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3/7/2013
11:38 AM
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
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Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers

Microsoft has long relied on hardware partners to build Windows PCs. But the mishmash of Windows 8 mobile device form factors, brands and features has left customers stumped.

Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It Right For You?
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
I'm all for choice, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

It strikes me that this is a growing problem for Microsoft's Windows 8. When the revamped operating system catches a would-be buyer's eye, there's quite a bit of work required to a make a smart purchasing decision from a hardware standpoint.

That's thanks to inconsistent and confusing terminology, branding, categorization and specifications. One user's "tablet" is another user's "slate." Depending on who you ask, the day of the week, and who knows what other variables, a Windows 8 device like Dell's XPS 12 might be called a tablet, ultrabook, touch PC, convertible, hybrid, transformer -- you get the idea. (Dell calls it a "Convertible Touch Screen Ultrabook™." Yes, that's a trademark symbol. Intel registered one for the term "ultrabooks.")

Then there's this minor detail of Windows RT, the stripped-down version of Windows 8 that runs on some devices -- a distinction that might easily be lost on the unsuspecting buyer.

"With so many choices and so little practical information available from manufacturers about when each device is a better fit, it means that buyers have to do more research to make a decision," said Forrester senior analyst David Johnson in an email to InformationWeek. "This doesn't simplify or shorten the buying process and could make them delay their purchases indefinitely."

[ Want more on Windows 8 devices? Read CES 2013: Lenovo Bets Big On Windows 8. ]

Johnson added that the differences -- both significant and subtle -- between various Windows 8 models aren't always apparent to buyers until they've had a chance to use the devices. A road warrior might be better suited for a device with a built-in keyboard instead of a true tablet, for example, but they might not figure that out until it's too late. "This is something that we think many buyers will not fully grasp until after they've made their purchase and have to live with their choice for the long term," Johnson said.

That lack of practical information is, in business-speak, a barrier to entry. I spoke recently with Terena Bell, CEO of the translation firm In Every Language, who explained why she'd been impressed by Microsoft's extensive ad campaign behind the Windows 8 launch. Yet when she decided to plunk down her company's cash on a Windows 8 machine that would run upwards of $1,000, she was stumped by her hardware choices and had trouble finding reliable information and reviews. Microsoft's slick ads were both friend and enemy -- they first got Bell interested in, and later confused by, Windows 8.

"I knew I wanted the one that folded over instead of the one where you unplug the keyboard and plug it back in, because I'd seen both of those commercials -- but the commercials didn't say which one of those it was. It just took way more time than I would have liked to have found [the right device]," Bell said. She ended up purchasing Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 13. A Black Friday offer sealed the deal. "It's almost like they made it hard for me to buy their product."

Let's recap: A business owner with full decision-making authority, one who had no qualms about paying the early adoption tax on a high-end Windows 8 device -- and who was considering buying six more for her employees, by the way -- found it tough to spend a thousand bucks with Microsoft and its partners. That should keep the folks in Redmond -- and those in Round Rock, Palo Alto, Morrisville and across Asia -- up at night.

Techaisle analyst Anurag Agrawal calls Windows 8 "a marvelous innovation," but he noted that the six major PC OEMs: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, Acer and Samsung -- not to mention Microsoft's own Surface Pro and Surface RT -- create a mystifying menu of choices when it comes to Windows 8 devices.

"They serve up a dizzying array of brands that causes confusion even within the knowledgeable and well-researched end user," Agrawal said in an email to InformationWeek. "[There are] too many individual brands competing with each other both on the OS side and on the device side."

He pointed to the ultrabook category as an example. Walk into an Apple Store looking for an ultrabook, and you'll walk out with a MacBook Air. If you want a Windows-based ultrabook, you're confronted with a hodgepodge of names and brands that, frankly, don't mean anything: Elitebook, IdeaPad, Yoga, XPS, Envy and so on. "Each PC vendor has its own ultrabook brand name, unlike the simple nomenclature of Apple," Agrawal said.

