Feature

Windows 8 tablet review: Fine for newbie, awkward for iPad user

Bridget Botelho and Colin Steele

Windows 8 screenshot

When Microsoft delivered a Windows 8 preview tablet to evaluate, we thought it would be interesting to write a review from two perspectives -- a new tablet PC user and an iPad owner. Read on to see their reactions and how Microsoft might fare in the tablet PC market.

Bridget Botelho, News Director: 
Microsoft delivered a Windows 8 preview tablet for evaluation with the hope of showing that its upcoming touch-enabled operating system is good for business. While it offers everything you would expect from a Windows OS, in a new way, this evaluation is being typed on a Windows 7 laptop.

The Samsung Series 7 Slate PC that Microsoft sent differs from the upcoming Surface tablet, which will compete directly with the iPad, in that this device is larger, heavier and meant to offer the same functionality as a PC. Though the tablet can be connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and docking station, this review excludes those tools; it is an evaluation of Windows 8 as a touch-screen operating system.

I have never used an iPad, and I go into this evaluation with the presumption that tablets are supplemental to actual PCs.

It would be faster to turn on Windows XP, wait 10 minutes for it to boot, and check email that way.

Though I'm old enough to have typed on an actual typewriter, I'm young enough to have used my share of touch screen devices -- namely, a Droid Incredible phone, an iPhone 4S and an Amazon Kindle Fire. So while the Windows 8 Metro interface is a big change from the static-screened Windows PCs of yore, the touch screen and its apps aren't foreign -- or particularly innovative.

Perhaps if Microsoft had delivered a touch-screen version of Windows and its brightly-colored, kindergarten-esque tiles ahead of the rest of the tablet market, it would have made more of an impact. But Metro is simply Microsoft's version of the touch-screen applications that have been available on Apple and Google Android devices for years.

The on-screen tiles replace the familiar Start menu, and the blocks take up far more space on the screen than is necessary, which means you have to swipe across to other screens to view all of your apps. The oohs and aahs of screen swiping gets old fast. I would prefer to see my apps on one screen (the way we do on a PC) or two screens, max.

Windows 8 typing and swiping

Microsoft's goals for the Windows 8 tablet PC touch keyboard were to let users enter text reasonably close to the speed with which they type on a physical keyboard – that is, avoid errors, easily correct mistakes and enter text comfortably, in terms of posture, interaction with the device, and social setting, according to a company blog post.

While the keyboard responds well and I can see using this while traveling, the way it is set up slows things down. Microsoft put some pretty important punctuation marks on a secondary screen, along with numbers. So, to tell you that this article is about 420 words (so far), I have to switch to another screen to type the numbers and the parentheses I just used. I'm sure this switching becomes second nature with time, but it makes me yearn for a laptop keyboard.

Others agree. I handed the tablet over to my husband, who needed to quickly check and respond to email. After about 30 seconds of fumbling, he suggested that it would be faster and easier just to turn on his Windows XP PC, wait 10 minutes for it to boot and check email that way.

There are also some quirks with the screen swiping capability. If you have been to multiple pages and swipe left to go back, it is easy to get lost somehow.

The touch screen also froze multiple times. At one point, the operating system convulsed, and the three other open screens dropped up and down repeatedly from the top of the page. In more than one instance, the screen did not respond to touch (despite angry, repeated taps and my pleas of “come on!”) or tabs on Web pages needed to be enlarged for it to respond to touch.

To be fair, it is a preview version of Windows 8, and this Samsung tablet was originally built for Windows 7. Many quirks should be worked out before the Windows 8 general release on October 26.

Despite the changes to the interface and app layout, Windows 8 is generally simple to use. One big pro to the Windows 8 tablet is that Microsoft Office is natively installed. (Unfortunately, Office 2013 won't arrive at the same time as Windows 8, so Office 2010 has to be used.)

