In my last blog post, I lamented the high costs that come with some special-purpose (ruggedized) or high-function Windows 8.1 tablets. In this post, I take a look at what’s available on the other end of the market, both in terms of price and functionality, to explore other, more affordable options for business use. To begin this conversation, I have to observe that Intel’s new quad-core Bay Trail Atom CPU is a real game changer for this market segment. Why do I say this? Because the chip finally offers enough power (and enough simultaneous threads of execution) to cope with modern Windows in a usable and not-too-frustrating way.
Next, I’ll digress by way of historical comparison and contrast: I bought an Atom-based Asus EEE PC a few years back when the netbook fad struck the market. It was a cute little machine and worked sorta kinda OK. But ultimately, it was just too slow and underpowered for me to enjoy working on it, no matter how much I appreciated its excellent battery life, small form factor, and supreme portability. Surfing the Web was an endurance test, typing text would sometimes involve enough lag between striking the key and seeing it appear in a text window that I might lose track of my thoughts, and even navigating the file system on Windows 7 involved more patience that I really had to bring to such a no-brainer mundane task. Suffice it to say I did everything I could to speed up the EEE, including a 128 GB SSD and doubling up from 1 to 2 GB of RAM, all to no real avail. Thereupon, I gave up on netbooks with this personal summation: “Nice. Cute. Too slow. Not for me.”
Since then, I’ve been waiting for Moore’s Law and the inexorable march of technology to produce a netbook like form factor with all-day battery life, enough computing horsepower to get the job done, and enough pixels on a small(ish) screen to make looking at the UI tolerable. Touch isn’t a bad thing, either, and on a small tablet (I’ve learned to love my iPad 2, while living within its sometimes restrictive limitations) it’s reallyi quite handy. So for me — and I suspect for a great many other PC-savvy business users — I’ve been waiting for a small, light, portable PC that’s powerful enough to let me surf the Web, read and write e-mail, work in MS Office, and run the various applications and apps I use to get my job done, with enough battery power to make it for 8 hours or longer.
Until quite recently, I’ve been waiting in vain. MS came close with the Surface Pro 2, but it’s still a little too heavy, battery life a little too short, and the price tag a little too high. But in the last quarter, I’ve seen a whole slew of smaller form-factor tablets (7 and 8 inch mostly, but even some 10 inchers) that use Intel’s new Bay Trail Atom with 4 GB of RAM, a 32 to 128 GB SSD, Intel GT2 graphics, and sufficient battery capacity to keep them going 8 hours or longer when running a light or mixed workload that matches most workday use. They might not make 8 hours playing games or watching videos/movies, but many of them also offer accessible and removable batteries, so that users can swap a depleted one with a charged-up replacement and keep on going even when the first battery runs out. All I can say is “Way cool!” I plan to add several to my gadget collection, and see how they hold up in everyday use.
Of the current crop available — and there are possibly as many as a dozen already in the marketplace — these five have captured my particular attention:
1. Dell Venue 8 Pro ($299-349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740D CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, no card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available)
2. Lenovo ThinkPad 8 ($399 and up) [8.3″ display at 1980×1200, Z3770 CPU, 4 GB RAM, 64 or 128 GB SSD, micro SDXC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
3. Asus VivoTab Note 8 ($299 – 349) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, micro SDHC card reader, dock and cover/keyboard options available]
4. Toshiba Satellite Encore ($329 and up) [8.0″ display at 1280×800, Z3740 CPU, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microSDHC card reader, no info on dock or cover/keyboard available]
5. Acer Iconia W4 ($330 – 380) [8.o” at 1280×800, 2 GB RAM, 32 or 64 GB SSD, microHDMI and microUSB ports, microSDHC card reader, cover and keyboard available, no info on dock]
Based on such reviews as are available and comparing the specs, the Lenovo stands out for its higher-res display, and bigger storage options. The Dell also gets great reviews, but is a little lacking on expansion options (no microSD card reader is kind of a drag, nor any video out either, except for wireless Miracast). The Acer gets dinged for sub-par construction and a less-than-bright display, and I don’t know much about the Toshiba or Asus units just yet. Stay tuned, as I keep digging further. There’s still time for some new entrants to pop up as well, as CES comes to a close today (or this weekend).
