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Summary:

Microsoft’s Windows RT software had an opportunity to bring limited Windows 8 functionality to low-cost tablets, but that window may already be closing. Intel Atom-based slates with full Windows 8 and long run-times on a single charge have fewer restrictions and cost about the same.

Samsung Ativ Smart Tab

As I wander home from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show — I’m still on the road, currently on the West Coast — I keep thinking back to Windows 8. Although Microsoft had no presence on the floor, its showcase software was everywhere on desktops, laptops and tablet. Being a mobile guy, I was drawn to the tablets more than anything yet I can’t help but think the once exciting prospect of running Windows on ARM chips has already lost much of its luster.

Microsoft Surface RTI alluded to this last week when Samsung decided not to bring its Ativ Tab, a Windows RT slate, to the U.S. market. Since then, UBS analyst Brent Thill has estimated that one million Surface RT units were sold last quarter, which is generally in with other numbers being bandied about. That figure is half of Thill’s original estimate, but I actually think a million Surface RT sales is still a good number, considering the device has had very limited distribution channels.

Regardless of the actual figure, and even if Microsoft keeps expanding the retail and online outlets to sell the Surface RT, I expect far fewer Windows RT devices being sold from Microsoft, Dell and any other of Redmond’s hardware partners because of what I saw at CES: higher performing Intel-powered Windows 8 slates with fewer restrictions over their Windows RT brethren.

It’s a simple scenario, really. Consumers have three choices when it comes to Windows tablets. They can buy

  1. ARM-based: A Windows RT tablet for around $500 that has acceptable performance, a Desktop limited to Microsoft Office use, no support for legacy software and a device that runs for about 10 hours on a charge.
  2. Intel Atom-based: A Windows 8 tablet for around $500 that has slightly better performance, no desktop or software installation limitations and runs for 8 to 10 hours on a charge.
  3. Intel Core-based: A windows 8 tablet for around $900 that offers the best performance, has no desktop or software installation limitations and runs for 4 to 5 hours on a charge.

See the problem? For roughly the same price, consumers can choose between options 1 and 2. Any benefits of running Windows on an ARM processor — at current device prices — simply isn’t there.

Asus Vivo SmartDevices under option 2 do exist. Samsung isn’t bringing the Ativ Tab to the U.S. but its Atom-based Ativ Smart Windows 8 tablet with 64 GB of storage is $599 on Amazon. You can hit up Dell for its 32 GB Latitude 10 Essentials, another Atom-based Windows 8 tablet, for $499. And one of my favorite Atom-based Windows 8 slates that I played with at CES, the Asus Vivo Tab Smar,t is at the pre-order stage for $499: It includes 64 GB of storage capacity at that price.

When I first heard that Windows 8 was coming to ARM-based devices, I was thrilled. I figured that consumers would have a new option or choice. I wrongly assumed, however that these tablets would be priced noticeably lower than slates running on Intel chips. That price difference may appear someday, but today is not that day. Until consumers see the price difference between option 1 and 2 vary by 25 percent or more, Windows RT won’t be the Microsoft tablet platform for the masses.

  1. Intel only kicked it’s butt into gear because Microsoft announced Windows for ARM in 2011. I’d say it succeeded.

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  2. Yep, this is a real issue. RT should have never seen the light of day, Microsoft cannot out-ipad the ipad. Where they can trounce the ipad though is in releasing a “real” OS at the same price point, size and battery life as the ipad, and voila that is the Atom based tablets. I’m typing this on a Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 and it’s an amazing device, it’s a bit more ($649) but I also got a built in digitizer and Wacom pen.

    Microsoft should have made the surface the atom based tablet, and the surface pro the ivy bridge one. RT has no place anywhere for anyone, you aren’t getting a thinner, smaller device, you aren’t getting more battery life, you certainly aren’t getting legacy Windows program capability other than Office, and as Kevin points out you aren’t even getting cheaper. I honestly feel bad for the people who did buy the RT tablets out there, RT is going to die and die quickly let’s just hope it doesn’t leave much of a bad taste in consumers mouths.

