With no Windows 8 PCs ready, how could Microsoft get developers building the touch-first Metro apps that the new Windows 8 experience needs to shine on tablets? By taking one of the most compelling Windows 7 PCs and tearing the keyboard off.
Actually, Samsung was already working on the Series 7 Slate PC which it announced at IFA, and the Windows Developer Preview slate distributed to developers attending the Microsoft BUILD conference this week is based on that, but both clearly show the heritage of the Series 9 ultraportable. The Windows 8 model has the same brushed black aluminium alloy back with the same subtle curves towards the edges, and while it doesn’t have the sweeping curves of the Series 9 there’s an echo of them where the rounded black edge bridges the smooth glass surface and the metal back.
Samsung’s usual reflective bezel surrounds the superb 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 Super PLS screen, which is slightly glossy but not so much that reflections are a problem. The bezel is smooth so you can swipe in from the edges of the screen for the four standard Windows 8 gestures for switching apps, opening the “charm” bar and bringing up tools in apps as you swipe from the left, right and top or bottom respectively.
Inside is a 1.6GHz Sandy Bridge Core i5 2467M with 4GB of memory and 64GB SSD; a typical ultraportable spec that’s far better than the average Oak Trail Atom tablets we’ve seen lately. A range of sensors are tucked away inside the tablet for developers to work with, including NFC.
Like the Series 9, you only get the essential ports and they’re mostly miniature versions; microSD and micro HDMI instead of full size, just one USB port and a combined headphone and microphone port. On the other hand you do get a rotation lock button next to the power button, physical volume keys and the Windows button on the front bezel. There’s also a SIM slot for mobile broadband, dual microphones and both front and rear-facing cameras plus a dock connector for the compact dock. The dock has full-size VGA, gigabit Ethernet, another USB port and a headphone socket; it also holds the screen at the perfect angle for watching or touching. The same tiny speakers as the Series 9 are tucked away in opposite corners, which gives good stereo separation and the sound is still surprisingly rich and full for such a thin device.
The Bluetooth keyboard is also very similar to the Series 9, with the same isolated Chiclet-style keys, the same extra-high spacebar and the same comfortable positive action.
We can just about forgive Samsung for not making room to store the Wacom pen in the body of the tablet, because it’s actually thicker than the body of the slate and unlike most Windows 7 tablet PCs, you only need the pen for handwriting. As it’s a combination of active digitiser and touchscreen, drawing or writing with the pen produces a nice smooth, continuous line of digital “ink” as the hard tip of the pen slides smoothly over the screen and it doesn’t matter if you lean your hand on the screen as you write because it doesn’t draw on the screen while the pen is there. That’s a big improvement over trying to hold your hand clear of the screen as you write or draw on a capacitive-only screen like the iPad (and the lines are rarely as smooth as this on a capacitive screen if you’re trying to scribble down notes in a hurry).
The touchscreen is obviously perfect for the Metro interface of the Start screen and the supplied apps, and touch is fluid and responsive whether you’re finger painting with Paintplay, tinkling the ivories in the multitouch piano app, swiping your way through fun games like Zero Gravity and Labyrinth, or typing on the multitouch on-screen keyboard.
The Windows 8 developer preview comes with both the programming tools for developers to write their own apps and a set of sample apps coded up by 17 interns who worked at Microsoft this summer (they wrote them all in an impressive 10 weeks). There are the obligatory Facebook and Twitter apps, Socialite and Tweet@rama; an RSS newsreader that shows off the chromeless, clean look that’s as much part of Metro as the colourful tiles. The stock ticker and weather gadgets have the usual features but they’re surprisingly beautiful - especially the video backgrounds of pounding rain or the fading moon that illustrate the weather.
There are platform games and pipe games and word puzzles, apps for typing into sticky notes or jotting down handwritten notes, a flash card drill and a Memories app that lays out photos like an album. There’s also a link to the upcoming Windows app Store and an app with the schedule for the BUILD conference that shows off features like zooming out to see not just a smaller view but a higher level of abstraction - going from session names to time slots, for example. The Pictstream app retrieves popular photos from Flickr but it’s mainly there to demonstrate that when you search in Windows 8 you can send your search to your Web search tool or any other app that tells the system it’s searchable - so you can type in a search and use Pictstream to run it on Flickr.
The touchscreen also does a surprisingly good job of letting you touch your way through the icons, buttons, ribbon tools, menus and links of the desktop Windows interface that you can still bring up in Windows 8. Windows is calculating not just where your finger is on screen but what you’re most likely to be trying to touch so when you tap to close a window, it closes rather than maximising because you didn’t get the exact spot - and the high touch resolution of the screen helps. Plus it’s so bright and clear that you don’t have the issue with some older touchscreens where the digitiser layer makes the screen dim or grainy. This is a vast improvement on the Ntrig combination screen in the Fujistu Stylistic Q550, for example.
When Windows 8 comes out, it will run on all-in-one PCs and gaming rigs and desktops and laptops as well as tablets, but it’s tablets like the iPad and various Android Honeycomb models that are capturing the imagination and giving Microsoft the competition that Mac and Linux have never really delivered. The temptation is to compare the developer preview tablet to the iPad - or to Samsung’s Galaxy Tab - but it’s really a very different beast. The design and style are completely different, echoing Samsung’s Windows PCs and you’d hardly know it came from the same company as the Tab if it wasn’t for the custom dock port.
And with a Core i5 rather than an ARM chip, the 3 to 4 hours of battery life and 909g weight compare to ultraportables and Windows slates like the Asus Eee Slate P121. When ARM Windows tablets do come along they’ll be thinner, lighter, have longer battery life - and they'll run all the Metro apps Microsoft is hoping the BUILD developers will start work on, inspired by their Windows 8 slates. That’s going to be critical because Windows 8 ARM tablets will only run Metro apps, so this developer preview slate isn’t a look into the future. This is the kind of thin, light and powerful tablet that all Windows Tablet PCs should have been, with a tempting glance into the future. If Microsoft can square the circle of combining the rich desktop PC apps that have sold 450 million copies of Windows 7 with the touch-first, Windows Phone-style Metro apps that will win over tablet users, the Samsung slate is the kind of machine that will do it. On the other hand, the Windows 7 versions of this tablet will cost you around £1,000 - so it ought to be desirable.
Additional accessories photos taken from our Samsung Series 7 Slate PC hands-on.