Why I Haven’t Given Up on Windows 8 as a Concept

It's easy to chalk up recent Surface Windows 8 Pro reviews as evidence that Microsoft can't pull off a single operating system for all kinds of hardware. But the right hardware hasn't arrived yet.

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The reviews for Microsoft‘s Surface Windows 8 Pro are in, and they’re less than enthusiastic.

Even in the most positive reviews, a common thread of complaints come up: Battery life is weak, critics say, and the hardware is thick and heavy compared to most tablets. When propped up like a laptop, the Surface Pro is tricky to use in cramped quarters, due to its wide stance, single angle of incline and floppy keyboard covers.

My colleague Harry McCracken’s Surface Pro review sums it up:

If I were shopping for an Ultrabook and my budget allowed, I’d consider it. But used with the applications I tried, Surface Pro doesn’t prove that one computing device can do everything well. Instead, it makes clear that there’s no such thing as no-compromise computing.

That’s not the lesson Microsoft intended, but it’s a useful one nonetheless — for consumers, for the industry and maybe even for Microsoft.

It’s easy to chalk up these reviews as evidence that Microsoft can’t pull off a single operating system for all kinds of hardware. But as someone who’s always liked the idea of Windows 8, I look at it a different way: The right hardware hasn’t arrived yet.

Note that most Surface Pro reviews didn’t take umbrage with the software. The biggest problems with Surface Pro–its battery life and its bulkiness–are a result of the processor inside of it. Intel‘s Core processors aren’t meant for tablets. They’re too power hungry, so they need big batteries and fans for ventilation. A tablet can’t accommodate those needs while staying reasonably thin and light.

Microsoft could have used Intel’s Clover Trail-based Atom processor instead. But while Atom chips allow for slimmer tablets and longer battery life, they’re still too underpowered to handle everything Windows 8 has to offer.


Jared Newman / TIME.com

So part of my hope for Windows 8 is tangled up in Intel’s product roadmap. A future version of Atom, called Bay Trail, promises more computing muscle and even slimmer devices without sacrificing battery life. Meanwhile, the next version of Intel’s laptop processors, called Haswell, will be much more power-efficient, making them a better fit for tablet-laptop crossovers. There’s no guarantee that the next generation of Intel chips will set everything right–Intel has been promising for years to find the sweet spot between battery life and processing power–but they’ll at least do a better job than the current crop of processors.

I don’t want to pin all the responsibility on Intel, though. Some the issues with Surface Pro are strictly related to hardware design. The screen is small for a laptop (it’s more like a netbook at 10.6 inches) and it can’t prop up at more than one angle. It’s tricky to balance on a lap and demands more table space due to its kickstand. Other Windows 8 hybrids have their own dilemmas. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, for example, is too bulky as a tablet, and the Acer Iconia W510 is too top-heavy as a laptop. It’ll take some experimenting with hardware to figure out a good balance.

Between processing needs and hardware design, the launch of Windows 8 has proven that there will always be compromises. The question is whether it’s possible to strike a deal that works.

I think it is. A thinner, lighter, more battery-efficient Surface Pro could make for a great tablet, even if it’s not the perfect laptop. A slightly smaller Lenovo Yoga would still be an excellent laptop, but it would also make sense as a tablet. Neither would provide the best of both worlds–and Microsoft needs to stop insisting that it’s possible–but they’d both deliver on that original concept of two devices in one. That still sounds to me like a compromise worth making.

MORE: Review: Microsoft Surface Pro, the Surface That’s More PC than Tablet