An Unlikely Smartbook

Posted on 21 October 2012 by



sAMSUNG aTIV sMARTpc 500t (10)You know what’s coming? The biggest personal computing fight, ever.

Windows  8 and the expansion of the laptop into smartbook territory will go head to head with an important launch in the handheld computing space – the iPad Mini. Following that, Windows Phone 8 and a non-desktop Windows tablet, Microsoft Surface with Windows RT, will start shipping. There has never been a month in history where the personal computer has had such an upheaval. No-one really knows what’s going to happen.

Some of these products could fail showing us again that what people want is not always what the manufacturers think. Touch-enabled sliding and convertible Ultrabooks is one of those risk areas. Windows RT, I believe, is another, at least for the time being but I think there’s a product category that has fantastic change. The SmartPC, Smartbook could finally succeed with Windows 8 on Intel Atom.

Laptops were boring. I’ve been highlighting this a lot over the 6 years of my life that I’ve tracked, researched and reported on new computing form factors, operating systems and application ecosystems. There’s been a huge gap for years and I honestly thought Android could fill it, until I heard about Windows 8 and the ‘always-on’ capabilities of new Intel-based platforms.

The Smartbook concept was perfect. Make the UI dynamic, add a simple application store, include sensors to enhance social and location applications and make it ‘always on.’ Android chose to focus on Smartphones and Tablets. Google continues to test waters with the Chromebook. [new ARM-version released this week.] but there’s a combo out there that might have just about got it right.

It’s not an Ultrabook or the Microsoft Surface that’s going to fill the gap. An unlikely candidate will be the first to offer a true Smartbook. Intel, an i86 platform and the evolution of Windows TabletPC could provide the perfect balance.

Next week we’ll see the first availability of Clover-Trail based Windows 8 dockable ‘transformer’ tablets that, in my mind, fulfil more of the personal computing requirements than an Ultrabook could. Why? Co-re based tablet designs will remain too heavy, with too short battery life until Haswell launches in 2013. At that point, the new Atom architecture will be available too.

Battery life on these new Windows 8 tablets will be impressive for two reasons. Firstly, the Clover Trail architecture has some very important low-power states that no other x86 platform has at the moment. Secondly, Windows 8 has some new lower power features in the ‘Modern UI’ (was Metro) user mode. Together, they could surprise quite a few.

There are a few other things to consider too. Firstly, these new Clover-Trail tablets are SSD-based. Fast SSDs are responsible for a lot of the quick response you see on Ultrabooks. Where netbooks ‘felt’ a little laggy, it was mostly because of a combination of cheap hard drive and RAM caused it. By breaking out of the netbook restrictions, the SSD and 2GB of RAM should really help pep these Atom-based platforms up.

Turbo-boost to 1.8Ghz will help too. While you won’t always see these speeds, it allows short-term operations to get a boost. 2 cores at 1.8Ghz is a long way away from the good old single core 1.6Ghz netbook. A boost in graphics power on Clovertrail will help too although this will still be a limiting factor for some people. Graphics intensive operations will be slow.

Let’s put this into perspective though. Clover Trail tablets will be as light, have similar battery, better processing power and similar graphics power to most ARM-based tablets, and yet offer a huge range flexibility with Windows 8 desktop. For the consumer, it fits well. The web browser will work perfectly with full-size web sites. There will be enough perceived speed, the UI will be fluid (it’s really quite impressive how responsive it is on Atom) and, more important than you might think, some of the designs look very cool indeed.

Take the Samsung Ativ 500T SmartPC or the ASUS Vivo Tab, the Acer W510 or the Envy x2. These are really stylish looking devices and by having a separable keyboard and display they clearly show what they’re capable of. Similar Android and RT-based designs could disappoint by having an OS that doesn’t offer the level of productivity that a keyboard might suggest.

There are a couple of issues to consider of course. Price, and Atom.  Because of the design and positioning in the market, we’ll see some really high early pricing.  The Samsung Ativ 500T with 64GB, dock and HSDPA (and GPS, NFC, digitiser, pen etc) will cost 900 Euro, the ASUS Vivo Tab, more for the same spec. Personally I think that’s OK. I know the average user will react differently, largely because we’re dealing with an ‘Atom’ CPU here.

‘Atom’ appears to be doing OK as a platform. It’s getting into phones and next year we’ll even see a new Atom CPU architecture introduced for the first time since its launch but for most people it’s synonymous with netbooks, those ‘slow’ and ‘cheap’ products that are now rare in the market. The Atom brand may be an issue for anyone thinking about a Windows 8 laptop or tablet. Tegra, Exynos and other brands have a better feel for many as they appear in high-end smartphones. Until Intel can re-brand Atom for the desktop (or, with the introduction of Haswell, introduce a new ‘Core’ offering with similar capabilities and price points) they might have an issue.

