…or The Picture You See When You Look Up “Terrible” in the Dictionary
People know me as an Apple fan. I get accused of being a “fanboy” – that I simply refuse to like things that either Google or Microsoft make because Steve Jobs didn’t make it.
I’m not going to defend myself against this charge. Most of the folks who hurl that charge at me hate Apple products simply because Steve Jobs made it, so they are as colored by perception and ideology as they claim I am.
Having said that, yes, I will say that I think Steve Jobs was right when he made the iPad and said it was a different device than a PC. That it was “post-PC”. In other words, trying to make a PC into a tablet or a tablet into a PC wasn’t going to work. I would think this would be obvious to almost anybody with a brain, because tablet PCs (from Microsoft) have been out since 2002 at least, and nobody has ever really bought them. There are a few devotees, but look, the market has spoken, and the market doesn’t like these things.
Many simply refuse to believe that, and they continue trying. Microsoft kept plugging away with stylus support and on-screen keyboards for the miniscule number of convertibles sold. Motorola came out with a dock for their Android phone, where you plugged it in to the back and got a full screen and keyboard. Every time one of these devices shows up, you get drooling tech writers and drooling geeks who say, “WANT!”. Then virtually nobody buys it (not the drooling geeks, nor the drooling tech writers), and the device disappears.
If you are Microsoft, however, you simply cannot let this stand. The PC is the thing! Real men use a keyboard and mouse! So, rather than recognize reality and build a tablet running something like a mobile operating system, dammit, you are going to double down and make the PC into a tablet.
The lesson Microsoft apparently learned from their fiasco of a tablet experience, however, is not that the device itself is stupid, but that…. “touch”! Yeah, touch, that’s the ticket! So, they came up with Windows 8, which is “touch”, and hey, while they’re at it, make it look like the phone, because people are dying to have the same look and feel everywhere! (Remember, the old Windows PDAs tried to look like Windows 95 with their title bars and buttons).
So with that, this is a review of such a device. I’m not going to review Windows 8 here since it isn’t unique to the device. I will do a follow-up post on what a pile of dung Windows 8 is. It is really, really not a good OS. But that isn’t unique to this device. The problems of making a PC and a tablet be the same thing are independent of whether the software on top of it stinks.
The device I’m reviewing is a Samsung 500T. It’s an Atom powered device that is a tablet, but with a keyboard dock that you slip it into to make it into a clamshell laptop. It has dual cameras like all tablets tend to have (front and rear facing), a home button like an iPad home button (more on this later), and ports and buttons for various things (HDMI, the dock connector, USB, volume buttons, power buttons, etc. Here are some pictures of it from the Samsung web site.
It is about as thick as a 13.3” Macbook Air at its thickest point, but is not tapered, so the thickness is universal. It is gray in color, with a look of brushed metal, but it is plastic. The device has a power connector in both the clamshell keyboard dock (when docked) and in the display itself (for when using as a tablet).
As a PC – Compromises, Compromises, Compromises
The Device / Keyboard Hinge
One of the challenges of making a device like this, and why Apple chose not to, is that it is very hard to make a device that is sturdy and full-featured while also thin if it is going to have two pieces (keyboard and display). You can make a good, solid hinge that makes for a good PC, but that might make it too thick and bulky. Or you can make the hinge thin and light, but that will probably make it chincy.
Samsung tried to make it sturdy, but not too sturdy so that it wouldn’t be too thick, and so, the whole thing is a failure. The place to plug in the display is a U-shaped, hard gray plastic thingy that wraps around about ¾” on the back of the display. Given that this U-shaped enclosure has to hold something that stick up past the hinge by 5 inches and is several pounds, it isn’t really all that sturdy. When you plug the display in, it almost feels like you could bend it off the back. Should the lip be bigger? If it was that would make the device all that much thicker.
However, it is also not very thin. As a result, when you open up the clamshell, the hinge rotates under the device, lifting the back end of it up. When this happens, it lifts up the back rubber feet of the keyboard dock, which causes the device to lose its grip on the table. Additionally, the hinge doesn’t easily flex, and so when opening the clamshell, this causes the front rubber feet to lift up. The result is that the whole device slides backwards on the table and doesn’t open. Essentially, you can’t open the device with one finger, which is, I dunno, something you should be able to do with a laptop!