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    1. this is EXACTLY my view. Atom surface and i5 surface should have been the lineup.

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  3. You forgot to mention the Acer Iconia W510, which is available in the Microsoft Store for $499. I actually picked one up during Cyber Monday (only $399 on sale!) and I absolutely love it. No reason to want an RT tablet at all. Great battery life and good performance for what it is. There are some occasional driver issues with the Atom SoC (stuff dropping off and needing a reboot), but I assume that will get sorted out eventually. I am an early adopter, after all.

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  4. Yea, okay, this is a nonsense argument. You’re ignoring that RT machines: a) it come with OFFICE 2013 on it, saving 100+ dollars, b) connected standby will murder battery life, c) folks who use atoms say they are generally terrible at multi-tasking. So sure, the atoms have better performance on SOME tasks, but I speculate that once a few more firmware updates come out to take advantage of the Tegra 3′s 5th power saving core plus the Tegra 4 and Snapdragon 800 machines out, you will see that RT has quite an advantage. Further, lots folks who worked on android ports are more likely to port over to RT first as it is ARM based, see: Rubicon, Madfinger, Bridea, and others who are developing ARM based games – this has something to do with Nvidea’s developer network, etc. Don’t count RT machines out yet, also, running desktop environment apps(legacy) in windows 8 on a small screen sucks, so basically sure, I can use chrome or some old games on an Atom processor but it will work like ass unless I use a stylus or keyboard/mouse and I have a real laptop for that.

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    1. I think you’re ignoring that there is no multi-tasking on RT, you can only run one app, full screen at a time. Plus, RT must get all its apps from the Windows Store (which definitely does NOT save you 100+ dollars). There is no way to install non-Windows Store apps on RT. RT has one purpose … give Microsoft a solution to the Apple Store.

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      1. Where did you hear there is no multitasking on RT? That is not true at all.

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      2. i should have been more clear. I didn’t mean that there is no CPU multitasking, i’m referring to human multitasking, as in having 5-9 windows open and multitaskting between them — keeping app content in context with each other (copy-paste, referring, reading, debugging, referencing, etc.). You can’t do that with these full screen RT apps. You have to “switch” between RT apps. This reminds me of DOS when we had to install memory managers that let you “switch” between DOS apps so you didn’t have to reload them. That situation was drastically improved when Windows finally became usable and then we had, well Windows with an “s” and real end-user multitasking. Well, MS sent us back to 1990 with this concept of one-app-at-a-time running FULL SCREEN. RT should be called Window, without the “s”, because that’s what you get. Note that these are criticisms for RT/Metro running on the Desktop, not on tablets. Win8/RT on the tablet is another story altogether, which i can’t comment on because i haven’t tried one firsthand.

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    2. Nah… Office is an advantage, but a small one in light of the $99/year subscription based office 2013 which lets you install on 5 PC’s, so having a single office license for the RT isn’t much of an advantage IMO, certainly not anywhere near offsetting the major disadvantages of the platform, but YMMV and maybe for you it’s worth it.

      As for multitasking, my Atom does it just fine. I can have Photoshop and office open at the same time, along with IE10 with several tabs and I’m not seeing any appreciable slowdown. I believe Anand did a showdown and Atom came out on top, I forget where I saw that showdown though, I’ll have to search for it again.

      As for Android ports don’t count out Bluestacks, they just announced a partnership with Lenovo for example. This will let Android apps run on Atom machines, the beta already works on my Lenovo atom tablet although it’s still beta and runs slowly. As for development I have no idea I’m not a developer/programmer, I’d be curious to hear others comments on that.

      Legacy Windows programs on a 10″ tablet doesn’t suck in the least. We haven’t had a proper convergence of the desktop and touchscreens yet though as evidenced by Windows 8 dual nature which doesn’t quite gel yet, but give it some time. The future isn’t to get rid of the desktop as some predict, and it’s not to introduce a new dumb OS like the ipad did either, it’s simply to optimize the desktop for a touch based paradigm.

