Mobile Computing | Feature

Faculty Review: Windows 8 Tablet PCs

A professor at SMU puts three Windows 8 tablet PCs through their paces in the classroom.

Faculty Review Windows 8 Tablet PCs
Samsung's ATIV Tab 7 has a detachable keyboard with 2 USB ports, as well as an additional USB port on the tablet itself.

I love using tablet computers in the classroom, but I have a confession to make: The iPad doesn't cut it for me. Nor, for that matter, do Android tablets. They don't run the software I use, and text input with a capacitive stylus with these devices is generally not as precise as it needs to be. Instead, I prefer tablet PCs--small portable laptops with built-in digitizers that allow users to write text directly on the computer screen with a stylus.

As a professor of mechanical engineering at Southern Methodist University (TX), tablet PCs allow me to work through complicated equations and schematics with my class using the stylus like a pencil, while still including pictures and typed text in other portions of the lecture. It also makes distance education a snap because our distance-education classrooms are set up to record whatever is projected to in-class students (in my case, the display of my tablet computer).

This story appears in the October 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

Because of my background, I was excited by the release of Windows 8 because it brings together both touchscreen and stylus capabilities that are ideal for many classroom activities. Many of the Windows 8 devices on the market are convertible laptops, meaning they can be converted to a tablet by twisting, folding, or removing the keyboard. In some cases, the keyboard is wirelessly connected. For faculty, the hardest part is choosing among the vast array of offerings, especially since technical reviews rarely provide much insight into a device's classroom value. To address this shortcoming, I decided to obtain some hands-on experience by reviewing a variety of new Windows 8 devices in a classroom environment.

Over the past several months, I tested several Windows 8 tablet and convertible laptop computers (see chart on page xx). However, I focused intensively on just three: the Samsung ATIV Tab 7 (formerly the ATIV Smart PC Pro), and Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix and ThinkPad Tablet 2. These were the only models with built-in digitizers and styli, which are well suited to my in-class teaching methods (review units of Microsoft's Surface Pro and RT tablets were unavailable). In putting these three models through their paces, I hope to help educators identify the most important elements to consider when buying a tablet PC--even if it's a different make and model.

How the Reviews Were Conducted

I evaluated the different units in my everyday work setting. This included e-mail, web browsing, document writing, and lecturing--either in the classroom or in a simulated classroom environment. For most out-of-class tasks, I used stock software such as Internet Explorer and WordPad. For classroom use, though, I used PDF Annotator (Grahl Software Design) for annotating lecture slides, and Snagit or Camtasia Studio (TechSmith) for screencasting (i.e., recording the computer screen and microphone audio during lecture) and some minor video editing. I tested the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 during the spring 2013 semester and was able to use it to deliver several of my regular lectures. I tested the Samsung ATIV Tab 7 and Lenovo Helix during the summer of 2013 in a mock classroom setting, using my desktop computer screen as a stand-in for the classroom projector.

Hardware Choices
The biggest distinction among the models is the hardware configuration. Generally, there are two options: a lean configuration and a more powerful setup. The typical lean configuration consists of an Intel Atom 1.8 GHz processor with 2 GB of RAM and a 1366 x 768 screen resolution. This is the configuration used by the ThinkPad Tablet 2, for example. Conversely, Samsung's Tab 7 and Lenovo's Helix both sport the more powerful Intel Core i5 1.8 GHz processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 1920 x 1080 screen resolution. (The Helix has the option of a Core i7 processor, but this is unusual for tablet computers.) Typically, the lean configuration also sports a smaller hard drive (64 GB versus 128 GB or larger).

Both hardware configurations perform well in common tasks such as document editing, e-mail, web browsing, and playing movies. It does take the Tablet 2 a little longer to start up, resume from sleep, and open programs (specifically desktop applications), but these amount to only a few seconds' difference.

I noticed a bigger difference for tasks requiring more processing power or RAM, such as screencasting. When I used the Tablet 2 with Camtasia Studio, for example, the recording went well for about 10 minutes before the computer started to show a lot of lag in responding to the stylus. After slowing the frame-capture rate and reducing the resolution of the captured video, I was able to record about 50 minutes of lecture before the lag would reappear, suggesting the limitation was related to the available 2 GB of RAM on the computer.

In comparison, I did not observe any lag when screencasting lectures using Snagit with the Tab 7 and Helix (both with 4 GB of RAM). Similarly, when converting a 15-minute recording to MP4 format using Camtasia Studio, the Tablet 2 took about 20 minutes, whereas the Core i5 processor took only about two minutes.

Of course, the extra computing power provided by the Core i5 processor comes at a cost--shorter battery life. I was able to do six to eight hours of daily tasks on a single charge with the Tablet 2, but was able to work for only about 4.5 hours on the Tab 7. To help extend battery life with a Core i5 processor, the Lenovo Helix includes a second battery in the keyboard dock, and both batteries provided about seven to eight hours total for my typical daily usage. Obviously, though, the life of a single charge depends heavily on how you use the computer.

