Monday 16 September 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Which work-friendly 'pro' tablet is capable of doing a top job?'

Can a pro tablet replace your work laptop or act as a complementary device? Adrian Weckler looks at the leading candidates and compares them to a stripped-down Windows hybrid device

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4
Samsung Galaxy Tab S4
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

€819 including keyboard folio cover (PC World/Currys. Specs: 10.5-inch screen, 4GB Ram, 64GB storage

If you’re looking for an alternative to iPads or Windows, there aren’t too many options in the work space.

The best of what’s around is probably Samsung’s high-end Galaxy Tab S4. As well as boasting decent specs, including an excellent display, it has one trick that no other tablet rival has – a Windows simulation mode.

I don’t mean Microsoft’s operating specifically, but a desktop-like alternative operating interface that lets you work on it as you would a laptop, including the use of a mouse (or, if you don’t have a mouse, your S-Pen stylus). This is part of what Samsung calls its DeX system.

By and large, it’s really quite decent for those who sometimes feel they need a mouse-and-cursor powered session, especially since it lets you open lots of windows at the same time.

Apple iPad Pro 2018
Apple iPad Pro 2018

You can have 10 different apps open at the same time and resize them anyway you want.

Better still, if you have a monitor in your home office or at work, you can use the tablet as the main PC, mirroring the screen onto the larger monitor (and using a wireless mouse).

However, there are some limitations. Getting something on or off the tablet is still mostly a wireless, cloud-based activity – don’t expect physical USB utility in the same way you would with a PC.

Still, if you’re thinking of shifting to something that’s fast and incorporates the advantages of a tablet operating system, this is an interesting choice.

Microsoft Surface Go
Microsoft Surface Go

If you want full use of a keyboard, it’s good advice to go for Samsung’s own Folio Keyboard Cover. It acts as protective cover as well as a decent keyboard. It’s a bit of a shame that it doesn’t have a trackpad for its DeX mode

As a standalone tablet, the Tab S4 is fast and powerful, even if it doesn’t quite have the muscle of Apple’s iPad Pro.

It’s 10.5-inch Amoled display is exceptionally bright and vivid because of Samsung’s prowess in making screens (it supplies screens to a lot of rival manufacturers). Battery life is strong, with a bigger physical battery than any similarly-sized tablet rivals.

It has enough storage (64GB) for what you might reasonably use it for, although it would have been nice to get a 128GB or 256GB premium option. (Apple has a 512GB version of its iPad Pro for serious users.)

To be fair, there’s a microSD card slot if you really want expandable memory. One other advantage to the Tab S4 over rivals is that its S-Pen stylus comes free with the device.

This also doesn’t need to be charged or powered, eliminating one logistical consideration. And if you don’t have space to use a mouse, it acts as something of a substitute.

The only possible downside to the Tab S4 is that if you depend heavily on work apps, Android tends to play second fiddle to the iPad. Not for things like Google Docs or even Microsoft Office, but if you have a specific work-related app deployed by the office, check whether there’s a decent Android tablet version of it first.

Otherwise, the DeX functionality is fairly unique in the pro-tablet world and gives the Tab S4 a definite spot for consideration as a working device. If you’re fairly sure that you won’t use it this way, it’s probably a harder sell against the likes of the more powerful iPad Pro with its bigger work-app ecosystem. But if you’re open to giving it a go, this is definitely worth a look.

Microsoft Surface Go

€730 including Signature keyboard (Harvey Norman)

Why am I looking at the Surface Go rather than the Surface Pro? Mainly because I’m sticking to ‘pro’ tablets or hybrids that are either close to, or under €1,000. (I recently started testing the €1,250 Surface Pro 6 and will have a review at a later point: but it already feels more closely aligned to a full laptop than a ‘pro’ tablet.)

Like its Surface Pro stablemates, the Surface Go is a touchscreen Windows hybrid that comes without a keyboard. For work stuff, you’ll clearly need the latter piece of kit, which costs €99.

If you’re looking for an ultra-portable Windows laptop that doesn’t need lots of power, this is certainly worth considering.

The model I tested is the upper-end device, priced at €719 with the keyboard cover, or €619 without the keyboard cover. This is important to note, as this version is significantly more capable than the entry-level €559 (with keyboard) model.

It has twice the Ram memory (8GB), twice the storage (128GB, which should be the minimum for any laptop) and that storage is faster to access than the 64GB on the lower-priced model.

From a design perspective, Microsoft has mostly gotten it right. It’s simple and elegant, with a very effective (and variable) kickstand.

The 10-inch screen is very impressive for a device in this price range. Its power, while nominally weaker than rivals, turned out to be fine too. It uses a lower-tier chip, Intel’s ‘Pentium Gold’ processor, than the ‘Core’ i3 or i5 chips you usually see in laptops. Normally I’m wary of compromising on the chip as it can be a crucial engine room resource. However, I was able to flip through apps and functions in a pretty zippy manner.

