One of the things that has bugged me about Windows 8.x from the beginning was the lack of devices with built-in WWAN, and particularly LTE, support. I had 3G support in my original iPad, and it was a pleasure to just be able to open the case and start using the device without worrying about finding and connecting to a working WiFi network. Not to mention the security advantages of avoiding public WiFi or avoiding draining the battery of my smartphone being used as a hotspot. For the last couple of years I’ve been envious of my wife, who has her iPad on the Internet before I even have time to get my smartphone out of my pocket.
With the introduction of the LTE version of the Microsoft Surface 2 it turned out there were three devices I could choose from if I was serious about moving to a LTE device. The final straw came the other day when I pulled my Lumia 1020 smartphone out of my pocket and discovered the battery was moments from being dead. I just had to stop using it as a hotspot on a regular basis. I’d thought about waiting to see what other devices hit the market in the next few months, and in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m soon kicking myself for moving prematurely. But what’s done is done.
A word about my computing environment before diving into my choice and a bit of review of it. Prior to last week I had 3 tablet-like devices (not including those that are primarily my wife’s). My primary tablet has been a Microsoft Surface RT. Although it has a keyboard cover (and I go back and forth between the Touch and Type covers) my primary usage model is as a tablet. It’s just nice to have a keyboard when you need it. For the last 6 months I’ve also had a Dell Venue 8 Pro, which is obviously a pure tablet. The DV8P has pushed my usage of the Surface more heavily towards notebook-like tasks since I tend to carry the DV8P when I use want something with me for consumption and the Surface when I think I might need to use a keyboard. So last week I would have said the Surface RT is 40% Notebook and 60% Tablet. The DV8P is 5/95. Lastly I have a Surface Pro 2 which I purchased for my consulting practice. As that implies, it sits in a dock as the desktop for my home office except when I am on a consulting engagement. Then it is used 80% in notebook mode and 20% as a tablet.
The Surface Pro 2 is unlikely to need replacement for a couple of years. The DV8P is on the chopping block later this year as the 8″ Windows tablet market matures and we get higher resolution devices with LTE. But it was the Surface RT that was most ready for replacement.
As best I could tell there were three choices readily available on the U.S. market as of last week. The oldest of the three was the Nokia Lumia 2520, which was introduced last fall. Next up was the Microsoft Surface 2 LTE, identical to the Surface 2 introduced last fall except for the addition of LTE support. Lastly was the Dell Venue 11 Pro line which just added a LTE model.
The Lumia 2520 was an attractive device from the moment Nokia announced it. The 10.1″ form factor made it the most tablet-like of the choices. It was built as a WWAN-based devices from the beginning, and you can’t even buy a WiFi-only version. It is light (1.3lb). It has an awesome screen. And Nokia announced a keyboard case for it, one with an extra battery and a couple of USB ports to boot. About its only negative is that it an ARM-based device like the Surface RT and Surface 2. I seriously looked at buying one at introduction but there was a problem. The keyboard case was unavailable and I was loath to buy the tablet and hope that the case, which more than doubles the weight of the combination, would be acceptable. So month after month I would go to the AT&T store and the Microsoft Store and ask if they had the case in stock so I could see for myself. Month after month they reported it wasn’t available.
When Microsoft introduced the Surface 2 they mentioned that a LTE version would be available in early 2014. I waited, hoping that early would mean January. January came and went with no LTE version. February came and went with no LTE version. Finally March brought announcement and availability of the Surface 2 LTE at the ridiculous price of $679. Add on a Type 2 Cover and you are sitting at over $800. Make it the new power cover and you are approaching $900. That’s a lot of money to part with for any tablet, particularly one that is already half-way through its primary life-cycle.
The Surface 2 is also an ARM-based device. It is heavier than the 2520. With its 10.6″ screen it is a more awkward shape and size for tablet use, but the screen dimensions feel more natural for notebook-like use. It also offers a wider array of keyboard covers (Touch, Type, Power).
The last entry, which I only learned about last week, is the LTE version of the Dell Venue 11 Pro. Dell has introduced the Venue 11 Pro line as a family of x86-based devices with a choice of Intel Atom and Core processors. The Atom-based models are thinner and more of a tablet-first offering while the Core-based models are thicker, heavier, and more of a notebook-first offering. Basically the DV11P Atom models are Surface 2 competitors and the Core models are Surface Pro 2 competitors. The screen size also positions them in this way, with the 10.8″ screen being comparable to the Surface family’s choice of 10.6″. Moreover, the 10.8″ screen clearly positions them as members of the 11″ class of devices such as the MacBook Air notebook. For me that is the problem.
