Seven days with a Windows 8 tablet: Not quite the best of both worlds

The prospect of Windows on a tablet seemed intriguing, but did it deliver?

I bought the first iPad and it has been my casual-use device ever since. I take it on my backpacking adventures, on business trips, heck, I even take it to bed (much to the dismay of my better half) to read news, beam favorite shows to the Apple TV or just to chat with friends. It is truly a personal device and it usually goes where I go. Its downfall, however, is that it's a pure consumption device. Good for one task at a time.

Enter Microsoft's new Windows 8. The premise: Combine a full-blown desktop OS with a modern touch-interface (Metro) and have the best of both worlds. I took the plunge with the Samsung Series 7 tablet that Microsoft handed out as a loaner device at TechEd in Amsterdam:

[ Also in this series: 7 days in the cloud: My week with the Samsung Chromebook and 7 days using only keyboard shortcuts: No mouse, no trackpad, no problem? ]

So the prospect of Windows on a tablet seemed intriguing. Having both the full compatibility and power of a desktop OS combined with modern apps is what I was looking for. But does it really deliver? Let's find out.

Day 1. Installation and software compatibility: Flawless (almost).

I've got a standard set of around 80-100 Windows applications (Office 2010, Live Essentials, WinRAR, Adobe Reader, TeamViewer, a set of Benchmarks, etc.) that I install and need on every one of my Windows PCs and laptops. And, as usual, I installed them one by one. What surprised me, however, is how problem-free everything went. Even the long abandoned Ulead PhotoImpact X3, which I still use and love and which wasn't even developed for Windows 7. It worked just fine. I only had minor issues with the codec packs I use (MKV and DivX files just wouldn't play). A simple install of the new Shark007 Windows 8 Codec packs fixed that. Curious about whether your hardware and software will run? Head over to the Windows 8 RP Compatibility Center and find your products.

What was especially nice, of course, is the roaming cloud feature. When I switched my local account to a Microsoft Account, the tablet automatically acquired all settings from my main desktop machine, including the wallpaper, saved passwords, language preferences, app settings and more. It's just a massive time saver.

Day 2. Let your fingers do the filing

I dreaded the moment I'd have to fiddle with files and PC settings outside of the Metro interface with my finger on the touch display. And while it was hit and miss, copying files, launching installers, shuffling and renaming folders was actually quite usable. Microsoft clearly improved detection and fault tolerance. Usually you hit what you want to hit, no matter how small.

What annoys me greatly is the Context Menu. What you have to do to right-click with your fingers is touch an object, wait for a few seconds (2-3) and let the finger go. I hate it. It requires a level of patience I don't have to handle a lot of files or use the context menu in an application. Windows 7 solved this a lot better as it allows you to perform a right-click with a two finger gesture. The good news: The new File Explorer in Windows 8 sports the Office ribbon with commonly used commands, such as Move To or Copy To, which make perfect sense on a touch display and actually saved me a lot of time.

Overall, it still feels a bit fiddly and it's not a perfect experience. However, since there is no Android or iOS tablet that offers this level of productivity, you won't hear me complaining... much.

Day 3 -- Where's my disk space?

The Samsung Series 7 sports a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD). When I unboxed the tablet, I had about 40GB left, and when I was done installing all my applications and installed SkyDrive (which automatically downloaded exactly 28GB of iTunes music, photos and documents), File Explorer already colored the hard disk "red". And over the course of those three days, Windows 8 accumulated a lot of data junk such as a plethora of system restore points (taking up 3.9GB), not to mention an increased page file (4GB) and the hibernation file (3GB). All of a sudden, I was looking at this screen right here:

This is where the fact that you're running a full-blown OS becomes very apparent: The OS itself takes about 15GB; add to that all the various OS features and necessities I just mentioned and you're quickly looking at 30+ GB just being consumed by Windows 8. I assume and hope that Windows 8 tablets will feature 128GB SSDs at the very least because having 20-30 GB of personal files is not too uncommon.

