Microsoft took a big risk with Windows 8, focusing that operating system on tablets. The problem was that everyone who used it on a laptop or desktop disliked it. Microsoft now changes its focus back to traditional PC with Windows 10. So what does that mean for tablet users? To answer this question, we extensively tested Windows 10 on multiple tablets, both high end and budget. And the short answer is that Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been. Read on to get the full details.
A Better Paradigm
Windows 8 put all users into tablet mode by default — the much maligned Modern interface — but it still included a version of the classic Windows Desktop for compatibility with applications written for previous versions of Windows. The way Microsoft implemented this was clumsy, and Windows 10 goes with a completely different method… one that makes much more sense.
Windows 10 treats all applications the same way, Modern and classic. All of them are displayed and interacted with essentially identically. The whole confusing paradigm shift between the two types has been kicked to the curb.
But that doesn’t mean that Microsoft ignored the fact that tablet users need a different interface from laptop and desktop users. It just took care of this issue with a much more graceful solution.
Metro Out, Tablet Mode In
Windows 10 includes a new Tablet Mode. This has quite a bit in common with the old Windows 8 Metro interface, but it is much more useful because, unlike its predecessor, it can handle both Metro and classic Windows software. And that is the real strength of this new OS for tablet users: they can run every app the same way.
This mode does its best to make it easy for tablet users to work with applications written for traditional PCs, displaying them full screen. Even so, this can only do so much to make software written to be controlled with a mouse and cursor controllable with a fingertip on a touchscreen. This is why users of Windows devices should invest in a pen/stylus.
Thankfully, that won’t be necessary for all apps. The ones Microsoft bundles with Windows 10 are decidedly fingertip friendly. The most obvious example is the Start screen that is carried through from Windows 8. This was designed to make it easy for tablet users to access the most useful apps, including ones for email and web browsing.
Switching between running applications is easy. There’s a button at the bottom of the screen for this, but dragging a finger in from the left side of the screen toggles between either the most recently used application and a collection of screenshots of apps that are running in the background. A simple touch on any of these will bring it to the foreground.
While it’s quite possible to criticize Microsoft from “borrowing” from its rivals, there’s no doubt that the back button added to the Navigation Bar at the bottom of the screen is useful. The designers of this OS will surely say that they took the inspiration from Windows Phone not Android, but wherever it came from, it’s a useful tool. This icon makes it easy to jump back from one running application to another, or from one web page to another. That said, the Back button hasn’t yet been integrated as fully as the Android equivalent.
One of the highlights of Windows 8 was the Charms Bar, accessed by dragging a finger in from the right side of the screen. The new OS doesn’t completely abandon this, but it does change it significantly. This gesture now brings up a combination of the Action Center and a group of toggles for frequently used controls.
Not everyone found the Charms Bar’s collection of icons intuitively obvious, but the new Action Center is. There are notifications of incoming emails, calendar alerts, the occasional note that some software had been updated, and even news updates. Tapping on one of those notes brings up the appropriate app for dealing with it.
The collection of settings toggles below the Action Center are the most useful, if at the same time a bit frustrating. For example, while it’s very handy to be able to turn Wi-Fi on and off, this setting can’t be used to pick the hotspot; it will choose the one it likes best (in Windows 8, if the user manually connected to a Wi-Fi network, that would be the default, and that seems to be the case with Windows 10) and only going into the full Settings area can change it. Still, one of the buttons in this grouping opens the full collection of settings.
The New Windows Desktop
The new Windows Desktop is how laptop and other PC users will always interact with their computers, as well as tablet users who connect a keyboard and mouse to their device. It’s not exactly the same as the desktop in Windows 7, but those who have used that version or one of its predecessors shouldn’t have any problems picking it up.
Windows 8 also had a desktop mode embedded so it could run classic Windows applications, but this couldn’t run apps designed for the Metro interface. Windows 10 does away with all that: both types run in free-floating, resizable windows, and there’s little to show the difference between them, other than Metro apps are generally easier to control with a fingertip.
