Windows 8 moves Microsoft's desktop OS firmly into the mobile OS arena for the first time. So it should come as no surprise that the devices on which Windows 8 runs have likewise expanded. Windows 8 is available on traditional portable and desktop PCs, of course, but also on a growing family of hybrid PCs, the most popular of which are tablets.

Although the range of Windows 8 tablets will no doubt eventually expand to encompass the same markets that competitors (e.g., the Apple iPad, Google Android-based tablets) currently occupy, this isn't the case today. Instead, Microsoft and its partners are focusing on productivity-first devices that combine work and play in a single form factor.

Left alone, at least for now, are so-called media tablets: devices that are aimed first at consumption activities such as digital music, video, and reading. This exception extends to the available hardware selection as well. You won't find any 7" tablets running Windows 8.

Architecture and Hardware Choices

Before you look at specific devices, some general choices will help you narrow the field. First and most obviously, Microsoft creates versions of Windows 8 for both traditional x86/x64 and ARM-based hardware.

The latter, called Windows RT, was ostensibly designed to facilitate super-thin and light iPad-like tablets with no fans and superior battery life. And on that note, Microsoft delivers. But Windows RT comes with one major disadvantage: It can't run most commonly available Windows desktop software (beyond the few utilities and handful of Microsoft Office 2013 applications that are included with the OS). This includes such things as browser add-ons such as Java and even Microsoft Silverlight, as well as hardware drivers for common devices.

It's worth noting that this limitation could be seen as a win, depending on your point of view. Windows RT systems likewise are more difficult than Windows 8 for malicious hackers to exploit. So if your needs are met by the currently lackluster selection of Metro-style apps that do run on Windows RT, then this OS could be a viable solution for you.

But thanks to some interesting innovations from the Intel camp, many Windows 8 tablets offer the form factor and mobility advantages of ARM-based devices but come with the hardware and software compatibility advantages of traditional x86/x64-based PCs. These systems run the new Intel Atom system on a chip (SoC) platform, code-named Clover Trail. Essentially a netbook-class platform, Clover Trail nonetheless runs performance rings around ARM-based devices, while offering similar battery life and the same fanless operation.

That said, Clover Trail–based devices are limited in a few of the same ways as ARM-based Windows devices. The key limitation is that they come with and support only 2GB of RAM, limiting their multitasking prowess. (By comparison, 4GB is the bare minimum on traditional PCs.)

As with other PCs, you can of course find Windows tablets based on Intel's mainstream x86/x64 Core chipset, code-named Ivy Bridge. These chips often bear names such asi3, i5, and i7. These tablets offer full compatibility with Windows desktop software and drivers—after all, they are essentially PCs—and offer the performance and RAM (4GB or more) required to run multiple applications simultaneously. However, these types of tablets are typically a bit thicker than ARM or Clover Trail devices. They come with fans and often run warmer and more loudly. And they get much less battery life—often just half that of their ARM and Clover Trail siblings.

While you weigh the tradeoffs of these three major Windows 8 tablet platforms, there are a few more hardware-related concerns to consider.

Multi-touch. All Windows 8–based tablets include pervasive multi-touch capabilities. Don't discount the usefulness of this design even when used on traditional form factors such as Intel Ultrabooks or on tablets that are docked or otherwise attached to a keyboard base. You will be surprised how quickly you get used to the multi-touch functionality—and how often you use it.

Pen/stylus. In keeping with their Tablet PC past, some Windows 8 keyboards include a stylus or pen. There are two types, and their capabilities vary widely. Capacitance pens work much like your finger but offer a slightly smaller tip, making it easier to tap small on-screen objects. However, they aren't very precise and are poor choices for handwriting. More sophisticated electromagnetic pens offer a smaller, more precise, and pressure-sensitive writing tip that is quite suitable for handwriting, as well as an eraser tip. Electromagnetic pens require more expensive screens than capacitive pens do, so they're typically found on higher-end devices.

Sensors. Windows 8 supports a wide range of new hardware sensors, although some will be more common than others. Typical sensors include GPS (for location), accelerometer (for acceleration), gyroscope (for device positioning in 3D space, usually for games), compass, and light (for adaptive screen brightness). If you want to use your Windows 8 tablet as a giant GPS in the car, for example, you might want to look for one with a GPS (and possibly broadband cellular capabilities, although you might be able to share your phone's connection instead).

OK, let's talk devices. In the world of Windows 8 tablets, there are basically three: a pure tablet, detachable device, and convertible device.

Pure Tablet: Microsoft Surface

Microsoft and its partners don't yet offer any real media tablets; the smallest Windows 8 tablets are about as close as we can get these days. I think of these tablets, which offer screens smaller than 11", as "pure" tablets: Their small size means that they will be used as touch-capable tablets most frequently. This is true even though they typically offer clip-on keyboards or keyboard bases. Of course, they can be used with Bluetooth-based wireless keyboards.

The pure tablet market is most obviously represented by the Microsoft Surface lineup, which currently consists of two models, both of which offer 10.6" screens housed in stunning, industrial-grade magnesium alloy casing. Both work with excellent Type Cover and Touch Cover accessories, which provide surprisingly good typing experiences, and a handful of other add-ons. But beyond these similarities, the two models are quite different under the hood.

