Some background: I have been using Tablet PCs for a decade now. Back in the UO days, I always walked around with a paper notebook full of doodles, and I often sketch out design ideas as diagrams and quickie cartoons. With a pressure sensitive stylus I can also then do artwork directly — concept paintings (the sort of thing you then give to an artist so they can make the real concept painting…!) or game sprites or whatever. These days, I carry my iPad pretty much everywhere, and I can code on it a little bit, I can sketch on it, I doodle with it in Notes Plus, and I even have the Pogo Connect pressure-sensitive stylus, so I can use that for art. But I am working on the colored cartoons for the second edition of Theory of Fun, and none of the iPad art programs will successfully load the Photoshop files I need to work in. And I was in the market for a new laptop anyway, so I went shopping for a Windows 8 tablet.
So this post is what I learned and what I picked. I have another giant post done as well, with everything I had to do to get the new machine set up to my satisfaction. It was info all scattered randomly all over the Internet, so I figured that it might be valuable to gather it all in one place. But this post was long enough already! So look for that one tomorrow.
What I picked
I ended up buying the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T, after checking out everything that met these requirements:
- i5 or i7 chip (not Atom. Watch out, they do make the “ATIV Smart PC 500t” which is an Atom chip, and half the price)
- Running Windows 8 Pro — not RT. Frankly, I find RT useless — what I needed was a laptop replacement.
- 1920 x 1080 screen (though honestly, this may have been overkill — see below!)
- Pressure sensitive stylus — with Wacom tech, not N-Trig or something else (after my experience with the UC Logic digitizer in my new Yiynova MSP19U Tablet Monitor, I’d maybe accept that too, but nothing had that).
- Thin. I am spoiled by the iPad and even resent the case it’s in.
There is a handy spreadsheet here that dives into excruciating detail on the relative features of the very few machines that meet the criteria. For me, it came down to
- The Smart PC Pro
- The Surface Pro
- The Lenovo Thinkpad Helix
I rejected these: VAIO Duo (no touchpad, expensive, N-Trig), Asus Taichi (N-Trig), Fujitsu T902 (heavy! oldschool!). I ddn’t get to try the others listed in the spreadsheet, but they mostly all had N-Trigs.
I was sure I was buying a Surface Pro. Then I spent three hours trying it out next to the Smart PC Pro. Here’s what I arrived at:
|Surface Pro||Smart PC Pro||Helix|
|Is it out yet||Yes||Yes||No, and it’s been delayed for months now|
|CPU||i5||i5||You can get i7|
|Storage||128||128||You can get 256|
|Size||Smaller – 10 inches||11 inches||11 inches|
|Weight – with the keyboard (they’re all basically the same without it)||Lightest, because the keyboard is a cover: just 2lbs||3.5lbs||3.75lbs|
|Real world battery life||The least 🙁 Like 4 hours||5-6 hours. There’s no battery in the dock.||A battery in the dock means 10 hours in laptop mode, Lenovo claims|
|Touchpad||There are actual buttons for left and right click!||You can click anywhere for left click, and there’s a region for right click.||Actual buttons, plus their little red nubbin thing that I never use.|
|Pressure sensitive stylus working in Photoshop today||Nope!||Yes!||I asked a Lenovo blogger, and the answer was “not yet.” Since the machine is also “not yet”… well.|
|Stylus||1024 levels, pen-sized||1024 levels, small S-Pen size||2048 levels (!), pen-sized|
|Silo for the stylus so you don’t lose it||No. You can clip it into the power jack with a magnet, but that doesn’t help when it’s plugged in||Yes||Yes|
|Price||With the keyboard, $1100||$1200||“More.” I have heard $1700.|
|Fit and finish||Awesome.||Plasticky.||Probably nice, who knows?|
So, I picked the 700t because
- I couldn’t wait anymore for the Helix, and on top of that, waiting more for pressure sensitivity support whenever Wacom and Microsoft finish arguing about drivers. I may regret it, but I needed a machine before GDC. And by the time the Helix finally surfaces, it may be close to when Haswell architecture machines start to show up anyway.
- The Surface Pro had nowhere to put the stylus, even though its stylus was nicer.
- The Surface Pro had a smaller screen. I was squinting (I’ll be writing more on the DPI issues in my next post)
- The Surface Pro has a touch button for the Start button on the front. The Samsung has a physical button. I cannot overstate how often I accidentally swiped the button on the Surface while handling it, and got dumped to the Start screen. Six times in three hours maybe? Incredibly annoying.
