Analysis With the ARM-based version of Microsoft's Surface tablets due to launch in less than three days, rival PC makers are only now beginning to unveil details of their own Windows RT devices. If you were hoping Microsoft's partner OEMs would rise to the occasion and beat Redmond at its own game, prepare to be disappointed.
On Tuesday, Dell announced the pricing and specs for the XPS 10, its first Windows RT fondleslab. And guess what? It starts at $499 for a model with 32GB of internal flash storage, same as the Surface.
The bad news is that for the same price, the XPS 10's hardware specs are even less impressive than the Surface's. It has a 10.1-inch screen instead of the Surface's 10.6-incher, albeit at the same resolution. It uses a dual-core Snapdragon S3 chip, compared to the Surface's quad-core Tegra 3. Its battery holds 28 watt-hours of charge, while the Surface's holds 31.5 watt-hours. Its chief saving grace may be that at 1.4 pounds, it's slightly lighter than a Surface.
Overall, though, the XPS 10 and its price tag seem to be in keeping with what other OEMs are planning for their own Windows RT devices. For example, earlier this month online retailers began taking orders for the Asus Vivo Tab RT TF600T. It's a 10.1-inch slab with a quad-core Tegra 3, and it's impressively light at 1.15 pounds. But for that you pay extra; a 32GB model starts at $599.
Even more expensive is the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11, which is rumored to ship in December with a $799 price tag. The extra cost there is because at 11.6 inches, it has the largest screen of the bunch, plus it comes with a built-in keyboard, while the other vendors charge extra for detachable keyboard docks.
The cost of those keyboards is significant, too. Microsoft is charging $100 for a Surface cover that doubles as a touch keyboard, $119.99 for one in your choice of colors, or $129.99 for a black one with real keys. Dell's dock for the XPS 10, which also includes a real keyboard, costs $180.
Of the four Windows RT OEMs announced in August, only Samsung has yet to announce pricing. The specs of its Ativ Tab RT sound similar to those of Asus' Vivo Tab RT, though, so expect it to cost about the same.
High price, high risk
Two themes are emerging here. The first is that no hardware maker is doing anything radical with Windows RT. All of the devices from Microsoft's Windows RT partners look like typical tablets, and when coupled with keyboards they'll function more or less exactly like Surface.
That's worrying, because mere Surface wannabes are unlikely to compete successfully with the genuine article. Microsoft doesn't just profit from its hardware; it also licenses it OS, plus it retains full control of the Windows Store – the only place users can get apps for Windows RT – giving it a huge advantage over its OEM partners.
If the OEMs don't differentiate their products in some way, or at least offer something that Redmond doesn't, their Windows RT efforts are likely doomed to failure. So far, however, nothing stands out – or maybe it's that Microsoft has given its partners few options.
The second theme is that, like Surface, competing Windows RT devices will not be cheap. Contrary to early rumors, no hardware makers have stepped up to offer budget-rate Windows RT slabs to compete with the likes of Google's $199 Nexus 7 or Amazon's similarly-priced Kindle Fire HD. Instead, $500 seems to be the sweet spot for Windows RT devices.
That sounds risky, given that Windows RT, for all its Windows roots, is essentially a brand-new operating system. Although it does ship with a special, cut-down version of Office for ARM processors – for which you'll want to buy a keyboard – Windows RT can't run any traditional Windows software, and so far its app cupboard is mostly bare.
Meanwhile, recent studies indicate that the fondleslab market is about evenly split between the Android and iOS platforms, both of which have thriving user communities and app markets. If Microsoft and its OEM partners hope to open a third front in the tablet wars by offering Windows RT devices priced close to the cost of traditional laptops, they would seem to have their work cut out for them. ®