Will dockable Ultrabooks be a better solution? I don’t think so. Problems mean that Core-based dockable or convertible Ultrabooks won’t quite be a hit in 2012/2013. Firstly the Core architecture just doesn’t idle down well enough yet. The new power states seen in the Clover Trail platform come with 4th Gen Core in mid 2013. That means the Core-based tablet solutions will be perceived as hot, heavy, noisy and have battery life issues even in a 1KG solution. In terms of design challenges, it’s not able to meet requirements in the consumer market. The issues will greatly affect acceptance in the consumer market.

Finally there’s another risk factor – apps. Windows 8 and RT are relying on a strong app ecosystem. The stats, specs and potential all check-out well to make it an interesting business proposal for software vendors but other factors could mean that developers might choose to spend time on IOS, Android or HTML5. Despite the fact we could see 200 million Windows 8 PC’s in the market by end of 2013 this critical part of the ecosystem remains at risk.

   

Click for more info on Acer Iconia W510, Samsung Ativ 500T SmartPC, ASUS Vivo Tab, HP Envy x2.
See the specs and additional information here.

 

To round-up, here’s how I think the market will play out until Christmas.

iPad Mini / iPad Air – Will launch in a market where price is critical and where Google’s Nexus 7 is king. It will be a smart product that should have launched 12 months ago. It will sell huge numbers but will only be a small percentage of IOS sales.

Google Chromebook – The new $249 ARM-based version is interesting, but not yet practical for many. In fact the user interface and capability makes it appear more boring than a Windows 7 laptop.  After an initial bump in sales to developers and early adopters, it will be a minor player. So much more needs to happen with cloud, HTML5 and ChromeOS before it becomes interesting for a consumer or SMB.

Touch Ultrabooks – I think touch Ultrabooks and touch laptops have a great chance in the market. Prices need to come down but Windows 8 (and RT) will do a huge amount to market the need for a finger on the Modern UI. If prices don’t drop quickly and apps don’t flow into the store, the sector could stall for a while, especially in this economic climate.

Convertible Win 8 ‘transformers’ on Atom – It’s a sector that has the right ingredients but could suffer due to the Atom brand. While pricing could be an issue, if early reviews are favourable (and you can guarantee that the biggest tech websites are already working on them for next week!) and if ‘RT’ flops like I think it will, this sector could really pick up pace.

Windows RT. I’m not confident about this sector at all as it hinges 100% on the applications available in the Windows 8 store. Prices are high and the competition is fierce. Windows 8 Phone, and apps that migrate across to RT is a factor to consider along with it being one of the only consumer or mobile OC platforms to offer a decent office experience.  Sales could be weak for two quarters before RT get a speed-up. Android is maturing quickly though and the IOS ecosystem keeps all the software vendors very busy indeed.

That’s my though on the matter. How do you see it?

9 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cane says:

    You’re right about how Atom is perceived. When I learn an RT tablet is based on Atom, it makes me cringe. I wonder how practical the Atom-RT combo will be for people who want to do heavy multitasking? Well, users will start telling all of us in the next two weeks — and no amount of rebranding Atom can change that.

    James Reply:

    RT runs on ARM, not the ATOM… It’s the low end x86 models that are ATOM based, running Windows 8/Pro.

  2. Oryoki says:

    MS has plenty of cash to ride out a slow start by its tablets and phones. I expect Windows 8 devices will look more attractive once next year’s Intel processors arrive.

    Why does MS have both Windows 8 RT and Windows Phone 8? iOS covers tablets and phones, so does Android. Seems like a lack of MS management decisiveness.

  3. ArchiMark says:

    Good overview, Chippy….

    It’s nice to see that there are some devices on the horizon worth talking about…seems like it’s been a long time….

  4. D T says:

    I think iOS will continue to dominate the market in the tablet sector. iPhone will continue to dominate if you count per model, not per OS, but Android will win / has won, but many forgot that’s because Android has many low / mid end devices, while iPhone doesn’t if not counting used products.

    Counting on Microsoft is a hard pill to swallow, let’s look at the history: failure list that is: Smart Display (I am looking at one sitting on my side table, doing nothing, a Viewsonic V110, anyone wants it?), Zune, “Pink” whatever that is, Kin (right, good name), Windows Mobile (was on top but could not continue despite that!), and certain odd Samsung made Windows CE devices, the list goes on. And this despite MS has bought many companies, including Danger!