Surface with Windows RT (which Figure 1 shows) shipped in late October 2012. As its name suggests, it runs on the ARM platform, so it can't utilize traditional Windows desktop software, browser add-ons, or drivers. It features 2GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of solid state disk (SSD) storage. The device costs $500 to $730, depending on the storage configuration and cover type. (The base version comes sans cover.) The device features a single USB 2.0 port and micro-SD storage expansion. And it delivers more than 8 hours of battery life in real-world use.

Figure 1: Surface with Windows RT
Figure 1: Surface with Windows RT 

Surface with Windows 8 Pro began shipping in early February 2013. It features a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3427U microprocessor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB or 128GB of SSD storage. It costs $900 to $1,000, depending on configuration. The device features a single USB 3.0 port (with a second built into the power adapter) and micro-SD storage expansion. But unlike the Surface RT, which uses a 1366 × 768 display, the Surface Pro has a full-HD screen with 1920 × 1080 resolution. The Surface Pro is also heavier (2 pounds versus 1.5 pounds) and a bit thicker.

Because the Surface Pro uses a standard Core i5 part, there are concerns about fans and heat. But early previews of the device suggest that its unique active cooling system, in which heat is ushered silently out of the device through vents, seems to work. I will need to test this system extensively before I feel comfortable declaring it a success. I do know that real-world battery life is about 5 hours, however.

Based on my own testing, I can't really recommend Surface with Windows RT, given that comparable Clover Trail–based machines offer better compatibility and performance with similar form factors and battery life. But the Surface form factor obviously has a future, and the coming months will determine whether Surface Pro, or some future Surface device, marks the breakthrough.

Detachable: Samsung ATIV Smart PC

Although the Surface devices are unique because of their reliance on Type and Touch Covers, a broader range of tablets are shipping with detachable hardware keyboards. These devices, which I call detachables, will likely make up the mainstream portable-computing market in just a few short years. You might think of them as Ultrabooks with detachable screens.

A detachable keyboard—or a keyboard dock, as these items are often called—offers some important advantages over the Surface's lighter Touch and Type Covers. These pros include additional USB and other ports and, in some models, a second battery for even more endurance. Detachables come in a wide range of sizes, but the most common right now is 11.6", which doesn't seem like a big leap from the Surface's 10.6" unit but is in reality a huge difference. As a case in point, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC range includes two models: the Clover Trail–based Smart PC 500T, which I've used extensively, and the Ivy Bridge–based Smart PC 700T.

The 500T, which Figure 2 shows, features a 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760 processor, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of SSD storage, a 1366 × 768 display, and a single USB 2.0 port. This device beats out the Surface RT in virtually every category that matters, while offering a real hardware keyboard dock with two more USB 2.0 ports (though no additional battery). The 500T gets more than 9 hours of real-world battery life.

Figure 2: Samsung Smart PC 500T
Figure 2: Samsung Smart PC 500T 

The 700T, like the Surface Pro, uses an Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of SSD storage, and a full HD 1920 × 1080 display, albeit one that's easier on the eyes thanks to the larger form factor. It, too, has a single USB 3.0 port, but you get two additional USB 2.0 ports on the keyboard dock. The battery life is rated at 5 to 8 hours, depending on usage.

Choosing between the two—or similar competitors—comes down to a compromise between performance and price. The 500T outperforms Surface RT handily, but it's basically a glorified and expensive netbook tablet. The 700T, meanwhile, is the real deal but is quite expensive at about $1,200.

Convertible: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga

As odd as Windows 8 is with its dual user experiences, it shouldn't come as any surprise that PC makers are trying out some unusual designs. Sure, there are traditional convertible tablets similar to what we saw with the initial generation of Tablet PCs a decade ago. Such devices can transform between a laptop-like form factor and a tablet (albeit a heavy one; you can't physically detach the keyboard from the screen).

And then there are the gymnasts—my name for the machines that can really bend, twist, swivel, and contort. And not just into two form factors; these devices can convert into three or four positions.

The poster child for this crazy new kind of device is the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, which ships in three basic models. Each is a rather sedate-looking device. But looks—and first impressions—can be deceiving. Each Yoga model can be used in four forms:

  • A typical Ultrabook form factor
  • A tablet form factor
  • Tent mode (in which you bend the screen over the back and position it like an inverted V for content consumption)
  • Stand mode (in which you put the screen on the bottom for passive content consumption, such as movie watching)

Lenovo makes an 11.6" Yoga 11 with Windows RT, but I recommend choosing between the 11.6" Yoga S and the 13" Yoga 13 (which Figure 3 shows). Both devices run Windows 8. Both ship with a range of true Core processors, 4GB to 8GB of RAM, and 128GB or 256GB of SSD storage. The Yoga S features a 1366 × 768 screen, although I prefer the great 1600 × 900 display on the Yoga 13 that I tested. The Yoga S gets about 5 to 6 hours of battery life, compared with a bit over 6 hours for the Yoga 13.

Figure 3: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga
Figure 3: Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 

If you're a bit gun-shy on the tablet front, the Yoga and rival convertibles represent a good value and can be used solely in a traditional, Ultrabook-like form factor, until you're more comfortable experimenting on the multi-touch wild side.

Key Take-Aways

So which of these devices best suits you? Surface and other pure tablets are a good choice for those who want to use the device as a tablet first, with occasional productivity. Detachables offer the best of both worlds, with ideal form factors for both consumption and productivity. And convertibles are a great choice for those who value productivity over consumption but want options for both. Take your pick!