Windows 10: A Tale of Two Mini-Tablets

Posted on July 21, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10 with 0 Comments

Windows 10: A Tale of Two Mini-Tablets

I’ve tested the Windows 10 upgrade on a staggering array of hardware and the results have been mostly excellent. Mini-tablets, alas, are a curious exception. And while I’ve been successful more often than not, achieving success is time-consuming and complex, with no promise of a positive outcome.

To be fair my mini-tablet test suite is on the small side, just five devices. (I’ve tested the Windows 10 upgrade on over 15 PCs so far.) It could have been as high as seven, but the terrible Toshiba Encore Mini I refused to review stopped booting, so I literally snapped the wretched thing in half with my bare hands. And the equally terrible Acer Iconia W8 …. well. Also not worth it.

So what we’re left with are the following: Dell Venue 8 Pro, Eve T1, HP Stream 7, WinBook TW700, and WinBook TW802. Each has a story to tell, but for this article I’d like to focus on the two WinBooks, and for a few reasons.

First, they’re quite similar devices, with the same basic form factor and port layout. Speaking of which, the port layout on the tablets is superior to other mini-tablets because both include a full-sized USB 2.0 port in addition to micro-USB for charging. This is huge because you no longer need to deal with a USB adapter cable to attach a peripheral, and you don’t need a powered USB hub to attach multiple peripherals (keyboard, mouse, Windows 10 Setup on USB). I can’t even begin to tell you how much easier this makes things.

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And second, despite the similarities, the experience upgrading these devices to Windows 10, as you’ll see, was quite different. In fact, they couldn’t be more different.

Before getting to that, I will say that the WinBook TW700 ($80) and WinBook TW802 (on sale for $120 as I write this) are reasonable values. They’re both inexpensive, obviously, but you pay the price in that they’re also both a bit thick and heavy. Both are nearly identical internally, with a 1.33 GHz Bay Trail-era Atom processor. But there are some important differences: The TW700 has only 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of eMMC storage, where the TW802 has 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. Also, the TW700 is a 7-inch device, while the TW802 has an 8-inch screen; that said, both panels run at 1280 x 800.

I cannot stress the enough: the additional RAM and storage make a huge difference, both in the performance and usefulness of Windows generally, and in the ability to upgrade this system to Windows 10. 16 GB simply is not enough storage for a Windows tablet. Period. And that’s true even if you upgrade the storage with microSD, which you will need to do on the TW700 or any other 16 GB system.

(Not helping matters, you will not be able to install Windows 10 apps to SD, at least not at launch.)

In fact, 16 GB isn’t enough storage to even install the free copy of Office you get with the Office 365 Personal subscription that comes with both tablets: after installing all of the Windows 8.1 updates via Windows Update, there isn’t even enough space to install Office let alone upgrade to Windows 10.

With regards to the Windows 10 upgrade, neither tablet has received the “Get Windows 10” advertisement icon, so neither is apparently considered ready for this upgrade. That said, the TW802 sailed through the process when I used Setup media created with the last Windows Insider build available on ISO. Indeed, it even updated to the RTM build (TH1) last night after sitting on that pre-release build for a few days, and is now fully activated. (I’ve seen this happen with a variety of machines and I wonder if this isn’t a peek at how Microsoft will allow machines to upgrade over time after the official launch on July 29.)

On the TW802, I did in fact install Office as well as a number of other applications, and even though I have yet to add microSD storage, the Windows 10 upgrade (and the subsequent update to RTM/TH1) occurred normally, if slowly, with neither prompting me to add more storage. (If you’re not sure how this works, check out Upgrade a Small Tablet or Laptop to Windows 10.) As I write this, it still has over 7 GB free on C:, and that includes almost 8 GB wasted by Windows.old. (Which reminds me, time to remove that.) Clean Device Manager, everything works.

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The TW700, alas, is a different story. I have tried upgrading to and clean installing Windows 10 on this system so many times I’ve lost count, but it simply will not stick. Fortunately, I created a Windows 8.1 recovery disk before starting—and again, I cannot stress enough how important that it is that before attempting any Windows 10 upgrade—so I’ve been able to start over again and again. It’s a brutally slow, time-consuming process, not just the upgrade but going back to Windows 8.1, installing updates, and going for it again. And again. And again.

On the upgrade, it always seems like it’s going to work. Then, very late in the process, the TW700 will reboot (which is normal during the upgrade), display the WinBook firmware logo (also normal), quickly flash a command line window (not immediately alarming), and then quickly display the text “Restoring your previous version of Windows…” (alarming). Then it reboots. And it just does this over and over again. It will never restore Windows 8.1 no matter how long you let it go. It’s just dead in the water.

Long story short: If you have a 16 GB tablet, back it up, create a recovery disk, and expect to fail. Be prepared to lose everything and start over. Expect to be frustrated.

If you don’t have a 16 GB tablet but are considering getting one, don’t. 32 GB is the bare minimum for this operation, I think, and is clearly the minimum for a reasonable experience just using Windows. (Ditto on the RAM: 2 GB is a big improvement over 1 GB.)

I’m not saying it’s not possible to upgrade a 16 GB device, and I’m certainly not suggesting that this will never work, even on the TW700 I’m testing on. (Though I even bought a second TW700 just to make sure it wasn’t my particular device. It wasn’t.) What I am saying is that anyone who thinks they’re saving money by purchasing such a device is fooling themselves. You will need microSD storage, and if you want to upgrade, you will almost certainly need additional hardware in the form of an OTG (on the go) USB cable that converts from micro-USB to USB 2.0, a powered USB hub, or both. Add it all up and a 16 GB mini-tablet—possibly any Windows mini-tablet simply isn’t worth it.

I sort of recommend the WinBook tablets because they each have a full-sized USB 2.0 port, which really does help. And with the TW802, I can say that the Windows 10 upgrade works well, given the limits of the hardware, and that complaints about Windows 10 not being as well-suited to touch-first devices as Windows 8.1 is unfounded: Windows 10 works just fine on these devices, thank you very much.

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But my mixed results in upgrading these devices is a bit nerve-wracking, and creates an unsettling feeling that is nothing like the confidence I have in the Windows 10 upgrade experience on full-sized tablets, 2-in-1s and laptops, and other PCs. It’s going to be an interesting couple of months as the world attempts this upgrade.