Above and Below the Surface
At the moment, 10-inch tablets are the teaching tool of choice in schools, but several recent updates to this rapidly evolving genre of slates make them even more appealing in the classroom because they offer more computer for less money than a traditional notebook. While Asus continues its focus on two-in-one designs with its Transformer T100, Microsoft’s Surface Pro just might be the most powerful tablet around.
These two tablets come with the latest Windows 8.1 software and they have a lot in common with similar-size screens, add-on keyboards and a copy of Office 2013. They, however, diverge radically on what a school slate should have, can do and what it should cost. While the Surface Pro has more than enough power for teaching, its $799 price tag puts it out of reach for most schools. By contrast, the $350 T100 is less than half as much and priced to fill a school with slates for students.
Asus has a long history making two-in-one slates with snap-on keyboards that deliver versatility in how they can be used in the classroom. The Windows 8.1-based Transformer T100 takes that idea to a new level and at $350 the slate can inexpensively fill a school with computers.
At 7.1- by 10.4-inches, the gray T100 is small, lacks sharp corners and with its keyboard it can easily be confused for a mini-notebook with a 10.1-inch screen. It weighs 2.4-pounds and is between 0.6 and 0.9-inches thick, making it light enough not to weigh children down or overfill their backpacks.
But it has a secret. Open the lid and press the latch release below the Windows logo and the screen can be lifted off of the keyboard, creating a standalone slate. The action is smooth and it takes less than a second to transform the T100 into a tablet.
At this point you have a slate that measures 6.3- by 10.2-inches, is between 0.4- and 0.8-inches thick and weighs 1.4 pounds. That’s roughly the heft of a third-generation iPad (which has a slightly smaller screen) and about 10-ounces lighter than the Surface Pro (with its slightly larger screen).
On its own, the slate feels good in the hand and can easily be held longer than the heavier Surface Pro without it becoming tedious. The T100 tablet sits flat on a tabletop with no wobble and is sturdily built, but the glossy case picks up fingerprints all too easily.
There’s an on-off switch and buttons to raise and lower the volume as well as a Windows key for getting to the Home page. On the downside, the Windows logo at the base of the slate doesn’t work as a Windows key.
The T100’s 10.1-inch screen can show 1,366 by 768 resolution, uses Intel’s HD Graphics hardware with 32MB of its own dedicated video memory. This is augmented with up to 966MB from RAM for nearly a gigabyte of total video memory. It is sensitive to up to five independent finger inputs, rather than the Surface’s 10, and worked well with an off-the-shelf stylus.
Inside is Intel’s latest Atom Z3740D processor that has four computational cores and runs at 1.33GHz; it can raise its speed to 1.86GHz when needed. On the downside, the CPU can’t use more than 2GB of RAM, which limits its abilities.
The system I looked at came with an adequate 32GB of solid state storage space; upping the storage potential to 64GB costs a reasonable $50. The Surface Pro 2 comes better equipped with 4GB or RAM and a generous 128GB of storage space, but the T100 has a big advantage: A year of unlimited online storage.
It has ports for listening with headphones, a micro-USB (for charging the system), a micro-SD card slot (for adding storage) and a micro-HDMI slot (for running a projector). It’s a big step up from the Surface Pro’s DisplayPort output, which will likely need an adapter to use with a projector.
With Bluetooth 4 and 802.11n WiFi, the T100 can connect with peripherals without wires and the keyboard base adds a USB 3.0 slot. Like the Surface Pro, it can’t, however, use Intel’s WiDi wireless method of connecting with a projector. As was the case with the Surface Pro, the T100 worked fine with a Miracast receiver.
Unlike, the Surface Pro, the T100 lacks a Trusted Platform Module for secure remote access. Neither of the slates have fingerprint scanners, but the T100 has a Web cam facing the user on the slate but nothing in the back compared to the Surface Pro’s pair of cams.
The snap-on keyboard makes the T100 more stable and it feels good on a table, in the lap and even carrying it around by the keyboard, two places where the Surface Pro comes up short. The T100 has a large touchpad and its 17.6-millimeter keys are a little cramped, but much better than the Surface’s short throw keys. The screen can be tilted to as much as 55-degrees, but the tablet lacks the pull-out stand of the Surface Pro slate.
Unfortunately, unlike some other Asus designs, the keyboard module doesn’t contain a battery, which could have lengthened the time between charging. The company promises that it will have a powered keyboard option in the coming months.
As a result of its shortage of system memory, the T100’s performance was underwhelming, but adequate for most school uses and likely a lot better than the computers that they will replace. Its 503.6 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 was half that of a budget-oriented Core i3 system and one-third the power of the Surface Pro.
It, however, is a power miser that excelled at battery life. The system’s 3,200 milliamp-hour battery ran for 10 hours and 41 minutes on a charge while playing back YouTube videos continuously. That’s triple the amount of time between charges of the Surface Pro’s larger battery. In school use, it might translate into charging the T100 every other day.
