Let's admit it: Love it or hate it, Windows 8 was designed for touch screens. Its new facade, the colourful quilt of square tiles that I call TileWorld, was born for finger operation.
Unfortunately, most PCs don't have touch screens – "yet", says Microsoft, which insists that their time is coming. On the premise that Microsoft knows what it's talking about, one company after another has been introducing new computers, mostly laptops, with built-in touch screens for Windows 8.
Many of these machines have screens that flip, twist, rotate or detach so that you can use them either as laptops or as tablets. The HP Envy x2, Lenovo Yoga, Lenovo Helix, Dell XPS 12, Asus Vivo Tab, Asus Transformer Book and the Acer Iconia W510 all fall into this category.
Most of those use a stripped-down, low-powered processor, though (the Intel Atom). They have enough juice for tablet apps, but you'll find them slow for desktop PC tasks.
That's not true of Microsoft's own Surface Pro, which packs Intel's powerful i5 processor. When I reviewed this sleek, attractive tablet/PC in February, I noted that it was an incredibly well-executed hybrid. It's a half-inch-thin, 1 kilogram tablet, but the kickstand in back and the keyboard/screen cover in front let you turn it into a real Windows desktop PC in seconds. Its limitations are a feeble battery, undersize keyboard and limited storage (only 23 gigabytes in the $US900 model).
Which brings us to this piece of reader mail, which arrived shortly after that column was published: "How could you write about the Surface Pro without mentioning the Samsung Ativ PC Pro ($US1200)? It has the same Intel processor as the Surface Pro, but much better battery life, bigger screen, bigger keyboard, 1080p screen and more storage. Yet it's still under 2 pounds [1 kilogram]."
My jaw dropped. It's obvious that Microsoft had put every droplet of engineering talent it had into the Surface Pro. It's Microsoft's shining golden boy, its proof that Windows 8 isn't a tragic misfire. Could Samsung really have something better already?
Sadly, no. My reader was mistaken about a couple of things.
The full name of the machine he was describing is the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T, which at 18 syllables sounds as if it were named by the federal government. It's a laptop whose screen detaches, becoming a tablet, when you press a release button and tug. Awkwardly enough, in laptop mode, the detach button covers up the Windows button used to open Windows 8's Start screen. In laptop mode, you have to use the Windows key on the keyboard instead.
Yes, the Samsung weighs less than 1 kilogram, but that's the weight of the detached screen (the tablet) alone. With the keyboard attached, the whole thing weighs 1.6 kilograms. So right off the bat, this machine isn't comparable to the Surface Pro, which weighs less than 1 kilogram for everything.
All of the Smart PC Pro's guts – battery, processor, memory, cameras and so on – are in the screen. They make the top half of the laptop weirdly heavier and thicker than the bottom half, which contains only the keyboard. In other words, in laptop mode, the whole thing is top-heavy.
Some rival detachable-screen laptops are even more top-heavy – the screen portion flops away from you at the slightest touch. Then again, some of the Samsung's competitors also incorporate a second battery in the keyboard base. That helps with both battery life and weight distribution.
When you detach the screen, the tablet in your hands feels off. It's too thick, too heavy, too plasticky; the iPad and the Surface have spoiled us. And it's a wide, thin rectangle that suits movies well but feels ridiculous when turned 90 degrees. You feel as if you're holding a diving board.
The other unattractive aspect of this design is that both halves of the machine are, in effect, the ugly "bottom." Both the underside of the keyboard and the back of the tablet bear the usual painted-on paragraph of FCC notices and logos; the back of the tablet also bears an archipelago of unattractive flaps, vents and stickers. Where were the designers of Samsung's gorgeous, thin, real laptops when this thing was sketched out?
The screen is crisp and bright; it offers 1080p resolution, the highest kind of high definition. It's a touch screen, of course, intended for use with your fingers, but there's also a plastic stylus tucked away near a corner. You can use that pen for making handwritten notes and for navigating Samsung's homegrown suite of Windows programs, like the baffling S-Note document-making app.
The "128-gigabyte" Smart PC offers only 60 gigabytes free for storing files, but there's a microSD memory-card slot for expansion. There's one USB 3.0 jack in the screen half, positioned awkwardly, almost uselessly, on the top edge in laptop mode. Fortunately, the keyboard half has two more USB jacks.
You can project the screen image to a TV or projector either through a cable (micro HDMI) or wirelessly, using WiDi. That's a technology that, like Apple's AirPlay, requires a $100 receiver connected to the TV or projector.
The speed of this machine is excellent; it's about what you'd expect from a high-end ultrabook, or from Microsoft's Surface Pro. And there's no denying the pleasure and utility of being able to run real Windows software – your Photoshops, your Quickens, your iTunes – on a touch-screen tablet. Of course, as a Windows 8 machine, this device also runs the new-style, full-screen TileWorld apps; the Samsung comes with several preinstalled, like Netflix and Amazon Kindle Reader.
Samsung says the Smart PC offers an eight-hour battery; in the real world, five hours is more like it. That's better than the Surface Pro but still nothing like the all-day life you'd get from a real laptop. You'd also get longer battery life, and pay hundreds less, for hybrids with Intel's Atom processor instead. But that chip is much, much slower.
No question about it: The Samsung beats the Surface Pro in a few categories. You get a keyboard with more spacious keys and deeper travel. You get a bigger screen (11.6 inches versus 10.6). You get more storage. And you can adjust the screen angle on the Samsung; the built-in kickstand on the Surface has a fixed angle. That said, the Samsung's hinge doesn't permit as wide a screen angle as real laptops do.
Unfortunately, you're also paying more (the Surface Pro is $US1130 with the good keyboard cover) and getting a hybrid that's much thicker, bulkier, heavier – and uglier.
Worse, you're paying full laptop-plus-tablet price for a machine that's not especially good at being either one. For the $US1200 you'd pay for this Samsung, you could get a very nice laptop that doesn't leave out laptoppy features like an Ethernet jack and a full-size slot for your camera's memory card.
Those compromises aren't Samsung's special achievement, by the way; just about all of the hybrid laptop/tablets have the same problem. Adding a touch screen and a detaching or hinging mechanism can't help adding weight, bulk, complexity and price. Something's gotta give.
Word on the street is that neither Windows 8 nor Microsoft's Surface tablets are selling very well. It's a safe bet that the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T won't turn that trend around. That goes triple for its lower-powered, less expensive sibling, the 500T.
In other words, it may be that computer shoppers aren't especially interested in paying a steep price – in dollars, features and looks – for the ability to turn their laptops into tablets or vice versa. It wouldn't be the first time that manufacturers were more excited about a category than their customers turned out to be.
New York Times