Intel is looking to light a path into uncharted territory as it unveils reference designs for smart wearables and a new Edison chip.
The chip behemoth introduced a number of smart reference designs this week for new wearable technologies that include a smart watch, smart sports ear buds, and smart Bluetooth headset, in addition to support for dual operating systems on a single device.
What could potentially be Intel’s most compelling offering is the tiny chip dubbed Edison. The SD-card sized chip could greatly impact Intel’s influence in the emerging market for the Internet of Things.
Edison is a system-on-a-chip that includes an x86 compatible core supporting Linux, WiFi, Bluetooth, flash storage and more. The new low-power chip is designed for smart computing and wearable devices that require a small, powerful and low-power processor form factor.
The company demoed the chip at the Computer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Edison was installed in a toy turtle and linked to sensors connected in a baby’s onesie, which tracked the child’s temperature and movement. The baby’s temperature was sent to the mother’s coffee cup, for example. If the signal was green the baby’s temperature was fine. If it was red, the baby was hot or distressed and needed something.
While Intel showed Edison in a consumer application, one can also think how the chip might be applied to enterprises. In fact the emerging phrase of the “Enterprise of Things” is beginning to be used to highlight business deployment applications in the whole IoT market.
Connectivity is going beyond the datacenter and PCs and mobile devices to really developing serious business applications.
Theoretically, why not add an Edison chip to an employee’s PC or tablet? If something is wrong with the device, an alert can be sent immediately to the organization’s IT department and IT staff can be more proactive in delivering a resolution for the wayward device to ensure an employee remains productive. The employee may not even need to enter a help desk ticket because the IT staff already identified the problem. The possibilities are endless.
Intel also debuted new smart wearables that could actually be useful to one’s life, rather than being a futuristic concept. For example, the smart ear buds enable one to link to an app and keep track of exercise time, distance and heart rate all in one unit. Other technologies require one to wear a separate heart rate device.
The company also showed a smart watch reference design that offers geo-fencing capabilities. This would allow parents or caregivers to keep close track of their kids or elderly people by ensuring they are in the right place and to digitally notify them if they are off the beaten path.
In addition, Intel also showed Jarvis, a smart Bluetooth headset that acts like your personal secretary. (Is it a mere coincidence that Intel named the smart headset J.A.R.V.I.S. just like Tony Stark’s a.k.a. Iron Man’s artificial intelligent computer?)
While Intel’s big news for smart wearables and Edison portends the possibility of innovative things to come, the biggest shocker during Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s CES keynote were the violent images in the video clip Intel showed on screen about the consequences of mining key minerals used in electronics in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area is strife with regional fighting and trade from the minerals fund armed groups.
After four years of working with the industry and governments around the world, tracking the supply chain for the minerals from the mines to its factories, Krzanich revealed all of Intel’s microprocessors manufactured this year would be conflict-free. That statement received the biggest applause of the night. Kudos to Intel for being socially responsible.
All this week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is underway in Las Vegas, so it’s “prime time” for all the PC companies to make product announcements — especially those that target US markets and buyers. In the past few months a number of business oriented Windows 8.1 tablets have made their debut, and more are popping up every day in Las Vegas right now. What I find interesting is that tablets that specifically target business users often tend to cost more than those aimed at consumers, even though their innards may not differ much (or at all) from consumer oriented makes and models.
When a business unit does come along, it can bring more and more advanced features to such products, and those do justify some added expense. Thus, it’s not unusual to hear about support for Smart Cards, fingerprint scanners, improved durability features (heavier chassis, stronger materials, adherence to MIL-STD-810G specifications for drops, vibration, humidity, and outsized temperature ranges at both hot and cold ends of the spectrum), better manageability (vPro, Intel’s AMT), and so forth.
