Another Windows tablet falls short of the iPad

Microsoft keeps giving IT hope that Windows can out-tablet the iPad, so why can't it beat the iPad's quality or even security?

Even though businesspeople love iPads, IT loves Windows, so it keeps hoping Microsoft and its hardware partners will finally deliver a Windows tablet that makes users forget the iPad. Last week, Microsoft pitched the idea that Windows 8.1 will render the unloved Windows 8 lovable, and several consultancies and analyst firms called to tell me they thought Microsoft had a real shot. Many skew their findings to favor Microsoft due to business relationships, both with Microsoft directly and with Microsoft-loving IT clients -- Gartner last week once again showed its dubious judgment when it comes to Windows predictions.

But Microsoft if nothing is persistent, and it has a strong track record of getting it right on the third or fourth try. Thus, I decided to check out some of the devices that Microsoft is touting as the tablets that will bring users home to Windows. As my colleague Woody Leonhard has shown, Windows 8.1 is better than Windows 8, especially for its Metro environment, but it's nothing to lust after. What about those new 8-inch Windows tablets, such as the Acer Iconia W3 that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touted this week? Apple's 7.9-inch iPad Mini is a big hit, and Android makers have their own versions. It's natural that PC tablet vendors jump in too.

[ InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard reviews the Windows 8.1 preview edition. | How iOS 7, OS X Mavericks, and iCloud up the ante in the computing wars. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

Once again, the iPad -- the iPad Mini, in this case -- has nothing to fear. The Acer Iconia is just a so-so tablet. The good news: The user interface in the Windows Desktop portion is no more scrunched than in a full-size Windows tablet -- it's still hard to read and tap, but about the same as on a larger tablet. Having a physical Start button is also handy, as Microsoft's full-size Surface Pro lacks one.

The bad news: It's thicker, heavier, and slower, and it has half the battery life of an iPad Mini. Its screen is decidedly inferior, with a yellowish cast, a dull appearance, and a limited viewing angle, and its touchscreen needs a heavy touch to respond. Athough there's an SD card for additional storage, its Wi-Fi radio doesn't support faster 5GHz 802.11n networks. Office 2013 and other Desktop apps -- the main attraction of a Windows tablet to business users -- are even harder to use in the 8-inch environment than they are on a full-size Windows tablet. It gets unpleasantly warm on its left side after just a few minutes of use. It feels plasticky and underpowered.

Few PC makers understand how good Apple's hardware is and how cheap they look by comparison, especially when you compare prices and realize the high-quality iPad Mini costs less -- $329 versus $379 -- as the cheap-feeling Iconia W3. The reason: Because Windows takes so much storage space, you need a 32GB Iconia to equal the usable storage capacity of a 16GB iPad Mini. These issues won't likely to dissuade most Windows users, who buy mostly cheap PCs anyhow.

Security is one issue that's dear to IT organizations. Ironically, Microsoft falls short in the basics here. Yes, you can apply group policy objects to a Windows 8 tablet, which you can't do to an iPad or any non-Windows device. But all iPads (and iPhones) support 256-bit encryption out of the box -- in fact, it can't be turned off. Windows tablets? Not so much. Few support Microsoft's BitLocker encryption technology (Microsoft's Surface Pro is one that does), which means they cannot be used in corporate environments that require device-level encryption.

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