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

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Gaining access to the Internet and home networking via 802.11 N or G was painless. The fastest speed achieved consistently was 65 Mbps, which is decent if not great. The 500T does not have a mobile phone radio to access cellular networks, so this is important. The wireless LAN was street tested at several cafes, malls and offices, with a high degree of success, the resulting speed limited mostly by the quality and traffic of the access points.

The battery easily lasted a whole day of errand-running around town. In normal use, it should go at least 8 hours (of alternating active/sleep modes). A couple of long movies without charging should also be no problem. I once went over two days on battery before the charge dropped too low to turn on. Full recharge took less than two hours. Overall, the battery life is good, about on par with good netbooks.

For the record, the 500T made no noise of any kind in the 10 days that I used it before I posted this article. It is silent.

In Tablet Mode - The Windows 8 tablet experience was a pleasant shock because I was prepared to write it off. The screen responded instantly to gestures, swipes and touches, allowing Apps (differentiated from x86 Programs accessed from the desktop) to be used and switched with ease. Some apps were quite useful, but unfortunately, the MS Store offers nothing like the huge range of apps in the Google or iPad stores. We have to hope the apps library will grow, and fast.

Even with multiple apps open, there was very little slowdown or hesitation watching images or HD videos (news, movie trailers) off the web, or reading emails and web pages. I was especially impressed with how well the Bing News consolidator worked, allowing fluid access to news and imagery from multiple sources — for example, cross-checking the details of a story via different news services was a cinch. It's a far more engaging experience than the annoying MSN/Bing web page, which I always avoid. With its sprinking of big high res pics, generous size text on the 11.6" screen, and gesture-responsive random access, it reminded me of reading an old fashioned, big, glossy news magazine — like Life, for those old enough to know it. The email app is also very good.

The screen is difficult to capture accurately due to moire and high reflectivity, but this might give a hint of what makes Bing Daily (news consolidator) a pleasure to read and view on the Samsung 500T.

The quality of the screen left little to be desired, and the good off-axis imagery made it easy to share with a friend or two. In bright sunlight, it became difficult to view, especially with its glossy reflective glass, but this is true for virtually every screen I've tried, whether smart phones or laptops. The sound, while totally lacking in bass, was clear and mostly loud enough. Surprisingly, the relative lack of processing power in the Atom hardware (compared to the multi-core Sandy / Ivy Bridge hardware running my laptop and desktop computers) did not show up in any significant way in tablet mode.

The sheer size of the tablet was a bit awkward at times. In horizontal mode, the 7.3" height is about the same as an iPad, but at nearly 12", it is 2.5" wider. One-handed holding quickly becomes uncomfortable, and I found myself switching hands or using both hands often. I rarely used it in vertical mode; it was just a bit too tall to hold that way; so the left-right speaker location is well chosen. A button on the top edge locks the auto-swivel function down to whatever mode you're in. Two thumbs typing on the onscreen keyboard is difficult unless you have huge hands; the screen is too wide. Switching to split-keyboard mode makes this possible, even though the keys are much smaller.

I experienced a few freezes from time to time, but their incidence declined rapidly over the course of a week. I attribute this to my initial unfamiliarity with Windows 8, and improvements over time via updates to the Samsung and Windows 8 environment.

Overall, the 500T with Windows 8 in tablet mode gets a "B" for Info/Media Consumption and Utility. I would score it higher if there were more, better apps available to load or buy from the MS Store.

In Desktop Mode - One problem that crops when the 500T is used as a laptop is the limited tilt angle of the screen. If you are at a normal desk or table, it's fine, but when it has to be in your lap, the screen become harder to view. You could undock it, of course, but content creation with an onscreen keyboard is much harder. The keyboard feels a bit mushy but it's not bad, I've dealt with much worse, and the touchpad is reasonable, except the left/right button presses are not great. The good thing is that you can just reach up to the screen for a gesture or touch command if the touchpad isn't responding well.

Samsung 500T in notebook mode vs Lenovo X1 Carbon: 11.6" vs 14" screen. The latter has a matte finish for low reflectivity, which is better for long use, higher 1600 x 900 resolution, and tilts at any angle, all the way to 180 degrees. Its keyboard is one of the best in the business.