The FZ-M1 is an incredible workhorse of a small Windows 8.1 tablet, but the price is nothing short of staggering.
Here’s the rub: some of these business oriented models cost a small fortune. Panasonic has just introduced a 7″ Touchpad FZ-M1 ruggedized Windows 8.1 tablet, for example. It is designed to cope with modest abuse, water, and harsher-than-normal working environments, while delivering a classic “thin and light” Windows 8.1 tablet experience. It’s fanless, and includes a Haswell i5 or Celeron ULV mobile processor, offers 1280×800 resolution, supports a 128 or 256 GB SSD, with 8 GB RAM for the i5 model (and probably 4GB for the down-market Celeron model). This unit also includes 4G LTE, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11 abgn-ac networking, with a USB 3.0 port, a microSDXC card slot, and a docking connector. Add-on options available include docking station, GPS, barcode scanner, RJ-45 Ethernet and serial ports, plus NFC, RFID or a magnetic stripe readers. It weighs 1.2 pounds (540g) and measures 0.7″ (1.8 cm) thick. Battery life is rated at 8 hours, and the battery is replaceable, so that field use may be further extended by swapping in a spare, fully-charged battery. The unit also boasts a 3-year warranty, unusual in today’s PC marketplace. But ouch, this puppy costs some serious scratch: with the i5 CPU and a 128GB SSD, sans any of the many add-ons available, pricing starts at $2,099. I’m guessing that fully tricked-out version could easily cost between $2,500 and 3,000.
Another case in point is the fascinating and feature-laden Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 I blogged about last week (“Fujitsu Makes Bold-Entry into High-end...”) Though its screen is bigger (12.5″) with full HD (1920×1080) resolution, and it offers an i7 CPU option as well — so you get more for the money — it, too, starts at around $1,500. The unit I configured for myself with i7, keyboard cover with extra battery, GPS, NFC, 8 GB RAM, and a 256 GB SSD came in at just under $3,000 with a $75 discount coupon to help ease the pain ever so slightly.
Problems with business uptake of Windows 8 and 8.1 aside for the moment, it’s also clear that cost is another potential hurdle which business buyers must overcome to get onto the Windows 8.* tablet bandwagon. My fundamental question is “Does it really have to be this way, or is it just a case of determining by iteration just what the traffic will bear?” So far, it looks like OEMs are starting high, and seek to be forcibly ratcheted downward, which may be a good strategy to protect them from financial exposure, but appears at least in part responsible for lukewarm market reception and uptake as well.
Over the past three months — more or less since the release of Windows 8.1 — I’ve finally started to see some PC-based tablets that appear poised to give Apple actual competition for the market niche that the iPad has more or less owned for the past four-plus years. This platform has become so popular and ubiquitous that when I looked up the launch date for the iPad 1 (April 3, 2010) I was stunned to realize that it’s really only been a little over four years since the first IPad came out.
The release of several new Windows 8 (and 8.1) tablets in the past quarter appears to put some potentially game-changing new entrants into the 8-10″ tablet market. As far as I can tell, it’s the energy efficient but sufficiently high-powered quad core Bay Trail models of Atom processors that are finally going to give PC makers a valid comeback to the ever-popular iPad platforms in 7″ and 10″ formats. Thus, for example, I’ve looked at the $350 Dell Venue 8 Pro (Z3740D, 64GB SSD, 2 GB RAM, Intel HD graphics) and the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 (Z3770, up to 128 GB SSD, up to 8 GB RAM, Intel HD graphics; pricing not yet available: base level set at $399 so top-line must be at least $800) as the first of what will no doubt be a whole slew of small and light tablets that offer sufficient power and capability to give iPad a run for consumer’s money.
At 8.8mm thick, under a pound in weight, with full HD (1920×1200) resolution, and up to 8 GB RAM, and 256 GB SSD, the high-end ThinkPad8 could give Apple heartburn — as long as it’s not too much over $900 in price.
