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HP’s ElitePad is the argument for buying a Windows 8 tablet. That’s especially true for businesses hooked into Microsoft’s technology stack.

The HP ElitePad does Microsoft Office better than any other tablet – the two were made for each other. It also runs most modern Windows applications without fuss. It looks like Windows feels like Windows and hooks directly into Windows infrastructure.

With time new Windows tablets will come along that eclipse the ElitePad 900. HP, wisely, says it plans to keep the model on sale until early next year. That will make it easier for companies to standardise on the hardware.

HP hints of ElitePads with more powerful processors waiting in the wings. That’s important.

The Atom processor powering today’s ElitePad 900 is enough to run two or three everyday apps at the same time. As I’ve already said, it handles Microsoft Office well.

For most workers the Atom-powered  ElitePad 900 is all the computer they will need. The processor isn’t quite powerful enough to handle more complex processing jobs – particularly those required by content creators. My music production software struggles, Photoshop struggles. I haven’t tried it, but I’m certain InDesign would struggle.

When HP shoehorns an Intel i5 or i7 processor – or their equal – into an ElitePad format, the tablet will become a full desktop PC replacement. That day isn’t far off.

ElitePad 900: Most apps works best in landscape view
ElitePad 900: Most apps work best in landscape view

Tablets computers all look much the same. There’s not much scope for different designs when a touchscreen takes up most of the front. However, the HP ElitePad 900 display stands out from the pack because it has a 16:10 ratio screen. That makes the tablet longer and thinner than rival devices like the Apple iPad.

HP says it opted for the 16:10 ratio design because that makes it backwards compatible with laptops and desktop displays.

There’s a logic behind the decision. The ElitePad 900 uses Windows 8 and can run just about any Windows application written in the last 10 to 15 years. That makes it attractive to business users who are unwilling to invest in new hardware devices that can’t run key applications.

That 16:10 ratio means applications will use the full display – if HP opted for the same screen dimensions as the iPad, the information would appear in a small strip across the display.

In practice this doesn’t matter when using the ElitePad 900 in landscape view – the one favoured by those legacy applications. Things get a little weird when you turn the HP tablet 90 degrees into the portrait view.

Test is often too small to read in portrait view
Test is often too small to read in portrait view

Portrait view works fine for reading websites, ebooks, word documents and the like, but a surprising number of native Windows apps don’t make the transition. For example, you can only view the Windows store in landscape view.

Even when writing documents using the Word app, that Portrait view is a little odd, the text across a nominal A4 page is tiny and harder to read than attempting the same on an iPad.

In practice I find I rarely use the ElitePad 900 in portrait mode. Perhaps this isn’t important, but it does mean there’s a different experience using the ElitePad compared with doing exactly the same work on an iPad.

Ironically, this screen format works to the device’s advantage when it comes to playing movies. They look better on an ElitePad than on an iPad.

So there you have it, the legacy screen format – which is essential for users with older software – doesn’t work so well for business applications, but shines for entertainment.

That pen looks interesting - HP says it works with Windows handwriting recognition
That pen looks interesting – HP says it works with Windows’ handwriting recognition

If Hewlett-Packard’s elegant ElitePad was available when Windows 8 launched last October, business users may have been quicker to warm to Microsoft’s new operating system.

ElitePad is everything one might want from a Windows 8 tablet. It shows off the touchscreen-based Windows 8 operating system to its best effect. Suddenly Microsoft’s wacky-looking design choices make perfect sense.

You get a lot of business features for the NZ$1095 asking price. Mobile broadband support is baked-in. The case is more rugged than most tablets and there’s 64GB memory as standard. That leaves around 42GB for you to play with.

Elitpad Jackets

While the basic tablet will meet many people’s needs, HP offers a series of jackets to add features. One jacket adds USB ports and other connectors – like a portable desktop docking station. Another adds a full Qwerty keyboard.

A third jacket provides a rugged shell for dirty or dusty workplaces. HP says further jackets are planned including one for retailers that adds a bar scanner and magnetic stripe reader, effectively a mobile cash register.

HP emphasises business features like a promise of stability, it says the model will stay current for some time yet. The company also talks about reliability and its ability to service machines. That’s essential for security when working with key business documents.

