There is a diverse array of tablet options to daze and amaze shoppers this holiday season. Microsoft has a solid contender with its current Surface tablet, but it runs the more limited Windows RT operating system that was designed for use with ARM-based processors. I've already examined how the Surface RT beats the iPad, and how the iPad beats the Surface RT, but how what about tablets that run the more powerful Windows 8 Pro OS?
Well, Microsoft itself will offer a Surface Pro in the near future that runs the full Windows 8Pro instead of Windows RT. The Microsoft tablet is slated for a January 2013 release--although there is speculation it could hit the street in December. Microsoft has just announced official pricing for the Surface Pro: a 64GB unit will be $900, and the 128GBtablet will be $1000.
You don't have to wait, though. There are already tablets running Windows 8 Pro. Sitting on my desk, I have the Microsoft Surface RT tablet and a Samsung Series 7 Slate PC running Windows 8 Pro.To be fair, the Samsung Series 7 Slate PCs currently available on retail shelves come with Windows 7 Home Premium by default--I installed Windows 8 Pro on mine myself. The Samsung site, however, sports a "Get to know Windows 8" marketing logo, and states, "Samsung recommends Windows 8", so perhaps the tablet will soon come with the new OS pre-installed.
Based on my own use, each platform has some pros and cons, so be aware of the benefits and disadvantages of each before you set out to spend your hard-earned money.
The Surface RT starts at $500 for a 32GB model--$600 if you throw in the default black Touch Cover. The Surface RT pricing keeps it competitive with the plethora of tablet options, including the Apple iPad.
Most Windows 8 Pro tablets pack an Intel Core series processor. So while such devices are still tablets in the technical sense, in both performance and price they compete more with Ultrabooks and other laptop PCs than with pure tablets, and the pricing reflects that reality. The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC with 128GB of storage is just under $1200 from Best Buy. Dell offers the Latitude 10 tablet with Windows 8 Pro starting around $1000; it has half the RAM and half the storage of the Samsung, but also uses just an Intel Atom processor. Meanwhile, Surface Pro will start at $900, a fairly competitive price considering it, like the Series 7, ships with an Intel Core i5 processor.
If price is a deciding factor in your purchasing decision, the Surface RT (or other ARM-based tablet running Windows RT) is the way to go. However, if you act fast you can get a great deal on the Dell Latitude 10--Dell is offering deals of more than $350 off the list price, so the tablet starts at $650.
Battery life is another area where the Windows 8 Pro tablet competes more with ultrabooks than other tablets. Our testing of the Samsung Series 7 Slate yielded more than five and a half hours of battery life--and that's with an Intel Core i5 processor rather than the more energy frugal Atom chips used in many other Windows 8 tablets.
Size and Weight
This is one area where the two platforms are roughly on par--depending on what you buy. The Samsung Series 7 Slate weighs almost half a pound more than the Surface RT at 1.9 pounds, and the Surface Pro will weigh less than two pounds as well according to a blog post from Panos Panay, General Manager of Microsoft Surface. The Dell Latitude 10 tablet, on the other hand, delivers a Windows 8 Pro tablet listed at 1.47 pounds, which is actually slightly less than the 1.5 pounds of the Surface RT.
The difference is that the Samsung Series 7 Slate and the Surface Pro both use Intel Core i5 processors, and a more traditional PC architecture, while the Atom processor used in the Dell Latitude 10 is a SoC (system on a chip) that merges more functionality into less space. It's possible to get a Windows Pro tablet that weighs roughly the same as a Windows RT equivalent, but if you want the processing horsepower of a true Intel Core processor, your tablet will likely weigh a bit more.
This is where things shift in favor of Windows 8 Pro tablets. The meat and potatoes of why you'd elect to invest more money in a heavier, louder tablet with inferior battery life: it runs all software. Windows 8 Pro behaves the same whether it's on a desktop, laptop, or tablet, and all of the software you rely on when using Windows will work on the Windows 8 Pro tablet.
Windows RT can only run apps specifically developed for the Windows RT Modern (formerly known as "Metro" interface). The volume and quality of apps available is underwhelming, but growing rapidly. However, that won't do you any good if you have a customer tracking tool, inventory management software, or some other industry-specific application that only runs in the full Windows operating system. The difference, again, is that Windows RT is strictly for ARM-based processors, while Windows 8 Pro can be used with x86 processors.
Another area where Windows RT is no match for Windows 8 Pro is when it comes to the more advanced features and capabilities of the Windows 8 operating system. A Windows 8 Pro tablet can join a Windows network domain, and be managed and monitored just like any other Windows PC. Windows RT cannot join a domain, and is limited to rudimentary management through Exchange ActiveSync or Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager.
Aside from joining a domain and/or being managed through Active Directory and Group Policy, though, an x86 architecture tablet running Windows 8 Pro or Windows 8 Enterprise can encrypt data using BitLocker. A Windows 8 Enterprise tablet also opens up a whole other realm of possibilities, including Windows To Go, DirectAccess, AppLocker, BranchCache, and other Microsoft technologies that are not available for Windows 8 Pro--never mind Windows RT.
The Samsung Series 7 Slate doesn't have the cool Touch Cover like the Surface RT, but it does have a docking station. When at my desk, I just snap the tablet into the docking station and use it like a traditional PC. I have a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and the dock connects the tablet to my monitor via HDMI, and provides a wired ethernet connection and an additional USB 2.0 port. Dell offers a similar docking station for the Latitude 10 tablet. In fact, most Windows tablets have some keyboard docking option.
The bottom line? If money is a factor, or if you are planning to use the tablet to augment rather than replace your Windows PC, a Windows RT tablet makes sense. If you are looking at a Windows tablet as a replacement for a desktop or laptop PC to become your primary computing device, you need to look at the broader picture.
The vast majority of the tasks people perform on a traditional PC can be accomplished from a pure tablet. If all you need to do is email, surf the Web, post on social networks, or perform basic content creation and management, then a Windows RT (or an iPad or Android tablet) will work just fine.
But, if you need to run traditional Windows software, or need your tablet to be able to connect to a Windows network domain, you'll need to invest in the more robust Windows 8 Pro tablets.
(Additional reporting by TechHive's Melissa J. Perenson)