I expect we’ll start to see more machines of this type showing up at CES (underway in Vegas right now, starting today) and that Windows will finally be able to pose a meaningful counter to the iPad. Will this be enough to make a difference, and change market dynamics and consumer inclinations? We’ll see!
Thanks to Brad Sams at Neowin and Ron G (Editor-in-Chief) at WinBeta, I just learned this morning that MS is building its latest Surface Pro 2 tablets with Intel i5 4300U processors, instead of the 4200U models featured in their first batch of machines initially released in late October 2013. The older model clocks at 1.6 Ghz with a “Max Turbo” frequency of 2.6 GHz (i5-4200U ARK page), while the newer model clocks at 1.9 GHz with Max Turbo at 2.9 GHx (i5-4300U ARK page). That’s about 18% more oomph, which probably isn’t enough for most users to notice. Also, Graphics Max Dynamic Frequency for the 4300U is 1.1 GHz, where the 4200U is 1 GHz, a 10% bump. Otherwise, there’s no real difference between those two parts, in terms of cores, threads, cache, memory capacity, and so forth.
Does a modest CPU upgrade indicate that Surface Pro 2 sales are better than expected, so MS had to switch to a new part? Or is it a form of expiation for recent firmware woes?
WinBeta reached out to Microsoft to inquire about this change, first reported on machines returned for exchange to the company in the wake of last month’s flawed firmware update for the Surface Pro 2. They report hearing from a Microsoft spokesperson “…that small changes to internal components do take place over the lifetime of the product…in order to ensure that the product experience remains excellent.” That firmware update still hasn’t appeared, despite MS’s decision to pull the change after users reported issues with installation of the update and with sharply reduced battery life in the wake of some successful installs. However, the latest rumors indicate that a new firmware version probably won’t be released until Patch Tuesday for January, which occurs on the 14th of this month.
Here’s an interesting graph from the Market Share Reports for “Desktop Operating System Market Share” at netmarketshare.com. Today, January 2, it shows The Windows 8.1 number at 3.6%, with the Windows Vista number at 3.61%. I’m pretty sure that means by next month, if not sooner, Windows 8.1 will pull ahead of Vista for once and for all, and won’t look back at such numbers for some time to come.
The numbers for desktop OS share on the Internet show Windows Vista and 8.1 neck-and-neck for the moment.
But Vista’s share never climbed much above 10% at any time in its lifecycle, and has steadily declined in recent years. Although 8.1 has yet to make significant inroads into the business side of the market, it’s picking up momentum on the consumer side. I have to believe that it will surpass Windows 8 some time in the next calendar quarter or two, and cross the ten percent mark that represents something of perihelion for Vista’s approach to the center of our desktop “solar system” before too much longer after that.
What’s really interesting is to observe and learn how Microsoft’s new rapid cadence will play out in terms of desktop share as NetMarketShare measures it. I expect we’ll see Windows itself becoming something of a “long tail” distribution, with popular versions trailing somewhat behind the leading edge (as leading versions Windows 7 and XP now occupy slots 2 and 3 releases behind the leading-edge 8.1 version). It should also be interesting to observe how long XP maintains the number two slot after April 2014 when long-term support for the OS is discontinued at Microsoft.