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  5. well ARM based tablet as mentioned by V has some different potential which is ignored by this article. ofcourse you loose the ability use legacy apps but why do you want to use them on such a small screen at first place?

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  6. With a Desktop app where you can install legacy applications, also means crapware, spyware, java and viruses can be installed as well.__The use of legacy desktop applications on a 10 inch tablet, is just nonsense. It does not work well. __It’s also not correct to say that an Intel Atom processor provides full Windows compability with legacy applications. There are many applications that only in theory can run on so weak hardware as Intel Atom. Try to start a real game, or Photoshop, Visual Studio, etc. It won’t run.__When comparing the performance and battery life between ARM and Intel Atom tablets, one must take into account that the latter, in practice, will run many background processes on the legacy desktop. This will reduce the performance and battery life significantly, and the difference will gradually increase as time goes on.

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    1. Photoshop runs just fine, even with lots of layers, etc. I’m sure there will be a point where you can only have so many layers, etc though, but you aren’t going to be doing anything you wouldn’t do on a laptop anyway. I really don’t understand this argument anyway, you don’t have the option to do this on RT so why is it a shortcoming of the Atom CPU even if it was true (which it isn’t)? Even games, so what? You can’t run them on RT anyway, whether due to hardware or development, until I see some RT optimized games it’s a moot point.

      As for running legacy apps on a small screen, it just means I have the choice to do so. I have no issues doing this, but that’s just one anecdotal report, but hey you know they invented this thing where you can connect a larger external monitor quite some time ago.

      Dunno, I just can’t see any pluses to RT at all, it’s just not making sense to anyone. Any minuses you can give the atom powered tablets all apply to RT as well.

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    2. Well, criticizing the Atom CPU for poor performance running Photoshop or Visual Studio doesn’t really work here, even if it were true: windows RT is 100% unable to run either application at all. Some support, I expect most people would agree, is better than zero support.

      Beyond that, an Atom tablet obviously isn’t meant to run heavy-duty development software any more than the Surface RT is. That’s the point: these are two different hardware solutions meant to deliver the same basic experience, at the same basic price-point.

      Only one clearly delivers a better experience than the other.

      You could buy an Atom tablet and only use the Windows Store apps, and have an experience IDENTICAL to the Surface RT. Except, additionally, you’d also be able to run x86 applications too, so if you want a better choice of browsers or email clients, you can just install your favorite. Seems like a no-brainer. For the same money, an Atom tablet’s going to be the way to go.

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  7. Meg, unless you invested thousands of dollars into your business software.. then again, who is going to support RT if nobody buys?

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  8. It looks like Intel forced Microsoft to bundle MS Office with Windows RT, thus greatly increasing the cost and hence killing the product.

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  9. i think many folks are missing important point about RT, its made for mobile computing and in other words for tablets, which are expected to be good on battery and give some connected standby so that you always stay connected. The real problem is not RT but the lack of apps which are currently limiting its use. But if those apps come in picture things would be totally different than they are currently. The overall idea of RT to discourage you from using the legacy apps and use new secured (in the sandbox) apps. By being same thing on atom based tablet does not give you same battery performance and not also gives security you need. Over the time you will find that you will use your tablet less due to degraded battery performance. Whereas with RT specific tablet, it will appear as good add on to entire use of computers. RT will prove to be good in education, presentations, lite work on the go. with degraded battery performance on atom tablet will limit your ability to do that eventually.

