How does Windows 10, which Microsoft has been trying to make friendlier for desktops and notebooks, fare on tablets?
Is Windows 10 friendlier?
The immediate gripe about Windows 8 when it was released in October 2012 was that it worked best on tablets (and other touchscreen devices), but felt hobbled when used with traditional keyboard-and-mouse. So how does Windows 10, which Microsoft has been trying to make friendlier for desktops and notebooks, fare on tablets?
The game plan
To find out, I installed the latest test version of Windows 10 (Insider Preview Build 10074) on an HP Stream 7. The installation process is convoluted but doable with enough care and patience. This tablet with a 7-inch screen sells for $99 or less, and comes with Windows 8.1. The Stream 7 will supposedly be capable of running the official release of Windows 10.
On a tablet, the Windows 10 Insider Preview is set by default to go right to the Start Screen when you turn on the device. This isn’t exactly the same as the one in Windows 8/8.1: It’s a reintroduced, new version of the Start Menu last seen in Windows 7 that’s been set in full-screen mode. The familiar Windows taskbar now appears along the bottom of the Start Screen. Under Build 10074, setting the taskbar to auto-hide does not make it disappear from the Start Screen.
As in Windows 8/8.1, this is where the tiles representing Windows apps are situated. Tapping a tile launches its corresponding app. To move a tile, you press on and drag it to another spot on the layout. Other ways of interacting with the tiles have been changed in Windows 10: Press on a tile for a second and a small white circle with three dots appears on the lower-right corner of the tile -- tap it to pop open a small menu which gives you further options. To unpin the tile from the Start Screen, you tap the upper-right white circle.
In Windows 8/8.1, the tiles in the Start Screen are designed to be scrolled through horizontally. In Windows 10, instead, you will scroll vertically through them, which works a lot better on a tablet, especially when you hold it in portrait orientation.
On the left is a list of recently launched programs (Windows apps and desktop applications). To launch a program, you tap its name. Tapping “All apps” switches to an alphabetical list of all apps and desktop applications that are installed on the tablet. Any of these program listings can be turned into a tile by pressing on and dragging it over to a spot on the right half where the other tiles are. Alternately, pressing on a listing for a second and letting go will open a small menu, which lists, among its options, pinning the program listing as a tile.
The kludge factor
Interacting with the left half of the new Start Screen worked well on a tablet. But text was small for the purposes of a touch GUI, especially on a 7-inch screen. And there's this sensation that the left half of this new Start Screen UI is really meant for a desktop OS. This clashes with the other, larger half where the tiles are. It feels like two different UI’s kludged together. This program list takes up considerable viewing space on the Start Screen, obviously so when you hold the tablet in portrait mode. Fortunately, Microsoft plans to add a button that will hide this list, and the tiles will then resize themselves to fully occupy the layout of the Start Screen, like they do in Windows 8/8.1.
New Action Center panel
Swiping in from the right of the screen reveals the new Action Center panel; it lists updates about your tablet and software running on it. (You can also tap the Action Center’s icon on the notification area to evoke this panel.) For tablets, this is certainly an improvement over Windows 8/8.1, because the Action Center also lets you access hardware settings faster with a tap. Note the Tablet mode button. When Tablet mode is on, the Start Screen takes up the entire screen, and icons representing programs that are currently running on the tablet do not appear on the taskbar.
Start screen settings
With Tablet mode off, a double-arrow button appears at the upper-right corner of the Start Screen. Tapping it will resize the Start Screen smaller over the desktop environment. This action turns it into the new Start Menu interface.
When Windows 10 runs on a desktop or notebook computer, Windows apps will launch in resizable windows, like desktop applications do, by default. On a tablet set with Tablet mode on, apps display at full-screen as they do in Windows 8/8.1. With Tablet mode off, Windows apps running on a tablet then sport title bars with tap-able Minimize and Maximize/Restore Down buttons.
A major new feature in Windows 10 will be Cortana, Microsoft’s version of Siri or Google Now: You speak to your Windows 10 device’s mic, asking it a question or making a request, and Cortana may even respond by talking out the answer. Cortana can also be used by entering text into a search box. When you tap on this box, a tall, rectangular panel rises which contains segments showing real-time information that has been personalized for you, such as your local news and weather forecast. On a desktop or notebook computer, the Cortana panel is set toward the lower, left-hand corner of the screen. It works appropriately enough to show you its snippets at a glance without cluttering your overall view of the desktop.
Cortana eats real estate
On a tablet with Tablet mode on, or with the Start Screen set at full-screen, on the HP Stream 7, the Cortana information panel occupies roughly over a third of the left side of the screen, when the tablet is in landscape orientation.
When you hold the tablet in portrait mode, the panel takes over the left half. Laid over the Start Screen, it doesn’t look immediately obvious that the Cortana panel is the user interface that’s currently active. Perhaps on a tablet, the Cortana panel should resize itself to be the center of the user’s focus.
Bye-bye switcher UI
Windows 10 ditches the inelegant “switcher” UI of Windows 8/8.1 that you use to jump from one running Windows app to another. This interface doesn’t work well, often requiring multiple attempts at swiping to get it to appear. In Windows 10 instead, you use the new Task View interface, and it works much better on a tablet. Tapping the Task View icon (which is to the immediate right of the Cortana search box on the taskbar) takes you to a transparent UI laid over the desktop that shows large thumbnails of the Windows apps and desktop applications that are running on your tablet. You can jump to any program by tapping its thumbnail.
Improved Task View
Task View also lets you run multiple instances of the desktop environment. This may be helpful if you want to organize applications you are using for personal and work reasons into separate desktops. You do this by tapping “New desktop” that’s on the lower-right corner; a new desktop thumbnail will appear to the right of a thumbnail of your first desktop. You can then jump to this second desktop by tapping its thumbnail, and from there launch programs in it.
Better overall UI
Also under this UI: Programs and desktops can be shut down by tapping the “X” on its thumbnail. And a program can be moved to another desktop by pressing its thumbnail and dragging it down and onto the thumbnail of the desktop where you want it to be relocated.
As of Build 10074 of the Windows 10 Insider Preview, the new Action Center, Task View and vertically scrolling layout of the Start Screen are good improvements for tablet users. Although Microsoft will add a way to turn off the program list in the new Start Screen, hiding it still won’t address that it’s not a touch-friendly way to manage the programs. Finally, information shown by Cortana may need to be brought to the forefront on a Windows 10 mobile device.
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