But the bottom line is, if you are going to use a touch-enabled Windows 8 device, it's probably going to supplement an existing Windows laptop or PC, so you may as well buy a lower-cost tablet, such as the Surface (though I haven't evaluated that device and can't endorse it). Pricing for Surface hasn't been released, but it's sure to cost far less than this tablet PC, priced over $1,300.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

Colin Steele, Executive Editor: The Samsung Series 7 Slate is different from the iPad in almost every way. Very few of those differences are good.

This Windows 8 tablet PC is physically cumbersome and awkward, and Windows 8 itself is unintuitive and complicated. I don't know why any iPad user (such as me) would want to switch to this device.

Why? Let's start with the hardware. The tablet is 11.66" x 7.24", which makes it look like a serving tray for cheese and crackers (when held horizontally) or a menu at a fancy restaurant (vertically). These dimensions make no sense from a usability perspective. I typically hold my iPad on its left side with my left hand and do my clicking, dragging, and so on with my right hand. But this Windows 8 tablet is so long that holding it horizontally with one hand got tiring pretty quickly. I ended up placing my left hand under the center of the device and kind of balancing it like a waiter would, just to distribute the weight more evenly. It wasn't an ideal experience.

You may ask, "Why not hold the tablet vertically instead?" I tried that, and it was easier, but a new problem sprung up: Internet Explorer shrunk Web pages to accommodate the vertically narrow screen, making it nearly impossible to read smaller text. And since IE is a desktop browser, there was no way (that I could find, at least) to access mobile versions of sites. Sure, you can magnify the page and read it that way, but shouldn't we be past that by now?

This issue with IE illustrates the biggest problem with Windows 8: It still feels like a PC operating system -- even in the Metro interface (or whatever Microsoft's calling it now), which is supposed to be optimized for touch-enabled mobile devices. For example, while Android has facial recognition software and Apple is getting into biometrics, Windows 8 still has a login screen that requires a username and typed password.

The biggest problem with Windows 8: It still feels like a PC operating system.

Little things like that are significant to users. One of the reasons for the iPad's success is that it's so unlike the traditional computing experience. When you fire up Windows 8 for the first time and come to a login screen, you won't have that same feeling.

Then there's desktop mode, which can't be faulted for feeling like a PC operating system, because that's its purpose. But it's not at all optimized for touch. You have to click an icon to open the on-screen keyboard every single time you want to input text. It's like Microsoft tried to give Windows 8 users the best of both worlds -- PCs and tablets -- but ended up giving them neither.

Other examples of Windows 8's user unfriendliness abound:

  • Even simple tasks require multiple gestures. To shut the device off, for example, you have to swipe open a menu on the right side of the screen, click Settings and then click Power -- something I only figured out after several futile attempts at holding down the physical power button, which is all you need to do on the iPad.
  • Bridget tested the Samsung Series 7 Slate before me and connected it to an external keyboard. When she gave the device to me, it took about 10 minutes to figure out how to set the on-screen virtual keyboard as the default. The iPad automatically recognizes if a Bluetooth keyboard is connected and adjusts accordingly.
  • I brought the device home and asked my girlfriend to try it out. She opened IE but couldn't figure out how to access the navigation bar and eventually gave up. (I don't blame her. The navigation bar doesn't pop up automatically, and it's at the bottom of the screen -- the complete opposite of every other browser I've ever used.)

Despite all their flaws, the Samsung Series 7 Slate and Windows 8 do offer some advantages over the iPad. The tablet's odd dimensions provided plenty of room for the on-screen keyboard, making accurate typing a breeze. The keyboard felt more responsive than the iPad's as well; in fact, Windows 8 as a whole seemed to react to touch and load applications more quickly than iOS does. And the native Microsoft Office application was welcome, even though iOS apps such as Pages and CloudOn provide more-than-sufficient alternatives.

These advantages don't outweigh the flaws, however -- especially when you consider the tablet's $1,349.99 price tag. It would be great if another device could step up and challenge the iPad, pushing Apple to innovate further and giving consumers (and businesses) more choice. Unfortunately, the Samsung Series 7 Slate Windows 8 tablet isn't it.

 

 


This was first published in August 2012

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