Microsoft Windows, especially Windows 8, doesn’t suit everyone, but if you live and work in Microsoft’s technology stack and need a serious business tablet, the ElitePad has to be a contender.

Dell XPS18 tablet all-in-one
Dell XPS 18 – an original take on the Windows 8 tablet

Hat’s off to Dell for coming up with an original new device. The XPS 18 is a Windows 8 tablet with a giant 18-inch display, add a wireless keyboard and it becomes a touch-screen all-in-one PC. Dell describes it as a portable all-in-one.

While the XPS 18 is heavy as tablets go at around 2.3kg, that’s light by PC standards. The price is keen too – the device sells in the US for US$900 so by the time it reaches New Zealand it’ll be at the low-end of the all-in-one price range, mind you the keyboard and mouse are extras.

Dell thinks there’s a market for a desktop computer that consumers can carry around the house. Well maybe, presumably the company has done some market research before unleashing a new format on the market. I can see potential in the office – especially in companies that expect workers to do traditional PC-type work. The larger screen and tablet functionality are just as useful at work as at play.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dell’s announcement is how after years of boring designs, PC makers are moving beyond the boundaries of desktops and laptops, exploring exciting new directions. No doubt some will fail, but the experimentation is healthy.

The first versions of the XPS 18 are underpowered with just 4GB Ram and a Pentium processor. Stick a proper power plant in one of these and I could be interested.

Windows 8 StartThinking of upgrading to Windows 8? Read this first. It may save time, money and heartache.

The numbers don’t lie. Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system is a bigger flop than Windows Vista. And everyone knows Vista was a dog.

Things looked dire in January. They got worse in February. Windows has never looked this bad. If Windows was a horse Microsoft would be walking to the gun cupboard.

Hurting PC sales

Windows 8 launched at the end of October 2012. When a new version of Windows hits, PC sales often get a boost. That didn’t happen.

It more than didn’t happen. Some say Windows 8 harms PC sales. IDC expected a post-Windows 8 launch bump in PC sales. It now forecasts a downturn.

While the PC buyer response to Windows 8 is lacklustre from PC buyers, it also isn’t a hit with upgraders.

Microsoft’s cunning plan

Microsoft’s idea of a single user interface for smartphones, tablets and PCs makes sense. Yet it doesn’t work in practice. Users don’t like it and that’s what matters.

Windows Phone 8 is at least as good as Android and iOS on Nokia’s Lumia hardware and other smartphones. The market hasn’t jumped. Microsoft’s share of smartphone sales dropped after Windows Phone 8 appeared.

While tablets using Microsoft’s Windows RT are impressive, there’s little evidence of surging sales. Some brands, like Toshiba, shelved Windows tablet plans. Samsung retreated from key markets admitting a lack of interest in Windows tablets.

Windows doesn’t register when researchers ask customers which tablet brands they plan to buy.

My Windows 8 experience seems typical

The Pro version of the software sold online for NZ$50 on the launch day – it seemed a bargain.

At first I thought I’d get used to the clumsy dual user interface and learn to love Windows 8’s wacky ways. I don’t. As soon as I can spare the time I’m going back to Windows 7.

It says something terrible about Windows 8 that I’ll be more productive moving back to the older OS. Update: It turns out that was a dumb idea. See downgrading from Window 8 to 7 is no answer.

What’s sad about this is I like Windows Phone 8. Nokia’s Lumia 920 is one of the best smartphones on sale. The Windows tablets I’ve seen, particularly while on the NZ Tech Podcast, look great.

Microsoft failed

Whatever else happens, Windows 8 is not a success. Flop is not too strong a word.

Microsoft gets another chance later this year. The company promises a new version of Windows. Will the company admit defeat and fix the awful user interface then? Maybe it will fix Windows 8 with a service pack. There’s no question it needs fixing.

Sales may improve for Windows Phone 8. Microsoft deserves success for building a decent phone OS. It is still too early to call the company’s tablet strategy. Maybe corporate sales will kick in, maybe a lower price will fix things. But yes, I think we can say it out loud: Windows 8 is a flop.