Windows 8 in 8 Inches: A Small Tablet Round-Up

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For this review to be useful, you need some context about me and why I spent my own money to buy all these tablets and then take the time to write about them.

I ran a large Apple forum & website and I’m the dude who went from Melbourne to New York to get an iPad a month before they were released in Australia. You’d think I’d be all “pfft, what’s this trash from Microsoft? I’m done with them!” Jobs 4 EVA”. I like Apple stuff, clearly. Maybe I’m even a fanboy.

For me, Windows 8 is like a group of kids at school who you didn’t hang out with and who didn’t bother you at all, but you stared at them across the playground thinking “What’s so good about them? What secret have they been let in on that I don’t know about? Why are they like that?”. I see Windows 8 users like that group of kids, thinking that maybe their weird ideas on computing platforms might suit me. Apple can’t have a monopoly on good ideas, can they? That’d just be my Apple fanboy blinkers shielding me from the truth?

The big concept of Windows 8 is that you have one operating system regardless of how you want to use your computer.

Windows 8 is the antithesis‎ of what Apple has done with their product line up. On the Mac and the iPad, you have separate operating systems. They may have the same base and some similar visual cues, but its the core, the apps you use on iOS and Mac OS X and how you use them, are different.

Microsoft went the other way and decided that there’s no reason why the same operating system can’t run on a tablet and on a desktop/laptop. Windows 8 has the infamous “Metro/Modern” interface – this is the one with all the tiles and big stuff made for tapping – and the traditional “Desktop” interface, with windows and menu bars and multiple apps on screen at once. The thing we’ve been using for decades now. This paradigm is central to how you use Windows 8.

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There are dozens of reviews on Windows 8 and 8.1 out there, so I’m not gonna go into detail about it. Lukas Mathis recently published his experience with a Microsoft Surface 2 Pro and it’s a good read.

What I want to look at today are cheap (sub-$500), Bay Trail Intel Atom based, 8″ tablets, running Windows 8.1. The main allure of these things is the fact they’re small and use an Intel x86 based CPU – this means your old school legacy apps can run. This is unlike the Windows RT tablets, which contain an ARM based CPU which, whilst can still run in “Desktop” mode, can’t run the hundreds of thousands of Windows apps out there. Windows RT can only run apps made for Windows RT.

I’ve tried to get every Bay Trail based 8″ tablet currently on the Australian market.

The specs are quite similar between the models, with features being the differentiator. Common between all the units are:

  • Windows 8.1
  • 2GB RAM
  • eMMC based flash storage
  • Intel HD Graphics
  • MicroSD card reader
  • headphone/mic socket
  • 802.11 a/b/g/n plus Bluetooth 4.0
  • 10W (5V/2A) chargers

The table below highlights the main specs between them.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 17.52.27

There’s very little spec-wise to tell them apart. Let’s look deeper at each model.

acer
  • Plastic body, but still fine
  • Physical Windows button
  • On the expensive side ($449)
  • Has MicroHDMI port & MicroSD slot
  • Included a USB 2.0 OTG cable in the box!

The Acer is the most average of these tablets and that’s a good thing. Nothing sucks, but nothing really stands out. Everything feels and works as it should. It has microHDMI, the volume and power buttons are well defined and easy to press, the microSD slot is easy to access, the plastic case feels light, but durable. A microUSB to full size USB cable was even included in the box! No other tablet came with such a thing. The Windows button is also a proper physical button on the front of the device, I also like this more than the touch buttons on the others, or the weird placement of it on the top of the Dell Venue 8 Pro.

The only downside is that it’s relatively expensive for what it is – $449 for only 32GB of storage, when the very similar Toshiba Encore sells for $399 with 64GB. The Iconia also has a serious amount of pre-installed bloatware, which as I’ll explain later, is a pain to remove.

dell
  • Sleekest model in this round-up
  • No HDMI output
  • Slightly slower RAM
  • Windows button also physical, but on the top and quite thin

The Venue 8 Pro has the nicest hand feel (what a weird term that is). The back is ribbed, for our pleasure, and despite the Lenovo Miix 2 beating it (fractionally) on size and weight, the Venue 8 Pro feels like the best constructed tablet out of the bunch – even moreso than the Lenovo Thinkpad 8 which has an aluminium back.

