Since the introduction of the Microsoft Surface Pro over 2 years ago, the options for Windows based tablets are still very limited. The market seems to offer two extreme pricing options, with little within a middle ground. One can opt for a relatively inexpensive model with a small screen, or a very expensive model with a 10-12 inch screen and more robust features.
At the low end, Windows tablets in the $200 range are 7-8 inch screens; not at all suited to any significant productivity levels or significant periods of use. Working on a small screen is tiresome because of the crowded screen with small text. As an augmentation device for note taking and reading, the 8 inch Windows tablets are ok, but hardly rise to the level of a serious productivity oriented device. Students are generally not interested in tablets with such small form factors. They need devices aligned to serious productivity tasks.
Larger Windows tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, with a 12 inch screen, are well suited to productivity, and align well to the needs of students. A larger screen can take advantage of software such as Microsoft Office, a staple product used throughout education. The advantages of a Windows based tablet that can run all PC software are numerous, but in reality pointless if relegated to a tiny screen. It is no wonder that smaller Windows tablets are hardly jumping off of the shelves. The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is reportedly selling well, but not so much in the education market. While individual students and schools are very interested in the functionality of the Surface Pro 3, the price barrier is uncompromisingly rigid. Students and schools simply cannot afford a device that exceeds $1000. Other Windows based tablets that also sport larger screens, such as from Lenovo, Dell, and Sony offer little relief from the high price points.
The Windows tablet world is fighting many cost issues. Having to license Windows (for larger screen devices only), the Intel processor, and the active digitizer all add significant cost. Put all three of these features into a tablet, and the cost quickly becomes out of reach for most students. Some tablets are using the Intel Atom processor to shave cost, but at a performance compromise. While the Atom is perfectly suitable for routine tasks, it can quickly bog down when pushed by graphic intensive programs or multitasking. The Intel i3, i5, and i7 processors are the standard for laptops, but are yet to make it into the mainstream tablet architecture.
The design of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet is arguably the single best tablet aligned to the productivity needs of students. The ability to run all software because of a full version of Windows (and Intel processor), the type cover to support efficient keyboard entry, the active digitizer to support natural and efficient handwriting, 12 inch screen, and USB ports to support peripheral devices are they key design elements that make the Surface Pro 3 a standout. There are simply no viable alternatives at a significantly lower price point. There are low end Windows tablets and high end Windows tablets, but very little in the middle.
If one is willing to compromise, the Asus T100 at about $350 offers a lot of bang for the buck. However, it uses an Atom processor, and does not have an active digitizer. The screen is about 10 inches, which is usable, but still a bit small for extended periods of use. Dollar for dollar, if a student wants a hybrid tablet like the Surface Pro 3, but at a much lower price point, this would be the closest option, as long as the compromises are understood. There is also a soon to be released T200 model that with offer an 11.6 inch screen, with some other minor upgrades. The increase in price is expected to be around $100, making the T200 about a $450-$500 device.
It is somewhat of a pity that the Surface Pro has been a unique product in the market for 2 years, is well aligned to the needs of students, but still has a monopoly like presence. Usually in technology, third party alternatives quickly emerge. Not so much yet in this realm. Hopefully 2015 will be the year that students can benefit from the productivity advantages of the Surface Pro 3 design, in a package that is much more affordable. The Surface Pro 3 needs to be literally half the current cost to be a viable choice for students.
For students or schools that desire a hybrid device to serve as both a laptop workhorse and a portable tablet, the current choices are essentially to pay the cost now, or wait until next year and hope for the best. The remainder of this year will likely be a flood of low end Windows tablets from many competitors, but nothing really comparable at the higher end and to the Surface Pro 3.