Windows 8 – A Look at the Lineup

It has been well over two years now since Microsoft’s bold new square-centric foray into the world of smartphones was unveiled in the form of Windows Phone 7, and the accompanying Metro UI. Both operating system and UI were well-received, but their long term success was met with scepticism in the face of the titans of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android. Today, we’ve seen the rough start for Windows Phone blossom into a serious mobile competitor for iOS and Android, one that is continuing to thrive and grow as the two tech titans thrash and brawl; We’ve seen the quadratic-laden Metro UI sneak its way onto the Xbox 360, Microsoft’s own Zune MP3 player software for Windows PC’s, and now onto the next iteration of Microsoft’s Windows PC operating system.

In the wake of the impending release of both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, which should prove to be a make-or-break launch for Microsoft in terms of both its grip on the market and impression on the mobile space, we’ve seen the lead players in the tech world step forward with their eager contributions to the oncoming pair of OS’s, and I’m here to take a look at the most intriguing of the bunch.

The Samsung ATIVs

First to lead the heroic foray into the figures of eight is none other than the current champion of the Android space – Samsung. It would seem that suffering a recent legal defeat at the hands of titanic rival Apple has no dampened the ambitions of the Korean tech giant, for they have not only proceeded to overtake Apple in consumer popularity, but also brought out a sparkling new range of Windows 8 devices, with a superb-looking Windows Phone to boot.

The ATIV series, as this particular range is known (ATIV being the reverse spelling of VITA) is being spearheaded by what will be Samsung’s (nth) Windows Phone device – the ATIV S. It doesn’t look like Samsung are aiming to make it anything but a high-end killer of a smartphone; the ATIV S will come with a massive 4.8″ screen (the largest yet on a Windows Phone device) with a newly-supported resolution of 1280×720 pixels, which will give even this huge screen a pixel density similar to that of Apple’s retina display. Otherwise, the device packs all the other bells and whistles set to make it a flagship Windows Phone 8 device, including NFC support, a dubiously large battery, and expandable storage. All of this wrapped up in a stunningly sight-worthy aluminium chassis, adhering to a similar style set by the ATIV’s Android-toting cousin; the Galaxy S3.
The ATIV S is certainly teasing my interest, and could well make my next phone upgrade, however its borderline-tablet size could be discerning for those of us with smaller hands and pockets.

Samsung also appear to be offering a range of three Windows 8 tablets; namely the ATIV Tab, ATIV SmartPC, and the ATIV SmartPC Pro. The ATIV Tab, as one would expect, is set to take advantage of Windows 8′s ARM-supporting brother (known as Windows RT) to provide a more budget-oriented tablet experience aimed at the more casual user. Even with that, the Tab is offering a whole host of features we’d expect to see only on the high-end premium level of tablets, including USB and mHDMI connectivity, an internal accelerometer and gyroscope, two cameras, and some seriously brilliant battery life (claimed up to 12 hours), all on a aptly sized 1366×768 10.1″ display.

With four smashing-looking devices on the way, Samsung are certainly not holding any bars with the ATIV series.

The ATIV SmartPC pairing, as you may have guessed, are aimed at a more enthusiast level, and take advantage of not only the latest Intel Atom and i3/i5 series processors, but also come with larger (11.6″) displays, ASUS EEE Pad-style keyboard docks, optional mobile broadband, as well as added solid-state drive storage. The ATIV SmartPC comes equipped with an Atom processor, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, a handy 128gb SSD, whilst retaining many of the nifty bobs and ends of the ATIV Tab. The ATIV SmartPC Pro, on the other hand, takes a huge leap towards the enthusiast-end of the pool; armed with not only an i3 (upgradeable to an i5) processor, but also a smashing 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a massive-resolution 1920×1080 display (equating to an impressive 200 pixels-per-inch), and a spacious 256gb SSD. Not only that, but it appears that Samsung are looking to give the ageing stylus another lease of life with the SmartPC’s by providing a proprietary ‘S-Pen’ which will allow users to insert and manipulate multimedia content more directly, in a manner not too dissimilar to that of HTC’s Flyer tablet.

With hefty hardware and strong style, the ATIV S looks set to be the Windows Phone’s next champion device.

