Windows 8 – give it a chance to make you love it

I love technology. I especially love it when I find something that not only solves a problem but also helps me do things I hadn’t even thought of. With that in mind, I present part one of my very first product review – Windows 8 on a Dell Latitude 10 tablet.

Windows 8 Start Screen Angled

I’ve never really been attracted to the idea of a tablet.

I use a laptop for business purposes, and I have an Android smartphone for quick browsing, email, etc. I could never really justify the case for a tablet to sit in between those two devices, since it felt to me like I didn’t really gain much extra functionality.

But I have to confess that one of the things that attracted me about the ‘practice of the future’ was the promise that you could do it all on your tablet. I just needed to find something to change my mind about actually owning one. And recently I did. It’s a 10.1″ Dell Latitude 10 with Windows 8 Pro. It’s less about the particular brand of hardware though, and more about the operating system

No, it’s not a Surface. But it uses the same operating system as the Surface Pro.”

So begins every conversation I have with anyone who asks about the hardware I’m rockin’. From there I have to launch into a convoluted discussion about the various options you have when choosing a Windows 8 device. So I suppose I might as well get it out the way now.

The original Microsoft Surface RT (released late last year) uses an ARM processor – the kind you find in many smartphones and tablets today. A bit of rewriting of Windows was required to get it to work with these processors and as a consequence, you can’t use any old Windows applications (like, say, Office pre-2013). It looks like Windows, but it’s more a mobile operating system like iOS (on Apple devices) or Android. The advantage though is that it gets tablet-like battery life and doesn’t heat up too much.

Proposed new icon for the Windows 8 App Store

Proposed new icon for the Windows 8 App Store

To be honest though, to me there just isn’t a compelling reason to choose this Windows ‘lite’ over the established players if all you want is a tablet to consume web content. Especially when you can only install apps from the Windows 8 app store and that is still a bit of a ghost town. Windows RT confuses the market and requires drawn out explanations like this one to put it into its rightful place.

If I’m going to buy a Windows tablet, it’s because I want to do something more.

This year Microsoft have released the Surface Pro. This is a full blown Windows machine, using an Intel Core i5 processor like you’d find in a regular laptop. Great news for those wanting full Windows like me.

The non-RT version of Windows 8 (i.e. regular Windows) now gives you the best of both worlds – two interfaces. There’s the new ‘Modern’ interface which uses touch scrolling and live tiles, and allows you to consume content via web-connected apps. Microsoft have intentionally set out to do something completely new here. It’s not an iOS rip-off. It’s altogether different, and that can be infuriating. It really takes some getting used to. But once you do, it’s not only effective, it has a couple of killer features that make iOS and Android tablets seem like over-sized smartphones. So if you stick to the Modern interface, any Windows 8 apps you install will work without you ever having to see the ‘old’ Windows. I’m not convinced yet that Microsoft are right to force this interface onto desktop users, but in a tablet it works well.

For older Windows applications, it drops you back to the familiar Windows desktop. To the Apple zealots, this might be a point worthy of derision. Windows desktop on a tablet?! And to be honest, the experience on a touch-only device isn’t always what one might call smooth. So perhaps it deserves some mockery – until you want to use a full blown desktop application for something. Then it’s irreplaceable.

But there’s a problem with the Surface Pro. Because it uses laptop hardware, it gets laptop battery life  – abysmal relative to a tablet. And the heat is such that it still uses fans to cool itself! I’m not sure about you, but I can’t imagine using a tablet and putting up with fan noise as hot air blows all over my knees!

This is why the Surface Pro is more of a laptop replacement. I like the idea, but I would wait for Surface Pro 2.0 or 3.0.

What to do?

Well, as it happens there is a third category of Windows tablet. I’m surprised that Microsoft haven’t made more of a big deal of this category. Remember the old Atom processors that were popular for a while when Netbook computers had their 5 minutes in the sun? They were mostly terrible of course. The processors that powered them are still around though, and they’re now much better – power-efficient, low heat and dual core. And best of all, they use the old x86 architecture which means you can run full Windows 8!

The Dell Latitude 10 - hot air ballooning optional

My new pride and joy – they’re so cute at this age!

That’s where my Dell fits in. Other devices to use this processor include the Samsung Ativ and the HP Envy x2. For me at least, this is where it’s at for Windows 8 tablets. Little to no heat, great battery life and full Windows 8 Pro. It’s like a tablet, only I can do laptopy things with it. I can put it onto a Windows domain. I can print from it. Because it has a full-sized USB port (hallelujah!) I can plug an ethernet cable (using an ethernet to USB connector) or a USB stick into it. And I can run any legacy Windows applications I like, without the need for a permanent internet connection.

The other day, for example, I needed to make a change to a PowerPoint animation on the road. No need for a VPN or a feature-barren app that’s not up to the task. I just dropped back to the desktop and opened PowerPoint. No catches. I can even sync an iPhone to it!

I’m not going into a comprehensive review of the device and the OS in this instalment. Microsoft’s unnecessarily complicated product strategy means that I need an entire introductory post just to explain what it is I’m reviewing! But let me try to summarise.

I’m a person who’s reasonably OS agnostic. In our house we have both Windows and Apple computers, as well as iOS and Android smartphones. So I hope it counts for something when I say that for me at least, a Windows 8 tablet is the best tablet for business use.

The Modern interface is a complete break from the iOS/Android way of doing things. Yes there’s a learning curve, the app store is pretty barren for now and when you do have to drop back to the desktop, it’s a little clunky. Each element on its own is not best in class. But put together, a Windows 8 tablet is the best compromise of all worlds.

Thankfully, days like this are now behind me

Thankfully, days like this are now behind me

I ride my bike to work as many days as I can. When I first bought my tablet, I assumed I’d leave it at the office and use it for meetings and so on, and continue to take my laptop home each night. Of course, this is pretty heavy in my backpack, but what can you do? Turns out what I can do is leave it here and take my tablet home instead. In fact, I’ve taken my laptop home maybe twice in the last 2 months. I can do everything I need to on on my tablet now – including playing a few retro games from the early 2000’s (Half Life 2 runs great on low detail).

Coupled with the great productivity features in the new Modern Interface, Windows 8 as a business tablet makes an iPad seem like a consumer toy.

And of course, when it comes to using Xero and WorkflowMax, it really doesn’t matter what you use.