The good news for schools is that the $350 T100 comes with Microsoft’s Office Home and Student 2013 as well as One Note and a one-year warranty. At that price, you can fill a school with enough tablets for every student without busting the tech budget.
+ Excellent price
+ Sleek design
+ USB charging
+ Good keyboard
+ Exceptional battery life
- 2GB of RAM
- No TPM
- Five finger input
As the second generation of Microsoft’s Surface hits the market, there’s a secret: a well-equipped version of the original Surface Pro slate costs $799. The tablet is more powerful, but larger, heavier and more than twice as expensive as the T100.
While most of the tablet world uses plastic cases, the Surface Pro is built around a sturdy magnesium case. It can not only stand up to abuse better but has the benefit of not picking up as many fingerprints. The slate itself measures 6.8- by 10.8-inches and is 0.5-inches thick, making it bigger than the T100. Rather than a softly rounded back, the system has sharper edges and it sits flat on a tabletop without any wobble.
At 2-pounds on its own, the tablet is on the heavy side, 12-ounces more than the T100 and nearly twice the weight of the new iPad. It does have a bigger screen than either slate, though. Rather than being mechanically held in place, the keyboard has a magnetic latch that actually pulls the two parts together.
The slate’s keyboard adds 8.4-ounces and – like the T100 – the Surface Pro’s keyboard does without a battery. It also lacks the T100’s extra USB connection but its short-depth keys are awkward to type with and the whole thing feels flimsy. It does have a soft felt lining on the bottom, but I found that it is better on a desktop than a lap and the system can’t be carried around by the keyboard.
Its design does have one big benefit. The Surface Pro tablet has a pull out leg in the back that allows it sit on its own at a comfortable viewing angle.
Like the T100, the Surface Pro’s controls are minimal with an on-off switch and up and well as down buttons for the volume. Rather than a dead logo, the Surface’s Windows icon sends you to the Home page.
Its array of ports is a mixed bag. In addition to a full-size USB 3.0 port on the side of the slate and a micro-SD card slot, the system has a mini-DisplayPort connector for video; it comes with a converter for VGA projectors and it worked fine with a generic DisplayPort to HDMI adapter.
Like the T100, it lacks a wired Ethernet port, but can use an off the shelf USB-to-LAN adapter without a problem. It comes with 802.11n WiFi as well as Bluetooth 4.0. It can’t use Intel’s WiDi wireless projector connection system, but linked with a Miracast-connected projector after I found and loaded the latest software.
At 10.6-inches, the Surface Pro’s screen is nearly half an inch larger than the T100’s. It can show full 1,920 by 1,080 resolution, which is a step up from the T100’s older system and uses Intel’s HD Graphics 4000. The graphics set up has 32MB of its own video memory and can grab up to 1.73GB from the system for a total of 1.77GB, nearly twice that of the T100.
On top of being sensitive to up to 10 independent finger inputs – compared to the T100’s 5 – the Surface Pro’s screen works well with the included pen for more accurate drawing and writing. It is sensitive to 1,024 levels of pressure, but there’s no way to tether the pen to the slate; it does stick to the slate’s magnetic power connector.
The rest of the $799 Surface Pro is top shelf all the way. It’s powered by a third-generation Core i5 processor that runs at 1.7GHz, but can sprint for short periods at 2.6GHz. There’s 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid state storage space, twice the level of the T100’s configuration. Rather than Asus’s unlimited online storage for a year, Microsoft’s SkyDrive provides 7GB of free capacity forever.
There’s also a $699 Pro model with 64GB of storage space as well as Pro 2 versions that have a newer processor and range from $899 to $1,799 as well as Micrsoft’s RT-based Surface systems. At $349, the first-generation RT system is a bargain but it can’t use standard Windows software. While the number and variety of RT apps is slowly increasing, it can’t touch the scope and breadth of programs available on iOS, Android or full Windows 8. The second-generation Surface 2 sells for $449.
It’s a breakthrough slate as far as security goes because the Surface Pro has a Trusted Platform Module built in for more secure remote access. Plus, unlike the T100’s single camera, the Surface Pro has two cams: one pointing at the user and the other out the slate’s back.
The Surface Pro excelled at performance and could be one of the fastest computers at your school. It hit a peak of 1,714.6 on Passmark’s PerformanceTest 8 series of everyday tasks, outdoing the T100 by more than three-fold. The price you pay for all this power is battery life because the Surface Pro could only go for 3 hours and 41 minutes on a charge, one-third that of the T100.
As is the case with the T100, the Surface Pro comes with Office Home and Student 2013 and One Note. It’s covered for a year, but at $799, it is roughly the cost of a well-equipped notebook, but has two personalities, making it perfect for teachers who need an extra level of flexibility.
+ Excellent configuration and performance
+ Adjustable stand
+ Felt lined keyboard
+ Includes active pen
+ Includes TPM
+ 10 finger input
- Short battery life
- Thick and heavy
- Mini-DisplayPort video