I love my Nexus 7. That little Android tablet has been my constant companion for quite some time. The 7-inch form factor is just right for a pocket-able machine to take with me anywhere I go.
But when I saw the new 8-inch, Atom-powered tablets from the likes of Dell, Lenovo and Toshiba... I'll admit, I was a bit envious. The 7-inch screen of the Nexus 7 is great, but I could use just a little more. And I felt like my jacket pocket could handle the extra inch.
So I got my hands on one of these little bad boys (specifically the Lenovo Miix 2 8-inch tablet, which retails for less than $300 but can be found for closer to $200 if you look around) and took it for a spin. I was left completely in love, and yet I wanted to kill it with fire. To say I am conflicted on this little tablet would be an understatement.
Here I present the Lenovo Miix 2 running GNOME Shell in a VM under Windows 8.1.
First off, let's talk about the hardware.
As I predicted, the 8-inch size is absolutely perfect. It even fits in my pants pockets (though just barely). The screen is big and beautiful. Watching movies on this screen is an astoundingly better experience than watching them on the Nexus 7.
The rig is fast. Really, really fast. It's rocking a quad-core Atom processor with 2 gigs of RAM. I did a few quick benchmarks (using two different Windows benchmarking tools) and it clocked in at roughly similar to a high-end Core 2 Duo desktop. In a tablet. That's just plain awesome.
Battery life is good, but it’s nothing exceptional. Active use resulted in roughly similar battery life to the Nexus 7. However, when in standby, this puppy chewed through the battery much faster than its Android-powered competitor - fully charged before I went to bed, down to about 60% remaining when I woke up. All of which means this tablet will do fine, battery-wise, for a full day of being out and about. But you'll need to be damned sure you charge it fully every night.
The unit I have comes with 32 gigs of storage, 10 of which is taken up by a recovery partition. Another 12 is taken up by the stock install of Windows 8.1 that it comes loaded with (more on that in a moment), which means that you only actually have about 10 gigs of storage to work with. This means that a 32-gig Miix 2 has several gigs less of storage available than a 16-gig Nexus 7, which is less than awesome.
The build quality is stellar: good weight, good size, and it feels sturdy and high-quality in my hand.
Basically, from a hardware standpoint, this would be the perfect rig to throw Linux on and use as a tablet – or even a laptop replacement if you pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard. In many ways, this is exactly the piece of hardware I've been looking for.
Which brings us to the problem with this tablet (and all of the other Atom-powered tablets hitting the market) - despite having an honest-to-goodness x86 processor (the quad-core Atom), you are stuck running Windows 8.1. At least for now.
There have been some efforts to get Linux up and running on this class of tablets – such as Adam Williamson's (QA lead for Fedora) efforts to get Fedora running on the Dell Venue 8 Pro (which is an almost identical device to the Lenovo Miix 2). The early results are somewhat promising, but still nowhere near usable.
So, for the time being you're stuck with Windows 8.1. Which is...OK. At least this is full Windows that can run normal Windows software, and not just Windows RT. So that's a plus. I guess.
But what I really want is to be able to run Linux on here. How cool would it be to use GNOME Shell or KDE (or even Unity) on a quad-core, x86, 8-inch tablet? The answer is "the coolest thing ever."
So I did what any sane, Linux-loving nerd would when stuck with an amazing piece of hardware that can't run Linux natively: I installed VirtualBox.
That's right. I loaded up VirtualBox, and then I installed openSUSE (specifically the GNOME Shell version to save on space). And you know what? Performance wasn't bad! It wasn't a speed demon, but I gave the virtual machine a full gig of RAM and two processor cores (I've got four, after all) and it produced a quite usable system! In fact, it's perceived performance (how quickly things reacted and launched) felt about the same as on my old Lenovo S10-3t netbook.
I threw VirtualBox into full-screen mode and voila! It's like I have a dual-core Atom, 1-gig tablet!
Of course, when running the virtual machine full time, the battery life was roughly half of what it was otherwise. And due to the space constraints on the device, the virtual machine was only able to access about 8 gigs of storage. So this, obviously, isn't a good long-term solution. But it does show the power of the hardware here.
In the end, I love the hardware. Without reservation, it is my favorite tablet hardware that I've seen yet.
But the software... I just can't stand. Notice I didn't even bother reviewing the usability of Windows 8.1 beyond the fact that I can install VirtualBox? That should tell you something.
My recommendation to you, if you are looking to pick one of these up - either do so knowing that you may be in for a rocky road before we get a good, working Linux distro on here... or wait until SUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, etc., have versions that are working a bit more reliably.
My recommendation to Lenovo (and the rest of the manufacturers building these Atom tablets) - support Linux. I know dozens of people, just from my circle of friends, who would love to buy one (or three) of these if they could install a Linux distro. You don't even need to ditch Windows 8.1. Just put a little engineering resources into working with the various distros (and the kernel maintainers... and Intel) to get this little beauty running an operating system that could really show what a powerhouse it really is. Windows 8.1 is dragging you down.