.

All will be well, one assumes, when Windows 8 launches with both ARM and Intel-based machines available. Nevertheless, it seems to me a significant obstacle as Microsoft tries to build pre-launch enthusiasm; the risk is that users will not take into account how much better it is on a real tablet.

Update: a few other options have been suggested, like the Dell Inspiron Duo, a convertible 10.1” tablet with an Intel Atom  N570 Dual Core, 1366 x 768 display and 2GB RAM, and around one third of the cost of a Slate 7, but perhaps under-powered to show off the best of Windows 8.

First look at HP’s TouchPad WebOS tablet

I took a close look at HP’s WebOS TouchPad tablet during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

This 9.7” machine looks delightful. One of its features is wireless charging using the optional Touchstone accessory. The same technology can also transmit data, as mentioned in this post on wireless charging, and the TouchPad makes use of this in conjunction with new WebOS smartphones such as the Pre3 and the Veer. Put one of these devices next to a TouchPad and the smartphone automatically navigates to the same URL that is displayed on the TouchPad. A gimmick, but a clever one.

image

From what I saw though, these WebOS devices are fast and smooth, with strong multitasking and a pleasant user interface. Wireless charging is excellent, and a feature you would expect Apple to adopt before long since it reduces clutter.

I still would not bet on HP winning big market share with WebOS. The original Palm Pre was released to rave reviews but disappointing sales, and HP will have to work a miracle to avoid the same fate.

HTC’s new Android tablet has a stylus

A big surprise here at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: HTC’s new tablet, the HTC Flyer, comes with a stylus. “People can rediscover the natural act of writing,” says the press release.

My first reaction is that this a mistake. I have had tablets with pens before, and while I like the ability to take notes, I also find the pen a nuisance. They are awkward in confined spaces like an economy seat in an aeroplane, and expensive to lose. HTC’s pen is battery powered, so I suppose you could also have the annoyance of a pen that runs out of juice. HTC’s stylus does not clip into a bay on the device, but does have a dedicated pocket in the case.

image

On the plus side, you can write, draw and annotate content using the pen, which has a variety of settings for colour and tip. For some tasks, a pen is the ideal implement.

image

The device does have other attractions. The pre-release devices have Android 2.4, but HTC says it may well run Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, which is designed for tablets, by the time it is launched in Q2 2011 or soon after. It has a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset; 7” screen; 1024 x 600 resolution; 1GB RAM and 32GB storage, expandable with micro SD cards. Battery is said provide 4 hours of video playback, which sounds less than ideal. HTC will also offer a video download service “HTC Watch”.

A feature which will be familiar to OneNote users is called Timemark. This lets you take notes which synch to an audio recording, so tapping a word in your notes takes you to that point in the audio. Notes also synchronize with Evernote, a cloud-based note synchronization service.