Here’s a classic good news-bad news scenario for serious Windows users seeking a lightweight Windows 8.1 tablet with acceptable battery life (which I define as more than 8 hours, or enough to get users through a whole day, or a long flight away from AC power). The Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 offers a true HD (1920×1080) 12.5″ screen, with options for a dual core i7-4600U CPU with 8 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD, and up to 10 hours of battery life. Its dimensions are svelte: 0.47″ x 12.19″ x 7.85″ and it weighs just 2.16 lbs (under 981 grams). It offers a dual-boot with Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 both preinstalled, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 a/g/n Wi-Fi, one each USB 3.0 and 2.0 connectors, Intel HD 4400 graphics, and a media card reader (to add up to an additional 64 GB of microSDHC or SDXC flash memory, and 128 GB as such modules become more widely available and affordable; I even see discussion of a 256 GB module at myego360.com though product links are not currently available). The package is described as “semi-ruggedized” and it offers a number of waterproofing options (notice the water droplets artfully arranged at the lower right in the photo below):
The bad news is that this sucker is extraordinarily expensive. Just for grins, I jumped onto www.shopfujitsu.com to configure a top-of-the line Q704, and nearly fell over when it priced out at $2,852.00, including a $50 off promotion code I was able to find and put to work. For that money, the build includes a Core i7-4600U CPU (dual core, 4 threads, 2.1 GHz clock with 3.3 GHz max turbo, 4 MB cache, 15W max TDP), 8 GB RAM, built-in GPS, 256 GB SSD, a keyboard dock with external battery, NFC, and a SmartCard reader. But still, this is nearly $1,000 more than a similarly configured Surface Pro 2, so you’re paying a hefty premium for the four hours of additional battery life and added processing power that this unit should deliver.
Still looks like a great machine, though, and one worth pondering at length. Pick the “Customize” button in the middle column on the Fujitsu store’s Q704 page to configure a system to your heart’s content, too. Will the “chancellor of the exchequer” here at home (my wife, that is) authorize such an extravagance? Not bloody likely!! But it’s still nice to dream a little … or a lot, as is the case here.
[Note added 1:05 PM CST 12/30/13: To my amazement and delight, my request for the Q704 has been approved. I went looking again for coupons, and found a $75 discount that beat my earlier $50 off discovery. It’s “FUJITSUTECHBARGAIN” and you can use it, too, if you like. I’ve applied for a 36-month business lease just to see how that all goes, and will report back here further after New Year’s when my application will no doubt get processed. No word on build or ship dates until then either, but the site told me that the ship date was still “TBD” when I submitted that application.]
Last summer, my trusty Dell All-in-One 968 became unusable, thanks to the failure of one of its color inkjets (if memory serves it was either red or magenta, depending on whether that device uses an RGBK or CMYK color model). Ever since its retirement via the safe electronics disposal available from the great folks at Goodwill Industries, I’ve been struggling to remove all traces of its existence from the driver files on the Windows PCs belonging to the Homegroup on my house network. I finally took out the heavy artillery over the holiday, and used Driver Store Explorer [RAPR] and its “Force Deletion” option to forcibly remove all remaining traces of the AIO drivers from those machines. [Warning! RAPR requires an older .NET version –which means either version 2.0 or 3.0 — serviced by the MS 3.5 Framework download. It will manage the download process for you, but you may need to apply relevant Windows Updates to patch potential security issues and functionality gaps as well. When I added this to one of my 8.1 PCs that lacked this support, however, Windows Update gave it a clean bill of health immediately thereafter.]
The key to removing persistent drivers is in checking the “Force Deletion” box below the Delete Package button.
Only by checking the boxes to the left of the two Dell Inkjet Drivers entries shown (oem44.inf and oem45.inf), and then checking the “Force Deletion” box beneath the Delete Package button in RAPR was I able to make these pesky and persistent printer drivers disappear from my Windows PCs. This technique works for any such persistent drivers that otherwise resist removal, but you’d better be darn sure that you don’t need those drivers (or can find them again) should their return ever be mandated. To ease any concerns you might have in restoring them, you can first use the right-click “Export” option in RAPR to make backup copies in another directory of your choosing, before getting rid of them. I had no such concerns for the inkjet drivers, because I have replaced that printer with a very nice Dell 2155 cn color laser printer, whose drivers you see already resident in the foregoing RAPR display as well.
Surface Pro 2 is being touted as a notebook replacement and I’ve been using it for the last few weeks to see if I can get my job done. But there’s a world of IT administrators out there who view the Surface Pro 2 with a skeptical eye.
I put the Surface Pro 2 through its paces using our own TechTarget environment as an informal test bed to see how our admin respond to the mobile device.
