Say what you will about Microsoft, but you can't accuse the company of not having a plan. Windows 8 is a loud-and-clear statement about the future of the PC: it's touch-oriented, it's mobile, and it's convergent. The jury is still out on whether customers will wholeheartedly buy into that vision, but several recent devices at least give us more tangible examples of what that kind of future looks like. Let's compare two of the prime examples: Samsung's upcoming Ativ Q and Microsoft's own Surface Pro.
We have a pretty clear picture of the kinds of flagship devices Microsoft envisions for Windows 8. They have the guts of Ultrabooks, there's some kind of touchscreen or tablet functionality, and they also offer some kind of physical keyboard.
Both of these devices fit the bill, though in very different ways. The Ativ Q is a convertible, with a touchscreen that folds and flips, to be used in several different configurations. Its built-in keyboard is spacious, and can feature prominently or fold back into a tablet, depending on your needs.
The Surface Pro, when taken alone, is a tablet. A powerful Intel Core-powered tablet, but a tablet nonetheless. But Microsoft's snap-on keyboard accessories, sold separately, let you easily turn it into a faux-laptop by folding out the Touch Cover or Type Cover.
One potential advantage for Surface is the Touch and Type Covers' built-in trackpads. Are they the best trackpads you'll ever use? No way. But they're still a step (or seven) up from the tiny navigation nub that the Ativ Q's keyboard gives you.
And of course, on both devices, you can also choose to forget mouse functionality altogether and use the touchscreen instead.
The Ativ Q makes for a huge tablet, with a 13.3-inch display (more on that in a minute). Looking at surface area, the Ativ Q is a full 47 percent larger than the Surface Pro. That's a huge difference in your hand or your bag, and one of the biggest things you'll want to consider when deciding between these two.
Samsung did, however, manage to make the Ativ Q about as slim as possible. It's only three percent thicker than Surface Pro, despite having a built-in keyboard.
Samsung loves plastic, and the Ativ Q is no exception. Microsoft, meanwhile, used its own custom alloy, dubbed VaporMg, for the Surface.
Surface Pro has a built-in kickstand, to help you prop it up on a table or (more awkwardly) on your lap. The Ativ Q's keyboard doubles as a base for its hinged touchscreen.
Considering its size and built-in keyboard, the Ativ Q is ridiculously light. It's only 12 percent heavier than the Surface/Type Cover combo, despite being much bigger.
The Ativ's 13.3-inch display is a great size for a laptop, but, as we mentioned, it makes for an enormous tablet. In this case, is that extra space better, or just overkill? We can't answer that for you (at least not until we get some extended hands-on time), but we can tell you that the Surface Pro only gives you 64 percent as much screen area as the Ativ Q does.
The Ativ has insane resolution: 3200 x 1800, packing 275 pixels per inch (PPI). That's 178 percent more pixels than the Surface Pro's smaller 1080p display. Hell, it's even 41 percent more pixels than the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. This thing is ridiculously sharp.
One thing to remember about the Surface's display is Microsoft's "ClearType" subpixel rendering. It can make text appear a bit sharper than its resolution would suggest. It also delivers nice, deep blacks.
Both devices ship with styluses. The Surface's is probably the better of the two, as the Ativ Q's default stylus is the same small S Pen included with its Galaxy Note phablets and tablets. Chances are, though, you'll be able to swap it for a third-party Wacom stylus. You just won't be able to dock it inside the tablet, as you can with the S Pen.
The Surface's pen doesn't dock inside the tablet itself, but you can magnetically attach it to the outside of the tablet. You'll just need to find a different home for it while charging, since it latches into the charging port to stay attached.
Note that the size comparison of the styluses pictured above is a rough estimate, and could be off.
Samsung didn't tell us the number of cores or clock speed in the Ativ Q, so we're going off of Anandtech's analysis of a demo unit. Samsung did reveal that it's a Haswell-based Intel Core i5, so even if the exact processor changes in the final version, that part won't.
Since it's a Haswell chip, it will likely get better battery life than the Surface Pro. More on that in a minute.
The Ativ's integrated Intel GPU is newer, and probably a bit faster, than the Surface's integrated Intel GPU.
Like a lot of Windows 8 tablets and Ultrabooks, both devices pack 4 GB of RAM.
The entry-level Surface Pro only comes with 64 GB of storage, while the Ativ Q only ships in one 128 GB option. Both can be expanded with microSD cards, or (much less discreetly) external USB hard drives.
For now, you'll want to take the Ativ's estimates with many grains of salt. Samsung hasn't told us anything about its battery hardware, and it also wasn't specific about the conditions that it used to come up with this estimate. All we know is "up to nine hours," which says very little.
Still, with that Haswell chip, we'd be shocked if it didn't handily outlast the Surface Pro (though that 5.7 million pixel display might put some strain on it). For all of its nice features, mediocre battery life is the Surface Pro's Achilles' Heel.
No LTE or mobile data options in either device. It's Wi-Fi only.
Considering its wacky convertible structure, it shouldn't be too shocking that the Ativ Q lacks a rear-facing camera. Even if it did, can you imagine hoisting this gigantic slab to snap photos? And you thought iPad photography was awkward.
For all of the Ativ's eyebrow-raising features, this is probably the most exciting. It's a Windows 8 tablet, but it also runs Android (likely in a virtual environment). You can quickly toggle back-and-forth between Windows 8 and Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. It even lets you share files between the two systems.
Why Android? Well, the mobile, touch-centric part of Microsoft's Windows 8 equation hasn't exactly been thriving. The Windows Store is still sparse compared to the more established Google Play and iOS App Store. Microsoft probably hates this, but putting Google Play on a Windows 8 device is one surefire way to help out with that end of the spectrum.
The Surface Pro doesn't run Android, but you can actually achieve some of the same results with Bluestacks' Android emulator for Surface.
We have a lot of questions about the Ativ Q, but this is the biggest. Considering its components, we'd say it's extremely unlikely that it will fall below US$1000. But until Samsung gives us something solid, we're left guessing.
The Surface Pro starts at $900 (for the 64 GB model), but there's little point buying it without adding either the Touch Cover or Type Cover. That will add another $120 or $130 to your checkout price.
Wrap-upIf Microsoft's vision of a "PC Plus" world ever catches on, we might look back at these two as early – but important – blueprint devices. Microsoft wants its Surface tablets to inspire OEMs, and it speaks volumes as to the direction in which Microsoft sees the PC market going. But until future versions deliver better battery life and a lighter/thinner build, that concept's promise won't have quite reached its full potential.
The Ativ Q, meanwhile, leaves us with too many questions to jump to any conclusions. Can convertible hybrid devices also make for great tablets? Is a 13-inch screen way too big for this kind of machine? How much does the Ativ's high-res display affect its battery life?
Those answers will have to wait. But, based on what we do know, the Ativ Q looks, at the very least, like one of the more intriguing Windows 8 devices to come our way. The bigger concern is whether enough customers are interested in $1000+ hybrid PCs to make Microsoft's vision a reality. These devices haven't exactly set the world on fire so far, but it's also still very early in the game.
Stay tuned: the next two or three years could answer a lot questions about the direction of the PC market. For more on the Surface Pro, feel free to check out our comparison between it and the MacBook Air.