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What You Need to Know About Buying Touch-Enabled Windows 8.1 PCs

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It has now been over a year since Windows 8 was released. A lot has happened — we’re now on Windows 8.1 and new devices running Intel’s Haswell and Bay Trail chips are coming out every day. Touch-enabled laptops, convertibles, and Windows tablets are getting cheaper and more common.

Head to the store to buy a new laptop or tablet and you’ll see a wide variety of new touch-enabled laptops and tablets running Windows. In the long term, Microsoft and Intel want every PC to have a touch screen, and they’re getting there.

Windows RT Is Less Common

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Microsoft launched Windows RT at the same time as it launched Windows 8. This was rather confusing — not only was Microsoft’s own Surface RT a Windows RT device, other manufacturers launched their own Windows RT devices. For example, the Lenovo Yoga 11 looked like a laptop, but it actually ran Windows RT.

Windows RT has now settled into a place that makes more sense. There are only a handful of Windows RT devices on the market: Microsoft’s original Surface RT (now renamed the Surface), Microsoft’s new Surface 2, and Nokia’s Lumia 2520 tablet. Nokia is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft. These are the only three Windows RT devices you’ll encounter, and all of them are more-or-less Microsoft products. There are no Windows RT devices mixed in with the other Windows devices you’ll find. If it’s not from Microsoft or Nokia, it’s a full Windows 8.1 device that can run all your desktop programs.

Bay Trail is Competitive With ARM on Battery Life

Windows RT isn’t as necessary because Intel’s Bay Trail architecture is extremely competitive with the ARM architecture, while still allowing devices to run full versions of Windows 8.1 with support for desktop programs. (ARM chips are used in most smartphones, iPads, Android devices, and Windows RT devices.) Bay Trail offers comparable price and performance to ARM, so you can find $300 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets and $350 convertibles like the ASUS Transformer T100.

This is a big deal. When Windows 8 came out, touch-enabled devices were very expensive. Most laptops for sale — especially at lower prices — didn’t support touch at all, so many people opted for Windows 8 devices without touch screens. Touch screens are filtering their way down to cheaper devices.

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Haswell Chips are More Battery-Efficient

Even if you pick up a more expensive device running a more powerful Core i5 or i7 processor, Intel’s new Haswell architecture ensures that the device will have better battery life. For example, Microsoft’s first-generation Surface Pro only lasted a paltry four hours or so, which is terrible for a tablet. The new Surface Pro 2 with Intel’s Haswell architecture will last for over eight hours.

The message is clear: You can get a device that’s powerful enough to be your main laptop but long-lasting enough to also function as a mobile tablet. Even if you don’t plan on using the tablet features, the more power-efficient architecture makes for much longer battery life in laptop mode.

Some Devices Include Free Copies of Microsoft Office

Some devices come with free versions of Microsoft Office Home & Student edition. This includes all Windows RT devices, 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets, and even some other machines like the ASUS T100 transformer.

However, larger devices will not include free copies of Office. This is a bit weird — for example, Microsoft’s cheapest Surface 2 tablet with Windows RT includes Office, while the more expensive Surface Pro 2 doesn’t include Office.

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As a rule of thumb, the device will include Office if it’s a device you probably wouldn’t want to run Office on. If it’s a serious laptop that you would run Office on, it won’t be included — probably because Microsoft assumes you’d want to buy Office for it, but you wouldn’t want to buy Office for an eight-inch tablet.

Either way, businesses can’t benefit from this. They’ll need a license for the full edition to use Office for business purposes.

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App Selection is Still a Serious Problem

If you’re purchasing a new Windows 8.1 laptop, it will probably have a touch screen. You may want to use the new touch-first Windows 8-style apps along with it. But here you’ll run into trouble.

The Windows Store, which contains Windows 8-style apps, still isn’t very good. It’s not completely terrible, and you will find apps for popular services like Netflix, Hulu, Skype, Facebook, Evernote, Dropbox, Twitter, and Amazon Kindle. However, the selection is still extremely limited — there are no Google apps except for a Google Search app, for example. An official Flipboard app just launched for Windows 8.1, but it just doesn’t feel as polished as Flipboard for iPad or Android — not surprising, since it’s an initial release.

The reality is that you’re probably going to be disappointed if you buy a Windows device for the tablet experience. A $300 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablet doesn’t make much sense against an iPad Mini or Nexus 7 unless you want to run Office on an eight-inch screen, which also doesn’t make much sense.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. You can search the Windows Store website and see if the apps you want are there. You’ll likely find a lot of questionable, unofficial apps.

The best Windows 8-style apps are by Microsoft, so if you primarily use Microsoft services like Outlook.com, SkyDrive, Skype, Bing, Xbox, and Xbox Music, you may be very happy.

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Using the Desktop on a Touch Screen

The desktop really isn’t designed for a touch screen. That’s not to say the touch screen is useless on a laptop; far from it. For example, scrolling with your finger on web pages is easy to do on the desktop, just as it is on tablets. If you’re sitting back to watch a YouTube video, you could tap the video to pause or play, just as you would on a tablet. However, the desktop itself was never designed for touch. Attempting to actually use the desktop with touch is a recipe for disaster unless you want to use a stylus.

In other words, don’t buy a Windows tablet expecting to use all your favorite desktop programs on a touch screen. It’s a recipe for pain and frustration.

In the Future, Every PC Has a Touch Screen

Microsoft (and Intel, who have been largely shut out of the ARM-powered smartphone and tablet revolutions) want every Windows PC you buy to have a touch screen. Maybe it’s a tablet with an optional keyboard, a convertible that swings its hinge around to transform between tablet and laptop, or just a standard laptop with a touch-enabled screen. Either way, the long-term goal is to have every Windows PC on the market support touch.

Taken this way, Microsoft’s push for new touch-first apps for Windows 8 makes a lot of sense. They know people will buy laptops anyway, so they’re trying to tack on the touch interface as a bonus feature on laptops. Why buy an iPad or Android tablet when you can detach your laptop’s screen to browse the web on your couch?

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This is where touch screens on Windows devices make the most sense — as a bonus feature you get on a laptop you’d probably buy anyway. If you’re just in the market for a tablet, it’s hard to recommend a Windows tablet, especially a $300 eight-inch Windows tablet that you can’t seriously use the desktop on. Tablets like the iPad Air, iPad Mini, and Nexus 7 make so much more sense for normal people, offering a much wider variety of apps and a more polished experience.

This is even true for Android tablet apps, which are much more numerous and higher-quality than Windows tablet apps. Microsoft seems to recognize this, which is why they’re touting the Surface Pro 2 as “the most productive tablet ever” — practically a laptop, in other words.

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Hopefully this has helped you understand the current state of the Windows PC market. Windows PCs are better than ever thanks to Intel’s new Haswell and Bay Trail architectures, with much improved battery life. Prices for touch-based devices have come down, so there’s a good chance you’ll get a laptop or some sort of convertible with a touch screen even if you don’t set out looking for a touch screen.

But, if all you want is a tablet for using tablet apps, Windows devices still don’t make a lot of sense. If you already have a laptop you like using and you just want a tablet, you should probably get an iPad or Android tablet instead of a Windows tablet. The Windows tablet app ecosystem is still very far behind.

Image Credit: Vernon Chan on Flickr, Cheon Fong Liew on Flickr, Intel Free Press on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/22/13

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