The only place I noticed a possible lag in power was in screen latency: it seemed just a tad slower than I’m used to when scrolling through documents or web pages. On the other hand, it was never enough to really interfere with anything I was doing: I’ve experienced much worse.

The touchpad (to control the cursor) is just the right size, generously proportioned in the context of the keyboard size. This keyboard is also very competitively priced when you look at what an iPad Pro keyboard (€179) costs or third party devices from Logitech and Zagg.

One minor niggle for me is that Microsoft has gone with its own proprietary charger (and connection) for the Surface Go, when others are widely adopting USB-C (or ‘Thunderbolt’) as an interchangeable standard. Microsoft says that you can also charge the machine via its own USB-C port, but this just didn’t work with the USB-C chargers and cables I tried it with.

One final observation is that the Surface Go, out of the box, uses Microsoft’s ‘S’ mode, a straitened version of Windows 10 that doesn’t allow you to use apps outside the Windows Store.

A lot of people dislike this, although it didn’t bother me. In any case, you can switch this mode off.

Overall, this is a hit from Microsoft.

From a physical standpoint, it has only two negative points. The bezel on it is a little wide, making it reminiscent of older tablets. (The trend these days is toward all-screen devices.) And it is also quite fat. It’s almost twice as thick as the (slightly bigger) iPad Pro, making it a little heavier.

However, neither of these design issues impact its ability to fit into the exact same pouches or bag pockets that an iPad Pro currently occupies.

So neither is a practical impediment to getting this machine.

Apple iPad Pro 2018

€1,100, including Smart Keyboard

If you’re not going for a Windows hybrid device like Microsoft’s Surface series, Apple’s iPad Pro has become the gold standard for a casual productivity device. Does the latest one, which increases screen size and adds Face ID, cut the mustard?

I’ve been using it for several months and it has become a go-to device. I use it for work (a lot) and for non-work (movies, the web and photo-editing). So far, it’s a really decent upgrade on the previous model, which I loved. The main upgrades are an 11-inch screen, USB-C instead of Lightning and Face ID instead of a Touch ID home

button. There’s also a new Smart Keyboard Folio case, which is a bit sturdier and faster than the last iPad Pro Smart Keyboard.

Unique among its peers, storage is now on par with almost any laptop: my test model has a whopping one terabyte (1,000GB), making up somewhat for the lack of USB storage file transfers that you normally have with other laptops. (Although the switch to USB-C from Lightning may open up more productivity and compatibility functions on the device.) Under the hood, the iPad Pro has substantially upped its game with graphics and processor speed, mostly down to its own A12X chip system.

That new ‘liquid retina’ display (which is roughly the same design as the new iPhone Xr) serves it well, too — videos and photos are rendered pretty spectacularly on it. So it’s a worthy upgrade to the iPad Pro 10.5 and brings Apple’s pro tablet ever closer to a genuine laptop replacement for more people. In terms of Face ID (using your Face instead of a fingerprint to unlock the iPad), it works pretty flawlessly. Unlike the iPhone X and Xs, it also works from any orientation.

The real payoff to removing the Touch ID button is that you get extra screen real estate for free. This iPad Pro display is about 10pc bigger than the last 10.5-inch one, purely because the bezels and have been thinned out and the Touch ID home button getting dropped.

Where this benefit really comes into its own is with multi-tasking. The split-screen windows you pull up are now that little bit bigger, making emails and word documents slightly fuller-looking.

It’s again worth mentioning this machine’s speed — Apple claims that the new iPad Pro is faster than 92pc of portable PCs (though it didn’t say ‘laptops’) out there. There’s a massive graphics boost, too, leading to a significant step up in gaming and video-editing ability.

The redesigned Smart Keyboard Folio case is stiffer than the last version and has two angles for the iPad (as opposed to one on the last Smart Keyboard). It’s now a proper case, covering the rear of the machine as well as the display.

The only mild sting is that because it covers more of the iPad, the Smart Keyboard Folio is a little more expensive (it costs €199) than the older Smart Keyboard. The new USB-C connection lets the iPad Pro connect to monitors at up to 5K resolution and directly into cameras. But it also means that it can be used as a battery itself for an iPhone. Note that this isn’t the equivalent of a USB-C connection on a MacBook — it can’t be used for as many purposes. So you can’t just stick something in and transfer whatever’s on it onto the iPad. It seems to still depend on whether there’s an app on the iPad that will open it up. There’s also a newly designed Apple Pencil (sold separately at €135). The biggest improvement is that it’s magnetic and attaches to the side of the iPad, whence it immediately begins to charge.

This is a big upgrade on the last Pencil charging system which meant awkwardly sticking the device into the Lightning port and leaving it hanging out. But it also has more sensors in it. The most practical benefit to these is that you can now tap the side of the Pencil to change its function (to an eraser, for example).

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