Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Windows 8 Slate Review

About a week ago, I purchased a Samsung Series 7 Slate PC to learn more about the Windows 8 operating system and to test applications I will be developing primarily with C# and Xaml. The laptop ships with Windows 7 installed, but I quickly wiped the existing install and overlaid it with Windows 8. The process for the most part went smoothly. I had to acquire some Windows 7 drivers and install them in compatibility mode in order for the tablet to recognize orientation changes, and I still cannot get the hardware Windows start button or the accelerometer to work. I expected some issues like this as Windows 8 is still a preview OS.

I’ve used the combination of the slate and the operating system quite heavily over the past week and I wanted to take the time to share my impressions in a post while they are still fresh. I’m trying to focus this review more on the OS itself and will call out where I think there are substantial hardware differences.


Overall, I like it. I’ll preface that with the statement that I am a developer so my opinion is certainly biased compared to what consumers might think. The OS provides the perfect balance between a “total slate experience” which I consider to be watching movies, casual browsing, email, and news readers, and “power user features” like developing software or drilling into a complex Excel spreadsheet. All it takes is a simple external keyboard to efficiently write books and articles and even build software. While the new OS is in beta form and there are not many native applications to choose from, the backwards compatibility makes it possible to install any number of existing touch solutions.

Let me break down where this opinion comes from. I’ll start with the cons.

The Bad

  • Price – this is what I believe still stands as the greatest barrier to general adoption by consumers. The price point is just too high. The idea it can run all of Windows may be appealing to businesses, but not to the average consumer who is comparing this against Android tablets, iPads, and newcomers like the Kindle Fire. If you pay a competitive price for a Windows slate today, you get an inferior product. The Samsung performs well but also is priced well above the nearest competition at well over $1,000.
  • Power – unfortunately I have yet to work with an Atom-based slate that performs well. My standard is to pull up Netflix and run a high definition movie full screen. On a Windows tablet this does several things. First, it loads the Silverlight plug-in and extends the browser environment, and second, it tests the combination of processing that takes place in the Netflix app and the graphics processing happening through the hardware. Unfortunately most of the devices fail miserably for this, and you have to go to an i-series chip. That gives you the power, but means a thicker tablet with a fan and vents.
  • Battery – this ties into the issues listed previously. While the battery is certainly longer than a lot of lap tops – I was watching full screen movies in HD and it lasted hours without draining – it does not go anywhere near the 8 – 10 hours users experience with competing tablets. I believe this is due mainly to the processor architecture and while the alternate system-on-chip processors probably will break this barrier, they will need to perform far better than what I’ve seen so far to make the experience worthwhile.
  • Start Menu – I like the start menu. The concept of live tiles is great, because it turns the start menu into an interactive, “at a glance” dashboard. However, it is not without flaws. First, “grouping” tiles together really doesn’t do anything for me except maybe organize them visually. I want a functional way to group so I can drill in. The idea is as few taps and swipes as possible, which means drilling down, not swiping across. Second, everything ends up as a tile. This may be fine for me, a developer, who knows how to unpin and organize but will be overwhelming to the average consumer. If an install like Office drops fifteen apps, why not organize into a folder by default and have the folder appear on the start menu, and let me drill down and bring common applications back to the top as needed? After installing everything I needed to make the slate productive for me – Office, Live Essentials, etc. – the start menu became so huge I found myself doing nothing but swiping and swiping to get to what I needed.
  • Task Switching – Give me a break. Two experiences? The side swipe is fun to demo and cool when you have two applications, but come on, who really only ever runs two applications? After loading up about five or six applications, continuously swiping across to find what I want is ridiculous. What’s worse, there is no integration with the desktop applications. If you have Explorer, Word, and Outlook running, you get one swipe for “Desktop” and then must ALT+TAB to go between your desktop apps, then either swipe or hit the start button to get back into the Metro applications. Not a good experience. Why not provide an aero-like view or cover flow style preview of the applications when I swipe so I can quickly tap on the one I want? Even a grid of thumbs would be preferable to multiple manual swipes.
  • Consistency – While I like the features and customization options that are available, it’s a little weird that half of the control panel is Metro and the other half dumps you to the desktop and back into the familiar Windows 7 dialogs. Why not finish the experience and make it consistent? You also are shifted to the desktop every time you launch a desktop application, which annoyed me at first but I found I quickly got used to and didn’t mind as much – I’m more irritated about the lame experience trying to swap tasks
  • Ribbons – I get it. The ribbon is the Microsoft UI widget of the future. It’s appearing everywhere. I like the ribbon, and it makes sense in a lot of applications. While I resisted the newer Office releases in the beginning because of the new interface, after using it for years now I’ve come to enjoy it. But here’s a news flash: it’s not the same on a slate. On a touch-based device I want to have context where I touch. That means if I’m navigating the file system, I want to be able to tap on a file or folder and right there see my options and quickly tap through. It’s not a smooth experience to tap down there and then look up there to the ribbon and then find the right place on the ribbon to tap. May have worked well on the desktop, not so fun on the slate. This is weird too because it gives the impression of OS schizophrenia. In the “Metro” portion I have an experience highly tailored to touch that feels right, responsive, and is enjoyable. In the file system explorer for the same OS, suddenly I’m forced to a completely different paradigm that doesn’t feel natural at all. Was it two entirely different teams working on these features? Why are they so different? I don’t buy that it’s because “it’s part of the desktop experience” – no, it’s not. Anything I can reach in my slate is part of the slate experience, whether or not it happens to fall into what was the traditional desktop.

