Random Thoughts – Randosity!

Microsoft Surface: Why Windows is not ready for a tablet

Posted in botch, microsoft, redmond by commorancy on July 4, 2013

Microsoft SurfaceMicrosoft always tries to outdo Apple, but each time they try they end up with a half-baked device that barely resembles what Apple offers. Worse, the device barely even understands the purpose of why Apple created their product in the first place or even what space it fills in the market. But, leave it to Microsoft to try. Let’s begin.

Microsoft Surface

I’ve recently come into contact with a Microsoft Surface tablet. Let’s just dive right into the the heart of the problems with this platform. Windows and a touch surface are simply not compatible, yet. Why? We have to understand Window 8. For the release of Windows 8, Microsoft introduced Metro. This interface is a big tile based interface that is, more or less, touch friendly. It’s the interface that was adopted for use on both the Xbox 360 and Windows phones. The difference between Windows phone / Xbox 360 and Windows 8 is that you can’t get to the underlying Windows pieces on the Xbox 360 and Windows phone (and that’s actually a good thing). With Windows 8 on a tablet, unfortunately, you can. In fact, it forces you to at times. And, here’s exactly where the problems begin.

Windows 8 under the hood is basically Windows 7 slightly repackaged. What I mean is that Windows 8 is essentially Windows 7 when not using Metro. So, the window close button and resize button are the same size as Windows 7, the icons are the same size, the tiny little triangle next to a folder hierarchy is the same size. Easily clickable with a mouse. Now, imagine trying to activate one of those tiny little icons with a tree trunk. You simply can’t target these tiny little icons with your finger. It’s just not touch friendly. That’s exactly the experience you get when you’re using the Windows 8 desktop interface. When trying to press the close button on the Window, yet you might have to press on the screen two, three or four times just to hit the tiny little control just to make it activate. It’s an exercise in futility and frustration.

Metro and Windows

Metro is supposed to be the primary interface to drive Microsoft Surface. However, as soon as you press some of the tiles, it drops you right into standard Windows desktop with icons, start button and all. When you get dropped into this interface, this is exactly where the whole tablet’s usefulness breaks down. Just imagine trying to use a touch surface with Windows 7. No, it’s not pretty. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re at the Windows 8 desktop. It’s seriously frustrating, time consuming and you feel like a giant among Liliputians.

No, this interface is just not ready for a touch surface. At least, not without completely redesigning the interface from the ground up… which, in fact, is what I thought Metro would become. But no, many of the activities on the Metro screen take you out of Metro. This is the breakdown in usability. For a tablet OS, Metro should be it.  There should be no underlying Windows to drop down to. If you can’t do it Metro, it cannot be done!

A Tablet is not a home computer, Microsoft!

The offering up multiple interfaces to the operating system is the fundamental design difference between IOS and Windows 8. Microsoft would have been smarter to take Windows phone OS and place that operating system straight onto Windows Surface. At least that operating system was completely designed to work solely with touch screen using 100% Metro. That would have been at least more along the lines of what Surface should have been. Instead, Microsoft decides to take the entire Windows 8 operating system and place it onto the tablet, touch-unfriendly and all. Is anyone actually thinking in Redmond?

In addition, putting full versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel on Windows Surface might seem like a selling point, but it isn’t. The point to the iPad is to provide you with small lightweight applications to supplement what you use on a full computer. Or, better, Cloud versions of the apps. I understand the thinking that having a full computer as a tablet might be a good idea, but it really isn’t. Tablets are way too under powered for that purpose. That’s why notebooks and desktops are still necessary. The size of the processors in flat tablet devices just aren’t powerful enough to be useful for full-sized apps.  That’s the reason why the iPad is the way that it is.  Apple understands that an A6 processor is not in any way close to a full quad core i7 processor. So, the iPad doesn’t pretend to be a full computer knowing that it can’t ever be that. Instead, it opts to provide smaller light weight apps that allow simple communication, entertainment and apps that an A6 is capable of handling within the constraints of the limited ram and storage. That’s why IOS works on the iPad and why Windows 8 doesn’t work on Microsoft Surface.

Herky Jerky Motion

One of the other problems I noticed is that when you’re dragging around Metro’s interface and transitioning between Windows 8 desktop apps and back into Metro, there is this annoying stuttering jerky motion the screen does.  It appears that this was an intentional design and not the graphics card going haywire. I’m not sure why this was let out of Redmond this way. Just from that problem alone, I first thought that Microsoft Surface tablet was having a problem. Then I realized that it wasn’t a tablet hardware problem. Indeed, that problem was inherent within Windows 8 and Metro.  If you’re planning to offer a dragging, fading, transitioning experience, make it smooth. That means, no jerky shaky transitions.  It makes the device seem under powered (it probably is). At the same time, it makes Windows look antiquated and unpolished (it definitely is).

Multiple Revisions

Microsoft always takes two or three product iterations before it settles into a reasonably solid, but second rate, product format. With the exception of the original Xbox, I don’t know of any single device that Microsoft has gotten right on the first try. It was inevitable that they would get the Microsoft Surface tablet wrong. If you’re looking to get into Windows 8, I’d suggest just going for a notebook outright. You’ll get more for your bang for the buck and you’ll have a much more usable Windows 8 experience.

I really wanted to like Windows Surface, but these fundamental problems with Windows prevent this tablet from being anything more than a clunky toy. The iPad actually has a use because the icons and screen elements are always big enough to tap no matter the size of the device. This is one of things that Apple fully understands about touch surfaces.  Although, Apple could do with some nuanced improvements to touch usability.  Unfortunately, when you get to the Windows 8 desktop interface, it’s a complete chore to control it via touch. I just can’t see buying a Windows Surface first version tablet. It tries to be too many things, but fails to be any of them.

Microsoft, figure it out!

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