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.
Apps and, um, applications
Most of the time, I’ve been switching between the Metro version of Internet Explorer and other applications. IE works pretty well. The VivoTab RT’s page load times feel snappy, and sites seem to render faster than on Android tablets with similar Tegra 3 guts. Like Safari for iOS, IE zooms in on text columns intelligently, a valuable trick Chrome has yet to master. I’ve gotta give it to Microsoft’s ClearType HD team, too, because IE’s text looks very crisp on the VivoTab’s 10″ display, despite the relatively low 1366×768 resolution.
That said, I miss Chrome for Android’s ability to sync bookmarks and tabs with the desktop version, which is the main browser on my PC. I also miss its quick tab switching gesture. In IE, switching tabs requires swiping from the top or bottom edges of the screen and selecting one of the tab preview windows that pops up along the top edge. Reaching for that top edge is a little awkward when browsing in my preferred portrait orientation. IE already transitions between tabs quickly, but a two-finger swipe from the right or left edge would make the process much easier.
Incidentally, TR’s content management system doesn’t work right in the Metro version of Internet Explorer. Windows RT’s desktop environment features its own, separate version of IE, which doesn’t have any problems with our backend. I’d rather edit posts and articles with a keyboard and a precise pointer in desktop mode, anyway.
I’m still getting used to Metro’s Mail app, which lacks a desktop counterpart. It does a serviceable job of managing multiple inboxes but comes with a few annoyances. There doesn’t seem to be any way to flag messages, for example. The way the app deals with attachments is also a little cumbersome. Tapping to download puts files into an obscure AppData folder. After the file is downloaded, you have to tap it again to
move save the file to a specific location. The biggest benefit Windows 8 and RT bring on the email front is connected standby, which allows new messages to populate your inbox while the system remains in an ultra-low-power state.
For me, a good Remote Desktop client is essential for any mobile computer. The ones that come with Windows RT (both desktop and Metro versions are included) work as well as Win7’s version but don’t really compare to Jump Desktop of Android and iOS fame. The Windows RDC app is limited to the client’s native resolution, but Jump isn’t, allowing users to pan around larger desktops with the flick of a finger. Squishing my dual 1920×1200 desktop into 1366×768 means a lot of window re-arranging when I come back to my main PC, and I hate having everything mashed together in the first place.
As the creator of Windows, Microsoft controls the RDC experience from both the client and server sides, and it should be able to come up with a better touchscreen client. Heck, Jump even has the more finger-friendly mouse pointer. At this point, I’d pony up the $10-15 Jump Desktop costs on Android and iOS to get a version for Windows.
To be honest, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with the other Metro apps. They all seem to work, but nothing has really stood out for me yet—well, other than the fact that I much prefer Google Maps to the Bing equivalent. I’ve yet to use a Bing service more attractive than its Google counterpart.
The selection of apps in the Microsoft Store is certainly more limited than what you’ll find on Android or iOS. That’s more of a problem for Windows RT than for Windows 8, which can already draw from a massive stockpile of x86 applications that should run perfectly in desktop mode. For me, that compatibility is a huge part of the appeal not only for productivity, but also for entertainment. The stack of casual games sitting in my Steam folder seems ripe for a Win8 tablet—especially one paired with a USB gamepad.
Even without the aid of x86 applications, Windows RT’s desktop provides a comfortable, familiar fallback for basic tasks like file management, network sharing, and settings tweaks. All your favorite built-in Windows apps are there, including the Command Prompt, Task Manager, Control Panel, Event Viewer, and Resource Monitor. Even Paint makes an appearance. The desktop environment is surprisingly usable with touch input, and I love how pinch zooming in a File Explorer window slowly takes you from detailed views to massive thumbnails. The desktop really shines when combined with the precision of the VivoTab’s keyboard and touchpad, though. No wonder it’s where the Office apps reside.
