With the tide of yule rapidly approaching, I’ve been repeatedly asked about the relative merits of cheap Windows laptops, tablets — and Chromebooks.
Choosing among the three platforms isn’t easy; depending on your needs, any one of them might be right.
What you get with a $200 Windows tablet
Most head-to-head comparisons of mobile Windows and Chrome platforms feature inexpensive laptops (what we once called netbooks or Ultrabooks). But Windows tablets can be had for U.S. $200 or less — and they might be all you need. So let’s look at those devices first.
There’s been a virtual flood of really cheap Windows tablets sporting brand names you’ve never heard of: Motion, Cube iWork, Ainol, iview, General Procurement, Vulcan, and many more. Models priced around $100 or less will typically include older (but still acceptable) quad-core chips such as the Intel Atom Z3735E plus 1GB of RAM, a 16GB SSD, and possibly a microSD card slot for some additional storage. These devices often have 7- or 8-inch color screens that are not dazzling but still workable.
Inexpensive tablets will usually come with Windows 8.1 + Bing, whether advertised that way or not. Windows 8.1 + Bing is just plain Windows 8.1 — not Win8.1 Pro — with Bing set up as the default search engine in Internet Explorer. (What? You thought that Win8.1 is always set to Bing by default? In most cases, that’s true; but some hardware companies change the default search engine in IE, based on the highest bidder.)
Hardware vendors get Windows 8.1 + Bing free if they agree to just one requirement: that they not change the default search engine. Customers, however, can still use any search engine they like.
Windows 8.1–based tablets sell by the truckload in Hong Kong, and I’ve had no end of problems with them. You have to watch out for XP-era drivers and documentation written in some lost language — also, ports that work sporadically if at all, and parts that fall off or crack at the slightest provocation. Some touchscreens are feather-brush sensitive, and others require the stomp of an elephant’s foot. Heaven help you if you drop one from a height of more than an inch or carry one unprotected through Seattle mist.