With the Windows 8 launch just around the corner, let's take a look at four upcoming premium devices running Redmond’s new OS. All of the tablets detailed here run the full version of Windows 8 and offer laptop-like functionality through the use of various peripherals. However, from internal configuration to design, there’s a lot of different options available and we’re here to help decide which devices are most worthy of your hard-earned cash.
The systems that we'll be looking at are Microsoft's Surface Pro, the Asus Vivo, the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro and the recently-announced HP ElitePad 900. As all of these devices are being marketed with the potential to function as fully-fledged laptops, we'll be looking at the tablet and mouse/keyboard peripherals in tandem.
The first big choice here is between Intel’s Atom or Core i5 processor lines. The former will provide improved battery life (reports suggest as much as ten hours), but at a significant performance premium when compared with systems running on Core i5 architecture.
Both the Microsoft Surface and Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro run on Core i5 processors while the HP ElitePad 900 and Asus Vivo offer Intel Atom chips. When it comes to memory, the Vivo and ElitePad come with 2 GB RAM, while the Ativ's offering comes in at 4GB. Microsoft has yet to give any details on how much memory the Surface Pro tablet will have.
The level of SSD storage also varies significantly between the devices. Similarly to the processor offerings, the Surface and Ativ tablets come out on top offering up to 128 and 256 GB storage respectively, while the ElitePad 900 and Asus Vivo's storage options both max out at the 64 GB point.
When it comes to displays, the Asus Vivo and Samsung Ativ are the largest of the bunch, measuring a slightly bulky 11.6 inches. While Samsung lives up to its reputation and provides a full high definition 1920 x 1080 panel, the Asus system comes in at a slightly less impressive 1366 x 768. The HP device is the smallest of the bunch with a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 screen, but it's Microsoft that takes the crown here with a manageable 10.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 offering.
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro
Both the Asus Vivo and the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro utilize a form factor pioneered by the Asus Eee Pad Transformer line, with the tablet serving as the screen for what is essentially a fully formed laptop when docked. Both systems are aesthetically pleasing, with the Asus tablet exhibiting a wedge-shaped keyboard section that’s strongly reminiscent of a MacBook Air. As standalone tablets, the Asus Vivo measures just 8.7 mm thick, while the Samsung Ativ device is a slightly chunkier 11.89 mm.
The dock provides a full, notebook-like keyboard, as well as a range of ports. The Asus product also features an extra battery in the keyboard section, significantly extending battery life. However, the portability of the tablet is somewhat lowered, as the device’s footprint is effectively doubled. This is especially true of the Samsung system which, with the keyboard attachment, measures 21.89 mm in thickness and weighs 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs). We're also not blown away by the plastic construction of the Samsung tablet, which provides ultrabook-like specs, but falls a little short on build quality.
The Surface Pro offers the most interesting design here, with a magnesium body, kickstand and choice of Touch Cover and Type Cover accessories. Redmond's tablet stands out here by presenting a fresh and versatile aesthetic which, despite its relative thickness (13.9 mm), makes it the most desirable choice. The Type and Touch Covers are also just millimeters thick, meaning that you don't have to sacrifice portability.
The HP ElitePad 900 is 9.2 mm thick and has a premium-looking machined aluminum design that’s somewhat reminiscent of Apple’s iPad line. Owners will get the choice of a number of peripheral options, most relevant of which is the keyboard case and a dock that provides a range of ports, including the option for a second display and full-sized keyboard and mouse.
This means that users can achieve functionality akin to both a laptop and a desktop PC, depending on their choice of accessories. Unfortunately, the design of the keyboard peripheral is somewhat lacking when compared to the premium look and feel of the tablet itself and the solutions provided for the other devices here.
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro
As previously stated, all of the devices have the potential to provide a fully functional laptop alternative. The Asus Vivo and Samsung Ativ have the most conventional form factor and offer a reasonable selection of ports. When docked, the Asus Vivo provides users with two USB ports, while Samsung's device provides mHDMI and miniSD functionality, as well as two USB ports in the detachable keyboard.
Having said that, the keyboards on the devices are likely to provide a typing experience akin to that of a netbook or small laptop, and the extra battery in the Vivo's keyboard is also a commanding addition, making it the longest runner of the bunch.
Microsoft and HP's devices both offer similar attachable keyboard solutions. Of the two, the design of the Surface's is the more elegant, providing a full keyboard and trackpad with a minimal sacrifice to portability. The combination of kickstand and keyboard case is attractive and potentially very effective. However, we are somewhat skeptical of just how good the typing experience will be on the covers, which offer little or no travel on the keys. Ports are located on the tablet section of the device and provide USB, Mini Display Port and MicroSD compatibility.
The HP ElitePad 900 is the real performer in this area. While its range of Smart Jackets and docks might not be the most attractive solutions available, they certainly make this device the most versatile. The Productivity Jacket includes an integrated keyboard and extra ports, while the docking station has the potential to turn the ElitePad into a full desktop solution. It has a range of ports including USB and Ethernet, as well as HDMI and VGA for connecting a second monitor.
Winner: HP ElitePad 900
Price and availability
Solid release dates and pricing information are difficult to come by, but rumors and speculation are, as always, rife. Reports suggest that Samsung's Ativ Smart PC Pro will hit the shelves on October 26 with a price tag in the region of US$1,200. If proved accurate, this will place it firmly in ultrabook territory. A leaked internal slide suggests that the Asus Vivo will be priced around $800. There's no word as of yet on a release date.
HP has announced that the EliteBook 900 will be available in January with pricing to be announced at a later date. The device is aimed firmly at the enterprise market, potentially making it more challenging to acquire.
Lastly, although the Windows RT version of the Surface tablet will be released alongside Windows 8 on October 26, the version touting the full OS (discussed here) will lag a couple of months behind, and is most likely to hit shelves in January. Pricing information is unknown, though Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has, in the past, stated that the range will be priced between $300-800.
All of these tablet hybrids offer the potential to fully replace your laptop while providing a wealth of touchscreen functionality to boot. Initial impressions suggest that you'd struggle to go wrong with any of these devices. But based on what we've seen so far, Microsoft Surface Pro's combination of the attractive, functional design and high specs just about edges out the competition and lets Redmond's slate emerge as the presumptive king of a highly competitive pack.