- I found the typing on the (really cool) Type Cover more cramped. In typing tests, I consistently had better speed and accuracy on the more laptop-like Samsung dock.
- The inking experience was smoother on the Surface Pro. But it was still acceptable on the Samsung. I’d add that now that I have the unit at home, it’s equally smooth, so I suspect that the demoware in the store was slowing everything down.
- Mousing with the touchpad was smoother too. I think it is because all the touch gestures aren’t enabled on the Surface Pro. I’ll have to mess with this more. Reviews of all the different machines say that Windows 8 touchpads uniformly suck a bit.
- The dock isn’t ideal (bulky to deal with when it’s not attached!) but it fits better on a lap or a plane seat tray than the Surface’s kickstand does.
- In the end, I realized that I was going to use this either as an art slate or as a laptop — frankly, mostly as a laptop. In which case, the compromised laptop experience of the Surface was an issue. I ended up leaning away from the tablet aspect, realizing that in practice, I am almost certain to keep using the iPad for pure tablet browsing experiences — and even notetaking and light work. I’ll use this machine for coding, serious art, Office, and audio recording.
Models of the 700t
I got the A02 from the Microsoft Store, at retail. That’s because 1) I could get it promptly 2) Microsoft bans bloatware, so all their laptops are blessedly free of crap. Online, odds are good you’ll get the A01 from Amazon, and it will come with gigs of stuff you don’t want.
There are four models, and three of them are basically the same. Don’t ask why, even Samsung does not seem to know. Ignore the specs on their site, they are riddled with errors. All of them have the same storage, RAM, clock speed, etc. One possible difference is whether they have the Infineon Trusted Platform Module. The A02 from MS does. But word on the Net is they all have it, it’s just turned off in the BIOS by default. I ended up turning it off in my case anyway. In the US, none of them have 3g or LTE. The sim card slot is blocked and there’s nothing behind it.
The A04 is the different one — it is physically larger, and stuff like skins and maybe cases won’t fit it. Also, the keyboard dock is apparently different. So I avoided it.
I have ordered a case — the only one that holds the dock too, the Poetic Flexbook Keyboard Portfolio. It won’t get here for a while yet, but it was only fifteen bucks, so I figured I’d take a flyer on it. It has an additional stylus loop on the back, so I will probably use on the of Penabled styluses from a previous Tablet PC and leave the small S-Pen in the slot as a spare emergency one. Experiments so far show that using that gives me even better pressure response.
Some hardware reactions
The plasticky doesn’t bug me, honestly. It’s really more the dock than the computer itself that feels that way.
I do hear the fan on occasion, which is disconcerting when holding a tablet.
There have been a lot of reports of the keyboard dock not clicking in or staying connected. I have had no issues with it disconnecting — there was apparently a firmware upgrade not long ago that may have addressed this. I do find it hard to get the tablet docked and undocked, but online reports suggest that the mechanism gets easier as it is broken in. You can certainly dangle the whole thing from the dock — it’s not going to slip out!
The lack of hard buttons on the touchpad is annoying. I keep resting my left hand where I expect the left click to be, and as a result, accidentally doing multitouch gestures on the pad. I bet I can turn that off though. Hmm. I did turn off tapping the pad in favor of actually pressing. There’s a satisfying click when you do it.
The screen is great.
Cursor keys laid out sensibly!
I had to buy a mini-HDMI-to-VGA adapter, so I’ll be able to project. (Side note: how annoying is it that monitors now come with such a random assortment of possible plugs? Can we get back to standardizing please?)
16:9 is a stupid aspect ratio for a tablet. But all the Windows ones are this way.
There’s no light indicating it’s charging. Boo.
…came the real issue. Getting it set up. For reference, I got this tablet four days ago. It’s still not really perfect, and almost all of it can be chalked up to Windows 8, which is frankly just not ready for prime time. But that’s a separate few thousand words. Look for that tomorrow, where I’ll cover
- Getting more storage
- Configuring Windows Defender, which is IMHO broken in Win8
- Fixing the IMHO broken touch keyboard
- Finding your network drives and My Computer which are missing (!)
- Setting it up as an art slate
- Dealing with the fact that Apple solved Retina Displays and Microsoft completely failed at it and instead put in two hacks neither of which quite work
- …and more.