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Windows 7 tablets impress during CES 2011 keynote

by Phil Hornshaw

A lot of Microsoft’s (MSFT) pre-Consumer Electronics Show 2011 keynote address was pretty unremarkable Wednesday, until CEO Steve Ballmer and reps from the company got around to talking about a few new tablet PCs that use less power to do more and ran Windows 7 during demos.

The Windows tabs are pretty different than the scaled-down, mobile OS-running machines we’ve been seeing from other companies. Whereas machines using Google’s (GOOG) Android or Apple’s (AAPL) iOS are more like the kinds of machines you rely on while you’re away from your actual, big-kid computer, the tablets Microsoft had on display during the show were more like PCs with cool touchscreen functions.

The Microsoft tablets also definitely have the feel of being machines made for work, rather than for watching videos, reading books, and surfing the Internet, like many of the other tablets on the market and especially the iPad. Most of them had keyboards included in some form or another, or were at least big enough to support full virtual keyboards. That’s a far cry from the 9.7-inch iPad or the 7-inch Galaxy Tab.

Acer, Samsung and Asus shine

Three machines were shown during the keynote: a dual-screen PC from Acer (2353.TW), a Samsung (005930.KS) PC 7 Sliding Series, and a convertible tablet by Asus. The Acer unit actually had two full-size screens, with a standard display screen on top and another screen in place of where a keyboard would go on a normal laptop. Both were touch displays: place 10 fingers on the bottom screen and it automatically pulled up a virtual keyboard. Swiping downward on the top screen pulled content down to the bottom screen. It seemed like an interesting concept not unlike the Nintendo (NTDOY.PK) DS portable gaming console.

The Samsung unit was a tablet that doubled as a laptop, with a slide-out keyboard that could be hidden beneath the display to turn it back into a straight tab. Mashable had the specs on it: weighing in at about 2.18 pounds, it’s three-quarters of an inch thick and will be 3G and WiMAX compatible. It’ll also come with either a 32GB or 64GB hard drive.

Finally, the Asus unit came equipped with a stylus and was bundled with a wireless keyboard, but was a straight touchscreen tablet otherwise. The demo showed the tab using its ‘Ink’ app, which allowed the user to write on the tab with a stylus, as well as erase and highlight. The Ink app also had the wherewithal to distinguish hand from stylus, so writing showed up on the screen, but any movement of the user’s palm had no impact whatsoever. The Asus model is on sale on Amazon.com (AMZN) right now, and includes an Intel (INTC) Core i5 processor and a screen that offers off-axis viewing to nearly 180 degrees.

While interesting, Microsoft’s tablet PCs don’t feel like direct competitors to the Android and iOS markets -- they’re more like alternatives, machines meant for people who have more to do but like the portability and features of a tab. The models have SD card slots and USB ports, but not much (or really anything) in the way of the small-scale apps Android, iOS and RIM are known for. These were tablets running Windows 7; they’re redesigned PCs, sure, but they’re still PCs.

Windows Phone 7 demo underwhelms

It’s probably a testament to how far behind Microsoft is in the smartphone race that the Windows Phone 7 portion of the keynote felt more like a product pitch than a time to announce new developments for device.

Microsoft employees spent a lot of time explaining how Windows Phone 7 works, showing off things like its home screen, and assuring the audience that the device can do (most of) the things iPhone and Android users have been enjoying seemingly forever -- like cut and paste and voice search.

Most notable were the addition of new games that connect with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console. A new game based on one of its more prominent franchises, Fable III, for example, touted crossover functionality -- items and achievements earned in the Windows Phone 7 game were transfered to the Xbox 360 game.

Updates in the future will improve performance, according to the keynote, and more big games -- Fruit Ninja, most notably, and old-school favorites like Pac-Man -- are already available or on their way. Ballmer and co. noted that there are more than 5,500 apps on the phone, with about 100 being added every 24 hours.

Windows Phone 7 has a lot to offer, but even after the keynote, it still doesn’t stack up too highly against Android and iOS devices. It’s a matter of functionality -- Microsoft needs to offer something more tangible and exciting than a dedicated camera button (which also works on the lock screen, which is a great idea) if it wants to compete with two app stores that have better than 100,000 apps in them. Sure, it’s possible those 5,500 apps could be composed of more winners on average than Apple and Google’s armies of app market chaos, but there’s no denying that right now, you can’t do as much with a Windows Phone 7 smartphone, and the CES keynote hasn’t shown us anything that changes that.