A multitude of tablets are slipping into the workplace these days, often in the purses and bags of employees bringing their own toys into the office. According to research firm Strategy Analytics, almost 25 million tablets were shipped in the second quarter of 2012 alone, an increase of 67 per cent over the same period in 2011. And while more than two-thirds were from Apple, with most of the remainder Androids, Microsoft is now gunning for the market with its new operating system, Windows 8.
We took a look at a release preview of Windows 8 on a Samsung Series 7 tablet (the current model originally shipped with Windows 7) to see how its tablet-friendly features look next to the iPad's for use in a business setting. Apple Canada supplied an iPad 4G with accessories to use in the comparison.
First, let's be clear – these are not equivalent devices.
The iPad is categorized as a media tablet, the technical name for tablets that run lightweight operating systems such as iOS or Android. The Samsung device runs full Windows 8, making it in effect a very mobile PC.
Tablets come in all shapes and sizes, from the almost pocketable BlackBerry Playbook to multiple Android devices, with their six– and seven-inch screens, to models with 10-inch displays or larger. But all tablets do have some things in common.
First, obviously, they don't have integrated physical keyboards, although many will connect to external keyboards via Bluetooth. They have touchscreens, and some also let you use a stylus. Some models also offer docks with keyboards to turn the tablet itself into a small computer, with the tablet as the display and an external keyboard and mouse completing the package.
In addition, tablets almost universally offer much better battery life than your garden-variety laptop.
Our two tablets look and feel very different. The iPad is often used in portrait mode, like a sheet of paper. It weighs 1.46 pounds (662 grams). It has a 9.7-inch, LED-backlit glossy multi-touch widescreen – featuring Apple's justly praised Retina display. It is gorgeous. And to add to the goodness, it has an oleophobic coating; that means it repels oils, and thus discourages fingerprints. Mind you, it doesn't entirely prevent them – I have seen some iPads that I wouldn't touch with tongs because of the ick factor – but it definitely helps.
The Samsung, on the other hand, is happiest in its landscape, horizontal mode. It measures 11.66 inches by 7.24 inches, is just more than a half-inch thick, and weighs 1.95 pounds (884 grams). Its LED-backlit screen's resolution is more modest than the screen on the iPad, though it is high definition. It offers 10 finger multi-touch, and is nice and bright. Its specs don't mention a special coating, and the screen needs to be wiped fairly frequently to remove smudges.
Touching, typing and scrolling
While hardware is going to differ somewhat on each vendor's Windows 8 tablet, one thing will remain the same: Although the OS supports portrait mode, it is happiest in landscape mode.
Windows 8 scrolls horizontally, not vertically. It will, however, accommodate the screen size, altering the number of tiles – the square buttons used to launch programs or applications – it displays vertically. On the iPad, with its more familiar icon-based interface, you can rotate the screen to either portrait or landscape orientation, depending on your app's requirements, and it will be fine.
Windows 8 and the iPad both support multi-touch interfaces. That means you can use gestures with several fingers to perform tasks – for example, pinching two fingers together on the screen to shrink the display, or spreading them apart to expand it. Be warned: there's a learning curve, but after a while, it's quick and easy.
The on-screen keyboards work well in both systems, popping up when you place the cursor into a text field. The Windows keyboard changes its look so you know whether you're typing caps or lower case, while the iPad's, like a hardware keyboard, doesn't change.
Windows has cursor-control keys that allow you to move left or right within your text, while the iPad does not; you tap the screen to indicate where you want the cursor to go. That's okay unless you have larger fingers that can't be placed precisely enough, in which case you have to engage the magnifying glass to expand the display, then select the insertion point.
Both keyboards have secondary screens for numbers and special characters, and both offer a thumb-typing mode, where the keyboard splits so you can hold the tablet in both hands and reach all of the keys with your thumbs. Windows takes this one step further, placing the its five main tiles, known as Charms, and other controls within easy reach of swiping thumbs as well.
Both systems have auto-correction and spell-checkers that can be too helpful for their own good. Yes, you can turn them off.
The two tablets have major differences when it comes to connecting to other machines.
The iPad can print only to an AirPrint-enabled printer, and then only if the app supports printing. A Windows 8 machine can print to any printer it can see on your network. It can also transfer files across the network, like any other Windows machine. With the iPad, you either e-mail the file to yourself, or transfer it in a multi-step process through iTunes. It takes third party apps to do anything else.
Speaking of apps, it's too early to pass judgment on the Windows 8 suite of apps, though the full version runs all software that will run on Windows 7, including the recently announced Microsoft Office 2013, which works well with the touchscreen. That will offer a fair bit of scope.
Viewing and editing Microsoft Office files on an iPad is possible with apps such as Pages, Office 2 HD, Quickoffice Pro HD, Numbers or Keynote, though all Office functionality may not be available. And because the iPad is so popular, apps have emerged for everything from conferencing (WebEX) to business intelligence (SAP Business Objects), and users will find dozens of industry-specific apps on the market as well.
Both tablets support enterprise e-mail such as Microsoft Exchange, and can connect securely to corporate networks. And both provide robust password security. Windows 8 also offers full-disk encryption using Microsoft BitLocker, and can join corporate domains. Windows 8 also ships with built-in anti-malware software and a firewall, both of which iPads lack (Apple aficionados will doubtlessly point out it's because iPads don't need either).
The bottom line: Apple has come a long way in its iPad business support. But in the tablet world, Windows 8, with its heritage of manageability and security, has the potential to give it a run for its money.