Mobile Convergence: Windows 8 Convertibles Samsung ATIV 500T, MS Surface Pro

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We've all been told many times that the day will come when the desktop PC as we know it will slide into obscurity, though try telling that to the guys buying $500 gaming video cards (and the makers of those cards) for their mega-tower systems. SPCR itself will be unable to sustain interest when all computing devices are mobile and solid-state — and theoretically, noise-free. That day isn't quite here yet, but there's no question that smart phones, tablets, and increasingly slimmer powerful laptops have been dominating the mainstream tech landscape for some time. Tablet-notebook convertibles are the latest twist.

A small mirrorless camera acquired in December to more or less replace my well-loved & used Nikon D7000 SLR stolen last summer gave rise to the question of whether a tablet could be used as a photo-computer when I'm traveling. I've been revelling in the fact that my new Sony NEX-7 and a couple of the lenses for it weigh a fraction and take up less than half the room of my previous Nikon DSLR gear, despite taking photos of higher resolution, on the same DX size sensor. Would it be possible to replace my already slim Thinkpad laptop with an even smaller tablet in a general slim-down? This would also ease the growing itch for a tablet like a Google/Asus Nexus 7 (Larry Lee is tethered to his whenever he's in the lab) or an iPad Mini (which goes against my distaste for Apple's wannabe monopolism) — even though I can use my Android phone for everything they can do. (The irrational pull of gadgets on geeks cannot be underestimated.) A Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T tablet-notebook sample that arrived last week, and the Feb 9 weekend launch of the Microsoft Surface Pro provided a good excuse to explore this question in detail while still calling it work.

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click to enlarge
Sony NEX-7 camera with 18~55mm lens, next to 30mm f:2.8 Sigma and 16mm f:2.8 Sony lenses, replaces a far bigger, heavier Nikon D7000 DSLR and lenses without giving up anything in resolution or general photo capability. My current photo-computer Lenovo X1 Carbon is already quite small (1600 x 900, 14" screen in 13" frame, 3 lb package with Intel i5-3317U (dual core, hyperthreaded), 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM, SD card slot, USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, Windows 7 64-bit). The Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T tablet atop its keyboard is not that much smaller, has a smaller, lower res screen (11.6", 1366 x 768), weighs 10 oz. more with its keyboard, has only a 64GB SSD, 2GB RAM and a far less capable Atom processor. But its touch tablet form and Windows 8 brings new functionality to the table.

The mobile market is moving towards a marriage of tablet and thin laptop. Many variations on this idea have already appeared; the ideal is a tablet with a screen big enough (say 10~12") with high enough resolution (at least 1,280 x 800 pixels, preferably HD or better), maximum 2 lbs weight, powered by a mobile processor that doesn't feel sluggish (say a >2 GHz Intel mobile dual/quad core), with 10 hours of normal battery time — and most importantly, a well integrated, comfortable keyboard that attaches on/off easily so that the touch-screen tablet can switch instantly to a small, efficient laptop. The whole point, of course, is to reduce the number of gadgets in our lives: A laptop and a tablet in one makes sense, but only if it works well in either mode.

This is not to say that such convertible devices will wipe out demand for either notebooks or tablets any time soon. For those sold on the iPad or Nexus 10 experience and not involved in content creation, convertibles have no pull. And laptops (with their huge range of sizes and intended environments) have such a solid, secure place in both personal and enterprise environments that it would take a revolution to dislodge them. But I'm happy to bet big dollars that when a truly canny, balanced blend of thin laptop and tablet appears, it will sweep the marketplace.

The basic problem with either Apple or Android tablets is that they don't run a full-fledged operating system. This prevents the use of familiar software such as Photoshop, MS Office, and other powerful x86 (or x64) programs preferred by business and power users. So all a keyboard really does for iPad and Google Nexus users is make it more comfortable to type with two hands. Sure, apps abound for iOS and Android, but none are quite the same as the more powerful Windows, Mac or Linux programs. A handful of tablet-laptop convertibles running Windows 7 have been available, but that OS is simply not designed for a small touch-screen interface, so even when they work well as a laptop, they simply canot compete as a tablet.

This is not an issue if you are mostly consuming content — reading news, watching videos and photos, browsing the web, and exchanging emails and messages can often be done with greater ease and comfort on a touch screen tablet than a notebook. But when creating content is your greater interest — whether it's video or still imagery, web content, spreadsheet reports, or CAD drawings — then the limitations of touch tablet OSes start to impinge. Some activities the content creators do on Windows or Mac notebooks are simply impossible to do on an Android or iOS tablet.

Windows 8 is currently the only real option for tablet users who want to be able to use "real" programs. It has a native touch-screen interface, a somewhat traditional Windows desktop for notebook mode, and it can run the entire gamut Windows software that's already out there (given adequate hardware, of course). There are three variants of the OS: Windows RT is for ARM processors that do not run x86 sofware — call it a Microsoft version of Android or iOS that some journalists are already pronouncing dead. Windows 8 is the standard version, and the Pro comes in both 32 and 64 bit versions, with more enterprise/networking features. Since the release of Windows 8 in October last year, a handful of tablet-laptop convertibles running the new OS have been introduced by Dell, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo and Hewlett-Packard, and many more are on the way, not least of which is Microsoft's own Surface Pro, being released February 9, just as this article is being written; more on that later.

Discounting versions running Windows RT, some of these Windows 8 convertibles are not quite small or light enough to be used like the Nexus 10 (600g) or iPad (700g). Some remain permanently tethered to the keyboard, which swivels and flips for different use configurations, but you still have a 3-3.5 lb gadget, which isn't anything like a 20 oz tablet. (Lenovo ThinkPad Twist and Dell XPS 12 Convertible fall into the too-big category.) The majority of the smaller convertibles are based on the same internal hardware, mostly the Intel Atom Z2760 processor, a hyperthreaded dual core running at 1.8 GHz maximum, 2G of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of SSD storage.

The Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T falls right in with its competition: Clover Trail Atom Z2760, 2GB RAM, 64GB SSD. The new Atom is apparently considerably zippier than the previous gen, and certainly faster than the processors that run Windows RT, Google Nexus or iPad tablets, but is it enough muscle for Windows 8 and full-fledged programs? My experience over the years with Atom-based machines suggests not, at least not for demanding imaging programs like Photoshop, Lightroom or DxO Optics Pro on which I rely rountinely... but I'll keep an open mind, and we'll find out.

The pricing is somewhat complicated because some models come without a keyboard but with a stylus, others with both keyboard and stylus, and others with stylus but no keyboard. In Canada, the suggested retail is CA$750 for tablet with keyboard and no stylus. AFAIK, no other models seem to be offered. In the US, the 500T models appear to come with stylus, but with or without keyboard — typical selling price in the US being $650~$700 with keyboard, and up to $100 less without.

Samsung ATIV Smart PC 500T

Samsung ATIV XE700T1C-A01US Smart PC Pro 700T

Typical, modest size retail box.

The tablet and keyboard came packed separately on their own foam trays.

The ATIV 500T is the entry model of two Windows 8 tablet-notebooks Samsung is offering, the 700T being a higher performance machine in a very similar chassis: 1920 x 1080 HD screen, an Ivy Bridge i5-3317U Processor, 4G RAM, 128 SSD, S Pen, USB 3.0 port and wired gigabit LAN are the main upgrades, which are very significant. The battery is higher capacity to keep up with the higher power demand of the hardware.

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