The Good

  • Boot Time – while some may say competitive slates boot quickly, the fact that this boots so fast and provides full-blown Windows capabilities to me is amazing. My slate literally boots in seconds – that’s from a complete shut down. It is fantastic and I no longer dread turning on my machine because I have to figure out something to kill time while it’s booting – it’s that fast.
  • Windows – some people argue this is not a feature and may be a detriment to slates, but I disagree. The fact it is full-blown Windows and not a trimmed-down version is why many customers want a Windows-based slate. It was a key driver for the project I did with Rooms-to-Go. I love it. I installed Office and can easily navigate through Word documents, PowerPoint, and Excel. Sure, sometimes it requires using a keyboard, but the option is there. It gives me my built-in Windows security, allows me to use policies and gives me access to a ton of software that simply isn’t available on competing slates.
  • Backwards Compatibility – while this is just a beta the backwards compatibility so far has been outstanding. I’ve not had an issue installing any Windows 7 productivity software I wish to use. Even drivers for the Slate that aren’t yet available in Windows were successfully installed using compatibility mode. My Amazon Kindle for PC application works beautifully so there’s no need to pick up the hardware, I’ve got my “Kindle” right here. I’ve also had a lot of fun playing with the applications that ship with the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7 that uses Microsoft Surface technology.
  • Silverlight – there was a lot of fuss about Silverlight and it being a dead-end but I’m happy to share it is not only fully supported on the slate, but shines. Some of the best applications I have aren’t written for Windows 8; they are written in Silverlight and run fine as Out-of-Browser (OOB) applications on the slate. Some that stand out are the USA Today Windows Touch application, Mosaic by Tribune, and Telerik’s Facedeck Silverlight Client for Facebook. Oh, did I mention I can just chill at night with headphones and watch my favorite Netflix movies in full screen high definition?
  • Metro – I like Metro. There are things that I believe could be improved, but to me the advantages include:
    • Live Tiles create a true “dashboard” and at-a-glance experience, showing me insights without having to open an application. The tiles just need a better way to organize them.
    • The Metro guidelines (no pop-ups, overlapping windows, etc.) make for a very crisp, clean, enjoyable experience. I am able to easily navigate between applications and they are very responsive. The task switching must be improved, however, and better integrated with the desktop experience.
    • Charms and Application Bars to me make sense and once you understand the gestures make it very easy and consistent to navigate within applications. I really found the slow swipe from the right to get a full menu is something I use a lot, and enjoy the at-a-glance signal, battery, and time in addition to quick-jumps to other areas.
  • Keyboard – the Windows 8 keyboard is awesome. It’s nice and big and easy to type. I have long, complicated passwords and tapping them out is a breeze. My only gripe is the fact that you have to switch to get the numeric keyboard which can slow that down. The highlights and sound provide just the right amount of feedback to make the typing feel natural. The split keyboard is awesome for some major thumb-typing while grasping the sides of the tablet.
  • Pen and Handwriting Recognition – the pen is very powerful. I wanted to spend some time with family while I was editing the final chapters of my Designing Silverlight Business Applications book, so I settled down in the family room with my slate and pen. To my surprise, I was able to be very productive. It was easy to highlight with the pen, and the handwriting recognition was superb – I very rarely had to correct it’s interpretation and my handwriting is abysmal. I was able to have a productive, casual editing session without lugging around a laptop or even pulling out a keyboard. The combination of handwriting and touch makes for a very powerful and productive experience.
  • Search – while I still feel the tiles could be better organized in the start menu, I love the integrated search. It’s fast and easy to use and the fact you can search within a context and even pass searches to other applications is awesome (sorry, can’t think of a better way to say it).
  • IE10 – this may be strange coming from someone who listed Silverlight as an advantage when the IE10 Metro implementation does not allow plug-ins, but let’s face it: 2011 was the year of HTML5 and it is rapidly growing with adoption. I have no qualms about switching to my desktop IE version to run Silverlight applications when most of them are OOB applications that I can launch with a single touch from the start menu anyway. For most web sites, the built-in IE10 browser is all I need. It provides a great browsing experience, renders well, and provides all of the interaction I need. I use the built-in browser often and enjoy the browsing experience – I’ve even started to use YouTube in HTML5 mode although not all videos are available and you have less control over the experience. I especially like being able to pin sites from IE10 to my start menu.

As you can see, there are a lot of pros to weigh against the cons. In summary, I’m very pleased with where the slate experience is going but I’m also concerned. I’m a power user – a developer – so I like falling back to heavy desktop applications, don’t mind doing a little extra to get around, and also am used to shelling out more dollars for my toys than average consumers might be willing to. I think the biggest obstacle to overcome is providing performance at a lower cost to increase value and get rid of fans and fat form factors. The Metro experience needs a bit of work before I think my grandmother, grandfather, or niece will be as comfortable with it as they are grabbing an iPad, but I don’t think it’s an impossible task. I’m very excited to see the upcoming beta release that is rumored for February 2012 to see how well Microsoft listened and what steps they were willing to take to improve the quality of the product.