Windows 8 finally gave computer manufacturers a much-needed chance to buoy plunging PC sales with Windows-based tablets and convertibles. While some companies have had more success in this than others, it’s clear that consumers are not adopting these new touch PCs as quickly as been hoped. Even the most aggressive analyst estimates put market share for Windows tablets and convertibles at just 15 percent.
While Windows 8 no doubt deserves some blame, price is also a culprit. The first convertible and tablet PCs debuted above $1,000, and while the average MSRP has gradually dropped, most still sell for more than $800. That’s well above the average buyer’s budget.
Part of the problem is a lack of powerful, efficient yet affordable hardware for slim tablets and convertibles. But that may soon change. Intel’s new Atom processors are around the corner, and they promise the arrival of PC tablets that may sell for as little as $199. Here’s what the new hardware will be capable of, and why the latest crop of touch PCs may interest you a lot more than the last.
At the center of the new low- cost PC tablet is Bay Trail, a system-on-chip architecture built around Intel’s new Silvermont cores. This core is the first major revision Atom has received in years is designed to be much faster than what it replaces.
We don’t have to take Intel’s word for it, either. The company allowed a small group of reviewers to grab some hands-on time with an Atom Z3770 quad-core during the last Intel Developer's Forum. Among this group was The Tech Report’s Scott Wasson, who ran the same 7-Zip benchmark we use to gauge processor performance in our PC reviews. The result returned to him was a combined score of 6,279 MIPS.
That’s just a hair behind Intel Core products. The Dell XPS 12 with a fourth-gen Core i5-4200U, for example, scored 6,888, suggesting the new Silvermont-based Atoms will be just 10 to 20 percent slower than a modern Core processor. That’s a huge leap forward; the last Atom-based system we tested, the HP Envy x2, scored only 2,719 in the same benchmark.
The improvement in graphics is even more dramatic. The old version of Atom was saddled with a terrible GPU that can’t run most modern benchmarks, but the Silvermont revision uses the same architecture found in the latest Intel Core processors. Though far fewer execution units are available in Bay Trail than in a fourth-gen Core processor (4 vs. 20), the new Atoms can score just over 12,000 in the 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark. That's just slightly behind the quickest ARM system-on-chip designs.
Better still, the added performance don’t seem to come at the expense of power draw. Reports indicate the new Atoms consume around two watts at idle, and up to four watts at load, which is similar to the previous version. This means battery life should range from 6 to 12 hours, with most coming in around the 8-hour mark.
Cutting through the numbers
What the benchmarks tell us is that the new Atom is not a budget processor that punishes the user for being frugal, but instead a powerful architecture that’s just a hair behind Intel’s best Core products. Determining the difference between the two should prove very difficult in everyday use, and only demanding tasks like games and video editing will make the difference obvious. When used in conjunction with a solid-state drive, the Bay Trail Atoms should provide a snappy experience no matter which operating system is used with it.
While this simply “good enough” performance may not seem exciting, it is in the context of price. We’ve liked some of the Atom-powered convertibles and tablets we’ve previously reviewed, but performance has always barred them from earning an Editor’s Choice. A small PC that occasionally sputters and stutters can’t earn our highest marks, no matter how light or how long the battery lasts. The new Atoms will resolve this complaint and, in doing so, remove a barrier that has constrained Windows tablets and convertibles targeted at the budget market.
All shapes and sizes
Intel’s vision of what the tablet and convertible PC market will look like after the introduction of Bay Trail based Atom processors is very broad. At low end of the market the company expects to see stand-alone tablets that sell for as little as $199 and have display sizes similar to existing Android and iOS tablets (between 7 and 10 inches). These will presumably come in a variety of sizes and shapes and have varying capabilities. While most Bay Trail chips are quad-core, Intel is going to release two dual-core variants, and those will most likely lead the affordability charge. Consumers should expect to pay between $299 and $399 for a PC tablet with a quad-core Atom.
The improvement in graphics is even more dramatic.
Convertibles and dockables are expected to start at $349 and end at $549, where Intel believes the Atom-powered products will be edged out by those using the Core architecture. Atom convertibles and dockables could come in almost any form imaginable, from rotating hinge designs, to sliders, to more unique entries like the Lenovo Yoga and Dell XPS 12. Display size will be various, too, though we expect most models have 11.6- to 13.3-inch screens. The better performance offered by Bay Trail should make for more appealing 13-inch convertibles that could admirably serve as a consumer's only computer and sole tablet.
Consumers can also expect to see 1080p displays in systems sold around the $549 price point; older Atoms were rarely paired with 1080p because the aging IGP struggled to display video smoothly at that resolution. The most powerful Bay Trail variants can even support 2560 x 1600, though we think few systems will make sue of the capability.
In many respects, these new entries will be hard to differentiate from more expensive Core-powered computers. Given the lower prices, they’ll likely have less robust design, with greater use of inexpensive plastic and less visual flair. But the Atom-powered products should also be much lighter, and some may rival the weight of the current iPad. That’s an important point; current Intel Core convertibles and tablets usually weigh between two and four pounds, which makes them uncomfortable to use as a tablet for long periods of time.
The availability of low-cost Windows 8 tablets could be a boon for Microsoft, but the company shouldn't stop sweating just yet. Intel has worked hard to expand support for Android, and expects that at least some (if not all) of the least expensive Atom-based tablets to run it instead of Windows. While Android is still a poor operating system for a traditional notebook or desktop, there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t work on a dedicated tablet.
A new dawn for the PC?
Predicting the impact of new low-cost PC tablets and convertibles is difficult. While Atom helps to solve the problem of affordable performance, Microsoft’s Windows 8 is still an obstacle. Will consumers choose Windows if tablets and convertibles based on it are as affordable as the iPad and Nexus 7? Or will the operating system’s flaws continue to turn off buyers? That is anyone’s guess.
What can be said for sure, however, is that the market for PC tablets and convertibles will be much different by this time next year. The current $800 price barrier, which very few systems have ducked under, should be gone, and that will translate to a wide variety of affordable Atom-based systems from every manufacturer.
While the first of these new options should be on the market by the end of the 2013 holiday season, we think most will debut throughout the spring and summer of 2014. If you’re looking for an inexpensive Windows tablet or convertible, we suggest holding off on a purchase until then. Systems based on Bay Trail will be more affordable and much quicker than their predecessors – what’s not to like?