All of this, coupled with the fine balance between the feature set of a full-fledged PC and the user-friendly approach of a Tablet provided by Windows 8 (not to mention Samsung’s ludicrously strong brand image), should see the ATIV tablets hit a sweet spot in the more casual user base. Not to mention that the whole lineup looks smashing, too.

Nokia

So, what about Microsoft’s supposed best-friend-for-life? We all remember Nokia eagerly being brought aboard the Windows Phone 7 train by Microsoft back in 2011 to help salvage the fortunes of both the ailing, Symbian-obsessed former-king of the mobile world, as well as Windows Phone itself. If recent months have been any indicator, then this unlikely partnership appears to have worked; the Nokia Lumia range of phones has proved more popular than expected and although Nokia’s share value still struggles, the combined forces of it and Microsoft appear to have boosted their fortunes, propelling Windows Phone into an iPhone and Android-inundated techsphere.

So, what now? Well after the announcement of Windows Phone 8 and its bevy of features (including, to the dismay of many early-adopters, the lack of support for earlier devices), Nokia have understandably put all hands on deck with the plainly-named Lumia 920 and 820 smartphones. Sporting the prolific design first introduced by the original Lumia series, the 920 and 820 come with the predictable new features such as dual-core Qualcomm processors and NFC support along with expandable storage and hi-res displays. Nokia have also decided to give some flare to their new Lumias with an above-average (though fixed) battery capacity, proprietary wireless charging, a bevy of exclusive applications (including the reality-augmenting Nokia City Lens), as well as two rather interesting new peculiars.

The new Lumia lineup certainly looks excellent, but whether Nokia’s new proprietary camera and display enhancements prove to be genuine bonuses or cheap gimmicks is yet to be proven.

First of these is what Nokia have dubbed ‘PureView’, which seeks to end the woes of shaky-hand and light-deprived photographers everywhere by utilising what appears to be known as a ‘Carl Zeiss’ lens in order to mitigate the effects of what can only be called ‘sloppy camerawork’, which will hopefully result in some clearer photos and less retakes for those of us who can’t keep our phones still. Next up we have what has been called the ‘PureMotion HD+’ display which, whilst we haven’t been told what exactly it entails , claims to offer the world’s ‘brightest, clearest and fastest’ mobile touch screen about. Whatever’s underneath it, it seems like Nokia are hoping to provide a sort of brand competitor to Apple’s much-lauded Retina Display.

It’s no surprise that Nokia are sticking to their guns in the smartphone sector (hitherto avoiding any tablet releases), and it’s no doubt that the new 820 and 920 Lumia devices have a rather impressive array of features in addition to the rather stylish characteristic design aesthetic. However, the big question here is whether a bold foray into Windows Phone 8 space will be enough to turn the fortunes of the ailing phone maker, who were not too long ago being championed by Microsoft as the lead producer of Windows Phone devices. Somehow, that position has been usurped…

HTC

HTC used to be the king of the Android world – ever since their flagship device, the HTC Hero, the Taiwanese company went from strength to strength, with each new device seeming to tighten their nigh-unassailable grasp on the smartphone throne. However that position has been slowly overtaken by now-champion Samsung, leaving HTC in the dust despite a bevy of critically lauded new devices.

Like the similarly beleaguered Nokia, HTC have now tried to emphasise their efforts in the Windows Phone arena, with their latest devices the HTC 8S and 8X surprisingly being endorsed by Microsoft as the ‘go-to’ Windows Phone devices of the year. Nokia’s likely frustration aside, the championing of these new phones probably warrants some scrutiny.

The 8S, like last year’s 7.5-bearing HTC Radar, is set to be the lower-end device of the upcoming pair. Even so, it comes equipped with a spacious 4-inch 480×800 display, a 1ghz dual-core processor, 512mb of RAM, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect from a Windows Phone 8 device (including an expandable 4gb of storage), as well as proudly being (along with the 8X) one of the first Windows Phones with built-in Beats audio. By standards, the 8S is a capable device, so I’d only expect to see the 8X bring up some killer features.

Those of you with a thing for colour will certainly find no shortage of it in the 8S.

