Gadget's first encounter with the Samsung Series 7 Slate PC, at the Samsung Africa Forum in Cape Town in March, was a revelation (See A Galaxy of Choice). It looked like a tablet, but it was running Windows 7. And its size - an 11.6" screen - lifted it into a different dimension.
Samsung had no pretensions of this being a tablet, and deliberately termed it a Slate computer.
It was displayed with an optional docking device and wireless keyboard, in case there was any further temptation to compare it with the slightly smaller Galaxy Tab 10.1 or even with the iPad. But, in reality, the only thing truly separating it from the tablet world was the absence of a tablet operating system.
That changed last week.
At Microsoft's TechEd Europe conference in Amsterdam, the Samsung Slate was the poster child for the tablet potential of Windows 8. In a keynote address, corporate vice president for Windows Web Services at Microsoft Antoine Leblond hosted a demo of Windows 8 on the Slate. Later, during an all-day "Exploring Windows 8" media event, the Slate was the platform on which Windows 8 was taken through its paces by Chaitanya Sareen, principal program manager for the Windows 8 User Experience team.
Ironically, the buzz at both events was that the lid would be lifted on the newly announced Microsoft tablet, the Surface. (see Arthur Goldstuck’s column from TechEd, Scratch the Surface)
The disappointment when Leblond failed to mention it during his keynote was palpable. But he had a trick up his sleeve. At the end of the “Exploring Windows 8” event, he invited all media present to collect a Windows 8 device on the way out: it was the Samsung Series 7 Slate PC 700T1A , loaded with the Windows 8 Release Preview.
The significance of this hand-out was not in its generosity, nor in the fact that it may have been perceived as consolation for not being given a glimpse of the Surface. It lay in the fact that Windows 8 on a tablet was a reality, and that it extended far beyond Microsoft's own attempts to produce new hardware.
How does a Slate masquerading as a Windows 8 Tablet perform? We ran it through the Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test, with specific reference to its Windows 8 capabilities.
1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)
This is not a tablet designed for a dainty handbag. It's a desktop workhorse masquerading as a tablet and designed to transform small surfaces into desktop equivalents. As such, it is as much of a head-turner as the iPad was in the first few weeks of its release. Residing in an unobtrusive dock, with a Bluetooth wireless keyboard resting in front of it, it has the same "What IS that?" impact as any cutting edge tablet.
It also has two aesthetic bangs for its buck: the Windows 8 tiled Metro interface that simply looks gorgeous; and - via a click on the tile labeled Desktop - the traditional Windows desktop that still speaks to enterprise and business users.
Any smaller, and it wouldn't have a chance as a desktop replacement. Any bigger, and you'd be better off with a laptop. It does have one major drawback, of course: to get the productivity of a desktop device, you have to buy and carry all three components - Slate, dock and keyboard - around with you. Many die-hard Windows users will keep their laptops and wait for a smaller Windows 8 tablet as accompaniment.
2. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons - hardware, software, on-off)
The Slate takes the exact opposite approach of the iPad: it offers numerous control options, depending on the user's preference. The only physical button on the front of the Slate is a large Windows button that switches the tablet view from the Metro tiles to the Windows desktop. However, the sides of the device are rich with controls. Up the right hand side, the Power On/Off button – with LED indicator light when On – shares space with a rotation lock for keeping the view from tilting when the device does (both the light and the lock such obvious needs, but rare in tablets). On the left it sports a USB port, earphone jack, volume controls, HDMI jack and DC power jack. At the top, a microphone jack jostles with a Micro SD slot. The bottom is not to be outdone, and offers both a docking port and stereo speakers.
The Windows 8 controls – referred to as Charms – are reached through a swipe from the right of the screen, which reveals a Settings option, along with links to the Start screen and a powerful Search option. The Settings in turn link to a variety of controls, from wireless options to the traditional Windows 8 Control Panel. Changing PC settings can be reached from here too, or by swiping from the left of the screen.
As in traditional Windows, a taskbar along the bottom of the desktop screen gives direct access to battery, wireless and keyboard controls. In the Metro interface, tiles can be moved or customised by dragging them by the corner, using either a finger or a stylus.
The one obvious issue with all of these software controls is that they are not collectively accessible in one place, as in Android and iOS. But it also means that the device can be adapted and customised far more effectively to your usage patterns.
That extends to method of input as well, with fingers, keyboard and stylus all being options. Even handwriting recognition is included in the Slate.
