Before a miner begins the difficult slope towards mining whatever resource they wish to extract, finding the right spot is important. For not every part of Earth's surface contains the same riches, and there are areas more suited towards certain compositions. The landscape of technology is quite similar, with hundreds of devices popping up in every category. We have cheap $99 to $199 tablets, more expensive $350 to $500 tablets, laptops with and without touch screens ranging from $500 to 1000, ultrabooks with touch screens going from $900 up to $1700…. The list can go on and the form factors stretch to the imagination. Some ultrabooks flip the screen back to become a tablet. Some of them "slide" to reveal a keyboard underneath. Others allow you to detach the screen completely, so that you get the best of both worlds. This is more of a tablet with a dock, and all your expansion with keyboard can make it less mobile in some scenarios.
Feeling overwhelmed yet? Good! I am positive that any miner would too when testing the cites to go for. In the mine of technology, there never is a "one fits all" solution. I can provide my observations through the use of two modern Windows 8 devices. A Toshiba Encore tablet, and a Windows 8-era Lenovo Yoga 11S ultrabook. Both of these sport entirely different specs… Yet they both share the software and its features. Are you ready to drill?
The Story and rise of the Ultrabook
As much as some despise Apple for their closed and simplistic ecosystem, they were one of the first companies to bring thin and light computing to the rise. I recall sitting in my room back in 2007 as TV commercials flashed by about the wonderful new Macbook Air. Of course, at the time these machines were slow and dare I say clunky. Using a hard-drive which was slower than even one found in laptops (the rotation rate being 4200 and not 5400), they featured little expansion, half the battery life of today's computers, and were more of a showoff device than anything. Sure you could get things done on them… However these were no more than what you could accomplish on a netbook or other low end laptop. The price? Around $1700. That's air out of your wallet, I assume?
Today, the airs are almost half the price, and they deliver much higher specs. You could run low to mid-range games on them, and although graphic-intensive titles or tools are out of the question, typing up reports or doing any every day productivity tasks is quite easy and light. The airs are replacing the segment that the plastic Macbooks took up in 2007.
On the PC side, ultrabooks have fallen to be common around $700 to 900. Shortly after the Air came out, Intel realized that there's a threat within the market, and began developing a list of key features that every ultrabook must contain. The first-generation of these machines began showing up in late 2008 to 2009, with similar problems as the original Airs had.
The landscape today
Ultrabooks now feature touch screens, an almost-required function since the rise of Windows 8. These will have some system for turning the screen front and center, making it a landscape and very unwieldy portrait tablet. The specs on my Lenovo 11S include a 1.5 GHz processor, 8 GB of ram, and a 128 GB SSD, all of which are decent specs for a mid-range computer of our time. GHz has started to become less and less important today, so never judge a machine by it's hertz count. It won't work, as the processors themselves are becoming more efficient, thus giving you better performance out of your hertz value. My 2013-era ultrabook provides the same performance at 1.5 GHz as my 2009-era Thinkpad x200 did running at 2.4 GHz. That right there is saying something. Battery life on it is also good for a laptop, clocking in around 6-7 hours on a good day. Although most ultrabooks today will claim 10+ hours, a lot of them fall short of this figure.
Tablets: Let the war begin
Before Steve Jobs' death, he famously compared PCs to trucks and tablets as part of the post-PC era. The sleek, touch-driven interfaces of these devices meant that you could get more "personal" with your tablet than you could with any PC. Apple has also compared Windows 8's strategy of pleasing both the touch and regular PC crowd as "having a toaster as part of your fridge." Does this make Windows 8 on a slate doomed?
Hold up, Apple. While I can't exactly say Windows 8.1 is doomed on tablets, it still requires a lot of work to be fully viable. Awakened from its 10-year slumber, Microsoft is finally playing catch up to a lot of the technologies which are coming to dominate the devices we use. The strategy of all-in-one computers has both its downfalls and advantages. Similarly, a purely touch-based Windows tablet has its own battles to fight. The marketing behind these cares more about the legacy — you can now run actual programs on something small! — this, sadly, never is a heavenly world as its made to be.
If you thought netbooks were entirely dead, think again. Most of the 8 or 10 inch Windows tablets you will see on the market will sport Intel's Atom processor. My reaction to this was the same at first too: A lot of sighing. The Atom line has never been associated with superb performance and fast webpage loading times. Netbooks felt more like a Windows 98 PC than they did something from 2010, at least when they were around.
Tablet prices range from the inexpensive $199 to the Surface line costing over $1000 with accessories. Low-mid range devices will have Atom z37XX processors, while upper-range devices use actual core i3/i5/i7 CPUs. Most of them also allow stylus input, provided you buy a capacitive pen. This makes them ideal for precise drawing, something not even the iPad can lay claims to. If you're an artist, this is great news, as even some of the lower-priced tablets will feature a degree of pressure sensitivity.
Ram and storage tend to be limited. My Toshiba Encore can be configured with either 32 or 64 GB of drive space, and only 2 GB of ram. It also features a micro-SD card slot, which allows you to add an extra 64-GB of space when need be. (Actually, there is no "optional" factor here. You need that space.)