Those apps are remarkably receptive to touch, even if it’s not ideal for productivity. You wouldn’t want to write anything of length with a touchscreen keyboard. Windows 8’s on-screen input options at least provide plenty of variety. There are three distinctly different on-screen keyboards: a pared down QWERTY layout like most tablets have, a full-fledged notebook imitator complete with things like backslash and directional keys, and a thumb-friendly split layout with a numpad in the middle. The variety is nice, and it’s easy to switch on the fly. However, I wish the auto-correct suggestions popped up just above the keyboard, easily within reach, instead of next to the word being typed.
I’ll forgive that transgression because I rarely use auto-correct. Also, I want to move on to another input option: handwriting recognition. In addition to three keyboards, there’s a pop-up stylus pad capable of transforming even my crude, finger-drawn letters into usable text with few errors. No wonder we’ve seen so many stylus-equipped Windows 8 convertibles announced already.
Bumps along the road to Nirvana
As much as I like the multiple input options, the on-screen keyboard provides a hint that the OS is still a work in progress. I’ve had the split keyboard option disappear on several occasions, only to see it return after selecting a different keyboard or after a reboot. There are other issues, too. The Photos app didn’t zoom images correctly until an update was applied a few days ago, and if the app stays in the background for too long, switching to it produces a blank screen instead of the picture that should be shown.
YouTube playback has been a little finicky in Metro, both in Internet Explorer and in the official app. The YouTube app has actually crashed on me a couple of times already, and so has the Microsoft Store. Those crashes haven’t affected other applications or the OS as a whole, as far as I can tell. It’s also worth pointing out that the Android tablets I have floating around the house haven’t been immune to occasional app crashes of their own.
Occasionally, Windows also trips over its split personalities. On the VivoTab RT, touching an on-screen text input area brings up the software keyboard regardless of whether the convertible’s keyboard dock is attached. The on-screen keyboard disappears if you start typing on the real one, but it shouldn’t appear in the first place. Also, the VivoTab’s vertical touchpad scrolling is inverted in desktop mode, emulating the touchscreen gesture rather than traditional touchpad behavior. And horizontal swipes don’t scroll at all in Excel, which is an epic failure for spreadsheet junkies like me.
Folks who have been around the Windows scene for a while will point out that you shouldn’t jump on a new version of the OS until the first service pack comes out. Windows 8 and Windows RT may need a little time to mature—and for developers to release Metro-compatible apps.
Right now, I think Windows RT is a tough sell for tablets, even convertible ones. The selection of Metro apps is limited, the included version of Office is unsuitable for serious work, and while convenient, the desktop mode serves as a reminder of all the x86 Windows apps that won’t run on the OS. Windows RT straddles the line between tablets and notebooks and seems to shift its weight effortlessly between them, but it never puts more than a toe down on the notebook side. Convertibles based on the full version of Windows 8 should be more firmly rooted in the PC camp, ideally without compromising Metro’s tablet appeal.
Ultimately, it will be up to device makers to capitalize on Windows 8’s convertible potential. They must to create systems that switch between tablet and notebook modes as smoothly as the OS does. They may need to resort to low-power Atom CPUs to match the battery life of traditional tablets, but they also have the option of conceding run time in favor of more potent hardware. And, for better or worse, they’ll have to compete with Microsoft’s own vision for a Windows 8 convertible: the Surface for Win8 Pro.
Based on what we’ve seen thus far, Windows 8 convertibles—especially the more exotic ones—will be pricier than even premium tablets based on Android and iOS. That will be a tough pill to swallow for some, but I think I can choke it down. You see, I’ve been using a tablet in addition to my notebook for quite a while. There’s no way a device based on Android or iOS can replace my notebook right now, but a convertible running Windows 8 could effectively replace my notebook and tablet in one fell swoop. That’s why one is undoubtedly in my future. The only question that remains is how long I’ll wait. Intel’s upcoming Haswell processor looms large on the horizon, and it seems perfectly suited to convertible designs. We don’t expect Intel’s next-gen CPU to debut until around the middle of next year, though. Perhaps, by the time it arrives, the first Windows 8 service pack will be out.