With the availability of smaller 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets recently on the market with commendable specs, performance, and battery life, is it worth it to go full Windows or should consumers still opt for any number of Android slates in a variety of different screen sizes? I actually get this question asked a lot by friends and consumers looking to enter the tablet arena, and the choice really boils down to an iPad (or iPad mini), an Android slate, or a Windows 8.1 tablet. In this comparison, we’ll focus mainly on Android and Windows and leave the iOS comparison for another day. And really, the answer depends on what you need your tablet to do, but we’ll answer this question from a broader consumer perspective–if you have niche computing requirements, your choice will likely differ.
From a hardware perspective, many of the tablets will share similar specs. At the end of the day, for most computing experiences–Internet surfing, email work, light Office productivity either through the Microsoft suite on Windows or a third-party app on Android, some gaming, keeping track of tasks and appointments as well as contacts, and networking on social sites–tablets running on either operating systems should give you a good experience, but there may be some hardware nuances that may make one slate stand out over the competition so keep those differences in mind when choosing your next tablet.
Android. On the Android side of things, you’ll have powerful dual-core and quad-core processors, about 2-3 GB of RAM at the high-end of the spectrum, and either a 720p, 1080p, or a higher 2560 X 1600-pixel display. All models include WiFi connectivity and a few models offered either unlocked or through most major U.S. carriers–AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile–will give you 3G, HSPA+, or 4G LTE connections as well. Even if Android tablets do not have built-in mobile broadband connectivity to connect to a cellular network, these slates often come with GPS built-in so you can even get accurate location information when you go WiFi-only.
The good thing about Android is that there are many different form factors to choose from. From smartphones that dock into a larger screen to form a bigger tablet, like the AT&T-bound ASUS Padfone X that allows you to maintain just one data plan across both devices, to convertibles with removable keyboard docks, you’ll find that with Android tablets you will have a lot of options. From pure slates to laptop-like devices and everything in between, it depends on what you need your tablet to do. If you draw, sketch, or doodle, a Samsung Galaxy Note series device–like the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition that we had previously reviewed–may do the trick. If you peck out novels on Google Drive, maybe a convertible model with an attachable or Bluetooth keyboard will be best.
Windows 8.1 Tablets. At the large end of the spectrum, Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 represent excellent build quality and a lot of flexibility with optional keyboard covers. Windows 8.1 also gives you a number of different screen options, though at the moment on the tablet side of things you’ll likely be maxed out at 1080p displays and many of the smaller 8-inch Windows 8 tabs come with a 720p HD display, meaning you likely won’t find the same high resolutions as some of the more powerful Android slates.
The affordable Windows 8.1 tablets that will compete directly with the Android models will likely be powered by Intel’s quad-core Bay Trail Atom processor. These aren’t the same CPUs that were found on yesterday’s under-powered netbooks. Rather, quad-core Bay Trail delivers commendable performance while still giving users anywhere between 6-9 hours of battery life.
Some of the tablets will come with digitizers using a number of technology, though Wacom’s tech–the same digitizing hardware behind Samsung’s S Pen on the Galaxy Note–is on the Surface Pro models and the 8-inch ASUS VivoTab Note. Like Android, you’ll also find a variety of different hardware options, including sliders, convertibles, and other hybrids. Some Intel Haswell–more expensive but even more powerful models–like Lenovo’s Yoga, do offer keyboard portions in a laptop form factor that flip all the way around so you can use it as a tablet.
Yet, despite Microsoft moving down to the 8-inch series with devices like the Dell Venue 8 Pro, so far no OEM partner has delivered a fully mobile Windows computing experience with built-in mobile broadband access, meaning you’ll still have to connect to a hotspot for Internet connectivity.
Software & Apps
One of the most important aspects of choosing a mobile device is selecting hardware that would do what you need it to. This will mean a variety of apps and the right software to do what you need.
Android. For the general consumer, there will be enough variety through either Google’s Play Store, Amazon’s App Store for Android, or any third-party app store. Users will be able to find the most popular apps for social networking, keeping in touch, emails, messaging, organizing their life, planning their next trip, and more. Additionally, with many businesses and organizations now building apps for iOS and Android, chances are your company may have a special app delivered by your IT department for your Android tablet or there is an app out there that you can use for specialized work. Of course, if your company is still stuck in yesterday’s PC era, your best bet may still be Windows.
