Wish List - Building the Ultimate Slate
My experience with various slates of recent has shown me that they continue to progress. While still focused primarily on content consumption, devices such as the Surface RT and Surface PRO can tackle productivity in a way that would render even a netbook or notebook obsolete. Given my stubborn insistence on keeping my 10" netbook, is there a recipe for a perfect slate that could satisfy those such as myself who have been holding out all this time? Read on for my thoughts.
We all remember back when the first iPad came out - many critics took it as being purely a luxury toy. Indeed, it was priced more expensive than an entry-level notebook, yet performed far worse in terms of raw performance, couldn't offer comparable storage/connectivity, and in the case of Flash, simply failed. The focus on providing a touch UI made moving a finger on the screen the new method of interaction, albeit at the expense of other traits.
It was convenient for content consumption and light input, but did nothing to aid in true productivity, a task which still required a bona-fide keyboard and pointing device.
Then came the clamshell iPad keyboard case. Resembles a notebook. Costs just as much when you factor in the price of both the slate and the keyboard. But did it offer the same features and functionality? You were still hindered by the watered-down apps which lacked features. The hardware restrictions limited what you could connect to. And as many users will attest, balancing that two-device contraption on your lap to type akin to using a real notebook was simply impossible.
More often than not, you ended up returning to your desktop or notebook to get any real work done.
For those that missed the netbook bandwagon, finding a truly portable device with a proper keyboard that still did what many would call "real work" came when Microsoft introduced the Surface RT in late 2012. What was so evolutionary about this device is that it broke the status quo on every previous slate, using an OS that was not based on smaller smartphones. It also was the first to offer standard keyboard/mouse connectivity, came with a usable USB2.0 port, and offered handy accessories that gave you capabilities more in common with a notebook than a slate.
It was a groundbreaking change.
Following up, Microsoft then produced the Surface PRO, offering the full desktop Windows 8 OS complete with a 1080p screen. The entry-level notebook of years past had now morphed into a slate retaining the same productivity, albeit at a lofty $1200 price.
IF IT AIN'T BROKE DON'T FIX IT:
Of course, the Surface PRO came after many failed attempts at similar offerings, the UMPC being one such effort. Devices such as the OQO 02, Sony UX and Viliv S5 were amazing in design, offering for the first time the capability of a handheld PC. But they were crippled by low-performing Atom hardware, an outdated Windows XP OS, and didn't exactly shine in battery life or ergonomics.
But is it possible that something like the OQO 02 could be viable today were it running Windows 8.1? Further still, what if you could replace that mediocre Atom with a 4.5W SDP Haswell part? Throw in a 5" 1366x768 display, and you have the foundations for a very useful handheld device, especially with the awesome backlit sliding keyboard! In fact, LG's just-announced 5.5 inch 2560x1440 panel would make for a killer handheld PC.
Moving up in size, both 7" and 10" form-factors would also benefit from these improvements, alongside offer high-PPI displays, a more substantial battery, and hardware keyboards suitable for extended text entry.
We can all dream about our ideal slate spec wish list, but as was the case with the UMPC and the netbook, if the market doesn't want it, manufacturers won't produce it. Tablets are where mobile computing is at right now. They won't replace notebooks or desktops. But they can, with some key improvements, make for a bullet-proof mobile productivity solution.
With smartphones on the market now offering 1080p playback capabilities, it would seem backwards not to offer the same display quality in a slate. Google's current Nexus 7 boasts a 1920x1200 resolution with a 7" diagonal, translating to 322 PPI density. Such a detailed image on the Windows desktop would allow for a superior productivity experience, allowing you to have two windows open side-by-side for example. Even at the smaller 5" size, a 1600x900 display would be very workable for the enthusiast.
Very important as well is the need to incorporate palm-rejection technology. One of my negatives with using OneNote on the Surface RT was the inability to rest my hand on the display when taking handwritten notes. Had Microsoft incorporated palm-rejection into the display, they would have had a winning design out the gate.
It doesn't need any explanation that Atom performance is lacking. Intel's Haswell parts benefit from not only a beefier CPU, but offer HD4600 integrated graphics suitable for running 1080p content and 3D graphics. RAM and storage are other areas that can benefit from newer process tweaks not available a few short years ago, allowing for more than 4GB of memory and a sizeable 128GB or more SSD capacity. Advances in wireless should also allow for integrated WLAN and WWAN solutions enabling no-compromise internet connectivity whether at home or on the go.
