updated 07:57 am EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
Windows RT 8.1, plus Snapdragon 800 will make a potent combination
Firm rumors have emerged over the past week that Nokia is close to unveiling its first tablet. If the rumored specifications are correct, the Nokia tablet will have plenty of power as it said to be running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core CPU clocked at 2.2GHz, which also features a fast Adreno 330 integrated GPU. It will also center on a 1080p 10.1-inch display, while leaked photos show what appears to be a very thin device. However, it will be running the as yet unloved Windows RT operating system, designed for ARM-based devices. Has Nokia completely lost the plot, or does the impending arrival of the updated Windows RT 8.1 hold hope for the troubled platform?
We have had our hands on the brand new Snapdragon 800 chipset as embedded in the Sony Xperia Z Ultra and can report that it is a blisteringly fast. That device runs Android 4.2.2 'Jelly Bean' with Sony's custom, though light, UI. Ahead of our full review of that device, we have not encountered any kind of system lag, while web pages render quickly, high-demand games play beautifully and it has no problems multitasking or with fast app-switching. It is the kind of chipset that Windows RT has been crying out for since its launch, and I believe it will help unleash the potential of the platform -- Nokia has certainly got the right hardware in place.
Most of the Windows RT devices released to date have run the Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset, which was already being surpassed by Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core chipset at the time it debuted in the Surface RT in October last year. The Surface RT, consequently, has never been a speed demon. With each update, Microsoft has further optimized the OS to run smoothly and effectively on the Surface RT. In my experience, the Surface RT functions very well, and with its reduced pricing and the ongoing inclusion of the Office suite, it remains a solid value proposition. Killer apps like Halo: Spartan Assault, which runs incredibly well on the Surface RT, also help to make a better case for it.
For a variety of reasons, Windows RT devices have failed to sell with most major OEM's either shelving plans to release Windows RT devices, or withdrawing them from sale. Yet, here we have news of Nokia on the cusp of releasing a Windows RT device. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop took a major gamble when he elected to join forces with Microsoft an install the Windows Phone OS on Nokia devices instead of pursuing its own software solution, or even switching to Android.
Does it make sense for Nokia to be pushing out a Windows RT tablet, right at the point when it seems that the Windows RT OS appears to be flat lining? Most of the major complaints about Windows RT are similar to those levelled at Windows 8 -- the Modern UI app selection is weak, while the Modern UI and desktop mash-up is confusing. Added to this, is the fact that Windows RT devices do not offer legacy Windows app support in the traditional desktop mode. I was in a local electrical store the just other day and saw a returned Asus VivoTab RT with a store note stating that the "Customer didn't realize it ran Windows RT."
Windows RT 8.1 goes a long way to rectifying the shortcomings of Windows RT -- it also goes a long way to explaining why Nokia appears to be giving it a shot --even if it still confuses the average consumer. The most critical improvement is the addition of Outlook for the desktop mode, which was a ridiculous omission to begin with. Its absence meant that users wanting to share Word files, for example, were forced to use SkyDrive, USB stick or microSD card as there was no native email client, and no hope to install a third-party one either. I have been playing with the Windows RT 8.1 Preview version of Outlook on our Surface RT and it is a great app. It is stable, fully featured, and completes the productivity capabilities of the OS.
The start button has also been returned to the task bar in the desktop mode too, while the Start Screen itself has also been revamped. You can now resize and organize your apps and functions in new and more flexible ways, which includes grouping them under headings. It makes for a cleaner and easier to navigate interface. A swipe downwards reveals all your installed apps, rather than being forced to search for them first as was previously the case. This also reveals a number of other bonus apps including a native Voice Recorder, Calculator and Alarm clock among other tweaks. The Settings have also been given a major upgrade and provide much more control over functions. There are also many other useful improvements across the board such as the inclusion of the Windows 8 Snipping Tool. My favorite is the ability to watch videos in and surf the net at the same time in a perfectly split screen -- the two panes can also be resized as well according to your preference, the way it should always have been from the beginning.
Provided that you really want a tablet that also offers a full productivity suite, or consider that a great bonus, Windows RT 8.1 on ARM tablets still have plenty to offer. Running Windows RT 8.1 on Snapdragon 800 chipset is going to take the whole experience to another level as well. Although Intel Atom chips are starting to catch up to ARM-based devices in some ways, ARM chips still offer the best overall combination of processing and graphics performance, coupled with outstanding battery life in slim and lightweight tablets and smartphones. So no, I don't think that Nokia has lost the plot in prepping a Windows RT tablet that runs Windows RT 8.1.
Time will, of course, be the judge. If consumers warm to the major upgrade that Windows RT 8.1 offers, Nokia may only have Microsoft's rumored Surface RT sequel with a Tegra 4 chipset to compete with. Even if its smartphone sales haven't set the world on fire, it has also now sold millions of Windows Phone 7 and 8 devices to users who are now an existing and potential user-base for a companion Nokia tablet. While I personally think that Microsoft should have released a Windows Phone OS-based tablet (users and developers of Windows Phone apps would have benefited hugely from this as iPad and iPhone owners and developers have), Windows RT 8.1 is a much better argument for why it has chosen the path it has.
By Sanjiv Sathiah