Unfortunately there’s no HDMI output, so using it as a quasi-desktop isn’t gonna happen. Which considering cheaper tablets manage to incorporate this, would be nice. There’s a small Windows button on the top of the device – as an iPad user, it’s weird pressing the top of the device in order to go to the home screen.

The other slight quirk with the Dell tablet is the fact it uses the Z3740D CPU, not the Z3740. The difference is in the RAM used – DDR3L-RS 1333 vs. LPDDR3-1066. The RS RAM is slower than the LP RAM and this impacts graphics performance and anything else depending on memory speed. In the real world though, it’s quite negligible. I don’t know why Dell went with this model CPU – maybe Intel gave em a good price.

thinkpad8
  • Most expensive model ($549 for 64GB)
  • Aluminium body
  • Only model with USB 3.0
  • 1920×1200 resolution screen, which has it’s good points and bad points
  • Sightly faster CPU than the others

This is the more expensive of the two Lenovo units and the priciest tablet in the round-up. The Thinkpad 8 goes for $549 for a 64GB model, about $100 more than the other 64GB tablets. This is most likely due to the fact it has the faster Z3770 CPU, USB 3.0, a 1920×1200 screen and an aluminium case. The 1920×1200 screen is the biggest feature on this thing and when used in Modern mode, looks really nice. Unfortunately, when using it in Desktop mode, it’s a mixed bag.

1920×1200 is fine on a 24″ monitor, or on a 15″ laptop (just), but on an 8″ screen everything is microscopic. If you’ve ever used a Retina MacBook Pro or a sub 30″ 4K monitor in native mode, you know what I’m talking about. Windows 8 does do graphics scaling, but it is pretty bad (more on that later).

The USB 3.0 port is also used for charging the tablet, so unlike all the others, you can’t just use a ubiquitous microUSB cable, you gotta lug a micro USB 3.0 cable around (which isn’t that micro – they’re quite thick). I tried to use the USB 3.0 port to plug in a USB flash drive and a USB modem, but unfortunately, couldn’t get it to recognise any devices. I purchased a microUSB 3.0 to full-size USB 3.0 dongle and whilst it works on my desktop computer, it doesn’t work on the Thinkpad 8. I was able to plug in an external HDD using a case with full-size USB 3.0 input, but I had to use an external power source for that.

There is also a USB 3.0 dock, apparently, but Lenovo’s website doesn’t seem to have it, so I’m gonna guess it’s not out yet.

Lenovo includes a faster CPU on the Thinkpad 8 versus the other models. Considering the lack of grunt the Atom CPUs have in the first place, it is a welcome bonus. In normal use the CPUs are relatively the same, but if you’re plugged in to a power outlet and the conditions are right, the Z3770 can boost its clock speed to 2.39GHz vs. 1.86GHz on the Z3740. In reality this eeks out maybe 2 or 3 more FPS when encoding video. Not a huge difference.

The usefulness of the 1920×1200 screen is debatable and the inclusion of USB 3.0 is nice, but unless you’re using it or the mythical docking station, doesn’t really make a difference. The faster CPU is genuinely useful, but considering the speed of these Atom CPUs, isn’t a deal breaker.

lenovomiix
  • Lightest & smallest of the models here
  • No Micro HDMI
  • $399 for 32GB

The Miix 2 is the lightest and smallest of the bunch and considering the price it’s well positioned. Unfortunately it lacks the microHDMI output of the Toshiba and Acer. It doesn’t really have any other redeeming qualities to make it worthwhile to purchase over them either. Sure, it’s smaller and lighter, but it’s a barely discernable difference and not worth the sacrifice of a micro HDMI port.

toshiba
  • Cheapest tablet available, on sale frequently
  • Feels a bit chunkier than the others, but it’s not that bad
  • Has Micro HDMI output

The Encore is the bargain of the lot. It was on sale for $299 at Dick Smith a few weeks ago, and I saw it for $320 at last week. Right now it’s still hovering around $399 (the RRP), but chances are it will go on sale again soon. It has microHDMI and there’s no weirdness about it like the ThinkPad 8 and isn’t missing microHDMI like the ASUS, Dell & Miix 2.