    You are right, RT is a strange position. I was at the local mall and they are setting up a Microsoft Store to launch Surface on Oct 26, so I talked to the guys there a little. I wasn’t impressed except for the hardware itself (which I haven’t been able to see yet, have to wait till 26th). However, according to the guy, it only takes a change of 4 lines of code to migrate Windows app to RT app (but not Windows Phone app?? that is not known).

    But why? Even you asked right? I feel that is because MS has admitted to defeat in making Windows perform in an instant on environment (that is now only expected by users after using recent smartphones) because of the weight of the OS vs. the processor evolution. Wake up on standby, and overall battery life and size and weight, there is (or was) no way Windows can change that only because Windows was designed to be a server / desktop product so the weight of the OS was not as big a concern. You cannot shrink an elephant unless you are a magician.

    But why not use Windows Phone and scale it from the other end though? Was it because MS knew there is some performance issue so Windows Phone OS is ill suited to be scaled larger? Hard to say, but it’d be sad since it is a new eco system since MS dumped Windows Mobile / CE completely! (Still have the HTC Advantage x7501, a very expensive but IMHO, poorly performing system due to its stupid OS, anyone wants it?).

    Ultrabook is way overpriced now, but it is not a surprise b/c when netbook was new, they weren’t cheap either, some were $600. or so (like those w/ Ion). Netbook has been great especially in later times when price was very affordable. A C50 based netbook was $200. on sale, and can do 1080 YouTube video via Flash. This is unheard of!

    Right now the Samsung Windows “tablet” is $1299. at the local store. Would I buy one? No, not at that price. The MSI Windpad 110W is $500. after rebate, a little more reasonable, but why bother when Acer W510 is coming out soon. This small and niche market is not going anywhere.

    Let’s look at how poorly the UMPC sector has performed, and even the Intel based MIDs, were more of a footnote except for sites like this and pocketables. Still have my Samsung Q1 and BenQ S6, but do I use them regularly? Not really (anyone wants them?). Problem with both: battery life is poor. Battery expensive and hard to find, external power source will diminish the purpose of the form factor. But mainly the price it used to cost, really is a scary though. My Q1 box has a label from Fry’s, $1499. And that is for something that uses a 1.8″ HDD that is stupidly slow.

    The problem has pointed to this conclusion: these manufacturers rushed out their products, hyped the platform, and asked for a large sum of money. In the end, products were less then ideal, causing dissatisfaction from users, and someone has to be blamed (yes, the stupid consumer who bought into it).

    I have been more happy on my various netbooks than the Q1 and the S6. I was much happier on my 2 iPhones (then), than the Advantage, despite the Advantage cost 3 – 4 times the cost on the iPhone! I was also more satisfied on the Palm devices than Windows Mobile and PocketPC devices, but had no choice but to switch b/c of street navigation applications. (yes I was using PDAs as GPS street nav when it was a very expensive method).

    Right now I’m happy w/ my 2 Android devices: Nexus 7 and Asus Transformer TF101 w/ the docking keyboard. They are both good and I’m looking forward to my Sony Tablet P. There is no way that Windows devices can be made this small and this efficient.

    For the longest time, I see an excuse by some die hard UMPC / MID users, and I don’t blame them. I just hope they are honest about their reasons. I can see that for some reasons they prefer Windows, and my guess it is about the apps, or choice of the apps. But when it’s always about flexibility and other intangible aspects, I just cannot agree to them. Everyone forgot what had been the constrain is Windows itself, it is the elephant that makes the car that you need to make to transport the elephant not a sports car anymore! I just hope everyone can see the point here. If you have a niche need so you need a MID size Windows machine so you can do your work (be it coding, surveying, or telemetry etc), more power to you. But let’s be honest, it has taken MS way too long to do this, and they haven’t succeeded, so given their track record (which I illustrated earlier), why would you trust them again? (Because they gave sponsor money to this site??).

    I am not a MS basher, nor an Apple fan boy. Far from it. I use many platforms (and was Amiga fan boy in my younger days), and am agnostic about it (since being Amiga religion believer). MS has done well in server OS and desktop OS, and will continue to dominate. Good for them.

    For mobile, it sucks so far. They bought Danger, and I am not even sure what they got out of it except killing Hiptop / Sidekick. What a shame.

