Building the perfect Franken-tablet

Toshiba Exite edges Microsoft Surface RT in test of five flawed tablets

Finding the right business tablet can be a daunting task. Do you want a 7-inch display or a 10 inch? Built-in keyboard? Snap-on keyboard? Which operating system? What apps? How about ruggedness, style, battery life, price?

Finding the right business tablet can be a daunting task. Do you want a seven-inch display or a 10 inch? Built-in keyboard? Snap-on keyboard? Which operating system? What apps? How about ruggedness, style, battery life, price?

We tested a sampling of five business tablets, or perhaps we should say: four business tablets and the iPad Mini. Prices ranged from $429 for the iPad Mini to $2,000 for the ruggedized GammaTech. Each device had a different operating system, and, even more importantly, a different app ecosystem.

None of the products were perfect, but in our testing, the Toshiba Excite 10 came out on top because it has solid features, but also because it isn't deficient in important ways. It draws on a huge application profile set that we believe pushes it past the competition -- by a hair.

The Android Market, Google Play and Amazon Store, which the Toshiba draws upon, are rife with a myriad business focused applications and access methods for tablets to get VDI sessions, communications links, and other business focused applications.

We tested three seven-inch display tablets, an Apple iPad Mini, GammaTech T7Q Durabook, a Blackberry Playbook 2; and two 10-inch tablets, a Microsoft Surface RT and a Toshiba Excite 10. Hands down, we liked the 10-inch displays, although the larger size is somewhat offset by its heft. We found that there wasn't a strong correlation between display size and battery size. Only GammaTech offers the option to change the battery.

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If we could take the best features and build a Franken-tablet, it would have the slick feel of the Windows Surface and its optional keyboard binder. But it also would have the durability of the GammaTech unit so we could drop it, or not feel in fear of hurting its good looks. It would have the removable batteries of the GammaTech. It would have the brilliant display of the Toshiba Excite, but all of the Windows 7 apps of the GammaTech.

Tablet net results

Here are the individual reviews:

Toshiba Excite

The Toshiba Excite is a lightweight device that sports a 10-inch screen and runs a version of Android. Apps open quickly and movements in and among applications are smooth.

The processor power is strong, and we found ourselves using multiple apps at once without fear that too many apps would slow down others already in progress.

One of our major complaints with the Excite 10 was that it uses a proprietary charger connector that's huge, and doesn't give tactile feedback about its correct polarity position -- yes, it's a polarized, weird connector.

The Excite 10 came preloaded with QuickOffice Lite HD (an upgrade for the "Pro version" is available, LogMeIn, PrinterShare and Adobe Reader. A standard Gmail application is also included. The modules for QuickOffice included word processor, spreadsheet and a presentation app -- with file browser. There are no licensing constraints for use of the QuickOffice applications. They're production applications, as opposed to the Windows Surface RT.

The Toshiba connected to our generic Bluetooth keyboard, and allowed us to get busy immediately. Wi-Fi was fast. Test times for the Sun Spider benchmark we used rated it at an average of 1918 ms - definitely not as fast as the Surface RT, but in use, the differences were small.

The Excite 10 has a mini-USB jack, although it can't charge through it, HDMI-Out and an SD card for rapidly removable storage use or reading camera (or other) data. There are two cameras, a 5MP on the back that can shoot 1024x768, but we felt its stills and its video were both a bit grainy, if with good color. There is also a 2MP camera, that's good, but the graininess becomes more pronounced. There's a standard stereo jack included as well.

We also tested a generic portable Bluetooth keyboard with the Excite 10, and it paired immediately and performed well with no discernible lag or buffering in the apps we tried.

The Toshiba had the second best battery life, a very nice display, reasonable Office application payload, but could also use applications outside of the normal Android channels. There is that certain freedom of choice that tips this device to lead the pack, overall.

Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

The Windows RT tablet has a number of things going for it and might have been our choice, but for its singular lack of applications. The Windows RT operating system has much in common with Windows 8, we found, but there are still some chasms between the two. Microsoft's target with the Surface seems to be Apple's iPad. There's a proprietary power connector, a vivid UI, and the Surface RT is slick.

Underneath, however, Microsoft's Surface RT suffers from a dearth of applications, and additionally, from second class citizenship with Microsoft's other Windows products. RT applications are specifically built for it and no other -- unless possibly ported to Windows 8, if the application context fits.

If you're heavily invested in web apps, and the base of Windows Office apps is the only foundation you'll need, the Surface RT is a reasonable choice. Otherwise, it's more poised towards consumer and entertainment/media-consumption.

BYOD Surface RT users are second-class citizens inside the office because Windows Surface RT doesn't offer peer authentication with Microsoft's Active Directory. This also means that Windows Active Directory group policy controls aren't in force. If the machine is to be controlled for business uses, it's through Microsoft's ActiveSync APIs.

IT execs can manage Surface RT devices through Microsoft Exchange for organizations using, via MDM applications or through Microsoft's subscription-based management cloud app, Windows Intune (not tested). Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager 2012 SP1 can also provision post-purchase payloads of apps, but we didn't test this, either.

The Windows RT payload comes with a version of Microsoft Office 2013 Preview Edition. In actuality, "Preview" means "beta", which doesn't mean production. Users will ostensibly obtain the "full edition" through Windows Update on their Surface RT. Our jaws dropped. We certainly weren't warned of the beta nature of software when we bought the system.

