Sept 10, 2015
The lightweight 10 to 11 inch Windows tablets now available are pretty good productivity tools, primarily because you can use a full copy of desktop Outlook on them but still use them like an iPad as your media consumption device. However the early lightweight Atom-based tablet versions (such as the Asus Transformer T100, the Lenovo ThinkPad 10, and so on) were relatively underpowered when pointed toward real work. And if you upgraded to a heavy, full-powered hybrid to make up for that (Surface Pro, Lenovo Yoga, and so on), you probably found it felt more like a laptop, and so you really didn’t get the full tablet experience. For example, you can’t hold a nearly 2-pound Surface Pro in one hand to read a book like you can with a less-than-one-pound iPad. And the wide-screen aspect ratio of these PC hybrids meant portrait use was rather silly.
New Cherry Trail Atom Tablets
However, the brand-new Cherry Trail Atom-based lightweight Windows 10 tablets have pretty much solved all that. The Cherry Trail processors are as fast as the Intel Core i3 or i5 line was a few years ago, but they enable a light and thin tablet format because they need no fan and use relatively little power.
The best example of a tablet using one is the newish Surface 3. Released in April, it is much lighter and smaller than a Surface Pro 3, and it’s the first Windows tablet to come out with the Cherry Trail processor. In fact, it’s the only mainstream one shipping so far. When it first came out it was delivered with Windows 8, so I decided to wait till they released it with Windows 10 preinstalled before trying it out. Microsoft recently did that, and I got mine a couple weeks ago, one with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage.
After using it a few weeks now, I’ve decided the Surface 3 with Windows 10 really is a very nice tablet. It’s got more than enough power to do all the things I normally do on a tablet. It’s even got enough oomph for most PC tasks, and it shares my main work files through OneDrive.
Let me get one thing straight though, this is not a budget version of a Surface Pro. You don’t buy this less-expensive Surface 3 because you don’t have enough money for the full Surface Pro 3. No, the Surface 3 is purposely designed with a lightweight CPU to allow it to be small and nimble and compete with an iPad—this is Microsoft’s only current offering that can do that. You choose it over the Pro version because at 1.3 pounds it’s easy to hold in one hand, it’ll run 10 hours on a charge like a tablet should, and the screen is small enough (10.8 inches) to be balanced in your hand like a tablet. Perhaps most important, the screen has a squarer tablet aspect ratio than the other Surface (3:2 rather than the usual HD 16:9) making portrait mode quite usable. And it has an optional high quality-active digitizer pen stylus. It really is a true tablet.
Importance of Windows 10
And the preinstalled Windows 10 works well for productivity use. To me, the new design of Windows 10 finally gets the PC-tablet ideas right—those introduced in Windows 8. I feel that Windows 10 is to Windows 8 as Windows 7 was to Vista: a corrected version of a bold-new-vision that is finally usable.
I’ve long felt that the design team of Windows 8 threw desktop users under a bus. The new Windows 10 pulls those desktop users up, dusts them off, and gives them a pony—they will be very happy with Windows 10. For example the start menu is back—no need to depart the desktop to open other programs. Store apps open in resizable windows rather than forced into full screen, the Charms Bar is thankfully gone, and much, much more is improved for desktop use.
Tablet users will also be very happy because the Windows 10 tablet interface is really quite usable. I especially like how you can switch from desktop to tablet mode and back, automatically, just by folding the keyboard up or back (this is hardware and settings dependent). And it has a lot more new tablet features, features like voice input, notifications center, and more.
Desktop Outlook in Touch Mode
A Windows 10 tablet is also a true productivity tool for MYN users. That’s because you can run desktop Outlook on it while toting it everywhere—even the new iPad Pro cannot do that. What’s especially cool about this is that with recent versions of desktop Outlook (Outlook 2013 and the soon-to-be-released Outlook 2016) you can use the desktop Outlook application in touch mode. Touch mode of Outlook is automatically engaged when you put the tablet in tablet mode (which happens automatically on the Surface when you flip back or remove the type cover). In Outlook’s touch mode, all buttons and controls are larger and easier to tap . That means you can assign Outlook categories to e-mails with touch, and you can drag-and-drop to convert e-mails into tasks with touch. You can manage your MYN tasks view by touch. (By the way, I am not using the To-Do Bar to do that, which is a new strategy for me, rather I am using a tasks folder view configured with larger fonts, and I’ll write up how I do that later.) And touch mode really works. The result: you can use the full desktop version of Outlook as if it were a mobile app. There is no need to use a keyboard, mouse, trackpad, or pen to read, file, and convert email and tasks—just use your fingers like on a smartphone or an iPad. And you can stay away from the weaker mobile versions of Outlook, which means you don’t need to use Windows 10 Mail (which has no category support and no task support). This ability to run desktop Outlook in touch mode, along with the speed and size of the Surface 3, along with the design changes in Windows 10, all seem to make this an optimal solution for MYN and 1MTD.