    Processor is only so much of the equation. Now there is Windows RT for ARM, and you can run Android on x86. It only comes down to efficiency, and acceleration (or optimization??), and some special features. Every processor design house is trying hard to get into market where it grows well, so of course they missed the vision about mobile, and I mean places like Intel and AMD. Transmeta tried but was in an earlier time and didn’t work out (Still have the SonicBlue tablet with the Transmeta Crusoe chip, anyone wants it?). Who knew how fast did the mobile market move up, and to a point that can challenge the traditional desktop sector? For example, who knew that mobile platforms can now play 1080P video without problems? (that the Atom N series, and even some Core Solo in netbooks cannot).

    Laptops are not boring, but may be to this author. But to the same token, I can understand when a car magazine editor calling Toyota and Honda “boring”, when reviewing Masarati and Ferrari gems.

    I certainly think my S6 is cute, and my Q1 unique. But are they that good? Not really. So so I have much hope for the future for Windows based mini devices? not really. Even Sony gave up on the VAIO P (that I bought and refunded as it was way too sluggish).

    A new platform is the right direction for MS, but I am still puzzled about RT and Windows Phone. Why? I don’t know (I will ask my MS friend next time I see them).

  5. digi_owl says:

    Android may still surprise. I read that that there are even more hints about multi-user this time round.

    Chippy Reply:

    Yes, I’m reading that for 4.2. We’ll find out this week.

  6. teadrop says:

    This is the most intelligent article regarding windows 8 I have read so far. I totally agree your position on atom. My ideal laptop is a transformer type tablet with an atom processor and high end specs. So far only Acer W510 has the closest spec. I would prefer they put a real 128gb ssd instead of a cheap emmc card but I guess I can live with the current spec. However, I think most people has misconception about the new atom processor (even… or especially the tech writers in cnet and verge). This may be intentional from Intel, because they has higher margin in selling i3,5 and 7.

  7. evozero says:

    sadly, no one has produced a windows 8 device with a umpc form-factor, e.g. 5-7 inch screen, QWERTY keyboard built-in, active digitiser, usable while standing up, etc…

    D T Reply:

    There is no way that a desktop OS can use the same amount of resources, that translates to power requirement, compared to modern mobile specific platforms (iOS, Android). So unless someone invented some super duper battery, it will be the bottle neck for the 5 – 7″ device.

    Or someone can explain why my Q1, S6 have such poor battery life? And why do my Android or iPad devices have such long battery lives?

    This is also why MS makes RT. They know there is no other way on Win x86 / x64 at all to get into tiny devices while maintain the performance and battery life.

    RT will and so does Windows Phone.

    I just don’t know why they don’t scale Windows Phone OS into larger models like Android and iOS, but instead port Windows over. May be the rep was telling the truth, if it really takes 4 lines of code to port non RT to RT, then RT will be able to run many more apps faster and easier as developers can churn them out faster than doing it in Windows Phone.

    So may be in 2 years, RT will have a life (read: market).

    teadrop Reply:

    I have a 5″ Fujitsu U820 that runs win 7 and last for 8 hours (usually longer since I switch to a SSD), so it’s certainly possible. I paid over $1000 for it, I will gladly pay the same price if they have an updated atom processor. Unfortunately, anything less than 9″ is a niche market, nobody is willing to invest in this market.

  8. Sarig says:

    Great to see some life in this site again!

    I just bought an Xperia tablet two weeks ago (found a Sony store, and it was about the only place with up to date electronics I could find here in Spain), and it’s exciting to be playing around with another OS. I’ve had a windows convertible for 2.5 years, and have been using wacom tablets for even longer, so different input and UIs are always fun for me.

    But after two weeks of Android (my laptop charger died and it took me 4 days to replace it, leaving me with ONLY android), I’m really frustrated by how limited it is.

    I’m also fairly sure I wont like Windows RT much, though I haven’t looked much at it. I want windows and multitasking. Sony added some limited windowed apps to the Xperia tablet which was one of the things that sold me to it, but even so, it is so far behind what I’m used to from windows.

    (Failing to bring windows, Nokia N9 style multitasking would suffice, no pausing or closing of apps there, it’s the real deal)

    AND PLEASE POST MORE :D

  9. animatio says:

    “Secondly, Windows 8 has some new lower power features in the ‘Modern UI’ (was Metro) user mode.” …
    there will be only one glitch – the important one – to this. the real stuff people need running on these devices are not metro! and the way professional users are working is mot mew-age-ms-metro style. it still is and will remain desktop style ….
    or in other words : metro is soooo early 80ties of dos computing as can be. this time only with one to some fingers instead of 10 at a time.

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