As tablets get bigger and grow keyboards, the line between tablet and PC is blurring. However, there is one clear demarcation between the two. Personal computers have industry standard ports that support printers, cutters, and other devices. Tablets don’t. PCs have operating systems that support a wide range of applications, including professional graphic design software. Tablets don’t. We now have new products on the market and we’re hearing from frustrated customers who have purchased these devices only to find that they can’t be used with vinyl cutters. Microsoft Surface Pro tablets and Google Chromebook laptops cannot be used with most signmaking equipment. Here’s why.

Microsoft Surface Pro: The USB-C Issue

The newest Microsoft Surface Pro tablets no longer come with standard USB-A ports. They come only with USB-C. USB-C ports and cables were originally designed for connecting Android powered smartphones. USB-C is ideal for these small hand-held devices because they charge devices more quickly. And - unlike the USB-A ports and wires we’ve all fussed with for decades - USB-C ports are flippable. That means you can plug them in easily without having to worry about whether the connector is upside down relative to the port.

Unfortunately your vinyl cutter is not a small hand-held device. These connections don’t support the data flow that a vinyl cutter needs. Testing with a Microsoft Windows 11 pc with a USB-C port revealed incompatible errors when connected with MUSE and Graphtec vinyl cutters using a standard USB cable. Testing with USB-C to USB-A adapters has determined that this is not a workable solution either.

USB-C is ideal for mobile phones. Not so much for cutters.

Since these new PC/tablet hybrids only provide USB-C ports, they are also incompatible with MUTOH and PrismJET large-format printers. All of these devices require a dedicated Network interface card (NIC) to support the standard ethernet-only printer interface.

This is not just a Microsoft Surface Pro problem. The latest MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and iMacs are also being built with USB-C ports. But, since most signmaking software isn’t MAC compatible, the inability to physically connect a plotter to a MACbook only compounds an old issue.

What about Wifi?

At this time, the only way to circumvent this issue with a Surface PRO or other USB-C only computer is to connect wirelessy. This works fine for wifi-enabled vinyl cutters and printers. These include the MUSE M Series and MUSE Artisan vinyl cutters, and most Epson, Sawgrass, Sublime, and IColor desktop printers. Unfortunately, this is not an option for Vinyl Express, Roland DGA and Graphtec vinyl cutters.

ChromeOS Issue

Chromebook laptops, powered by Google’s ChromeOS operating system, don’t have the USB-C issue, but they are also non-starters. The disconnect here is a little further ‘upstream.’ ChromeOS is intended for consumers and is designed to support activities like browsing the internet, sending email, shopping, streaming video, and gaming. Chrome is not intended for commercial and industrial applications. The ChromeOS doesn’t support Flexi, LXI, CorelDRAW, or Adobe CC software, so it’s a nonstarter for serious sign and graphics professionals.

What to look for in a new PC

All of these trends in tablets and tablet/laptop hybrids are being driven by consumer demand, not industrial needs. If you’re in the market for a new computer to power your sign & graphics business or startup aspirations, make sure you read the specs chart closely. If you’re starting from scratch and buying a new system including a new MUSE vinyl cutter or desktop printer, a USB-C enabled Surface PRO or similar device will be okay if you’re content to limit yourself to wifi.

If you already own a Graphtec, Roland, Q Series, or older Vinyl Express cutter and find yourself in need of a new PC, shop very carefully. You’ll need a PC with a standard USB-A port. If you’re using a large format printer, you’ll need one with at least one, if not more Network cards. And if someone gives you a Chromebook, give it back. Or keep it for gaming and steaming. Then go buy a good old-fashioned Windows PC for your sign and graphics business.