The Google Play Store not only delivers a large library of apps, but the store also contains digital books, music, TV shows, movies, and magazines. Additionally, Android tablet customers will also have access to third-party services too, like Hulu Plus, Netflix, Zinio, Amazon Kindle, Nook, and others for additional digital content.
Windows 8.1. When the consumer iOS and Android devices first appeared, Microsoft still had enterprises hooked on Windows due to a broad selection of legacy apps that required a Windows environment. However, today, this is less the case as many consumers, businesses, and enterprises are going mobile in the post-PC era. Still, with Windows 8.1 behind devices like the Surface Pro 2, the Lenovo Yoga, Toshiba Excite, and Dell Venue 8 and 11 Pro tablets, you’ll have a lot more flexibility.
This means that you can run any program designed for Windows 7 or earlier and you’ll have access to your full desktop, legacy ports, and an abundant selection of peripherals and devices. In the new, modern Metro UI designed for Windows 8 or later, you’ll also have access to more finger-friendly apps designed for the tablet experience. These apps will look and feel like they are iOS or Android apps with a clean, touch-friendly UI, rather than the smaller buttons and switches on the old Windows programs.
The end result, however, is that this experience could feel schizophrenic when you first switch as you’ll be juggling between Metro apps and Windows programs. This experience is expected to change with a rumored update 1 to Windows 8.1 to arrive this spring, but for now you’ll be jumping around the two environments a lot.
Beyond apps and the hardware, how easy and comfortable is it two get acclimated with either Android or Windows 8.1? Is it easy to expand if your computing needs change? Can you multitask? We’ll be addressing these major questions in this comparison.
Android. For the most part, Android is a single-tasking experience, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t open apps up in cascading windows in a desktop as apps generally take up the entirety of your screen. Sure, apps, do run in the background to update themselves when you move on to the next task, but many Android tablets only show one app at a time.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. Samsung’s Galaxy tablets allow users to snap two apps together side-by-side and if you have an LG tablet or a Galaxy Note from Samsung, then you can have cascading windows so you can open multiple windows that are movable and can be resized, similar to how your desktop works on Windows 7.
Depending if you’re a focused single-tasker or a serious juggler of many tasks at once, Android may not be able to accommodate you.
Windows 8.1. As we had touched on earlier, the experience with Windows 8.1 when juggling multiple programs and apps could be somewhat confusing. In classic desktop mode, you can open cascading and floating windows that can be resized and moved around, similar as you could on Windows 7. In the Metro mode on the new Start screen, you can pin apps as Live Tiles that update in the background and new Windows 8 apps open up full screen with more touch-friendly UI designs.
While Microsoft may have seemingly thought through everything, the problem is that this doesn’t quite work out so well. In particular, with smaller 8-inch tablets, the finger-friendly Metro UI apps work fine and the larger buttons and controls help to accommodate the smaller screen real estate. However, trying to run legacy programs–like Photoshop or anything designed for Windows 7 or earlier–in Windows 8.1 means that you’re going to have to tap at small spaces for menus and to select things. This is fine with the more fine-tuned control of a keyboard and mouse UI, but when things are shifting to touchscreens, this isn’t the most optimized way to work.
And with the rumored Update 1 for Windows 8.1, Microsoft may soon allow the new Metro UI apps run in the desktop alongside those legacy apps so you’ll be able to expand your multitasking further.
So should you choose a Galaxy Note 8 or a new Dell Venue 8 Pro or ASUS VivoTab Note? Should you go with a Surface Pro 2 or a convertible Windows 8.1 tablet? For many consumers, going Android will make the most sense. You can do 80 percent of what you did on Windows with Android, and a more unified UI that doesn’t force you to constantly switch between the old and the new paradigms of computing will allow users to have a more cohesive computing experience.
With more and more apps–or even suitable substitutes–coming from Windows to Android and iOS, the decision to stay in a pure Windows environment is less of a necessity than it was a number of years ago when Microsoft tried to launch UMPCs to bring smaller Windows XP and Windows 7 devices to market. Now, even with 8-inch Windows tablets, there may be less users who would clamor for an ASUS VivoTab Note than a Galaxy Note 8 or a Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition.
Users who do stay with Windows will likely be government employees, medical professionals, or financial works who require added security and specialized apps. Creative artists and those who edit professional quality videos will likely want to stay within Windows, but even consumers who dabble with Photoshop may find a suitable photo editing app on Android and consumer-grade video edits are much faster and easier on Android so it really boils down to your work flow.