In the Classroom
From my perspective, a tablet PC must do two tasks well to be effective in the classroom: interface quickly with the projector to prevent class delays; and provide simple, clear stylus input to render text well on screen. To interface with the projector, the Tablet 2 and Helix both require a special VGA adapter from Lenovo. With the adapter, connecting to a projector is quick and simple, with the tablet display automatically reconfiguring to the correct resolution. Computer-resume times of only a few seconds also help speed the process. While the Tab 7 does have a micro-HDMI port, I was unable to get the correct display on a VGA monitor using a generic HDMI-to-VGA converter. A converter sold by Samsung may fix this issue, but I was unable to test one.

To test the stylus input, I used the manufacturer stylus that shipped with each unit. In all three cases, the stylus is somewhat smaller and shorter than I am used to, probably because they are designed to be stored with the tablet in a special silo. The diminutive size of the styli does make writing more difficult. This is most noticeable on the Tablet 2, whose smaller screen (10.1 inches compared with 11.6 for the Tab 7 and Helix) makes it hard to fit text on the screen and provides minimal hand support while writing.

Worse than the stylus size, however, is that none of them features an eraser button. If I need to erase anything, I have to manually select the eraser function in PDF Annotator. This tends to break up the flow of the lecture. Having a built-in small stylus is nice since it ensures you always have one, but a larger stylus with an eraser button would be more practical for lecture purposes. Fortunately, all three units use Wacom digitizers, so any tablet PC Wacom stylus with an eraser button will work: You could simply purchase a third-party stylus to carry in your computer bag for class.

I did notice a few interesting quirks while using the stylus on these computers. Because all three also have touchscreens, a touch can sometimes register as an annotation. Typically, the computer rejects input from your palm or fingers by disabling the touchscreen when the stylus is near the screen surface. But if your hand touches the screen before the stylus gets close enough, occasional stray marks may appear.

While all three computers showed minimal lag in following the motion of the stylus across the screen, there was sometimes an offset between the stylus location and its registered position on the screen. This offset even persisted after recalibrating the digitizer. The offset was largest for the Tablet 2 and smallest for the Tab 7.

During screencasting, the Tablet 2 and Tab 7 microphones both picked up the tapping of the stylus on the screen. The active noise suppression on the Helix was able to remove this, but a hiss from the cooling fan was still noticeable. For good audio during screencasting, I recommend using an external microphone with these units.

Classroom use--and screencasting in particular--puts additional strain on the computers. General classroom annotation seems to increase battery usage slightly, but screencasting is a major drain. On the Helix, for example, screencasting reduced the life of a battery by 50 percent, so it's important to have a good charge if you plan to screencast your lectures.

Port Locations
When you're researching tablet PCs, go the extra mile to find out exactly how the ports are configured. On tablet PCs that come with a keyboard, some of the ports may be situated on the keyboard, not on the tablet. (Unfortunately, manufacturer websites don't always carry this information.) The Tab 7, for example, has two USB ports on the keyboard dock and only one on the tablet. So if you bring the tablet to class without the keyboard and need to use a USB dongle for classroom feedback via clickers, you won't be able to also insert a flash drive into the computer.

Conclusion
In buying a tablet PC, you need to make some tradeoffs. A key decision is the choice between processor power and battery life. If long battery life is important, can you live with the lower performance of a lean hardware configuration, or do you need more RAM and processor power for screencasting or other applications? Regardless, a stylus with an eraser and an external microphone are good accessory choices.

Overall, I think the small size and light weight of Windows 8 tablet PCs--combined with their capability for stylus and touch input--make them capable partners in the classroom. Although I used mostly legacy Windows software for this review, future Windows 8 touch-based applications will undoubtedly provide additional functionality in the classroom.

Test Models at a Glance (Part 1)*

Model

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Samsung ATIV Tab 7
Processor Intel Atom Intel Core i5 Intel Core i5
RAM 2 GB 4 GB 4 GB
Screen Resolution 1366 x 768 (10.1") 1920 x 1080 (11.6") 1920 x 1080 (11.6")
Hard Drive 64 GB SSD 180 GB SSD 128 GB
Keyboard Wireless (optional) Detachable Detachable
Stylus Yes Yes Yes
Ports USB 2.0, mini-HDMI, microSD, docking connector (for display adapter), headphone

On keyboard: 2 USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort;

On tablet: 1 USB 2.0, Mini DisplayPort, headphones

On keyboard: 2 USB;

On tablet: USB 3.0, microSD, micro-HDMI, headphone, SIM card (4G LTE)
Retail Price $699 ($120 for optional keyboard) $1,829 $1,199.99

Test Models at a Glance (Part 2)*

Model

HP Envy x2 Lenovo ThinkPad Twist Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Processor Intel Atom Intel Core i5 Intel Core i5
RAM 2 GB 4 GB

8 GB (test model had 4 GB)

Screen Resolution 1366 x 768 (11.6") 1366 x 768 (12.5") 1600 x 900 (13.3")
Hard Drive 64 GB SSD 128 GB SSD

256 GB SSD (test model had 128 GB SSD)

Keyboard Detachable Attached Attached (360º foldable)
Stylus No No No
Ports On keyboard: 2 USB 2.0, HDMI, headphone; On tablet: none 2 USB 3.0, mini-HDMI, 4-in-1 card reader, Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet, headphone 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, HDMI, 2-in-1 card reader (SD/MMC), headphone
Retail Price $699.99 $1,029 $1,399

*Review units of Microsoft's Pro and RT tablets were unavailable.

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