Surface as a PC
Of course, you can also use the Surface 3 as a full laptop when you need to in a pinch—the keyboard cover on the Surface 3 works well for that. With 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, a fast processor, and access to all your work files through OneDrive, this is nearly a full PC computer. That said, you wouldn’t want to use the Surface 3 as your main laptop—it’s too small for long-term use in my opinion, and the keyboard is not stellar. Rather, I think everyone needs a good 13 inch or larger laptop for longer work tasks (I carry a very thin 15-inch laptop for long work travel) in addition to a true tablet. But yes, this is a true productivity tablet that can as needed double as a laptop PC.
Non-Surface Win 10 Tablets?
Of course, you could purchase a non-Surface Windows 10 tablet with Cherry Trail, when they finally start shipping. The main reason to do that is to save money. The Surface 3 has a superior build, and given that, the base price is quite reasonable. But by the time you add extra RAM, storage, and the keyboard cover, it has reached iPad-like pricing, and so you pay a premium compared to budget Window tablet brands. But even though a fully spec’d model is relatively expensive, I am still recommending Surface 3 over the budget tablets, at least for now, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the Surface 3 has a five to six month lead with Cherry Trail—no other Cherry Trail Windows tablets are even shipping yet as of this writing—they are still scrambling to make production. Next, the hardware-dependent features of Windows 10 (like auto-switching to tablet mode when folding the keyboard back) are likely better supported on Microsoft hardware.
Really though, my main reason for favoring Surface is that the Windows 10 OS is very early in its lifecycle and I am worried about the impact of frequent and major updates in the months ahead. Specifically, the Windows 10 Home edition is irreversibly set in a full automatic upgrade mode (which means major Windows updates with new features are added automatically, without warning) and rollbacks are not easily supported. Since Windows 10 is so young, there will be a lot of those auto updates in the 12 months ahead, and that means a number of BIOS and driver upgrades may likely be needed to match the changes. And that’s my concern.
I have no doubt that Microsoft will auto-update BIOS and drivers on the Surface at the same time they issue Windows 10 updates; after all they build both the OS and the hardware. But I do have doubts about other manufacturers. Many of them have lots of configurations and focus more attention on releasing new product, not on supporting old ones. I got burned once on a Lenovo tablet after only one year—it took Lenovo 6 months to issue a BIOS upgrade to fix a major usability issue resulting from a Windows update. They just didn’t seem to care about supporting their slightly older models. So support is definitely something to think about with Windows 10 being so new; opting for a Surface may be your best insurance.
But is all perfect even with Microsoft hardware? Well, no. Windows 10, even on the Surface, is still a bit buggy. As of this writing, some software OS buttons intermittently refuse to respond to touch, some apps and app windows close by themselves when the shouldn’t, and so on. Surface 3 and Windows 10 still have some growing pains. So if you don’t have the stomach to be an early adopter, you might want to wait a few more months.
As more people process more and more of their e-mail on their smartphones, they are losing the ability to do on-the-fly intelligent productivity steps like converting emails to tasks and filing with categories. As a result, even MYN and 1MTD users are ending up with a messy inbox that needs later processing at their desk. Perhaps using a small Windows 10 tablet is a way to get ahead of that. With the touch capability of desktop Outlook on a 10 to 11 inch tablet, such tablets may be your optimum way to take MYN and 1MTD mobile. My first impressions after a few weeks of use are that a lightweight Windows 10 tablet is definitely worth considering. Surface 3 is the best example of such a tablet, at least right now. I’ve found the Surface 3 to be well designed and plenty powerful—its superior build and Microsoft support may even make it worthy of its premium price.