Hands on: Windows 8 as a tablet OS

Hands on: Windows 8 as a tablet OS - n3rdabl3

In recent weeks a handful of companies have announced tablet computers designed for Windows 8 (or Windows RT, the version built for ARM processors). These tablets will launch late this year, with the intention of stealing a bunch of sales from Apple’s iPad, which currently holds the #1 position in the tablet market.

Acer unveiled the Iconia W510 and W700, Asus unveiled the Tablet 810 and Tablet 600, and more recently Microsoft has shown their own Surface and Surface Pro tablets.

While none of these devices are available to play with yet, but there are a handful of similar devices built for Windows 7 which are quite capable of running the current “Release Preview” build of Windows 8. I have been using one such device, the Acer Iconia W500. The Acer Iconia W500 was built for Windows 7, and launched shortly after the iPad 2. I think it’s fair to say Windows 7 absolutely sucks as a tablet OS, so this device flopped. However, I chose to purchase one, knowing that Windows 8 was on it’s way, and that this device would almost certainly be capable of running it.

And so, I’ve been running Windows 8 on this tablet since Microsoft released “Windows 8 Consumer Preview” back in February, I’ve since updated to the current “Release Preview” build.

Windows 8

While there have been a number of changes in Windows 8, there is one key difference that you’ll notice right away. When you login, you’re no longer taken directly to the Windows desktop, but instead to a new redesigned ‘Metro-style’ Start menu – optimized for touch, but useable with a keyboard and mouse too.

In the new Start menu icons have been replaced with tiles, these tiles may represent apps, or websites, or even contacts – and a tile can do so much more than an icon – it can display information right on your Start menu without you having to launch an app – a weather app might cycle through the weeks forecast, a Twitter app might display recent tweets, and a contact’s tile could display recent status updates from that persons Facebook, Twitter, etc. Tiles can be added or removed, moved around, and arranged into groups – you can set up your Start menu to be personal to you.

Windows 8 is compatible with software designed for previous versions of Windows, but only Windows 8 apps can make use of new features such as tiles. The classic Windows desktop is still available by selecting the Desktop tile on the Start menu.

These new Windows 8 apps have more in common with Android or iOS apps than traditional Windows apps, by which I mean they’re built to run fullscreen (though it’s possible to ‘snap’ two apps side-by-side), use intelligent multitasking, support notifications, and there’s no messy installer programs, you can install them directly from the “Windows Store”.

Hands on: Windows 8 as a tablet OS - n3rdabl3

Windows 8 on a tablet, impressions

What an improvement! This tablet running Windows 7 was barely useable without plugging in a keyboard & mouse, but Windows 8 is much more touch-friendly, and supports some clever gestures too. Swipe a finger or thumb in from the left edge of the screen to quickly cycle between running apps. Swipe from the right edge of the screen to bring up the ‘Charms’ menu, allowing you to get back to the Start menu, Search your device, or adjust settings. Swipe from the top or bottom of the screen to access app-specific commands. An on-screen keyboard is responsive and easy to type on, and it’ll appear whenever you need to enter text – maybe that last statement sounded obvious, but in Windows 7 you had to open the on-screen keyboard manually.

The Windows Store already has a few hundred apps available to download, during the “Preview” period all of these apps are free. Whether Windows 8 tablets can really rival iPad will depend largely on how quickly the Windows Store fills with apps, and how good those apps are. There are plenty of developers who’re really excited about Windows 8, so I expect to see some great things later in the year – as well as the obvious ports of Angry Birds and other popular iOS/Android games. Cut the Rope is already available and plays brilliantly.

One app that stands out as particularly more useful on Windows 8 than other platforms is XE Currency – it provides the current foreign currency exchange rates, and it’s an app I use frequently on my iPad. The reason the Windows 8 app is so much more useful than it’s iPad counterpart is that it displays up-to-date currency exchange rates on its tile – so I don’t even need to launch the app.

Another standout feature of Windows 8 is Xbox Live. Xbox gamers can use the same Live account and earn achievements in games, chat with friends, and even access the music or movies they have purchased on their console through Zune.

There are still areas where Windows 8 falls behind Android and iOS, one such area is Email. The included Email app supports only Hotmail, Gmail, or Exchange – there’s no support for manually configuring a POP or IMAP email account. Hopefully this will change before Windows 8 officially launches, but currently that’s a big reason why I choose to take my iPad with me when I go out, rather than my Iconia. And yeah, I know, I could run a desktop email client such as Thunderbird, but ‘classic’ Windows software still isn’t particularly easy to use without a keyboard/mouse.

I can’t deny though, it’s useful to have that option to run full desktop software on my tablet when I need to. It may not be ideal for use with a touchscreen, but I can certainly see the potential of these new Windows 8 devices, which have detachable keyboards/touchpads. I love the idea of a computer as easy to use as an iPad, which can transform into a laptop by simply attaching a keyboard, or into a full desktop by attaching an external monitor. If there are others out there like me with a similar desire for a single multi-purpose computer, then maybe Windows 8 tablets such as the Microsoft Surface really could take a bite out of Apple’s market share.

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