Microsoft shipped its much vaunted Windows 8 operating system. While those items may not seem like they have much to do with our outdoor adventures, the impact they have on how we communicate from the field could be pretty big. There is no denying that technology has made it much easier to stay in contact while we're climbing, trekking or sailing the world, but as these new devices get further refined, their capabilities improve dramatically too.
Windows 8, Microsoft's new flagship operating system, will be dictating the direction those capabilities go over the next few years and if you've had a chance to test that new software, you'll already know that it's a big departure from the Windows we've known in the past. It features a new touch-friendly interface which will allow it to act more like a tablet or smartphone, while still delivering the versatility and power that we've all come to expect from the OS.
Its use of "live tiles" on the new, more interactive, start screen is designed to put information at our fingertips, displaying Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, email notifications, stock quotes and much more, all in real time. Of course, each of those items require an Internet connection to function properly, which can be difficult to achieve in the backcountry, but when connected, the new Windows 8 devices becomes a more efficient hub of information, giving you everything you want to see in one place.
One of the first companies to jump on the Windows 8 bandwagon is Panasonic, whose Toughbook line of computers are popular with expeditions heading to demanding locations. Their new C2 laptop is a bit of a hybrid, mixing tablet functionality with a standard laptop. As we've come to expect from a Toughbook, it also features a durable magnesium alloy case that can stand up to all kinds of punishment, but unlike many Toughbooks in the past, this one isn't going to break your back when lugging it out into the field. The C2 tips the scales at just under 4 pounds (1.8 kg), which won't put it into the Ultrabook category, but is a nice improvement for a ruggedized laptop.
Of course, many of us now prefer to take a lightweight tablet with us when we travel as they now provide a lot of the same functionality of a laptop in a much slimmer and lighter form factor. This past week we've seen a host of new announcements in this area as well, with Apple, Microsoft and Google all showing off new options. But the tablet market is growing rapidly right now and each of the three companies is giving us a very different take on these devices, which is good for consumer choice to say the least.
Surface holds a lot of promise for use on expeditions because it is tough, versatile and offers an experience that is not much different from a laptop. It even integrates nicely with a special keyboard cover that gives it more of a laptop like appearance. Surface Pro, which will pack a faster processor and full-blown Win 8 (at a higher price!) is due sometime early next year, but the current Surface product is pretty great device for those looking for an uncompromising alternative to what Apple and Google are offering.
I had the opportunity to play with the Surface this past weekend and found it to be quite a nice piece of kit. It's touch screen is bright and beautiful, and the keyboard was surprisingly easy to use. The built-in kickstand is also a nice design choice, giving the device a solid feel when set on a table or countertop. The software was slick and fast, and while the Windows App Store is still lacking in some key programs, most of what you would expect was there and ready to download. Microsoft is committed to getting app-makers onto the Surface platform, so I suspect we'll have quite a range of software in the months ahead.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Surface is Apple's new iPad Mini, a scaled down version of the iPad we've all come to know and love over the past few years. The Mini looks like it's going to be an excellent product, offering everything you would expect out of an iOS device, including access to the most full featured app store on the planet. I think the device will be extremely popular with travelers who want a small, lightweight tablet to take with them everywhere. The fact that it offers an option for LTE service is great too, as you'll have the ability to stay connected where ever there is cell service. The $329 price point on the Mini is a bit steep when compared to the competition however, which may make it difficult to swallow for some. It isn't that the Mini isn't worth the price, its just that competitors have cheaper options available. But it is the best price point for getting into the Apple-ecosystem at this point.
Finally, yesterday Google announced their entry into the large tablet market with the unveiling of the new Nexus 10. As you would expect, the Nexus 10 runs the latest version of the Android operating system, which is improving all the time, but in my opinion still isn't on par with iOS in the tablet arena. Still, this device features a 10-inch, high resolution display that should be the best in the business and it tips the scales at a mere 1.3 pounds (603 grams), which is pretty impressive for a tablet of this size. If you're looking for a device that will offer a lot of functionality at a great price (the Nexus 10 starts at $399), and you want to avoid Apple's "walled garden," then this may be the tech toy you've been waiting for.
Each of the new tablets features built-in cameras for making Skype calls or recording video while in the field. They also have productivity suites that makes them useful for getting work done too, although the Surface edges out the others in this area as it comes with Office 2013 pre-installed. Each of them is also a very capable device tailored for specific needs, which means that no matter where you're going, or what you intend to do, there is now a lightweight tablet that can help you stay in touch.
Competition is good and I like what I see from all three of these competitors.