As has been well advertised, the Start menu is back, with its familiar collection of links to frequently used applications. This has been improved, however, by adding Live Tiles from Windows 8, so a glance at the Start menu is all it takes to, for example, see a reminder of an upcoming calendar event or new Tweets.
The Taskbar across the bottom of the desktop has icons for running applications. Icons for frequently used apps can also be pinned here.
Microsoft likes the new desktop so much it added support for multiple ones. This is an idea borrowed from Linux, and can be a productivity tool, if one that’s a bit confusing at first. Windows has always allowed users to quickly switch between running applications with ALT-TAB. With Windows 10, it’s possible to group running apps onto different virtual desktops and then quickly switch between them with WIN+CTRL+left or right.
Using the Windows Desktop on a full size (10-12 inch) tablet without a keyboard and mouse is possible, and some might prefer it for simplicity’s sake: their computer will always work the same way, whether there’s an external keyboard and mouse attached or not. Those with smaller tablets probably won’t find this practical, however, as the Desktop mode is full of small on-screen elements that aren’t fingertip friendly. They will likely stay in Tablet Mode.
The Mail and Calendar applications bundled with Windows 10 are accessible from either Tablet Mode or the traditional Windows Desktop, but they are especially beneficial for tablet users. Their look is clean, with the new “flat” design esthetic that’s in OS X, iOS, and Android, and change this has the secondary effect of making them fingertip friendly. They are also well organized and functional, especially for tablet users, as both support swipe gestures and the calendar pinch-to-zoom navigation.
Internet Explorer is out and Microsoft Edge is in as the official browser of Windows 10. This application also has flatter, simpler design, which is all well and good, but Edge is unfinished. It’s buggy an it currently lacks support for browser extensions. On the plus side, in our tests Edge renders webpages faster than IE does. Plus, it sports a feature that seems aimed at tablet users: the ability to draw on webpages, then save the marked-up page as a note, or send it through email.
(Those who need the features of IE can find it still buried in the OS, or there’s always the option to install a rival browser like Google Chrome.)
Cortana is the virtual assistant Microsoft created to take on Siri, and it’s integrated into Windows 10 and Edge. This can be a handy tool for doing web searches just by saying, for example, “Hey Cortana, what’s the capital of Rhode Island?”, but right now it feels a bit more like a gimmick than something really useful, and it’s clearly on Version 1 — in our tests, Siri’s answers to identical question were either the same or more useful. That said, tablet users who don’t like to type with an onscreen keyboard might become fond of her.
What’s Wrong With Windows 10?
Everyone expects there to be problems with something as big and complicated as a new version of Windows. And while Microsoft’s latest is going to be less controversial than its predecessor, it’s not without issues.
The unfinished, almost beta nature of Microsoft Edge has already been discussed, and while the rest of Windows 10 seems like it’s ready for day-to-day use there are still many places where the operating system feels unpolished. Microsoft is going to be tweaking it for many months to come. There are plenty of bugs to be found.
An item likely to be controversial is the decision to require everyone running the Home version of Windows 10 to accept every new system software update as soon as it’s available. In the past, bugs in new Windows versions have caused problems, and many people have made a habit of waiting to install updates until there’d been enough time for any problems to be found and fixed. Going forward, the only option for deferring updates will be using the Pro version of Windows 10.
Despite its improvements, this new version can do nothing to help tablet users control third-party applications designed to be used with a mouse rather than a fingertip. This really isn’t Microsoft’s fault, but it still leaves users of tablets either struggling to tap on tiny control widgets or pulling out a stylus/pen when using software written for Windows 7 or before.
Bringing It All Together
It’s understandable that people have concerns about Windows 10; Microsoft has made mistakes in the past, and this could have been another one. But it’s not. Windows 10 is not only better than Windows 8 for tablet users, it’s better than Windows 7 for laptops and desktops.
It’s new and there are problems, but these aren’t flaws in the basic design of the operating system, but are relatively minor issues that can be worked out without having to go back to the beginning.
Those trying to decide whether to make the jump should read our “Should You Upgrade Your Windows 8.1 Tablet to Windows 10 Today? Depends On How You Use Your Tablet” guide.