Breaking News: Atom Runs Over ARM

By Doug Miller

There was a time when an ARM version of Windows made sense. Only a few years ago, Apple iPad’s and Android-based tablets were creating a whole new category in computing and Microsoft was left trying to figure out how to play in that space with processors that were built for laptops and desktops. The result wasn’t pretty. So building a tablet-oriented version of Windows that ran on ARM made a lot of sense – get better power management, get great performance in a small foot print and do it on a lower cost platform. But this wasn’t just a wake-up call for Microsoft – Intel took notice as well. In the end, Windows RT was a great sacrificial lamb to shake up things inside Microsoft and Intel. But now it is no longer necessary and here’s why.

TransformerI recently decided to buy an ASUS Transformer Book running Windows 8.1 using an Intel “Bay Trail” Atom quad-core processor. To be honest, because it was only $379 I didn’t have great expectations for this device but the specs looked good and it looked like it would be a decent “throw in the bag” device. I had bought the original Android-based Transformers a couple of years ago and was impressed with the concept and build quality so I was looking forward to seeing how it would work for a Windows-based device. I should also mention I have not been a big fan of Windows 8 even though I love the Windows Phone interface. So this was going to be an interesting experiment. Could this be as good as my iPad Mini or Samsung Note 8 tablets as a mobile device? After using the device for a couple of weeks I am totally blown away. It’s not that the Transformer is that sensational – it is more what it represents as far as where Windows on Intel can now go as a mobile platform.

So why is this device such a game changer? There are a number of things I look for in a great mobile platform: long battery life, light weight, instant on and instant off, USB charging, touch interface, great performance, not too big, useful apps for key things such as reading email, web browsing, playing movies and music and of course a great price. What I found was this device has all of that. For example, with 11 hour battery life I am not longer constantly looking for a plug in. But these new types of devices and the Windows 8.1 platform on new Intel Haswell and Bay Trail chips go farther. We no longer need an ARM-based Windows. You now have all of the attributes of a great mobile platform plus you get a bunch of other features that suddenly make this possibly the most viable mobile platform in the market.

Before the fanboy eggs get thrown let me explain. This is now a great mobile platform but it is also a real PC. All my “legacy” PC apps install and just run. I am able to do things on this device that I can’t do on my Samsung Note 8 or my iPad. For example, I currently use Google Chrome as my default browser on my work PC. I like how it syncs across all my devices and I like the extension model for running extra apps and services. Since this is just a PC, I installed the standard Windows version of Chrome which works great even in the Windows 8.1 modern UI. But if I want to run Chrome on an Android tablet or the iPad I have to use a watered-down version. Things like extensions don’t work.

I also need commenting and digital signature capability for PDF files. The Adobe Reader Touch Windows 8 modern UI app is similar to the app on other mobile platforms – in other words not that useful. But because this is a PC I can install the real Adobe Reader XI and get the full functionality I need. Or I can run real Photoshop or Quickbooks. Plus it runs iTunes. Plus I can play Amazon movies. Plus I have real Office. When you want the portability of just a tablet you undock and you have a lightweight tablet for reading Kindle books or watching a movie.

Then there’s the keyboard. This device operates just like a laptop with a real keyboard that comes with the product and a decent hinge that works in your lap when you want to do real work. Plus it also has other PC-like things such as a real USB 3.0 port, a microSD slot and an HDMI port for driving a second screen. And in case you missed it, it includes a real copy of Microsoft Office.

It may sound like this device has it all but it doesn’t and it won’t be the device for everyone. It only comes with a 32 or 64 GB eMMC drive. Screen resolution is the typical 1366 x 768 pixels. It only has 2 GB of RAM. There is no version with LTE built-in. The Office version does not include Outlook (although this can be installed if you have a license). But it does represent where things are going. If ASUS can build a real PC that is also a tablet, meet all of the attributes of a great mobile platform and do it – with keyboard – for a price that is less than current Android-based tablets or iPad models then think of the possibilities of what this will do for competition in the mobile space and what it will do for driving more value for the dollars we spend.

So while this started out as a piece talking about the end of Windows RT, the reality is these developments are going to make a lot of people rethink their mobile device buying decisions across the board. It’s taken a long time but Microsoft and Intel are now viable options in the mobile space.

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