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Windows 8 Tablets' Big Flaw: Hardware Compromise

Windows 8 tablets, available in a variety of shapes and sizes and at a range of prices, aren't selling briskly. Why? Hardware that doesn't strike the right balance.
Midsize tablets such as the Surface Pro are compromised as well. The device is engaging in tablet mode, limited more by the Windows Store's meager selection than any aspect of the hardware. But in laptop mode it's a different story. The 10.6-inch screen is already on the small end for software like Microsoft Office; the screen's high resolution exacerbates matters by making desktop icons appear smaller than normal.

The Surface Pro's kickstand is great for propping it up to type notes during a meeting or for setting up shop in a café. But some mobile users also need to be productive while crammed into trains and other places where there aren't flat, stable tabletops. For these needs, a traditional laptop handily beats the Surface Pro. Like the Iconia, in other words, the Surface Pro isn't a balanced package.

For pockets of users, Windows 8 tablets are revolutionary all-in-one devices. But for many people the tradeoffs appear to outweigh the appeal. For all the unique capabilities the Surface Pro brings, it's easy to see why many users see Microsoft's tablet as less than the sum of its features.

Challenges like these are pervasive throughout the Windows 8 landscape. Legacy applications are one of Windows 8's advantages, but it's hard to manufacture an 8-inch device that takes advantage of this positive. It's likewise difficult to sell devices at the low prices consumers want while also providing quality and making a profit. Meanwhile, bigger tablets and convertible ultrabooks are more versatile -- but also much more expensive and they still have ergonomic quirks.

At the high end, Microsoft is contending largely with Apple's laptops, which have weathered the PC downturn relatively well. At the low end, Windows 8 is competing not only with wildly popular Android and iOS devices but also emerging alternatives such as the Chromebook. These competing products can't do all the things that Windows 8 can do, yet Windows 8's so-called advantages haven't resonated with any segment of the larger market. And that's the problem so far with Windows 8 tablets: They're too compromised to appeal to more than niche users.

If different devices targeted different pockets of users, a niche approach might work in an aggregate sense. But based on Windows 8's market share, this hasn't happened. Windows 8 tablets need more apps, but they also need form factors and components that don't subvert the OS's appeals.

Research firm Forrester has said for months that enterprise employees are interested in Windows 8 tablets. In an interview conducted before Microsoft announced its reorganization, Forrester analyst David Johnson said this is still the case. So even if the Surface Pro and other devices haven't capitalized on this interest, there's still potential.

Windows 8.1's interface tweaks constitute one piece of Microsoft's tablet puzzle. Intel's Haswell and Bay Trail chips form another piece, as they should result in Windows 8 tablets that are not only thinner and lighter but also boast improved graphics rendering and battery life.

But the puzzle will be incomplete without more-appealing, cost-friendly and functional hardware. The extent to which Microsoft and its partners meet this challenge could determine whether Windows 8 tablets can outgrow niche status.