On walkabout in life and technology

Windows 8 Preview on a Tablet

While on holiday, I got to play with the Windows 8 Preview on a Samsung tablet. It made some notes of the experience, then decided to wait until I returned home to see what I remembered about the experience.

The tablet itself was larger than the iPad, a lot thicker, a lot heavier and had a lot more ports. It also came with a stylus and a keyboard dock which was useful in turning it into a laptop when needed. The screen was a 16:9 widescreen, bright and colorful, which made it amazing for the kids to watch movies on. The sound was loud and clear. All in all, the feel was hefty, but quite comfortable. The tablet hardware seemed solidly built.

What I really wanted to know was whether Windows 8 was any good. The hardware can only get better, but the operating system will stick around in it’s current incarnation for years to come, minor tweaks notwithstanding.

Metro, er modern UI style, er Windows 8, oh stuff it, I’ll call it Metro here, is very nice. Large clear fonts, accessible square buttons that change dynamically with content, bright colors, all good and easy to touch. You want to prod them and prodding works to launch a Metro app.

I found that the built-in Metro applications, once launched, seemed to be too much of the same: big titles, limited data display and lots and lots and lots of white space between elements, too much in fact. They could have used that space to show more of an email, or more contacts or more whatever. It felt like a blown up phone interface where the amount of content displayed was still being constrained by the small phone screen, and white space was used to pad it out. And each application looks the same, am I in contacts or email? I get that consistency is good, but without titles and differentiation, how does one see what one is running?

The big issue for me, though, is there’s no action list on what you can do once you are in a Metro app. No menus, no buttons, no icons at all. Metro relies too much on the user knowing gestures, the right gestures. You need to know to swipe up or down or left to get different panels, and I did not know. I watched the owner of the tablet swipe randomly in different directions until the right action came up, swipe, no, swipe, no, swipe, aaaaah. I suspect normal users will do what I did and give up in frustration until someone else shows them the gestures.

In fact, the gestures seemed to me to be everywhere and unclear. You need to gesture to log in, shut down, gesture to close an app, gesture to bring up menus. It did not seem intuitive, and even when I did know what they were, I still had to stop and think which one to make. I do prefer the Android and iOS approach that have menus and buttons visible to guide users into the actions they can perform, and use gestures to enhance the experience or provide advanced features.

Given the dimensions of the widescreen, the ability to gesture another window onto the side of a Metro app is great, you can see your contacts while typing an email, for example. In iOS, you need to four-finger swipe to switch screens a lot to get the same benefit. But I doubt most users will find this feature naturally, or figure out how to gesture it away when done.

And then there is Windows Desktop mode, for running Office and the like. This is where it really gets hard. Firstly, you cannot tell whether a Metro tile will launch a Metro or Windows Desktop app (there were two Internet Explorer tiles, one launched a Metro version, the other Desktop). If you do happen to launch a desktop app, the whole user interface paradigm changes.

Desktop mode is just like the Windows 7 desktop, similar chrome, similar Windows menus, toolbars, status bars and scroll bars. But the desktop UI text feels too small to read after the nice big clear Metro text, and this seems out of place on a touch tablet. The menus and icons are also too small, even the ribbon on the new Office is too small, for touch. Trying to use a finger to navigate these menus and applications is an exercise in frustration, you tap the right place but who knows if the menu or one of the toolbar icons gets the hit, so you often land up tapping the application, getting the wrong thing, then tapping furiously to get back to a clean app. The Desktop mode works fine when the keyboard is docked and a mouse attached, but it’s useless for fingers. I tried using the stylus instead of my finger, that helps, when we could find it, it kept on getting left somewhere else.

It sure seems nice in theory to run the same full desktop application on your tablet, and the theory holds when you plug in the keyboard and mouse. But using touch only, no way, the model fails badly. You just cannot make fingers small enough to match the size of a mouse cursor, and the desktop apps themselves would look weird on desktops if the clickable elements were enlarged for touch. Apple has proven that you can make fully functional touch versions of major desktop applications that do work with touch, but require a new interface. If Microsoft made Metro versions of these applications, it would work. But that seems unlikely.

The widescreen that looks great in Metro and for videos gets terrible when the onscreen keyboard comes up. There is simply not enough screen real-estate above the full size keyboard in landscape mode to make it viable. The keys are a good size, but you cannot see much of the web page or document above it. It would be better if they went for a smaller keyboard, or a more square aspect ratio for typing.

Based on my playing with the tablet and the Windows 8 Preview, I believe the following to be true:

  • Metro is a very nice interface for touch on a tablet, it looks good, is snappy and works quite well. But Metro apps need more navigation buttons and visual differentiation to make them useable, instead of all these odd gestures to make these things visible.
  • Windows Desktop mode on the tablet is a unashamed disaster without attaching a keyboard and mouse. Everything is too darn small to operate with a finger. And with desktop windows that move around, the touch targets are all over the place.
  • The schizophrenic mix of touch and desktop makes the whole experience quite powerful and extremely maddening at the same time, but mostly it’s just confusing. Will the next tap launch a desktop app? What gesture shall I use now? How can I get that fracking menu to come up with my finger? And what can I do now?

But the experience did prove two more things to me:

  • Microsoft can still innovate, and when they do, it’s great. Metro is an excellent start and a great alpha level interface, but more needs to be done to make it easier to use once applications are launched.
  • Apple has it completely right in separating the touch operating system from the desktop operating system interfaces, and in creating separate touch versions of applications. Desktop UI does not work at all with touch in the real world.

I’m pleased to see that Microsoft is getting into the touch business, and the Metro part has great potential. But the desktop part is maddening and ruins the whole experience on a touch tablet. In usability, Android and iOS remain far ahead.