Complicating the matter is the number of traditional laptops and desktops that can run Windows 8 but don't offer a touch-screen interface. "Windows 8 on a PC intuitively pushes the user to use his finger on the screen, and the majority of PCs installed or being shipped today do not have touch screens," Agrawal said. "This makes the user feel empty and slack away from Windows 8."

Forrester's Johnson concurred: "We're hearing from buyers of Windows 8 PCs looking to downgrade to Windows 7 on non-touch hardware, and enterprises are not keen to move to Windows 8 -- particularly on older hardware -- as a result." That's also likely to hinder software-only upgrades, according to Johnson: "For non-touch-enabled PCs like traditional notebooks and desktops with only a touchpad and keyboard, Windows 8 offers no significant advantages, and in many ways offers a worse experience than Windows 7," he said.

So what's the answer? I'm no advocate of Microsoft mimicking Apple and diluting its long-time business focus. But the Surface brand appeared to take one logical page from the Apple playbook: Straightforward choices. It's only one, really, between the Pro and the RT model. Beyond that, it's a matter of a few spec choices such as storage capacity. While "RT" lacks much in the way of real-world meaning, "Pro" is a step in the right direction: This one's for work, and that one's for play. Buy accordingly.

Techaisle's Agrawal suggests that the traditional drivers of PC sales over the years -- price and configuration -- need to shift, in large part because it's no longer a desktop-or-laptop decision. Pricing remains relevant -- your budget is your budget, especially for smaller companies. But according to Agrawal, the conversation needs to shift from specs and brand names to use cases. "There is a need for PC vendors and Microsoft to define products by the number of simultaneous applications they can run without degrading performance, [for example]," Agrawal said. "Which ones are good for cloud and virtualization? Which support remote management? Will the computer be used as a device connected to a network either in the office, home or traveling? That is how users buy PCs these days."

In other words: Choices are good, but they need to mean something. It shouldn't be tough to spend a thousand bucks.

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lgarey@techweb.com
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lgarey@techweb.com,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 3:30:59 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
Clicking through channels last night I landed on the current iteration of Sherlock Holmes, sitting in a bathroom, talking to Lucy Liu as he clicked open his Win 8 tablet with the keyboard cover and very pointedly interacted with his tiles. Really inspired product placement. Lorna Garey, IW Reports
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
3/8/2013 | 3:43:57 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
Depending on who you ask, the day of the week, and who knows what other variables, a Windows 8 device like Dell's XPS 12 might be called a tablet, ultrabook, touch PC, convertible, hybrid, transformer -- you get the idea. (Dell calls it a "Convertible Touch Screen UltrabookGäó."

That sums it up nicely! This is what happens when you get too many marketing cooks in a room.

Laurianne McLaughlin
InformationWeek
BubbaIT
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BubbaIT,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:43:30 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
So - let me get this straight...

The strength - at least it's been that in the past - of the PC marketplace, its diversity and range of different and yet compatible products - is now a huge weakness.

Maybe we should be more careful about asking for what we may ultimately get...

For the record, I've been using Windows 8 since the release of the Developer Preview 16 months ago. I've upgraded every device in my home to Windows 8 Pro. Some of them are touch-screen-enabled, most aren't. My wife is not a computer professional, and yet she manages to successfully use Windows 8 on three different devices. I frankly think there's too much hand-wringing amongst the professional journalism set about something that will sort itself out with time.