The good? It’s a Windows PC and it was no harder or easier to get the system up and running in TechTarget’s environment. It supports many of TechTarget’s existing corporate policies without any additional work.
The bad? It’s Windows 8.1 and TechTarget’s VPN and other corporate applications don’t support the new operating system yet. The $899 for an entry-level 64GB unit is still high, especially if one needs to purchase a $129 Touch Type cover and $199 docking station.
Paul Gonzalez, Tech Target’s systems architect, gave me a first-hand look of what he, like many other IT administrators, would have to do to get a new device up and running if an end user wanted to use the Surface Pro 2 as a bring your own device (BYOD) unit.
Like any organization, TechTarget has its own set of policies and processes required for deploying a new device to an end user. Paul said the device should image easily. He created an Active Directory account called Surface Test giving himself full admin rights. The name popped right up in the Active Directory.
As Paul restarted the Surface Pro 2 , we chatted about Windows 8.1. It only took a minute to restart the device. He, like many other IT admins and end users, prefer the classic desktop instead of the glitzy tiles interface. In fact, as Paul explained, when TechTarget was a Windows XP shop, there was a policy put into place that would automatically boot a system into the classic desktop mode. Paul was particularly pleased to see when the Surface Pro 2 finally finished its restart; the policy withstood the test and in Windows 8.1 booted right up in the desktop mode.
As an IT professional, Paul worried about security. Our company has added in some extra security layers with our wireless network. For example, only certain organizational business units can jump on the wireless network, thus providing our IT administrators with an additional level of control.
Paul tried installing some off-the-shelf applications such as Adobe Reader and set up his email on Outlook 2013. It went without a hitch. In addition, he tried Remote Desktop, and it worked well during the test.
So what was the biggest issue from our exercise? The Surface Pro 2 cannot access our VPN. Just to be clear, this is not a function of the Surface Pro 2 or Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 but rather Tech Target’s lack of support for Windows 8.1, which would require the company to rework our licensing agreement with Microsoft.
Unless there is a true business need for Windows 8.1, our organization will not upgrade our software just to support it, due to the time and expense.
I also handed a Surface 2 to Paul as well to get his IT administrator thoughts. It took him all of one minute to say: “I’m out.” Why? Because Surface 2 uses Windows RT and it does not support Workplace Domain Join. As an IT administrator, he cannot easily manage the unit. Enough said.
So what’s the conclusion? The Surface Pro 2 could be useful as a BYOD unit and it certainly served my needs well during my travels. But it’s not a corporate notebook replacement for companies that aren’t on Windows 8 yet.
There are ways to work around the issue, but if an organization wants to do it right, it could be an expensive proposition. At the end of the day, there has to be a specific business need for upgrading to Windows 8.1 and deploying the Surface Pro 2s.
When I found out from Woody Leonhard in early November that the Windows Experience Index (WEI) widget was missing from Windows 8.1 (reported in this 11/13/13 post), I immediately set about writing a PowerShell script to recapture that functionality and produce a Web page to provide that information. I made the script available in another post two days later (Bringing Back WEI to Win8.1) and recruited a professional developer friend to help me turn it into an executable that would run the winsat formal command with admin privileges, and then present a nicely-formatted version of its output. But the two of us have been busy enough that we hadn’t complete our efforts, when I saw a Lifehacker story online this morning that let me know we’d been beaten to the finish line: “WEI Tool Brings the Windows Experience Index Back to Windows 8.1.” Here’s what the output of the Winaero WEI tool v1.0 looks like:
While I can say I’m sorry we didn’t finish our little exercise in sharing free code with the masses quickly enough to be first out, I am glad to see a version of this tool available to Windows 8.1 users everywhere. This one is the work of talented programmer Sergey Tkachenko, whose Winaero.com site offers a plethora of excellent freeware Windows utilities. Be sure to grab this utility, and to check out the many other interesting tools and widgets available on his site.