Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Gadget talk: A Windows 8 Tablet Review - an #edtech perspective

One of the basic things that the IT department has to do at our school is play with toys (yay!). Since we are a 1:1 BYOT school, we are often testing devices to see a) how well they work in our environment (the network, the classrooms, etc.), b) whether they are worth recommending to partents, and c) what we need to know when there are problems.

My latest test was the ASUS VivoTab SMART. I first saw this tablet at #FETC13 and was very intrigued with it for a number of reasons:

VivoTab SMART w/ Transleeve Keyboard

  1. Full Windows 8 - none of the RT Only stuff*
  2. Really thin and light - made my ASUS Transformer Prime seem a bit heavy
  3. I'm a fan of the ASUS Brand - My favorite miniTab is my nexus 7 (which i carry around regularly despite having a Galaxy Note "phablet") and the aforementioned Transformer Prime (which i dutifully carried around before realizing that I only used it to read comic books).
  4. The 64gb version of the tablet comes in under 500 dollars. the Transleeve keyboard and cover add an additional $125. So for a little more than an iPad you get a full windows computer, in a tablet, with a keyboard -- color me intrigued (it's kind of a dusty purple color).
* Ok, for the non-geeks out there. Windows 8 comes in two (ok, three) flavors. The full version of Windows 8 has the familiar desktop and apps but ALSO has a tablet-style interface which is called RT. There are also tablets that strip out the Windows Desktop portion and only have the tablet stylings and tablet-specific Apps. These are RT tablets. -- To be continued

Origami folding cover w/ incredibly thin bluetooth keybaord
Since I am not yet famous enough to have companies throwing their wares at me for review (what is UP with that?), I had to find one on my own. As is the case with most ASUS products, finding the device proved simpler than finding the Keyboard/Cover combination that makes this unit really appealing. Once I had the product in hand, I put away my beloved Samsung Chromebook and dedicated myself to using the VivoTab as my primary device for four weeks. I made it about 3.

Rather than give a lengthy play-by-play review of Window 8, the interface, the hardware, etc., I am going to try to keep this focused on a few basic themes that I think will be relevant to educators and other users curious about the Windows 8 tablet environment. 

Windows 8, the RT Interface, Oh My
A new "Start"  interface for selecting programs
There has been a lot written about the confusion that is inevitable with the Windows Desktop vs. the Windows RT environment. How will normal human beings every be able to cope? We have a number of our teachers who have requested the Windows 8 upgrade and, I am pleased to report, learning is still taking place.

PD Tip: think of the RT interface as a very fancy START button (this is easy, since one of the ways to access the RT screen is to hold your mouse in the bottom left corner).

From this screen, you can access a variety of Apps and a market place to add more. Some of them, such as the People App, Photo App, and the Mail App are live tiles that rotate with updates of recent posts, pictures, subjects. All of these apps tie-in with major email programs and social networks. In addition to the apps on the RT side, you can create shortcuts for frequent websites and buttons for frequently used programs (I made a group of tiles for the full MS Office, a tile for tweetdeck, etc.)

A press of the desktop app and you are at a classic windows screen complete with file folders, "my documents", all the classic programs, etc. 

The "Killer" Feature: It's Windows - Full Windows - On a Tablet
I cannot stress this enough. You have a full version of Windows. In a package that is as light and portable as a tablet. Need to screencast using camtasia? - you can. Need a heavy duty word processor? - it can be installed. The first night I was using the computer I was getting ready for a hashtag chat and realized that I hadn't looked for a decent twitter app yet. "Oh. Wait. I can just install Tweetdeck!" 

Having worked with students in our 1:1 BYOT environment for almost a year now, the strongest cases of buyer's remorse come from tablet users who love the design but want more power, fuller programs, etc. As I look to the future, I am somewhat reminded of the early days of netbooks. While netbooks started with Linux and Android, and custom software, eventually, Windows became the dominant operating system. There is just something about a full-feature OS that is part of a regular workflow, be it for a student or teacher. Add to this the ability to break out of an app walled-garden and install full versions of software and you have a lot of potential. I saw jaws drop when teachers noticed that i was taking attendance on our windows-only web-based gradebook from a tablet.

...But it's a Tablet - A very early Tablet
There is an incubation period with all tablets. When the iPad debuted, it was months before people really started to figure out what to do with the real-estate. When I bought my first Android phone (a Nextel phone that was still using Cupcake while all of my friends were eating Froyo). I remember thinking that it had 80% of what I was looking for on a phone but was nowhere near the maturity that I had imagined.

