As I’ve discussed many times on this blog, and on my Netcast I have a medical condition. It’s plagued me since I was young and seems to have gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. It seems I’m addicted to gadgets. If it’s got an on/off switch, I want one. If it has a flashing blue LED, I want it twice as bad. Since last year, Microsoft has starting loosening up the hardware requirements for their Windows Tablets, and that has resulted in the market being flooded with small, affordable, and most importantly fun little units. In the year since I’ve started collecting these little beauties I’ve learned a few things. In talking to other Windows Tablet users I’ve discovered they’re having many of the same issues. I thought I’d scribble down a few of my favorite tips for you all to enjoy. If you read every word of this blog post I guarantee you’ll enjoy your Windows Tablet at least 8.1% more, or your money back.
1) Get a USB OTG Cable
In order to make these tablets so small and thin, they have very few connectors and buttons on them. Many of them use micro USB to charge, which is very convenient as we’re all tripping over micro USB chargers. These USB connectors have a secret though. Like Clark Kent, they have a secret identity. They can be used for more than just charging. These ports are USB On The Go, or USB OTG, so they support being both USB guests and USB hosts. With a special, though industry standard, USB OTG cable you can connect USB devices like mice, keyboards, or humping dogs to your tablet. The cable (sans humping dogs) looks like this:
(I’m available for hand modeling gigs. Contact my agent)
That cable has a male micro USB connector on one end, and a female USB jack on the other. You can hook whatever you want to it, even a hub. The first question you’re probably asking yourself, after “Could this cable have more acronyms in its name?”, is “How do I connect the humping dogs and charge this at the same time?” The answer to that is tricky and varies between tablets. For my Dell Venue 8 Pro (DV8 Pro) there are a few options. I’ve blogged about them in this blog post. That same hardware may or may not work for other similar tablets.
Either way, if you have a tablet like this, you should buy several USB OTG cables and hide them all over. Your future self will thank your present self.
2) Make a Recovery Drive
Another common characteristic of these adorable little devices is very small storage options. When I got my DV8 Pro it had two storage options, 32 GB and 64 GB. I got a 64 GB model because I couldn’t imagine running full Windows in 32 GB of space. Now there’s a new round of tablets coming out, like the Toshiba Encore Mini that have a mere 16 GB of storage. Using some tricks like WIMBoot OEMs have gotten the Windows install down pretty small, but there still isn’t much space left. These devices don’t come with physical Windows media anymore. Which is fine, they don’t have DVD drives, so it wouldn’t do much good anyway. Instead they have a dedicated Recovery partition that you can boot into if you need to reinstall Windows. Additionally you can create a bootable USB Recovery drive and delete the Recovery partition. Creating the Recovery drive is a piece of cake. From the Start Screen start typing “Recovery” and the option to “create a recovery drive” should show up in the Search results. You’ll also need a USB OTG cable and a USB drive of 8 GB or so. The process is pretty straight forward, lots of clicking “Next.” To help things along I created a video of how to create a Recovery drive.
Even if you don’t plan on deleting the Recovery partition, you should create a separate Recovery drive. It’s pretty cheap insurance against a drive failure. No need to tempt Murphy, after all.
3) Update All the Drivers and Patches
We’re in the infancy of these little Windows tablets and things are changing quickly. Manufacturers are finding ways to pack more and more functionality into them, and ways to refine the functionality that’s already there. Because of that, you want to make sure you routinely check to see if there are driver updates for your device. Shortly after the DV8 Pro came out Dell updated the drivers to include Miracast support and improved the stylus support. It was definitely worth my time to hit the driver page once a month to see what gifts were waiting for me there. Don’t forget to keep up to date on your Windows patches as well. That keeps things running smoothly and helps keep all of the bad guys from stealing your password to Tiger Beat.
4) Get a Charging Dock or Cables
Like I mentioned in the first section of this blog post, these small Windows tablets charge via their USB port, which is also how you attach USB peripherals. Because of that it can be tricky if you want to charge your tablet while you’ve got USB devices attached. Different devices handle it differently, so check the manufacturer’s site, or maybe the forums at Windows Central to see what other folks are doing.
My first tablet was a Dell Venue 8 Pro. There are a few ways to charge it while it’s attached to USB devices. First there was a cheap cable combination that would do it. Then the folks at Plugable started a Kickstarter project for a dock for it. Finally Dell released their own kit to address this. These solutions may or may not work for the tablet you have. Regardless, having one around when you need it is very handy. They’re especially handy if you ever need to use a USB Recovery drive to rebuild your tablet.
In this blog post I review the Plugable Pro 8 dock, including a couple of epic, well produced videos. One stars Brad Pitt, or someone that looks remarkably like him.
5) Get a Miracast Receiver
I’ve mentioned a couple of times how these petite devices are usually lacking when it comes to ports and jacks. In most cases these devices don’t have video output ports. That’s usually not an issue, as an external monitor isn’t what you normally use these devices for. But every once in a while you want to watch Netflix or some funny cat videos on a big TV. That’s when you really miss that HDMI port. Fortunately in most cases there’s a way around this. Many of these small tablets support Miracast, a wireless display protocol. This lets you mirror or extend the display on your tablet wirelessly to nearby TV or monitor. The device could have Miracast built in, but most likely you’ll need to buy a dongle of some sort. These days it seems like everyone and their dog is putting out a Miracast receiver. I know my dog is. Here is a list of some of the main Miracast receivers that are available as of November of 2014:
Netgear PTV3000 $50 (best choice)
Roku 3 $85
Amazon Fire TV Stick $40
Microsoft HD-10 $85
While Miracast isn’t quite rock solid, the Netgear is the least sucky of the whole group. Roku has recently, quietly, added Miracast support to some of their higher end boxes. If you have one of those, check there first before laying out some hard earned money on a different Miracast receiver. Since this is an industry standard your Miracast receiver will also work with other devices, like Android phones and tablets. So you’ll have that going for you.
I recently got an Amazon Fire TV stick and can’t get the Miracast bit to work with any of my Windows machines. Tragic. I’ll update this post if I ever get it figured out.
6) Get a Case
These little cases are remarkably tough, but they’re not indestructible. To help keep them safe and sound, and to provide some extra functionality, I recommend getting a case. I use my slates mainly for reading or watching videos. Those activities benefit from the case having a stand to keep the unit propped up. Having a keyboard is handy sometimes, too, so cases that offer Bluetooth keyboards are a plus.
I’ve tried a couple of cases and had good luck with them. Here are a few I’d recommend:
Bluetooth Keyboard case for Dell Venue 8 Pro $30 (incredible value, includes Bluetooth keyboard)
Bluetooth Keyboard case generic 7” and 8” tablets $26 (works great for Toshiba Encore Mini, includes Bluetooth keyboard)
Slim case for Dell Venue 8 Pro $9
The keyboard cases increase the tablet’s functionality. The slim case is nice for travel and keeping things small. I have one of each and swap them as I need them. A boy likes to have options.
I have more tips, but I think 6 is all I can pack into this one blog post. Stay tuned for me. If you have any tablet tips of your own, enter them below in the comments.