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According to Microsoft's website, "As sold, Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview and the final edition are not designed for commercial, nonprofit, or revenue-generating activities. However, organizations who purchase commercial use rights or have a commercial license to Office 2013 suites can use Office Home & Student 2013 RT for commercial, nonprofit, or revenue-generating activities." Unless otherwise licensed for Microsoft Office for commercial use, one cannot use the Surface RT Office Apps for the stated activities. Lacking a usable office application given these constraints, we had to demote the Surface RT from being usable in a BYOD situation -- at all.

With an optional keyboard, as with the rest of the tablets we tested, you can use plentiful online versions of office apps, like Microsoft's Office 365, which is licensed differently. Inside the Microsoft application store, however, there are but a comparative handful of applications that will work on the Surface RT. And like Apple's application hegemony, unless you root the Surface in some way or provision it through alternate means with RT-specific applications (others don't work), you're captive to the apps on Microsoft's site, which, at the time of our testing, were few.

The Surface is a big 10-inch tablet, feels a bit heavy, but still feels comfortable, like the iPad we reviewed in last year's look at business-focused tablets. It's heavy to hold, but surprisingly comfortable due to the thinness and even weight distribution.

It comes with a built in stand in the back, so watching videos does not require you to prop the machine up or hold it. The thick screen border of the Surface looks sleek, and the optional keyboard/cover attaches magnetically. There is an app that allowed handwriting to text conversion that worked rather well. Our hands were very active on the Surface RT and we liked how tactile we became with it, quickly.

Windows 8's user interface works great on the RT version and the Windows RT OS seems highly catered to a tablet environment. Unlike the Windows Surface 8 Pro, there is no going back to the "Start" menu, because other Windows 8 apps aren't compatible, so it has no real context on the Surface RT edition. Screen touch actions, such as swiping from window to window, swiping up from the bottom (or down from top) to bring up extra menu items, swiping left or right to move between browser pages, all worked very smoothly. Also, not a "lite" version of Windows 8, it's almost full-on Windows 8.

The Surface RT uses a five-pronged magnetic charger adapter; we judged it interesting but sometimes it didn't "snap in place" as it should. There's also a standard USB jack (that doesn't charge the unit), a mini-HDMI output jack, as well as standard stereo headphone jacks. There were front and rear cameras, although at 1MP and "800p", the images were OK, but not as good as others we reviewed.

Microsoft's SkyDrive becomes a useful storage place for the RT's media and documents, if one is legally licensed to use the Office beta edition. We also used Skype on the Surface RT and over a several hour period, it performed well. It also had decent battery life and was among the fastest tablets we tested. But Surface RT comes with highly constrained Office apps -- with no other real choices available, except those from the cloud.

Blackberry Playbook 2

We reviewed the RIM Blackberry Playbook 2's predecessor, and found it reasonable, if wanting in connectivity to RIM's famous Blackberry resources. The Playbook 2 is better connected to RIM resources, we found, but had numerous comparative failings and some head-scratching bugs.

The PB2's 7-inch size is barely larger than a smartphone, and has a handy, if square, feel, as the edges aren't as rounded as others we reviewed. The smaller screen might be a hindrance to those wanting to watch plentiful videos, but for the quick work of checking and using applications, we found the screen vivid and clear.

Amazingly, and unlike the other tablets tested, the initial software update took around 17 minutes to complete, which we decided was annoying. Whenever there's a new device, we want to plug it in and use it.

The PB2 uses BBOS and is based on the QNX operating system. QNX doesn't run Android, iOS, or any other applications but BBOS. This means that we were captive to Blackberry's application store, which had no apps we could identify from memory. The store is laid out in such a way as to be non-intuitive, different than other application stores we've seen. It was often difficult to discern if a listed app worked on the PB2, or another BlackBerry device. Oddly, the apps for the PB2 were all poorly rated on the RIM site, ostensibly by their users.

That said, the PB2's UI is very easy to maneuver, and running tasks can be switched to with simple swipes. Learning the UI took only seconds. Swipe actions are intuitive, and very responsive to touch and the context of the application in the foreground. The apps are easy to scroll through despite the comparatively smaller screen size. App menus and hierarchical menus were judged to be simple. The learning curve for all but the laziest, should be short, we felt.

The built-in apps were primitive but useful. RIM includes an Adobe Reader, Docs to Go - a primitive word and spreadsheet editor, Print to Go for sending files wirelessly from your computer to your Playbook, and Press Reader allows you to view/download news paper editions from a wide of different publishers. There is a Windows (XP-8) Desktop Manager, and a version for Mac OS (6+) that allows file sync and easy movement between the PB2 and a desktop. Linux users are out of luck.

We were also out of luck when we tried to connect our generic Bluetooth keyboard to the PB2. RIM claims others work, but having a highly proprietary operating system can sometimes mean a dearth of device drivers for external products.

Media playing was also a problem, we found. The PB2 has trouble playing common video file formats, such as mp4, avi, mov, and mkv. The WMV format works, however. Alternate browsers didn't work either. RIM acknowledges the problem.

From a UI perspective, the screen keyboard was more difficult to use than most, and we were tempted to stretch our thumbs in use. We also found the touch screen to be overly sensitive. We didn't have any flies land on the screen, but if we had, they would have likely awoken it -- everything else did.

The Blackberry Bridge, which synced the PB2 to a loaner Blackberry Bold, worked very well. It connected via Bluetooth and allowed us to sync emails, text messages, contacts, and tasks easily. Curiously, you can also use the Blackberry Bold as a mouse for the PB2.

The PB2 was the slowest, by far, of the tablets tested, although its battery use was near average. It has two cameras, a 3MP facing and 5MP rear. Although there's no flash, the cameras rendered outstanding pictures and it records in full 1080p; it might be the unit's best feature.

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