A big finger must for non-touch apps
Switching from a Nexus 7 (running Jellybean) to the Windows RT side, I am forced back into the nascent incubation stage where developers and manufacturer are waiting to see if the product is worth the investment.

Up until last week, there was no Twitter app for the Windows RT side of the tablet. While it was wonderful being able to install tweetdeck, the interface is not optimized for touch. This meant either using the keyboard (not bad for chats, but annoying for quick tweets) or constantly trying to use my finger to scroll up by aiming for that way-too-thin scroll bar (it was frustrating enough that I bought a Wacom Bamboo pen - that is a handy little device).

I was constantly running into things that were either not-ready-for-primetime (the evernote app, while present has a very constrained feel compared to the more mature apps on the other mobile platforms) or non-existent (a quick photo editor, messenger app such as gtalk or Kik, Instagram, Pinterest, good RSS reader, etc.). Some of this is a result of market issues - Google is playing coy with the interface, creating a search app and a chrome browser, but not RT versions of other major products. Part of this is the wait-and-see. Regardless, for those used to full feature tablets on either side of the ShinyFruit-CuteRobot divide, they will have some frustration.

Design - It's All about the Use Case
In some ways, everything about the VivoTab that I liked in Florida is absolutely dead-on. It is light and thin and easy to hold and feels very natural in my hand. It is as comfortable as any 10" tablet when I fire up the Comixology App and settle in to see how Batman reacts to the death of Robin (spoiler alert: not well).

There is not comfortable way to do this
But the devil, particularly in design, is in the details. A primary use case for me is to take notes and live-tweet during presentations, keynotes, meetings, etc. I can comfortably do this on my chromebook and on my transformer prime. It is nearly impossible for me to do this comfortably on the VivoTab. There is a minimum amount of surface area required for a device to rest comfortably on a lap. The Microsoft Surface pulls this off by using a kickstand and a magnetic attachment to the keyboard (we tried it, MS naysayers). Because the VivoTab keyboard does not attach to the device, you have very little surface area with which to work. So you end up using the onscreen keyboard (which is not bad, but its no SwiftKey) or you end up with some awkward positioning (see photo).

My best #FETC Swag - Avid AE-36
One presumed must-have in a Windows computer is a USB port. I was surprised when I went to start a Google+ Hangout that there is no full USB port, thus no USB headphones and no wireless mouse with micro-USB dongle -- both things that I would have made part of my regular use case. Luckily, my Avid headphones (another #FETC find) worked great by maximizing the Input/Output Combo port work like a charm.

Final Thoughts -- The Race is On
oh so portable. Keyboard
magnetically stored inside cover
I think that many parents and students, given the choice between a mobile tablet OS and the potential of a full-function machine will find full-Windows 8 tablets very appealing. While they will have to be careful to think through design and power choices (for example, ASUS is about to release a larger VivoTab that will have a high-res screen, a keyboard identical to the Transformer (with spare battery and full attachment), and a digitzing stylus to boot, there is something very appealing about having one device that does it all.

But essential to the tablet experience will be the tablet-side of the OS, namely RT. While it is wonderful to be able to open a full OS and have programs on there that I cannot access in iOS or Android, sometimes a user just wants a tablet...and a tablet is only as good as its apps. All too often, there are no results or, even worse, 3rd party crap-ware that claims to do that which it does not do (there are SO many "instragram viewers" that just link to the website). Without a satisfying tablet experience (particularly as so many people have not had a good app experience from Google&Co. or Apple), the Windows 8 advantage will be overshadowed by dissatisfaction.
I started to dread the "no apps" screen

So I see this as a race. Can Microsoft entice developers and upgrade the RT experience fast enough to be comparable with its competitors? If it can, the current "full OS experience" advantage is a huge boost, particularly if the prices stay competitive. But the pressure is on.
  • Because each day, more and more people are realizing that a "tablet" experience, while limited, can fulfill most of their day-to-day needs.
  • Because the ChromeOS experiment is bearing fruit and the winds of change are forecast the merging of ChromeOS with Android (oooh a chromeOS tablet).
  • Because the not-so-hidden cost of a full OS is the price of programs (Office and Camtasia are wonderful, but they are not a $1.99 in the App Store). Consumer realize this.
For schools and educators and students, these products have the potential to be very appealing. But I believe that the current RT/App experience is enough of a drawback that it does not make up for the ultraportability of the form factor.

And if you are curious, I am glad to be back on my Chromebook
(and carrying my nexus 7 for tablet needs).

Have other questions? Different experiences or thoughts? Share them down below or hit me up on social media -- I'm around :)