Gaming On a Windows Tablet: Not a Plug-And-Play Experience
By no means am I forecasting the impending success of Windows-based gaming on tablets anytime soon. But as some enthusiasts wait for their favorite PC experiences to hit the Android ecosystem, my passion for the desktop pushed me in a different direction. I write for Tom's Hardware, after all.
Of course, if you expect to spend a lot of time away from home base, a gaming-capable laptop is probably your smartest play. High-end notebooks sport high-res screens and the underlying hardware to drive them at demanding detail levels. If your budget is fairly flexible and you want the convenience of a convertible tablet, Microsoft's Surface Pro and Razer's Edge are much more powerful than the Venue 8 Pro tested today. But expect to pay four or five times more than I did.
But if you're a PC game enthusiast, you're willing to put up with a time investment into customized settings, you covet small form factors, and you dislike the idea of toting a full-sized notebook around, you'll be pleasantly surprised that the latest Windows 8.1-based tablets sport hardware fast enough for mainstream gaming. The fact that they're also quite affordable is icing on the cake.
A couple of years ago, if you tried to tell me I'd be enjoying a game of Left 4 Dead on an 8-inch tablet, I probably would have laughed. Substitute that title with Oblivion, Burnout Paradise, The Battle for Middle Earth 2, Dota 2, and so on. They're all enjoyable, and I just showed that they're playable, too. Plus, the legacy PC game library is spectacularly huge; we didn't even scratch the surface here today.
That also speaks to price. You can pick up older PC titles with a lot of gameplay value for very little money, many of which are available on Steam. A Windows tablet sells for as little as $200, and that number keeps falling. I've seen announcements for sub-$150 devices, even. While you a couple of Bluetooth-attached peripherals to maximize the experience, you end up with a true Windows-based piece of hard that easily replicates the functionality of a small notebook with Microsoft Office. Sony's PlayStation Vita, Nintendo's 3DS XL, and Nvidia's Shield don't boast nearly as much flexibility.
How about the limitations? They are indeed significant. We couldn't get most of the games we typically benchmark with to run. Titles like BioShock Infinite and Sins of a Solar Empire won't launch properly, while Star Trek Online, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Grid 2, Dirt Showdown, and Just Cause 2 simply run too slowly. Current-generation Atom processors and HD Graphics engines are simply underpowered and unable to handle the vast majority of modern PC games, even some that are known to have relatively low system requirements.
As for controls, the SteelSeries Free Bluetooth gamepad is a complete pleasure to use. Unfortunately, in my opinion, a separate peripheral takes away from the unified mobile console experience. While GestureWorks' Gameplay software gives us the option to use a virtual gamepad overlay, it has its own quirks. Having said that, the utility's future looks promising thanks to responsive developers, and I think it's worth the $15 price tag. Of course, the ideal setup would be game controls affixed to the left and right edges of the screen, similar to Razer's Edge gaming tablet. Wikipad promises a controller able to do that called the Gamevice, but it's not expected until later this year.
Storage is another concern when you start thinking about installing Windows-based games. Most tablets include 32 or 64 GB of NAND, which is woefully undersized. I avoided that issue with SanDisk's Ultra 128 GB MicroSDXC Class 10 UHS-I card. Of course, much cheaper 32 and 64 GB models are available if you're trying to save some money.
If you're a PC gaming enthusiast willing to do a little trial and error for compatible software, there's a lot of entertainment to be found in small, low-cost Windows-based tablets. In another year or two, I think this space will have evolved tremendously. When that happens, it's possible that gaming on tablets might become more mainstream. Fingers crossed.