Windows Blue is going to be out in a few months, bringing with it further refinements to the UI and other aspects of Windows 8. How about we all stop whining about perceived shortcomings of the present product and wait to see what develops?
Tronist
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Tronist,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 5:45:43 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
I had no problem deciding which to buy. I bought 2 laptops with Windows 7.
midmachine
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midmachine,
User Rank: Strategist
3/8/2013 | 6:09:10 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
Really? You take some time before making a purchase to do some research and then go to the stores (since this is a large investment) and try out the different products that are out there to see which best suits your habits and your needs. NO! Better to tie yourself in with Apple because they make life "so much easier" because they offer only two products....come on! That is what always made the Wintel world have a leg up as far as I am concerned - choice and flexibility (not to mention ease of service/customization). I don't need Big Brother Apple holding me back.
Emag
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Emag,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 6:26:48 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
I like Tronist had no problem:
Surface - Windows 8 PRO
Laptop - Windows 7
jbamp
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jbamp,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 7:33:12 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
What's up with Information Week's obvious bias against all things Windows 8? If you keep publishing these articles that are in clear contrast with IT professionals' findings, only your reputation suffers.
robzilla
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robzilla,
User Rank: Strategist
3/8/2013 | 7:52:29 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
I agree with the article in that Windows 8 hardware choices are a joke. I do not agree that Apple's one size fits all works but I see it being easier for people who are not tech oriented.

First off selling a traditional laptop on windows 8 should simply not be allowed. Manufacturers had time and knew what was coming and are trying to sell old stock as new. Win 8 needs a touch screen not to work but to take advantage of its full feature set. Selling any product without a touchscreen is a dis service to MS and the OS. Windows 8 changes everything like vista changed hardware requirements win 8 does too. I tried the pre release versions on my laptop and although it worked fine it was not intuitive and made life more complecated rather than easier. It felt like a step back not forward. I think the unity desktop in Ubuntu Linux is a much better solution for both touch and non touch devices. MS should have copied unity instead of their tile system IMHO.

It is going to take a year or two before manufacturers really catch up and sell all the old stock and come up with better new touch based solutions. Windows is still a great choice but this was not a well coordinated or well planned release. I think that is why MS tried to come out with their own bramd tomshow others what it should look like.

For the tablet market I am sorry but I feel at the moment Win 8 is a pretty big failure for several reasons. Price, who wants to pay $1000 for a tablet? I don't care what it can do that is too much money. Since Apple and Android have some pretty nice choices at half that cost it is a hard sell for $1000 just to have enterprize features and ms office suite compatibility.

I think if they had 3 models. A 7 inch with rt at $249 with 32 gb storage and a good cpu and ram. A 10 inch with rt at $349 and a 10 inch at $449 with full win 8 and all the goodies all with more cpu, ram and storage than competing tablets not factoring the os all with microsoft branding and one desktop all in one touch screen with a quad core and 6 gb ram high def ips for $700 24 inch screen with MS name they would have made a fortune and shown hardware makers what to copy. Laptops are dead, get rid of them. Have a nice tablet with a doc or all in one desktop with touchscreen and you could have recolutionized the market and blown user expectations.

As it is now there is a confusing mix of old hardware that is not optimally designed for win 8. It will make early adopters feel let down. Cohesion and vision with direction are good. Once you lay down a cohesive vision and say this is the base standard with this software then you let the OEMS add more choice in the mix. This is how Microsoft could have used its manufacturing diversity as a strength and not a weakness and improved customer experience at the same time.

Give the OEMS a year and I think things will work themselves out. Until then I will be using my awesome windows 7 laptop with keyboard and touchpad and my inexpensive nexus 7. Times are tough and not many people have the money to drop on a tablet that really does not offer thatmuch aadvantage and could still be dropped and game over. Portable devices just should not cost so much. The trend is pricing lower not higher!

All my opinion and not to be taken seriously because I am no expert.

R
wht
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wht,
User Rank: Strategist
3/8/2013 | 8:07:17 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
I bought a laptop running Win 8 Pro and upgraded a PC to Win 8 Pro. No touch screens. At work I use Win 7 Pro, Win 8 Pro desktops, and Win 8 ultrabooks with touch screen. Win 8 has been a great upgrade. Faster boot, shutdown, and application processing, Tronist may regret staying behind on Win 7 instead of learning how to use Win 8.
pbuhr537
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pbuhr537,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 8:26:31 PM
re: Windows 8 Device Choices Baffle Buyers
Seems like Android has done OK with a lot of flavors. Not sure the author's premise has any validity.
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