The tablet wars are heating up.
Faced with stiff competition from the Apple and Google camps, Microsoft has switched gears and gone on the offensive, unleashing a flood of Windows 8 tablets from most of the major PC brands.
Expect at least a dozen of them to go on sale between now and shortly after the new year.
Microsoft is also competing directly by offering its own tablet called the Surface. This is available in two configurations: a cheaper ARM-based model running Windows RT (the 'lite' version of Windows 8), which is available now, and an Intel-based model running the full Windows 8 that will be available next month.
After the Apple iPad, the Surface is only the second tablet whose software and hardware have been developed by the same company. Does this give the Surface an unfair advantage over the other Windows 8/RT tablets? We tested this theory by pitting the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT against the Asus VivoTab RT and the Acer Iconia W511. All three come with 10-inch displays and keyboard accessories, but they're hardly homogenous – all of them offer quite a different experience, and each has its own distinct advantages and drawbacks.
Microsoft Surface with Windows RT
At 676 grams, the Surface is the heaviest of the bunch by a good hundred grams. To be fair, its 10.6-inch display is half an inch larger than the others. The extra screen real estate does make a difference when you're browsing complex webpages and using the bundled Office 2013 RT apps (which aren't touch-optimised), as text is a little larger and buttons and links are easier to tap on.
But once you factor in the touch cover (optional with the entry level Surface and included with two pricier models), the Surface becomes the portability champion. The touch cover incorporates a unique, pressure-sensitive keyboard on the back, and is just 3.25mm thick and 130 grams. The Apple iPad's Smart Cover, which lacks a keyboard, is actually heavier at 138 grams. The next lightest tablet-keyboard combination is the Asus VivoTab RT at 1073 grams.
The lack of tactile feedback while you're typing on the touch cover is a strange sensation, but the roomy layout coupled with the audio confirmation for each keystroke means you can get used to it pretty quickly. Ironically, it was more responsive and reliable than the mechanical keyboards of the Asus and Acer. If you prefer moving keys, there's also a type cover that's marginally thicker. The only downside is that neither cover comes with a second battery for boosting battery life like the keyboards of the other tablets. As it is, the Surfaces manages a decent nine hours of continuous video playback with the screen brightness halfway.
The Surface has a handy built-in stand that works well for propping it up on its own and when it's connected to one of the keyboard covers. It's annoying that it has a fixed angle, though, as it means you can't tilt the Surface back to suit your preferred viewing angle.
Sluggish performance and instability are the Surface's main shortcomings. Using the Surface turns into a drawn-out game of glaring at app splash screens and waiting for data to load. During testing, it also locked up and froze every few hours, even after applying all of the latest system updates. The Asus VivoTab and Acer Iconia W511 had similar issues, so Windows 8/RT is likely to be the main culprit. The good news is that the Surface seemed to suffer these afflictions the least, possibly because of its purely Microsoft parentage.
Asus Vivo Tab RT
Where the Surface and the W511 are fairly utilitarian in their designs, the Vivo Tab RT is a pleasure to look at. Its design makes the other two tablets look like amateurs, between the sturdy brushed aluminium construction, eye-catching purplish-grey finish, and pleasantly tapered edges, the former making it feel even skinnier than it's already-slight 8.3mm profile.
The keyboard dock is also a work of art; together, the package is virtually indistinguishable from a laptop. Although the tablet (525 grams) is almost as heavy as the dock (548 grams), it's not top-heavy when attached, and you can use them together on your lap without it tipping over. Unfortunately, the keyboard isn't very pleasant to type on due to the cramped layout; despite the mechanical keys, touch typists are likely to make more typos here than they would on the Surface's touch cover.
The 10.1-inch IPS+ screen isn't as bright as the other two tablets, nor are its whites as pristine, but it is a lot better when it comes to contrast and viewing angles.
The VivoTab RT comes with 32GB of storage, but after applying all of the software updates and signing into our email and social media accounts, there was only a tiny 6.76GB left. There are lots of ways to add more storage – the standard Microsoft Sky Drive service (which is conveniently built into the Windows file system) comes with 7GB, and Asus offers an extra 32GB of storage free for three years. Like the other tablets, the VivoTab RT also comes with a microSDXC card slot that supports up to 64GB cards.
If you have a smartphone with built-in NFC, you'll be pleased to know that the VivoTab RT has this feature too. Among other things, you'll be able to share web pages, contacts and YouTube videos with certain smartphones when you bump them together. This worked seamlessly with a Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
On its own, the Vivo Tab can run for eight continuous hours, and the keyboard dock pushes this up to just under 14 hours altogether. This was with videos looping continuously and the screen at 50 per cent brightness.
If not for the fact that the VivoTab RT is even more painful to use than the Surface (but not as bad the Acer Iconia W511), it would be a sure winner. It suffered from all the same performance problems as the Surface, but worse. In addition to freezing every couple of hours, it would spontaneously reboot too, and text entry on the keyboard frequently lagged behind when we were typing.
Acer Iconia W511
The Iconia W511 has the advantage of running the full Windows 8 operating system, which means you can install any software and use any peripherals designed for older versions of Windows. This boosts the W511's value proposition considerably, as it's not reliant on the Windows Store for apps. Put simply, you'll be able to do a lot more with the W511 than you can with the VivoTab and Surface.
This is countered by the fact that the W511's performance was the worst of the lot, bringing back not-yet-healed memories of using a netbook. The comparison is apt, given the W511 uses a dual-core Intel Atom Z2760 processor. The W511 was flakier than either of the other tablets, with more system freezes and app crashes. Uninstalling some of the bloatware that Acer pre-loads might help – out of the box, it had less than half of the 64GB storage available. At least it wakes up nearly instantly, and it had the fastest cold boot time of 23 seconds (3 seconds faster VivoTab and 10 seconds faster than the Surface).
The Iconia W511 doesn't look or feel like a thousand-dollar device. The tablet itself isn't bad-looking; the white frame contrasts nicely with the black bezel, and the spray-on silver back is a nice change from the usual black. But it does come across as a budget device – an impression that isn't helped by the rumbly and distorted speakers. The screen isn't as sharp as the other tablets, either.
The dock is also pretty poorly designed. The hinge was so stiff that it felt like it was going to break when we pushed the tablet back to a comfortable angle. While there's nothing wrong with the keyboard's layout and tactile feedback (it's quite good compared to the VivoTab), it frequently failed to register keystrokes, duplicated a lot of letters, and was quite laggy. The touchpad is the only one that doesn't support multi-touch gestures for scrolling. It's also very top-heavy when it's connected to the dock, and if it's sitting in your lap, it topples over unless you hold it down.
It isn't all bad. The W511 brings a couple of unique features to the table, such as the built-in 21Mbps HSPA support. It's also the only tablet that can spin around 290 degrees on the dock so that the keyboard faces down (although we're not sure what use this has, given the screen sits in exactly the same angle as before). With the keyboard attached, the W511 offered the longest battery life, playing 14 hours of continuous video at 50 per cent screen brightness.
It isn't often that the cheapest challenger ends up being the winner, but that's exactly what's happened here. The ingenious touch cover coupled with performance that wasn't as bad as the other two tablets have nudged the Surface to a sure victory. The VivoTab RT wasn't far behind, although the multi-day battery life advantage is hampered by its uncomfortably cramped keyboard. The Iconia W511 has its strengths, namely that it runs Windows 8 and has a 3G option, but it has too many hardware issues to justify its premium pricetag.