Review – WinBook 7″ Tablet Computer
I have never been impressed with what Microsoft has done with tablets. Their first attempt to battle the dominate iPad was the Surface, and it was not successful. While tech bloggers offered decent praise for the hardware at least, the tablet was not well received by the masses. Since those days Microsoft has changed their tactics in regards to their premium line, and the Surface Pro 3, clearly is up against the MacBook Air. Now it’s laptop versus laptop, and the battle is truly on it’s way to being balanced. My few interactions with the Surface Pro 3 have caused me to question my long-held stance that Windows 8 is awful. So when MicroCenter sent me an invite to pick up a 7 inch Windows 8 tablet for only $50, I jumped at the chance to take a look first-hand. I’ve been using the WinBook for a couple of weeks now, and these are my first impressions.
The Cup Half Full
For starters, the hardware is pretty solid. The device is sturdy, the various ports are not loose, like you sometimes find with other cheap tablets. This is good because the device offers a vast array of plug in options (most of which are “micro”). It charges via a standard microUSB. It has expandable memory via microSD card. It has a micro HDMI for video output to HD televisions. And it has a fully supported USB 2.0 port. This last one is the real kicker for a 7inch tablet. With this single port, you can attach a USB hub, and virtually replace your old desktop. The tablet becomes the “tower” and you attach a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and you’re good to go! That’s a pretty cool thing, and it’s something the iPad can’t do!
Beyond the ability to add peripheral devices, the WinBook tablet is a great form factor. It feels fine in one hand if you’re reading a book (via the Kindle app, perhaps). Unlike many higher end tablets, the bezel (edges around the screen) is thick enough to allow easy handling without accidentally tapping the screen.
The “tiles” interface of Windows 8.1 is pretty slick, once you get it set up. You can use the default “active tiles” to have updates show up on the tile itself, though this will impact the battery life. I choose to turn off most of those features, though I kept the active tile on for email and twitter. Adding apps is easy, and the app store comes on the default screens. But once you go past the build quality and number of plugins, many issues begin to arise.
The Cup Half Empty
While the build of the device is great, the screen is the weak point. It is obviously cheaper glass than what you will find on high-end devices like iPad or Galaxy Tab (let alone high end smartphones)! That means one thing….fingerprints!! I’ve done side by side testing with the WinBook and an iPad Mini, and where the iPad barely registers a spot on the screen, the WinBook is covered. That shouldn’t be a deal breaker for anyone, but I’m picky about the look of my screen. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
The next issue I hit was during the set up. I had to head to google several times to figure out how to do things like uninstall apps, stop apps running in the background (and killing my battery), and making various adjustments to settings. I was very disappointed when this happened because I hoped this would be a simple device that anyone could use right out of the box. For many, that will certainly be the case, but if you aren’t tech savvy, you might need help getting this thing up and running, and I wish that wasn’t the case.
Battery life on this tablet is pretty bad. If you work hard at application management (closing apps you aren’t using) you might get 4-5 hours out of it. The standard expectation these days is between 8-10 hours, so that’s pretty bad.
The last point I want to make about the WinBook is as much a comment on all Windows based tablets, as it is on this one device in particular.
The Problem with Windows – Tablet versus PC
My 7 inch tablet looks a lot like a Kindle Fire, or a Samsung Galaxy Tab, but it doesn’t act like one. It acts like a PC. By that I mean, it acts like the desktop computer that Microsoft used to dominate the marketplace with for decades (and continues to dominate in the corporate space). Since my purchase I have received the dreaded “Windows Updates” quite regularly. And not only are these updates annoying, but they are draining on battery and memory.
Like all PCs that run Windows, there is a section of the hard drive dedicated for “recovery”. It’s intended to provide a backup if your device crashes. Such a file seems terribly redundant in a world of cloud computing, and also the recovery file takes up nearly 6 of the 16GB of memory that the tablet comes with! This is ridiculous!
One of my major beefs with Android phones is their tendency to have “bloat-ware” installed. You know the apps that you can’t get rid of and take up space. Samsung is one of the worst for this. But compared to the WinBook, Samsung looks like a lightweight. The WinBook came with so much pre-installed stuff that only 5GB of the 16GB of memory remained for me to use. After 6-7 apps were installed, I was officially “out of space”, and needed to buy a microSD card to add memory so I could install more apps/media on the device. And here’s the kicker, the space required for “system files” will continue to get bigger as time goes by, because Windows will keep pushing updates, while not removing any of the older files (which can’t be removed manually). So if you added nothing to the device you would continue to lose memory space. This is absolutely unacceptable for a low memory tablet. I could see this being okay on a device with lots of memory, even on a Surface Pro 3, but for a low-end 16GB tablet, such software is simply a waste of space.
Microsoft needs to learn to differentiate between their tablets and their laptops/PCs, most importantly in regards to memory consumption. Apple retains a clear distinction (though that could change with a 12 inch iPad this coming Winter). The biggest issue is when a small tablet tries to impersonate a high-powered PC it will certainly fail somewhere, and I’ve had a negative user experience because of it. An experience I think most would also have if they had this device.
The Whole Cup Summed Up
The WinBook has tons of potential. It’s a solid little tablet computer. The ability to plug-in peripheral devices (even external hard drives) is a great feature, and something all tablets should start being able to do. The interface of Windows 8.1 is not as bad as I expected, and after some painful setup I’ve been cruising along.
But the cheap screen, bad battery, and memory-sucking Windows environment make this a challenging choice for the casual tech user. As Microsoft continues to struggle with how to identify their devices (as tablets or PCs) the other major players have slick user experiences. Android and Apple might be in a battle for market share, but they are not at odds in regards with how to build a strong user base. Their apps stores are cleaner, their developers are more enthusiastic (meaning more apps and a better user experience), and their tablets are just that, tablets. With good battery life, and decent memory.
So if you are a die-hard Windows person, I’d recommend checking out the Surface Pro 3, though get ready for sticker shock with its $900 price tag (and that without the extra $130 for the keyboard cover!). The Surface is a PC masquerading as a tablet, and the marketing makes it clear that is what is intended. But if Windows isn’t important, or you’re only interested in a low price tablet, I suggest sticking with the devices of Android (i.e Nexus 7) or Amazon Kindle (i.e. Kindle 6) for the time being, while Microsoft gets it act together.