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Windows 8 Tablets: Still Hiding

Little was heard or seen of Windows 8 tablets at CES; where were they, and what's to come?

Considering that 2012 will be the year of Microsoft's dramatic upgrade to Windows 8, one might have thought the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show last week would be filled with prospective hardware platforms for the new Windows operating system. it might have seemed logical to expect that to hear lots about tablets with Windows 8. But news on that front was surprisingly...quiet.

While CEO Steve Ballmer talked Windows 8 at his keynote and showed a Qualcomm prototype tablet running Windows 8, Intel's Paul Otellini briefly showed a and Lenovo unveiled its innovative IdeaPad Yoga, a Windows 8-primed convertible notebook whose screen can twist around to turn into a tablet, little chatter was heard on the Windows tablet front.

The same three companies that showed off Windows 8 on ARM processors at BUILD were in the mix once more. Nvidia got things started by having a Microsoft rep do a five-minute demo of Windows 8 running smoothly on an Nvidia reference platform at its press conference. Then, just hours thereafter, Ballmer was on stage showing the Qualcomm tablet already seen at BUILD. And in private briefings off the show floor, Texas Instruments displayed a Windows 8 reference platform.

Running 7, Testing 8

A few Chinese tablet makers displayed tablets of distinctly generic design running Windows 7, but only one spoke specifically to Windows 8 plans. One tablet maker, Kupa, showed off its X11, a Windows 7 tablet available now that runs an Intel Atom Z670 processor; Kupa exhibited the tablet running the Windows 8 Developer's Preview, and billed it as Windows 8-ready thanks to its 1366-by-768-pixel, 16:9 aspect ratio display -- which matches to Microsoft's optimized target for Windows 8; and to the specs of Samsung's Series 7 tablet, distributed to Microsoft BUILD attendees last fall with the Windows 8 preview preinstalled.

But beyond the Yoga -- an inventive concept that's perfect for making noise at a big event like CES -- none of the tablet makers were ready to talk about Windows 8 on a tablet, and what we might expect to see in that form factor. Samsung had nothing to discuss at the show on the Windows 8 tablet front.

Fujitsu's Paul Moore, senior director of product development, hinted that Microsoft is encouraging a clean look on tablets that will run the new OS, but “they've been a bit vague so far.” Fujitsu, which already has the Stylistic Q550 on the market running an Intel Atom CPU, is looking at least one, maybe two updates to that model's specs by midyear. The company is looking at boosting performance for better video playback. “That seems to be the biggest challenge on Atom,” Moore says. “And that's the noticeable complaint customers have: The video is a little choppy.”

Windows 8: The CPU Question

The Windows 8 interface is clearly optimized for touch, but what remains unclear is what, if any, advantage Windows 8 will have when it comes to the tablet market. That's in part because Microsoft hasn't yet clarified if and how exist Windows apps will work on the Windows 8 version destined for use on ARM processors. ARM tablets will have a distinct weight, power, and likely price advantage over tablets with x86 processors, which makes the ARM tablet space an intriguing one to watch.

Meanwhile, Intel is readying a dual-pronged approached to tablets to compete with the coming ARM onslaught. Its single-core Medfield platform, launched at CES and due in the second quarter, is designed for Android; and its Clover Trail platform, due in the second half of this year, is built from the ground up for Windows 8. Clover Trail will replace the current Atom chips being used in most of the Windows 7 tablets available today, from companies like Fujitsu, Kupa, and Viewsonic; only Samsung, with its Core i5-based Series 7, has released a Windows tablet that uses the beefier CPU common to laptops.

What should users expect from ARM devices? In a private demo, Qualcomm showed off the second public Windows 8 build of its reference system, this time showing that the connected standby feature was enabled, even for connectivity like AT&T 4G LTE. Connected standby, a new state that powers down the system in a way that you can resume immediately, will enable 4G Windows 8 tablets to save power and extend battery life, for example.

“Microsoft has discussed this new [to its OS] concept of always on, always connected. We see this as a marriage of smartphone functionality and computing,” says Qualcomm's Steve Horton, director of software and product management. “The content you care about will be active, and you will be able to program it, and it will be able to be fed.”

While tablet makers were mum when asked how ARM platforms will influence their tablet designs, the use of ARM will no doubt keep things interesting. In a previous conversation at BUILD, Horton noted that with ARM chips, there's no restriction on form factor beyond the fact that Microsoft is asking hardware OEMs to stick to displays with 16:9 aspect ratio to match the optimal screen size for the new Windows 8 Metro interface.

When asked about Windows 8 tablets using ARM, for example, Senior Designer Junghwan Hong and Principal Designer Sangwon Yoon, the Samsung designers involved in creating the gorgeous, lightweight Series 9 laptop, shied away from specifics, but admitted that the prospect of ARM presents a new design opportunity and challenge.

“As designers, we are studying ARM,” Yoon says. “ We have a lot of different form factors for ARM devices. ARM has no fans, so for designers, that's a good feature.” One logistical challenge: ARM tablets will likely carry relatively low prices, which “means we cannot use fancy materials. But they have to look good. That's a challenge.”

And it's likely not the only challenge for Windows 8 tablets. Even without any solid teasers at CES, 2012 promises to shape into an interesting year for tablets running Microsoft's next operating system refresh.


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