Maybe you don’t consider this a big deal, but, this is what happens when you try to build a car that is supposed to get 60MPG and also go off road in 4-wheel drive. The tradeoffs made to be able to make the display removable mean you have a laptop that doesn’t physically work like you expect a laptop to work. That would be fine if it was a good tablet, but it isn’t (as you will see later).
The solution to opening the device, therefore, appears to be, “open slightly until you can put a finger from your other hand on the keyboard dock to hold it down. Lovely. Oh, and I also got this lovely screen when opening and closing the device a few times to see if I could do it with one hand. The Blue Screen of Death is nicer looking now…
Given the hinge design, you end up running into another problem with this device, and that is, you can’t open it very far. Microsoft Surface has a similar problem – you only get one angle to view the device when the keyboard is attached, because the angle is determined by the hinge on the back of the tablet.
There is a similar, but different problem here. Because of the hinge’s thickness, there is a limited angle that you can tilt the display. The angle appears OK for a desktop, but it is not a good lap angle. Below I have the Macbook Air 13” and this Samsung device tilted to their largest angle. You can see how much farther the Macbook Air tilts, and the Macbook Air is sometimes criticized for not being able to go back very far. Given that criticism, it is really bad how little the Samsun can go. Unrelated question – do you like my back yard?
A final problem with this hinge design again has another problem, and that is how the device locks into the keyboard. The KB is a USB device (shows up as an HID Keyboard Device in Windows). But as seen in the picture, it has these two mechanical interlocks and a proprietary connector.
When docked, to release the device from the keyboard you have to press the button, which releases the mechanical interlocks. A button… really? Sigh. Anyway, the problem with this is when you put the device back in the dock. There is no nice “click” sound that lets you know you docked it right. Additionally, there is a lot of “give” in the mechanical interlocks, so the device can wobble side to side in the keyboard as you put it down. Without the click and with the give that is present, you aren’t sure you have it docked.
Windows will cause the device to make a sound when it sees it as connected, but the sound can be misleading. For one, it is delayed. For another, it doesn’t always happen. And a third problem is you might get several of these sounds! The keyboard itself has a USB hub in it so that you can attach devices to the keyboard dock. Every time a USB device is discovered, Windows will make a sound. So, you could get 3 or 4 of these sounds as all the devices are registered (if there was a hub plugged into the keyboard dock with several devices in it, you will get even more of these chimes. Additionally, if the device isn’t in just right (due to the give in the mechanical lock) you will get a never ending repeat of connect/disconnect sounds. This is ridiculously frustrating.
What this does sometimes cause you to do is to push down on the top of the device to really-really-double-triple make sure you docked it. And this leads to another problem. The top left of the device when in this orientation contains the power button. So, while you are trying to make sure you are docked, you might hit the power button and put the device into suspend. Ugh.
One final note of this whole hinge design thing. The “home” button when used as a tablet is located on the bezel that slides into the keyboard dock. This means you can’t press the “home” button when docked. You have to use the charms/home of Windows, or press the Windows key on the keyboard. At first glance that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you are using the home button when as a tablet, it is annoying to realize you don’t have that home button once docked and that you have to “go home” using a different mechanism. That is just idiotic.
Keyboard / Mouse
As for the keyboard and trackpad? Not bad. The keyboard is definitely a rip off of Apple. The trackpad, though, is much smaller, and this becomes really, really, excruciatingly annoying when using Windows. Like the Windows 8 home screen, where a gesture from the right brings up “charms”, and a gesture from the left is essentially “alt-tab”, and a gesture from the top is “app menu” (or whatever), this is duplicated on the trackpad.
Thus, a swipe from the right of the trackpad brings up charms. A swipe from the left is “alt-tab”, and a swipe from the top is “app menu”. But with such a small track pad, you may have your fingers near one of these edges when trying to do just a normal, non-gesture thing, like “click on a menu”. What you will end up getting, however, is one of these Windows 8 gestures. Several times in desktop mode the charms would suddenly appear (because I was at the right edge), or all of a sudden the app would just change (because I was at the left edge).
Apple, by contrast, doesn’t do anything this asinine. There are a couple of things you can enable when moving the mouse to the corners of the screen, but that’s you making a choice to move the mouse to the corner of the screen. There isn’t this random appearance of stuff where the mouse cursor is, say, in the middle of the screen but your fingers happen to be on the right of the trackpad.