An optional Digitizer Pen is a superb addition to the working arsenal. Aside from tapping, clicking and double-tapping for various functions, it also interacts with the device when not in direct contact. The pen hovering just above the screen on, say, a menu bar, will bring up the drop-down menu. The user can choose to click on a menu option with either the pen or finger, or by hitting Enter on the keyboard. It all depends on the configuration of the device at that particular moment - which highlights the versatility of Windows 8 in the range of devices and options it will be able to support.
3. The sound of one-hand tapping (can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other? i.e. a weight test)
The Samsung Slate is larger and heavier than any tablet on the market, and is not designed for one-handed use, as opposed to most tablets. Typically, it would rest in a dock, lie on a table, or be held with both hands. This is where Windows 8 makes its impact felt instantly: it allows for finger swipes from the left and right of the screen to bring up previously used apps (from the left) and system commands (from the right). Holding it in two hands, the thumbs execute these gestures naturally and easily. This is an indication of how well Windows 8 will support standard sized tablets, but also bring different usability options to larger devices. One-handed use still allows any other finger to be used for swipe gestures.
4. The Angry Birds test (how responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)
One word: fast. If software can be said to have weight, Windows 8 is superlight - hogging fewer system resources than any version of Windows so far this century. That also means it is super-fast, especially when running on a powerful machine. The Samsung Slate PC 700T1A packs an Intel Core i5 processor with 1.6GHz processor, and 4MB of RAM. It uses a technology called CTDP (Controllable Thermal Design Power), which adjusts the clock speed of the processor to control heating and power consumption based on the needs of your current usage. That means it is gentle on resources when you're merely typing away, and ramps them up hard when you're gaming.
There was no perceptible lag in any of our gaming or interactive use of the Slate. Whatever Windows 8 throws at this machine, it takes on with gusto. Windows 8 itself is fast and responsive. Our tests on old machines have shown that to be a function of the software, rather than of the engine under the hood of the device.
5. The tablet gender test (does it multi-task?)
A swipe from the left brings up a visual list of all currently running apps. The apps remain available here once they've been opened, with no noticeable degradation in performance of each app. A drawback here - in the interests of neatness rather than performance - is that it is not obvious how to close or remove the apps from the active list.
6. One to rule them all (Can it replace a PC or laptop? Does it make your life easier?)
This device does not replace a PC; it IS a PC. You can travel with it as a tablet, and dock it as a PC. Other Windows 8 tablets won't necessarily offer the same accessories, but they will have the same capabilities.
7. Live long and prosper (How's the battery life?)
Here's the thing with an ultra-powerful device running on a battery: you're going to need a power supply sooner than with your typical tablet. There hasn't been time for a thorough testing, but our initial test suggested around 5 hours battery life. In other words, it's on a par with extended battery life laptops rather than with the better tablets, such as the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab. It is one of the few compromises the device forces on the user.
8. Sound and vision (multimedia quality)
Stereo speakers along the bottom, headphone jack on the side, microphone jack in the top, front and rear camera... there is little that hasn't been considered in the multimedia department. A 1366 x 768 LCD monitor means sharp as glass HD video or images. It may not boast the retina display of the new iPad, but it's unlikely you'd consider that a compromise on a device geared towards your working life but still offering a superb multimedia experience.
9. The new new (innovations and unique features)
The innovation in the Slate lies in the package deal rather than individual features, although the multitude of input options ranks fairly high. In Windows 8, the Metro interface finally gives Microsoft the cool edge it lost somewhere around MS-DOS 1.25. It is a viable alternative to Android and the iOS, with one huge benefit: it still offers the Windows desktop - a critical advantage in terms of its file and folder management superiority over the Mac operating system.
10. The Price Test (is it competitively priced?)
The Samsung Slate is priced at the same level as Ultrabooks, meaning it is sold as a high-end PC rather than a tablet, with prices starting at around $1350, or R12 000 in South Africa. Pricing on Windows 8 tablets is still unknown, but early indications are that the Surface will come to the market at around the $600 mark for the basic version. If Microsoft - and other Windows tablet makers - don't seriously sharpen their pencils and make the tablet more competitive on price, they could spark a new migration away from Windows.
The good news for Microsoft is that, if the various manufacturers’ tablet hardware design can match up to the design ethos of Windows 8, they merely have to be competitive on price, rather than cheaper - which is currently demanded of every iPad competitor.
Score: 6/10 (provisional, based on Samsung Slate and rumoured Surface pricing)
Total score: 80%
In Conclusion: The Samsung Slate running Windows 8 is a viable alternative to a PC, laptop or iPad, but somewhat pricey in the latter role. Windows 8 Release Preview runs flawlessly on the device, and shows off the huge potential of Windows 8. In a slate-style format, it can potentially play the role of all other computing devices in the workplace.
* Follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee
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