Actual Windows RT tablet sees the light of day. Should anyone care?

Predicting the reception of Windows RT tablets.

The Computex trade show in Taipei, which wrapped up on June 9, was a bit of a coming out party for Windows RT. Not because Microsoft made any major announcements about it, but because actual devices — not crude development platforms — were on display running the OS. NVIDIA in particular showed off a sleek Windows RT tablet from Asus built around NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 quad-plus-one core mobile system on a chip (SoC).

The Tegra 3-powered Asus Tablet 600 features a 10.1-inch screen with a resolution of 1366 x 768, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of NAND storage, and 8MP (rear) and 2MP (front) cameras. Like many of Asus’ current tablet offerings, the Tablet 600 will also have a companion keyboard dock to convert the device into a pseudo-netbook. Expected battery life of the Tablet 600 is about 10 hours for the tablet alone and 18 hours when docked (Asus’ tablet docks feature secondary batteries that provide supplemental power).

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Seeing the Tablet 600 in action was interesting, to say the least. Even though the OS is still incomplete and there is surely much optimization left to be done, Windows RT’s performance on the Tablet 600 appeared stellar. The Metro UI moved fluidly, with smooth transitions and animations. And browsing and scrolling with Internet Explorer looked silky smooth. Any fears of clunky Windows RT performance should be quelled after seeing the Tablet 600 do its thing.

Due to the Tablet 600’s great showing, much has been written over the last couple of days about NVIDIA’s apparent lead over its competitors in the fledgling Windows RT market. NVIDIA certainly appears to be in a strong position at this point. For better or worse, NVIDIA has had a long standing relationship with Microsoft and extensive experience writing drivers for Windows. The challenges associated with writing drivers for Windows RT are surely different than for x86 or x64 versions of Windows, but NVIDIA’s relative relationship with Microsoft and its skilled software development team are immensely helpful nonetheless. NVIDIA has also stated that it’ll be the only company with quad-core, Windows RT tablet design wins at launch, just piling on the good news for NVIDIA.

The Asus Tablet 810 Running Windows 8

I wonder, however, if NVIDIA’s apparent lead over its competitors is the real story here. Also shown at Computex was the Asus Tablet 810 (among many other Windows 8 tablets). The Tablet 810 is built around Intel’s 32nm Clovertrail Atom platform and features an 11.6-inch Super IPS+ screen, with the very same 1366 x 768 resolution as the Tablet 600. The Tablet 810 also has 2GB of RAM, 64GB of solid state NAND storage, the same 8MP/2MP camera configuration as the Tablet 600, and support for Near Field Communications (NFC). A keyboard dock will be available for the Tablet 810 as well.

Although battery life wasn’t disclosed, the Tablet 810 essentially offers everything that the Tablet 600 does, and more, in a slightly larger form factor. Performance of the Tablet 810 also seemed very good. Most notably though, because the Tablet 810 is running full-blown Windows 8, it’s compatible with any current Windows application, in addition to any upcoming Metro-style apps. Windows RT will not be able to run any current Windows applications and lacks a few other x86/x64 specific features as well. Windows RT won’t be able to join a domain either.

There’s been lots of fuss over the last couple of years about Microsoft finally building Windows for ARM-based processors. As we near the launch though, it appears to me that there’s going to be little reason to buy a Windows RT-based device in light of Windows 8 tablets. When retail-ready Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets ship, the ARM-based Windows RT products are likely to be less expensive and will probably offer better battery life. But is that going to be enough to entice general consumers? What about enterprise consumers?

Current Core i5-based Utlrabooks, which are much more powerful than Clovertrail / Atom, can already offer battery life in the 8-hour range with certain workloads, so Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are likely to offer more. If x86 Windows 8 tablets offer similar or even somewhat lower battery life than ARM-based tablets, but they do it in similar form factors and with broad compatibility with all of the applications Windows users already own, what’s going to be Windows RT’s attraction? It’s likely going to be price, but even then I think consumers are going to be willing to pay a little more for the broader compatibility of a full-blown Windows 8 tablet. Time will tell.

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