And if you think about this, it is really dumb for another reason. Say you actually do want to bring up the charms. If you swipe from the right to do so, that isn’t really a shortcut if your mouse cursor is ¾ of the way on the other side of the screen. You still have to then move your mouse cursor over to where the charms appeared before you can click on a charm (like settings or power options). So, the gesture bought you nothing! Now, you could of course just use your finger to tap on the charms when it came up, but if I’m using my finger on the screen, then what was the friggin’ point of using the trackpad gesture!?!?
Needless to say, I turned this stuff off. Unfortunately, most users barely know how to use a trackpad to begin with, and given that the trackpad settings are buried under ‘hardware and devices’ in control panel, which most people also don’t know how to bring up, I doubt this is going to be turned off by many people.
Samsung decided to put little covers on their USB port, SDIO port, and HDMI ports so that the device, I guess, looks sleek. God these port covers are awful. They are those kind of covers that are attached to the main body with by a piece of rubber, so they bend out of the way at almost any angle.
I have seen several devices with these kinds of hinges. Two things happen with them. First, they are annoying because since it is a rubber attach point, sometimes the cover snaps back toward the port before you plug the device in, or plug it in fully (so it prevents a full insertion). Secondly, they invariably break off after a while and are lost. So, I’ve never understood the point of these things. And the fact that there are three of them on the device (USB, SDIO, and HDMI) and then two additional ones on the keyboard (one on each side for a USB port), really annoys me. Even worse, there is a thing on the device next to the SDIO slot that looks like yet another cover, but it isn’t – it’s just an indentation. Why is this there? I have no idea.
As a Tablet – Are Those The 10 Commandments You Are Carrying?
Too Tall… Just Too Tall
The first thing to note about the Samsung device as a PC is that it is an 11.6” device. Which means it is a small laptop. The entry level Macbook Air is an 11.6” device, for example, and Netbooks were in the 9” to 12” range, so this is pretty small.
However, once you take this Samsung device and detach it from the keyboard dock to use as a tablet, holy cow does the thing seem big. Here are some pictures of it compared to an iPad1, which is a 9.7” screen.
You can see that it is the same width as the iPad1, yet is much, much taller. And this makes for some notably strange experiences while holding it as a tablet. For reference, I also have a shot of the Samsung here against an iPad mini, which is roughly the same size as a Kindle Fire, just so that you can see how much bigger it is to hold it if you are going to use it as an eReader. A lot of people are going for the iPad mini, the Nexus 7, and the Kindle Fire because they think the iPad is too big. And this thing is even bigger!
So, you can see you are going to be a little challenged here using this thing as a tablet… say grabbing it before heading off to bed for some reading. It is just ridiculously big.
And hence, that’s why I made the 10 Commandments reference in the section heading. When you hold it in portrait mode, you really are holding a large stone tablet, or something like an old Roman scroll. When you hold it in landscape mode for reading it’s like you are holding a spread out map.
And herein again is why trying to make a PC and a tablet the same device is dumb. Here you have a device that is almost “too small” when you are using it at a computer distance with its keyboard, but is way too big when you hold it at a tablet distance.
The touchscreen is very finicky. I don’t know how much of this is Windows vs. Samsung. Touchscreens are hard to do right. You need to have very good sensors, and you need to have good software running somewhere to find real touches vs. false touches, or a swipe vs. a touch.
On this device, at least, it isn’t working very well. Sometimes swipes are just missed and interpreted as a touch. Sometimes you needed to press hard to be recognized, but other times the slightest brush of the screen caused an action (usually unwanted).
I’m sure this will get better over time, but to risk alienating people again by talking about Jobs, he indicated this is the kind of thing they spent tons of time on. If you don’t get it right, the user is frustrated.
This thing had a ton of glare. With my iPad, you can see glare – you certainly don’t want to take it outside and try to read, that’s what a e-Ink Kindle is for. But this device just had glare everywhere. In my family room, I can read with my iPad mini while sitting in a couch against the family room window during the day and it’s fine. You simply cannot do that on this device. You had to close the blinds.
Microsoft said of Surface in particular, and Windows in general, “no compromises”. They want to tell you that you can have a tablet, and a PC, and it can be the same thing. And, in fact, having them be the same thing is actually good for you.
But this device shows the flaws in that thinking. This thing isn’t “no compromises”, it is “too many compromises”. It is too small of a laptop, but way too big of a tablet. The docking procedure is clunky, hurting its usefulness as a PC.
The device costs $700+ tax. You can get a PC that is just as good from a performance standpoint and is a better laptop (viewing angles, etc.) for $500, and a Kindle for $200. Same price, and each device is better at what it does.