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Windows 8: The convertible OS


A split personality that makes sense
— 10:55 AM on October 26, 2012

Some say PCs are a dying breed. That's a little hyperbolic for me, but it's absolutely true that the size of the herd is thinning relative to other devices. The share of the personal computing pie captured by desktops and notebooks is shrinking as people spend more time surfing the web, checking email, watching movies, playing games, and Facebook stalking on so-called mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. PCs still can't be beaten when it comes to productivity, but for media consumption and other casual computing tasks, touchscreen devices like tablets can offer a superior experience.

Microsoft seeks to combine the best of the PC and tablet worlds with Windows 8, and PC makes have followed suit. For the new OS, they've concocted all manner of convertible designs that can switch between touchscreen tablet and keyboard-equipped notebook within seconds. The potential for these dual-personality devices is huge, and we'll soon have a better idea of how the various hardware implementations stack up. Work on our own review of Asus' VivoTab RT has already begun.

After using that system for about a week, there is one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: a Windows 8 convertible is in my future. It probably won't be the VivoTab RT, but my time with that device has made plainly clear that Microsoft's fusion recipe has immense potential.

I should probably qualify that statement by pointing out that the VivoTab RT runs Windows RT, a cut-down version of the Windows 8 designed for ARM-based devices. I've used the full-fat version of Win8 on desktop systems, but I haven't had the chance to check it out on a convertible with x86-compatible hardware under hood. Seems like those devices are coming in November or later.

The big deal with Windows RT is its lack of support x86 desktop applications. The OS has a desktop environment, but the only apps that run there are a handful of Microsoft's own. Third-party apps have been banished to the Metro environment, where they're available only through the Microsoft Store. That's kind of a big deal if you want a hybrid device capable of masquerading as a true notebook.

There are other restrictions, too. Windows RT can't join domains, and it lacks both Windows Media Player and Media Center. (Don't worry, Metro has its own media player apps.) The bundled Office suite, Home & Student 2013 RT, has also been diminished in various ways. Macros aren't supported, for example, and you're not supposed to use the included versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or OneNote for business purposes. So, yeah, I'm writing this in Windows RT using Notepad.

While Windows RT is somewhat crippled, it still provides a good sense of how Microsoft's new OS paradigm behaves on convertible devices designed to morph fluidly between consumption and productivity modes. Based on my time with the OS, Microsoft is definitely onto something, even if its fusion recipe could use further refinement.

Metro, the user interface style Microsoft designed for touchscreens, is a big part of Windows 8's tablet appeal. The large fonts and tiles feel clumsy and dumbed down when navigating with a keyboard and mouse, but they're well suited to finger taps and swipes. I like the overall look of the UI, too; it's bold, different, and the color options offer a dash of customization. Live tiles provide an interesting twist on widgets, although they almost detract from the stylized UI.

Even on a relatively low-power machine like the VivoTab RT, the interface feels smooth and responsive. There's a certain lightness to it, with visible hitching striking only when swiping through multiple applications. The animation starts chugging after the fourth or fifth app is swiped across the screen, so it's not something I encountered frequently.

Navigating is aided by the Charms bar, which I loathe on the desktop but quite like in a tablet context. The UI gestures are largely intuitive, too, allowing my vaguely tech-phobic girlfriend to find her way around the OS without having to ask for assistance. The only thing I'm still getting used to is closing items in the list of currently running apps, which requires threading the needle between similar motions that invoke app switching and split-screen sharing.

The split-screen mode seemed a little gimmicky when I saw it for the first time, but it makes a lot of sense for certain kinds of applications—and for widescreen displays with plenty of horizontal real estate. I've spent a decent amount of time web browsing, writing, and emailing with the display split between my primary application and a side order of Twitter, instant messaging, or YouTube. The sidebar seems particularly ripe for social media interactions but is pretty useless for desktop applications. Part of me wishes users could set the size of the sidebar themselves, although that kind of flexibility would surely be a compatibility nightmare for application developers.

Dragging applications to share the screen feels natural, as does swiping in from the left edge to switch the primary app. Windows RT's multitasking seems solid overall. Blessedly, unlike iOS, Remote Desktop Connection sessions maintain the connection to a remote PC even after you've switched to other applications for extended periods. The fact that the app-switching gestures treat Win8's desktop as a single application is a a little annoying, though. To switch between multiple apps within the desktop environment, you have to tap the icons on the taskbar, the windows themselves, or resort to Alt+Tab. That keyboard shortcut can hop between any running applications, whether they're in Metro or on the desktop.

Alt+Tabbing switches apps almost instantly on the VivoTab RT. Swiping between Metro apps and the desktop is quick, too. Even when the transition animation hitches, the speed of the switch seems unaffected.