Reading the Windows 8 tea leaves

Tablets with keyboard docks, cutting-edge ultrabooks, and one unusual dual-screen device from Asus are among the first publicly displayed Windows 8 machines. What do they mean for Microsoft's upcoming OS?

The Taiwanese tech confab Computex has revealed the first trickle of Windows 8 hardware, offering a little clarity to the muddy waters of the operating system's future.

Most of the Windows 8 devices on display were prototypes only. Few manufacturers released detailed specs, and fewer allowed attendees to even hold the prototypes. Nevertheless, there's some important things we can glean about how the new hardware will meld with the new operating system.

First, thin is in. Way in, and that bodes well for device weight. Even Asus' unusual and unique dual-screen Taichi is expected to come in at the same dimensions as the Asus Zenbooks -- 0.71" thick, and in the ballpark of 2.8 pounds. But the Acer Aspire S7, also on display at the show, came in at 12mm, or thinner than the 13-inch MacBook Air's 17mm. No weight for the Aspire S7 was revealed, but it's hard to imagine something that thin weighing all that much.

The Asus Taichi offers screens on the front and back. Craig Simms/CNET

The weight is important because the most successful touch devices have historically been lightweight. Nobody wants to lug around a behemoth that's better suited to be a blunt-force trauma weapon, no matter what operating system it's running.

Microsoft is also pushing for touch screens to hit a much broader range of devices than before, and this is a good call. A year ago, when Google released their first Chromebooks, the very first thing I did with the screen was touch it. It was instinctual; nevermind that it was running Chrome, a distinctly mouse-and-keyboard operating system. People are growing up and growing older with touch screens, thanks to the rise of the smartphone.

So, although we knew that Microsoft would be pushing OEMs to make touch screens standard, it's quite impressive to see these devices come in with dimensions that are competitive with Apple. Prepare yourself for touch screen laptops of all shapes and sizes, from micro-thin models with 11-inch screens to larger workstations.

None of the Windows 8 devices at Computex that I've seen were mouse-only, even the big, peculiar 18-inch all-in-one Transformer from Asus.

Many of the touch-screen laptops demoed appeared to show interesting and competitive solutions to the issue of making the touch screen accessible. Some, like the currently available Android-powered Asus Transformer line, used the keyboard as a dock for the tablet. Others gave a wide arc to the screen hinge, so that you can flip it around 270 degrees. And of course, there's the dual-screen Taichi, which has touch screens on both sides of the monitor.

There were several Intel-powered Windows 8 tablets, as well, most notably one from Lenovo. Besides marking a major foray for Intel into the world of tablets, they also will give people a tablet version of the full Windows 8 experience, with the Desktop available. They stand in contrast to the Windows RT versions of the new OS, which will run on ARM processors and will only feature the Metro side of Windows.

These were the first Windows RT systems ever shown off, and they remain a curiosity. Isn't the part of the appeal of Windows 8 supposed to be that it can handle the old school Desktop alongside the new hotness Metro? And yet, at least one Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered Windows RT tablet suffered a bad case of stage fright while being demoed by CNET Asia. Certainly one awkward experience with a prototype isn't enough to condemn an entire line, but it does hint at the challenges Windows RT poses that standard Windows 8 doesn't.

No doubt the devices that have debuted at Computex provide a glimpse into the future of the Windows 8 menu. Thin, high-resolution touch screens in a variety of shapes and sizes, powered by an equally-diverse range of processors, will be the order of the day. But this was more of an amuse bouche. The main course of devices with real specifications and polished hardware are still months away, and it won't be until then that we can determine if they help Windows 8 -- or hinder it.

 

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