Offering a hardware keyboard is key if slates are to be successful productivity devices. While I'm a big fan of the Surface keyboard design, it could still do with some useful tweaks to make it even better. The first would be to incorporate a 2nd battery in order to boost your unplugged run time. Even if it only resulted in an hour of additional run time, the extra weight would be negligible and make the difference between getting your work done or being anchored to an outlet.
Second, I would like to see a keyboard suitable for use with a 7" form-factor. It's not impossible to make such a keyboard that maintains ergonomics for extended touch-typing. I know that if the Nexus 7 had such a keyboard cover, it would make it's use case significantly more inviting.
By far the biggest challenge for slate manufacturers is providing hardware that can go the distance on unplugged run time. Microsoft's Surface PRO ships with a mammoth 42WH 5676mAh battery, yet cannot even do 5 hours surfing the web. While that number would more than likely improve using Haswell, it still highlights the importance of cell density and fitting that energy inside a particular form factor. Whatever the successor to Li-Poly chemistry ends up being, it will play a key role in slate hardware.
Of course, using removable batteries as opposed to built-in cells would allow more flexible use, and permit extended run times. It's also important to note the use of standard barrel connectors for power/charging in lieu of proprietary solutions, so that enthusiasts can freely opt for external battery solutions when an AC outlet is nowhere nearby.
Windows RT does a great job of capitalizing on low-end ARM slate hardware, and it would be a shame to see it get sidelined. The desktop mode is especially adept at handling productivity, and differentiates the OS from smartphone-based slates by a long mile.
Should RT not tickle your fancy, there's always the full Windows 8.1. Many argue the need to run legacy apps, but here's the million dollar question - do legacy apps benefit from a touch UI, and if so, do they run well on slate hardware? I can run Cool Edit Pro on the Surface PRO, but handicapped audio drivers prohibit me from recording internet streams, for example. Similarly, while I can open and edit Excel spreadsheets, it's impossible to use the touch UI to resize cells using my finger to swipe on the display - I need precision cursor control thru a mouse/trackball.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas where slates can improve upon is connectivity. I would love to see a device that mirrors my netbook with 3 USB ports, for example, along with a full size SD card slot, and a standard HDMI connector. This would be the minimum I would expect on a full Windows device. I think it would be difficult to place much more than this on a slate, but again, that's where accessories can come into play.
One of the most useful items that can exist for any mobile tech gadget is a docking station. Notebooks have enjoyed these for years, but slates can benefit even more. Imagine docking your Surface PRO into a device that gives you standard RJ-45 connectivity, a 2.5" storage drive and a trio of USB3.0 ports. Such an accessory could transform your slate into a proper desktop replacement. Add some HDMI ports and you could even run multiple monitors.
This would be in addition to adapters that allowed you to get video out, use external storage etc. Matching cases, screen protectors, keyboard options, extended capacity batteries, or even a car adapter for models that use a proprietary power connector. Such items would all allow a use case for a slate where it would normally not be doable.
Is the above checklist just an enthusiast's fantasy or will it be reality in the coming months? We know for certain that each successive architecture leap for Intel brings efficiency gains in power, so if Haswell doesn't make it workable, Broadwell certainly will. We also know that Microsoft is hell bent on making Windows 8.1 the standard on desktops, notebooks and slates, bringing desktop-like productivity to the most mobile devices. Add some clever design and engineering from the various OEM's, and it's not too hard to see some incredible results take shape.
The question is, does the market want such advanced slate gear, or are we content playing angry birds? Consumers and enthusiasts often expect different things from certain devices. I could be happy blogging with a Surface RT while the next guy may not settle for anything less than a notebook to do the very same task.
These have just been my quick thoughts, and given that I'm still quite skeptical of slates as productivity tools, am still waiting for the next big thing. Fortunately, my HP 210 Mini is still serving me well, and should hold out over the next couple of years. For those of you that don't have a netbook though and long for a similar solution, Microsoft's Haswell upgrade to the Surface PRO coming later this year should definitely be high on your list. I know I will be getting one here for testing.