There are virtually no real programs preinstalled on the 500T, so a few had to be installed. One of the first was Media Player Classic, which can play media files of any format, unlike anything native in Windows, which still cannot handle mkv files, ubiquitous on the web. Photoshop CS3, Adobe Lightroom 4.3, DxO Optics Pro 8, Open Office, Virtual Clone Drive, and WinRAR were some of the programs I installed — the big ones via USB flash drive or optical drive, the smaller ones via direct download or via the network. The Chrome browser was downloaded and tried; Internet Explorer 10 proved to be better integrated, especially in tablet mode, and was easier to use. The $99/yr MS Office 365 software is going to be a routine purchase for many, so I downloaded and installed the preview version.

The specified size of the SSD is 64GB, but Windows recovery and OEM partitions leave just 51GB. Windows 8 takes up near 17GB in total, and Samsung preinstalls another >2GB of software, including Norton and Power DVD... on a device without an optical drive? I uninstalled both Norton & PowerDVD. The upshot: After Windows and essential Samsung updates, Windows reported that there was 33GB of free space. ExtremeTech has a detailed technical rant about this lack of drive space on the Samsung, btw. After installing the various programs described above, there was 27GB of space left on the SSD. This is not much room for any more software you might want to install, or for saving data (photos, videos, docs) locally but it might be enough for a lot of folks, especially as this machine is not likely to be your only computer or digital storage device, and it does have USB and MicroSD ports for external storage. Microsoft's Skydrive cloud storage also gives you 7GB free, and Office 365 increases this to 20GB, which is useful. There's also a plethora of other cloud storage most users are playing with these days, anyway.

So what can I say about the Windows 8 desktop experience on the 500T? My #1 frustration was the absence in Windows 8 of a start button with a list of available programs. It took me a couple of minutes to discover open source fixes for this on the web. I installed Classic Shell, which nicely restores many Windows 7 features. As a Consumer of media and information, I was satisfied. Playing even 1080p movies in mkv format (after the codecs of Media Player Classic were installed) from the home server via the wireless network was generally smooth and trouble-free. When there were any glitches, it was clearly related to data flow demand through too narrow a conduit (the wireless), not a core hardware bottleneck. Web browsers all generally worked fine; ditto other web enabled gadgets and programs.

As a Content Creator, the 500T did not really do it for me. Even the installation of some of those big programs (Lightroom is 430MB) was long and tedious. Photoshop runs, but slowly. Mass importing and automated lens/camera corrections of RAW photo files in DxO Optics Pro or Lightroom simply crawls, it's almost unusable. Ditto video file conversions To be specific, converting one 25 meg RAW file to a high quality JPG with a range of preset corrections in DxO Optics Pro took 3 min 30 sec. In the same amount of time, my Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop (with Ivy Bridge Core i5-3317U, 128GB SSD & 4GB RAM running Windows 7-64) processed 10 RAW files of the same size. My Sandy Bridge i5-2500K desktop system (8GB RAM, 240GB SSD, Win 7-64) processed these files in under 14 seconds each, or about 18 of them in 3.5 minutes. Converting a 90 sec, 290MB, 1080p/60 video file in AVHCP from my NEX-7 to an MP4 with Handbrake took 20 minutes. The Lenovo X1C did it in 3:10, the i5-2500K desktop in 1:40.

If you're shooting photos and videos in medium or lower resolution and processing them for web posting, the 500T is not impossible to work with, but you still need some patience, and it is best to put mutitasking aside. Most Office documents, whether MS Office or Open Office, could be worked on well enough, although some of the large spreadsheets were slow, and of course, the screen is a bit narrow for many columns of data. Working on content for SPCR via the web interface was no problem, but this is not an CPU-intensive task, except for the photo-editing (if you start with high quality RAW photos, which I prefer to do), and coding HTML in Dreamweaver was fine, though as usual, I have trouble with smaller screens, as I'm used to at least 24" HD monitors with my desktop PCs. I didn't spend a lot of time with Office 365, but the overall experience was pretty good, the touch-screen enhancements and web collaboration functions worked. The hardware seemed to take most things I tried with Office 365 in stride; it didn't get in my way.

Overall, the 500T in Windows 8 Desktop mode gets a "C" or "D" for Content Creation, depending how much you value image or video processing.

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