The DV11P LTE model is Atom-based, which I do prefer to the ARM-based processors used in the 2520 and Surface 2. However the 10.8″ screen size forces the DV11P into larger overall dimensions and a higher weight than the Surface 2. I was looking for something much closer to the iPad Air in weight and size, so the DV11P was going in the wrong direction. Pricing for the DV11P LTE is far better than for the Surface 2 LTE, and it has as good if not better set of accessories. In particular, if you wanted to use any of the DV11P models heavily as notebook replacements than Dell offers one keyboard/cover option that is more of a notebook dock than anything available or the Surface line. Indeed, if I didn’t already own a Surface Pro 2 I’d be giving the DV11P line a very serious look. But it just didn’t add up for the needs around a Surface RT replacement.
With the DV11P LTE outside the envelope of what I considered a desirable physical characteristics envelope, and the Surface 2 LTE at a budget-busting price even for someone as price insensitive as I often am, I took another look at the 2520.
Months had gone by without me so much as being able to glance at the Lumia 2520′s power keyboard case. Earlier this month I noticed that the local AT&T store had one on display, but it was bolted down so that I couldn’t actually hold one. Actually you couldn’t even use it because of the design of the bracket. The store was not stocking the keyboards, and corporate was refusing to accept orders for them because of the order backlog. When I first saw this I checked at the Microsoft Store and they still hadn’t received any.
A few days ago I went into the Microsoft Store to pick up a Media Remote for my Xbox One. They didn’t have the keyboard case for the 2520 on display, but I asked if they had any and they said yes! So off they went to get one from the stockroom for me to see. Taken alone the weight and feel were quite nice. With a 2520 installed the combination was heavy (almost 3 pounds) but good feeling. With a caveat I’ll mention in a moment, I decided the Lumia 2520 with its keyboard case would replace my Surface RT.
With the battery in the keyboard case the 2520 should come in at 16+ hours of actual use. I’m not going to do a battery test, but I will say that I used it fairly heavily yesterday and when I looked this morning the cover’s battery was drained but the battery in the tablet itself was at 97%. So you really can get 2 days of solid usage out of the combination. There are things I like better about this keyboard than Microsoft’s Surface Type Cover 2, and things I like less. Mostly less. There is only one viewing angle as a negative. The loose flap the touchpad is on is another. But the most important negative is that you can’t fold the case out-of-the-way to use the 2520 as a tablet! That isn’t just a problem in terms of holding the tablet in your hand, it is a problem in situations like tight airplane seats where the 2520 in its power keyboard case takes up a lot more room than a Surface 2 would. Basically the 2520 power cover transforms the tablet into a notebook.
I’m disappointed that Nokia didn’t come out with a second keyboard cover that dispensed with the battery, because as nice as it is in theory to have a 16 hour device it isn’t really worth the 1/2 to 1 pound of extra weight for most people looking for this class of device. Dropping the battery would also allow for a case that folded out-of-the-way for tablet use. The 2520 doesn’t have a built-in kickstand, so you need some kind of case for almost any usage scenario. What I decided to do was look for a third-party, keyboard-less, case that I could use when I wanted to carry the 2520 as a pure tablet. As it turns out a few case manufacturers have created 2520-specific offerings and I have one on order through Amazon for $20. It will be a few months until I know which case I use more often.
Although I’ve made my choice I’m rather disappointed by the Windows Tablet 10″ LTE landscape. No manufacturer has come out with the right device, at the right price, in a timely fashion. Nokia did the right device and the right price, but missed the boat on accessory availability and variety. Microsoft has the right device and accessories, but totally missed the boat on both price and availability. Dell is doing things right with the Dell Venue 11 Pro line, but the line is aimed solidly at the 2-in-1 space and is sub-optimal for the tablet space.
So there you have it, I’m a Lumia 2520 owner. I may even be a fan, but it will be a few more weeks before I’ll be able to say.
One other thing to mention. The Surface 2 LTE and DV11P LTE both come with 64GB of storage while the 2520 only comes with 32GB. Of course they all take micro-SD cards. I’ve lived with a 32GB DV8P long enough to know that it isn’t a problem, and an extra 32GB certainly isn’t worth the $168 difference between the Surface 2 LTE and the 2520.