For the most part, those hopes would be vindicated: the 8X sports a 1280×720 4.3″ display, along with a topped-up 1.5ghz dual-core processor, as well as a 8MP back-facing camera (in comparison with the 8S’s 5MP shooter). It also comes with Beats audio, NFC technology, and all the other tidbits. However, to my surprise it appears that, despite being the higher-end of the two devices, the 8X only sports 16gb of non-expandable storage, along with the completely closed chassis making the battery unable to be removed or replaced. Whilst the device’s specifications are impressive in their own right, the lack of even basic component access has put me off the 8X a huge amount, especially considering that the 8S, supposedly its inferior, has expandable storage.

Otherwise, I can’t say that I hugely dislike HTC’s lineup, considering that I’ve been a strong supporter of theirs for some time now. The devices both look snazzy (if not a little too similar to Nokia’s Lumia aesthetic), and seem specced up to take on Windows Phone 8 and all its frills with minimal fuss. I sadly can’t say that the 8X and 8S make the huge splash that I would expect of HTC these days, but nonetheless they should see some decent success given Microsoft’s endorsement. I’d keep my eyes peeled.

ASUS

ASUS, traditionally known for the netbook-pioneering EEE PC, have recently had a very high degree of success in the tablet arena. Their first Android outing, the ASUS EEE Pad Transformer, was met with rave reviews from all sides lauding both its beautiful IPS display, as well as the strongly competitive price at the time of release. Fast-forward a year and we arrive at the Transformer’s latest iteration, the Infinity, now packing a ludicrously sharp 1080p display and a quad-core nVidia Tegra processor, and also met with rave critical reception. Whilst we never saw any Windows 7 tablets from ASUS (admittedly, we didn’t see many Windows 7 tablets on the whole), they do appear to be charging head-first into adopting Windows 8 as a tablet platform.

The Transformer AiO is big, bold, although for many of us it may prove to be a little too large to handle. On the plus side, it can function just fine as a regular desktop, with no lifting required!

They certainly aren’t playing it safe either! In fact, their flagship device looks to break conventional tablet sizes and barge straight into the monstrous 18” size range with the Transformer AiO, which happens not to be just a mere tablet but a portable desktop PC. Packed with an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU and a dedicated graphics card, the AiO, following the ASUS tradition of dock-able tablets, runs on Windows 8 when attached to a base station, but will switch to Android when undocked. For those of you looking for a more portable desktop PC, you may have found your saving grace.
On the smaller-size side of things, ASUS have treated us with a pair known as the Vivo Tabs, coming in ARM-equipped Windows RT and full-on Intel-based Windows 8 varieties (known respectively as the Vivo Tab RT and Vivo Tab). Coming with nVidia Tegra and Intel Atom processors, the Vivo Tabs are planned to utilise IPS displays (at 1366×768 pixels), hopefully providing the superb viewing angles we’ve seen on ASUS’s former Android outings.

However, the main put-off of potential consumers would appear to be the price: the Vivo Tab RT starts at a hefty $599, whilst the Vivo Tab is set to be priced at a very steep $799(with an extra $200 required for the keyboard dock for either model). Given ASUS’s reputation for pricing their products at a ‘just right’ level, the heavy price tags on their Windows 8 devices is surprising, as well as concerning considering the comparative bargain-prices of their soon-to-be competitors. Either way, we’ll have to sit tight and wait for release until we can get an idea of whether or not this will be a serious problem.

Closing thoughts

What I find intriguing more than anything else about this line-up of devices is the fact that we’re not only getting such a large turnout of manufacturers releasing devices for Windows 8 and Phone 8, but that many of them who initially only produced smartphones are now releasing what could be considered full-fledged laptops, only targeting a more casual market with the inclusion of Windows 8.

It’s this market in particular that I think Microsoft could make a big impression on, although one could say that it has to sell in this market for Windows 8 to be a success at all, as reception to the operating system from the current consumer previews has been cold to say the least, especially for the enthusiasts and gamers among us, who see Windows 8 as eschewing functionality in favour of creating a consumer-friendly image. If Microsoft has played its cards right, however, we could see Windows 8 become a very appealing option to a casual user base disillusioned with the apparent complexity of anything besides an Apple Macintosh, in the form of a device which could blend the functionality of a full-fledged PC with a more appealing front-end. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some killer applications for both the phone and tablet side of things, too. Whatever ends up happening, I eagerly anticipate it.


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