It looks a bit ugly, the buttons on the side are a bit skinny and the plastic back doesn’t do it any favours, but you can’t argue with the price and features.

asus
  • Only model here supplied with a stylus and a proper active digitiser
  • Feels cheap versus the other models
  • No Micro HDMI

The VivoTab Note 8 is unlike the other tablets here because it has what’s called an active digitiser – this allows for use of a stylus to do fine pointing and drawing and reject your hand’s input. Much like the Galaxy Note or Surface Pro. If you need this feature or intend to use a stylus often, then the VivoTab is exactly what you want. None of the other tablets offer this feature in an 8″ package. Here’s an excellent video review of the pen capabilities of this tablet:

But if you are not big on the stylus use (I personally loathe it), then there’s not much going on here that the other tablets can do. There’s no microHDMI output on the ASUS – it’s pretty much the same as the Lenovo Miix 2 and the Dell Venue and those two are better built.

Unusually, I found the screen to not be very “slippery”. I had a hard time dragging my finger across the screen. Maybe this has something to do with the Wacom digitiser, but the screen feels like one of those $90 Pendopads from Coles. Not very nice. The VivoTab also has a weird chemical/rubber smell on its rubberised back casing and after using it for a while, the smell rubs off on my fingers.

The Tablets In Use As A Notebook

One of the major attractions of these cheap tables is to use it as a quasi netbook. Couple it with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, it could be a good laptop replacement – or so I thought.

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In reality, the 8″ screen makes using one as a laptop difficult. 1280×800 pixels on an 8″ screen needs to be close to your face. Closer than how you’d normally use a laptop. Handheld it’s fine, but using the tablet on a stand on a table means you need to hunch down and get close to the screen to see things properly as they’re so small.

On the ThinkPad 8 in particular, things get stupid with everything so small at 1920×1200 on its 8.3″ screen. It literally hurt my eyes after about 20 minutes of use. Windows 8 does have various scaling options, which makes things much better but introduces other problems. (click the gear in the top right to view at full resolution to see what I’m talking about)

For example, Google Chrome doesn’t seem to support it at all. Chrome opens up and all the text (even on webpages), graphics and UI are pixelated and look horrible. Many apps are like this and it’s frustrating to the point of intolerable. Even apps that support screen scaling, don’t do it well. They’ll have fuzzy icons, some UI widgets are out of proportion and look funny, or the text isn’t rendered properly. I would much rather have a lower resolution display and run everything at native than the increased sharpness and an annoying mish-mash of UI components.

If you want one of these Windows 8 tablets to use in Desktop mode often, in a laptop style setup, then really look at the 10″+ screen sizes and with a modest resolution.

Performance wise, most mundane tasks went off without a hitch on the Atom CPU. It didn’t really break a sweat doing Office tasks or surfing the web. Multitasking is a bit iffy due to the 2GB of RAM. If you’re using Google Chrome and have a dozen tabs open, you’re gonna get a lot of paging to disk as memory runs out. Don’t even think about using virtual machines with only 2GB of RAM available either. The CPU can probably handle it (it is quad core and even supports VT-x), but with the default install of Win 8 and a couple of apps open consuming ~1GB, your VM isn’t gonna have much to use for itself.

One of the tablets, sitting idle, consuming 50% of RAM.
One of the tablets, sitting idle, consuming 50% of RAM.

The speed of the eMMC based flash storage isn’t anywhere near as fast as the PCIe or SATA3 based SSDs on “proper” computers. It really shows when coming off my Dell laptop with a SATA2 SSD, down to any of these tablets with the eMMC based storage.

The lack of a USB port on these tablets also makes a bit less practical as a notebook replacement. Sure, the Acer ships with a microUSB to USB 2.0 dongle and the ThinkPad 8 has a microUSB 3.0 port, but you have the issue where that USB port is also the same port used for charging. If you want to charge your tablet and use it off mains power whilst using a USB device – too bad. If you want to use a USB device that draws anything more than a bare minimum of power, too bad as the ports don’t supply a proper 500mA.

Micro HDMI makes a big difference to the usability of these tablets as a notebook – being able to plug it in to a proper monitor is super handy. Or even just to plug in to a TV to watch videos. All these laptops support Intel’s WiDi or Miracast (which is pretty much the same thing). This video is a great example of how it works:

Whilst it’s great for slideshows or movies – it’s not the best for general use as a monitor cable replacement (e.g: HDMI) in a desktop setup. The latency between mouse & key input would drive me crazy.