Windows 8 on an ultrabook. More like a laptop
The problem with having a touch-driven ultrabook is that it is still 11.6 inches. In order to not sacrifice the keyboard space and typing comfort, companies had to go with something that can deliver the same button placements and feedback as a regular PC. You can't just throw an 11 or 12 inch ultrabook in a shoulderbag and go out for the entire day. Most likely you'll need a larger backpack, one which can also hold your power adapter in case you're out for longer than you expected or use the device more than thought. Here you gain the benefit of a slightly faster processor than found in most tablets, with a lot more ram. Even the highest Intel Atoms only allow for 4 GB max, which probably sounds familiar to netbook users. 8 GB on my Yoga is more than enough to run all of my programs, including those which are more CPU-intensive such as compilers or geeky tools.
If you are at a meeting, being able to turn over your ultrabook and use handwriting on the screen is quite nice, as you also have a bigger screen to write on. If you are blind, you can also turn the screen off completely, and there's a trick which can allow you to not shut the keyboard off so that your screen is under the laptop's body. Essentially, the "screenless computer" is now a reality, at least on the Yoga line. When in regular laptop mode, reaching up to touch your screen is just not ideal. Sure, you can use it to find an obscure button or dialog easier (even if you are blind), however I would not browse the web on my ultrabook only with a touch screen when I have a mouse and keyboard at my disposal.
Port selection is also more limited on ultrabooks. Just last week, I was trying to fix a wi-fi router and needed to connect to it via ethernet. To my horror, I realized that there is no Ethernet jack on this machine, as only 2 USB ports, an HDMI port, and a power connector are on the sides. This will not be a problem for most, since wi-fi is everywhere nowadays, however it's good to keep in mind if you work in the IT or support fields.
Tablets: More like a… ?
I'm typing this article on my Toshiba tablet with an external full-sized Bluetooth keyboard. Not an ideal set up, since if I wanted to go out with friends just to chill, the large keyboard would make the word "tablet" pointless. Why when I can grab the ultrabook, and have something of similar size as a 10-inch Bluetooth keyboard which I would log around?
Keyboard cases do exist for tablets, and these pair the 8-inch machine with an 8-inch keyboard using magnets. This creates a portable set up, one which you can throw in a small bag or even a jacket's pocket. As far as comfort, these keyboards barely allow for two-handed typing and can feel crammed together with keys. Were I to write an article on one of them, I would feel exhausted by the end. The lower specs of this tablet also mean that no audio production or compiling work can be done on the road. This is fine, as usually I would not need these tools unless I was at work or in specific college courses.
We also come to the problem of touch. I have often found that the Windows 8 app store is lacking in many tools I would need. Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify are all there, however Skype, an e-mail client and light games to me feel more fluid in the desktop environment. Never mind that touch support for those who are blind is very limited and clunky at best, especially inside the new Windows 8 apps world. If you attempt to run a desktop program on such a small screen, you will find that touching the screen is too precise, since elements are very tiny and not at all made for finger-friendly scenarios. For this reason, I do highly recommend a stylus once more, as it will give you more precise control over what you want to accomplish.
On the upside though, battery life on this is superb. I was able to squeeze over 11 hours out of it yesterday, which is amazing for a mobile device. I know that if I wanted to walk around without a charger, I could very easily do so. That 11 hour figure was with the keyboard connected over Bluetooth, and moderate web browsing including podcast listening. Although I did lower my screen brightness, most forums I've looked at still claim 8-10 hours out of this tablet.
I can't quite decide where this Toshiba will fit in my life. On one hand, it will never replace my full-sized desktop or even the ultrabook. On another, it's more of a travel companion than either of those, and inexpensive enough that if I ever lost it, there's no need to over-worry for the price tag (though buying another one will take some time.) It's light and portable, and the Atom CPU line has become twice as fast as before. Websites load quickly, there's hardly any lag, and it boots up in under 10 seconds. These tablets also feature something called "connected standby", whereby your tablet will go to sleep but can wake up in only one second. Laptops do not have this capability, and still take 4-5 seconds to snap back on. When listening to audio or a book though, not being able to turn the screen off is a missed feature. Sure, you can hit the lock button, but this will make the tablet sleep, not just turn the touch screen off. I'm highly torn on this one.
Whew. That was a long drill, no? I will be observing this patch of ground very carefully in the future. There is still a lot of untapped potential here, potential which Microsoft could easily use to become more of a force in the tablet field. Ultrabooks with touch screens are nice, but still are not as thin (and never will be) as a tablet. They are a transition, and if you can buy one with a touch screen, it's better than to do so with out. Many Windows 8 features and elements are designed for touch and full-screen viewing, and even I still reach over on occasion to make my life easier by exploring the screen to precisely tap an option or button.
Tablets… Oh tablets. They are confused little creatures. While without a keyboard you can't do much creating on one, they can still make great video or music players, and you can easily use the microphone or camera to capture events. Wait on a moment, isn't that what smartphones do better? If you do buy a keyboard case, the use of a tablet is greater, and touchin the screen during your workflow feels less awkward than reaching all the way up to touch a laptop's screen like a gorilla reaches for the branches, holding your hand hovering above the screen touching buttons. Since the space is also less on 8-inch tablets, finding what you want is a bit easier, though you have to be more precise.
Again, there's much potential with tablets as well. Microsoft could stand to make desktop elements larger, improving the experience for everyone. While they will never replace a full workforce, they could be the final nail which transition PCs out of the clunky, truck era into something small and affordable for any person.