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    1. I don’t think people are missing the point that Win8 (with metro) and RT is for mobile/tablets. In fact, quite the opposite … the vast majority of comments are asking why the heck did MS put a mobile/tablet UI on the desktop? If you read the dozens of articles and hundreds (and hundreds) of comments, the Metro UI is the core issue. It becomes obvious from reading all the comments that the Live Tiles are getting a very bad rap on the desktop. On the flip side, I have not read any posts that are saying RT or Metro tiles sucks on the tablet. So, the issue is, tiles are causing grief for people on the desktop. Take this one step further, when you actually run a tile app (i.e. a Metro app, aka RT app), it runs FULL SCREEN. Now, if you have a 22″ monitor, as a lot of information workers, designers, developers, power users etc. do, running an RT app (which is what MS is pushing that we all do) and seeing 90% of your 22″ monitor real estate WASTED by a fullscreen app (that you no longer have any control over) combined with not being able to see multiple windows simultaneously will make you very angry. Pundits say, “switch to the desktop mode dummy” …. which goes back to point #1 … why is did MS make a tablet/mobile UI the DEFAULT UI on the desktop. Last comment, when you actually use Windows 8 in a real life situation for a few weeks (as i did), the experience of switching between RT tiles and classic desktop is enough to make you puke. And note, i think the tiles look cool … it’s the reason why i decided to try in Win8. I ended up reformatting my drive and putting Win7 back on. And btw, i’m a former MS employee (Sr. Product Manager), so yeah, i’m not happy about the various UI decisions made.

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      1. I don’t get the why switching between Modern UI apps and desktop apps is a problem when you use it in desktop/laptop mode. Its almost the same as it is in Win7. The difference is your start menu gone full screen with additional ability of run Modern Apps (think like this if you still feel windows 7 is good :) ) Ofcourse Windows 7 was superb but the Windows 8 gave nice golden mean to connect both the worlds with additional security and improved performance. Anywyas why windows 8 is good itself is different topic. I don’t want to be baised here but I like linux as well (espcially new Unity interface in ubuntu is awesome) but still to be fare with Microsfot it has done quite a good job against (cr)Apple. The point here is why Windows RT and once again microsoft made a smart move, it gives you the best of Windows 8 and office together with even improved battery perfomance and just the new apps which are good enough for any mobile computing needs. Well iOS/Andrid just hold the advantage with number of apps. Microsoft hit everything else. Still I don’t get the idea why people want Atom processor and Windows 8 on it run legacy apps which won’t be secured and will degrade the battery performance. You got to be in both worlds to understand both ;) INHO.

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  10. How is the window of opportunity closing? The Windows RT app store is growing at the same rate as Windows 8 since developers are publishing their apps for all CPU types. Also Nvidia and Qualcomm just announced next generation ARM processors that will offer incredible performance. According to Ad-duplex data revealed today the ARM-based Surface makes up 8% of total ad views on all Windows 8 devices. This means it is one of if not the best selling Windows 8 SKU on the market.

    The path for ARM to compete is in unique small/inexpensive devices that Intel will have trouble matching with Atom. Intel may have won round one, but the ARM manufacturers are not throwing in the towel. Microsoft, Nokia, HTC, Asus, and others still have plans to make specialized devices with Nvidia and Qualcomm. Nvidia has even started making it’s own hardware running on their ARM platform. Competition is always good and with AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm all making hardware for Windows there has never been more competition.

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    1. cool8man, big f***ing deal on ARM side. Bay Trail will release end of 2013 or early 2014, and it’ll go toe-to-toe with the Cortex A15 solutions releasing this year. Cortex A15 have power consumption issues as well, did you know that? And Bay Trail will be an architecture redesign and a die shrink to 22nm, vs 28nm of Cortex A15 solutions, with Intel’s in house GPU (i.e. no longer reliant on PowerVR crap). Plus, Bay Trail’s atom successor will be released on 14nm with another architecture redesign, and the ARM collective have no roadmap after 28nm, they’re at a severe technological disadvantage.

      Intel may play catch up for the next 2 years or so, but it will win out eventually. Intel is going tick AND tock in one year, and coupled with their tech edge, will obliterate ARM by 2015-2016.

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      1. AA, Well Said!!!

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