There has been a lot of back and forth on the Asus Transformer 2, which is supposed to be the first tablet to both use the stunning new Kal-El 5 core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and Google’s latest version of Android code called Ice Cream Sandwich.
Windows 8’s two break-out signature features are the Metro interface that favors Touch and the new support of ARM processors like this new Tegra. I’ve been using the first Asus Transformer and it was slow, but otherwise stood out (because of the extra battery in the keyboard dock) as one of the best blends of laptop and tablet on the market. The coming product is faster and lighter and, thanks to the Tegra 3 part, should be powerful enough to run Windows 8 nicely.
Windows 8’s Goals
Windows 8 is designed to embrace the iPad revolution with a product that can be both tablet and next generation laptop. While it will clearly work on desktop machines and may shine on all-in-one computers with Touch, these are not categories that appear to be its primary target. In short, the goal for Windows 8 appears to be to take the momentum away from the iPad and put it back to where Microsoft thinks it belongs – on Windows mobile PCs.
At the heart of this is a valid assumption that people won’t carry two laptop type devices, if given a choice. In other words, they want a device that can do what a notebook and an iPad do. In fact, looking at folks I know, they will generally carry an iPad or a notebook, but not both at the same time, and often seem to miss the one they don’t have (battery life if on a notebook, full function if on an iPad).
So, Microsoft’s goal with Windows 8 is to make the iPad, as the more focused device, redundant again. Clearly, there is precedence as PDAs and MP3 players gave and are giving way to smartphones, and typewriters, desk calculators, and card files gave way to PCs. Or, put more simply, when given a good choice, people will choose the product that represents the superset of what they want to do and put the other thing on the shelf.
I’ve been struggling with touch on a laptop for some time. Generally, the way people got a stylus to work withWindows XP was to spin the display and place it flat on the keyboard, which made for a very heavy hinge and a very heavy product. And people ended up using them like heavy laptops going back to using the touchpad rather than the stylus most of the time. Touch drops the stylus, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to have a Touch Pad and a Touch Screen once folks get used to using the screen.
However, I can also recall that Touch Point interfaces, that little eraser head device that existed on ThinkPad and Toshiba laptops, were, and still are sometimes, placed on products with Touch Pads as a transition mechanism suggesting both may be needed on the first Windows 8 mobile products.
Ultrabook vs. ARM Super Tablet
Ultrabooks run Windows 7 well now and they are close to the weight of a tablet with a keyboard and come in at about half the battery life. By Windows 8 launch, they should be able to close the battery life gap (Windows 8 has vastly better battery management), but a product with a built in keyboard can’t easily be used as a one handed product like a tablet without a keyboard can and they currently lack a touch screen option. In fact, a Touch Screen may not work well on this class of product because it tends to overbalance it; tablets with keyboards typically have a screen support, like a kickstand, that makes touch work suggesting that a Touch Ultrabook would need a creative redesign to be effective.
On the other hand, up until recently, tablets have been too underpowered to run Windows 8 well and they are often plagued by lousy keyboards. However ,the Asus Transformer actually had a decent keyboard and by placing a second battery in it, it performs admirably as a laptop-like product with touch. This suggests that the second generation product with the necessary performance could come closer to having all of the parts necessary for what could become the ideal Windows 8 product eventually. A product that can function without a keyboard (and gets lighter without it), can use touch effectively when in laptop mode, and gets at least 10 hours of battery life. (The current transformer with the keyboard gets close to 20).
I’m not yet aware of any way to replace the Android operating system on a tablet. The Windows 8 alpha will give us a better idea how this will work out, but it looks already like a better blend of laptop/tablet that can currently be found in ARM products. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be Intel-based offerings that compete, but the new Transformer 2 may be the closest thing to a tablet-notebook in the market this year thanks to a combination of the Kal-El Tegra 3 processor (for performance) and the keyboard integration. This seems to come closest in hardware to what Microsoft is trying to do in software. The question for us, is this close enough to what we really want in our primary technology product? Microsoft is betting the farm that the answer will be yes.