Day 4 -- Socially confused

Of course I played with Metro from day 1 but this is when I really jumped on the whole Windows 8 bandwagon: I went through all the apps available on the Windows Store and Microsoft's built-in apps, configured and used them day and night. Here's what I found in the most commonly used/popular apps:

Internet Explorer: Full-screen browsing works perfectly with the new Metro version of IE 10. It was fluid, I hit even the smallest textlinks and pinch-to-zoom worked as expected. What I hated was the fact that my favorites bar is completely gone (on the desktop side of things, I use the bar daily to get to my favorites.)

In the Metro environment, IE 10 does not sport any sorts of favorites. When opening a new tab, it allows you to browse through your recently used files or through your "pinned" sites. But "pinned" sites isn't what I want. You can't really organize those entries. It's the reason I use the desktop version of IE even when I'm on the sofa.

Awesome: Both Flash and HTML5 worked flawlessly on every site I tried it on.

People: I just don't like it. The "People" app combines all of my Exchange, LinkedIn, Google, Facebook and Live Messenger contacts into one big view. It gives me an aggregated view of everything that's been happening with my friends and colleagues. Maybe it's just the way I think and work but I hate this mumbo-jumbo of combined information. If I want to know what's going on with my Facebook contacts, I go to Facebook. If I'm interested in tweets, I go to Twitter. Curious what's happening on Live Messenger? Hey, I have no problem opening the little Live Messenger app on my desktop. Microsoft solved a problem that, in my opinion, didn't exist. The idea of having everything in one place sounds good, but the execution lacks a clear structure.

Calendar: An easy to manage calendar application, yet it looks like a Windows 3.1 app with its lack of proper calendar features and overall (very colorless) design.

Photos: The best app of them all. Aggregates local and remote (Facebook, SkyDrive, network drive) pictures into a beautiful view -- it's the same idea as the People app, but this one is well structured and easy to use.

Day 5+6 -- Loving Metro

The Metro interface is a work of art. Simple as that. And while some of the built-in Microsoft apps don't look as good or work as well, many of the third-party apps do (check my 15 best Windows 8 apps to get you started article). What really struck me was how beautiful Windows 8 Release Preview works on a tablet:

Previews: This is where Windows 8 shines when compared to the iPad. Instead of clicking on labeled icons that are layed out on a grid to get the information you want, you just glance at the Start screen and get the most recent/important information right there.

Multitasking: Even if you have to go in and out of an app, switching between these apps involves just a quick swipe from the left side. That's it. Switching between apps is almost painful on iOS and Android devices.

Categories: While the iOS approach (putting apps in folders) is good, it still requires a bit of fiddling and is often confusing. Windows 8, however, allows you to set categories for your new Metro-style apps and Windows applications:

Side-by-Side: Yet another feature I wholeheartedly miss on the iPad is a split view that lets me, for example, look at pictures or watch a video while chatting with friends over Live Messenger. Windows 8 solved this beautifully:

Even as an iPad lover, I can safely say that the Windows 8 UI feels much smoother and more modern. The iPad's clunky multitasking and icon grid view seems like a relic of the past.

Day 7 -- The hardware

Here is where Windows 8 and the upcoming hardware should shine: It's both a tablet and a PC. But this time it actually works.

The Samsung Series 7 sports a little stand that not only acts as a charger but also features Ethernet HDMI and USB connectivity. I plug it in, the Windows desktop extends to my 24" screen and I can use the keyboard+mouse like a regular desktop. I take it out of the cradle, hit the Windows button and I'm back on the Windows desktop with all my full-featured office tools.

But is it the "Best of Both Worlds"? No. But it's a nice blend of both worlds and Microsoft went to great lengths to provide functionality that didn't exist in either the tablet or the desktop world. For the regular user, a Windows 8 Intel tablet could really be the one machine that does it all.

Now read:7 days with an iPad (and only an iPad)

How I divorced Google

Farewell, Apple. Hello Linux Mint!

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