And finally, I dislike not being able to wipe the drives of these tablets and install a “clean” version of Windows. They all come with a significant amount of bloatware and it’d be nice to use the OEM product key to install a fresh copy of Windows 8.1. Alas, all you can do is restore from a recovery partition (using Windows itself or from a USB flash drive you’ve prepared before the system died). It’d be nice to plug a tablet in to a Windows 8 computer and be able to do a restore via USB, like an Android or iOS tablet.

General Observations

Much of the things that suck about these tablets, suck on all of them and suck because of Windows trying to be jack of all trades, master of none, or some unfavourable hardware decisions by the manufacturers.

This isn’t supposed to be a review of Windows 8 itself, but it’s worth mentioning that the usefulness of these devices as a tablet is severely hampered by the lack of quality Modern UI apps. There are a few diamonds in the rough, but overall, the Windows 8 app landscape isn’t as vibrant as Android or iOS.

Don’t fret, because the lack of Modern UI apps is okay because we have the desktop and the tablets are x86 so all the traditional apps work! Well, yeah, they work, but using the desktop interface with your finger is awful. Even using a stylus is painful. Using those apps in tablet mode really sucks.

So these 8″ tablets are not very good at being a tablet because of the poor ecosystem, but they’re also not very good at being laptops because of the hardware involved.

A major failure of these tablets is the fact they only have 2GB of RAM. Most non-Windows tablets only have 2GB of RAM (or less) and they’re fine – but for a Windows tablet, 2GB isn’t really enough. On other platforms, developers know how much RAM the device is going to have and work around it. The OS is designed to be RAM-frugal. Windows 8 however isn’t designed with that in mind. Someone using Windows 8 could have 16GB or they could have 1GB and the apps may or may not take that into consideration.

Would you run a desktop or laptop, which is what these tablets really are, with only 2GB of RAM? Probably not. Out of the box, with all the included bloatware running, most of the tablets only had 1GB of RAM free. Multitasking between Internet Explorer, Office and Skype on 2GB of RAM is not fun at all.

The usefulness of an 8″ tablet running Windows is also debatable. Sure, 8″-ish tablets are common – iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 come to mind. They’re really popular too. But for Windows 8, I don’t think anything under 10″ is really appropriate. Using the tablet solely in Modern mode is great, but there’s bugger all apps for it compared to Android or iPad. Anything good on Windows 8 is as good or better on the other platforms. But! Windows 8 lets you do side by side screen splitting thing, which is really nice and useful. But! The 8″ screen makes it really cramped and not so useful vs. a 10″ or larger display.

Even when using Desktop mode, the 8″ screen coupled with a 1280×800 resolution still results in me having to get quite close to the display in order to see the details properly.

Ultimately, I think the concept of one device to rule them all is great, but an 8″ tablet isn’t the right form factor. I’d love to use a 12″ or 13″ sized Atom based tablet, as this can take true advantage of the split screen feature and leverage a slightly higher resolution (say 1440×990) for a desktop mode that doesn’t require you to squint. It would also be able to act as a quality tablet.

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What To Buy

To be honest, I wouldn’t buy any of these tablets. If you want to use one as primarily a tablet, avoid Windows 8 all together and get a Nexus 7 or an iPad mini. There’s better app selection and they cost less. If you want to use it a sometimes tablet and a sometimes desktop, look at the larger 10″ tablets – 8″ screens just don’t work for anything other than tablet-only use and tablet-only use isn’t worth using Windows 8 for.

But, if for some reason you still really want one of these awkward middle-child tablets and don’t need the active digitiser in the ASUS VivoTab 8 and can live without the ability to use a USB 3.0 docking station (whenever Lenovo decide to release it!) with your tablet, then I can only recommend either the Toshiba Encore or Acer Iconia W4-820. The Dell Venue 8 Pro and Lenovo Miix 2 are actually better, hardware wise, but because they lack the micro HDMI port, they’re not that significantly better built than the Encore or Iconia to justify the lack of that port.

The Encore can often be had very cheaply, so if you can wait until it appears on sale, grab it – if you actually want one of these things.

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Reckoner had its humble beginnings way back in June of 2013.

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