Working with a Windows 8 tablet: a long-term test

26 Oct 2012

Yesterday’s official launch of Windows 8 felt like a curious anti-climax for me. Not because of the lacklustre presentation – although the death by PowerPoint was thoroughly deflating – but because I’ve been running Windows 8 on my primary work PC for the past six months, ever since the launch of the Consumer Preview. And for the past three months, I’ve been running the new OS on a Samsung 700T tablet, to get the full touchscreen experience.

So what’s it like using a Windows 8 tablet as your primary work PC? For the vast majority of the time, it’s been absolutely fine. The 700T comes with a smart little docking stand with HDMI-out, that lets me connect a second 24in Full HD display on my desktop. That means I can keep the old-school desktop running on my primary display with all my regular Office apps etc, and use the tablet’s screen as a secondary display for Metro apps and keeping an eye on the PC Pro Twitter account.

Without that second screen, I don’t think I’d even bother with the Windows 8 Start Screen or Metro apps at all, because they don’t scale well on screens much bigger than my tablet’s. However, when sat on the secondary display, the live tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen are actually quite useful for spotting a new email dropping into my Gmail account, upcoming calendar appointments or news headlines.

The iPad is a magnificent companion device; a Windows 8 tablet is a magnificent all-rounder

With a full-sized USB keyboard and wireless mouse, the tablet is barely distinguishable from a laptop or desktop computer when it’s docked on my desk. On the road, I’ve been using the Microsoft Wedge keyboard and mouse pair that we reviewed a couple of months ago. The rigid, rubber case for the keyboard doubles as a stand for the tablet, meaning I don’t have to lug the dock around with me, although I’ve often left the office of an evening with the mouse lying forgotten on my desk. This is an enormous pain, because attempting to navigate the desktop or apps such as Word 2013 with fat fingers or stylus alone is agonising.

It may be a driver issue – the Samsung tablet was designed for Windows 7, not its successor – but once the PC’s been put to sleep, it often fails to recognise the mouse and keyboard when it wakes up again. Resetting the Bluetooth radio or the tablet itself normally solves the issue, but it’s an irritation.

The biggest problem with my three-piece mobile set-up, however, is that I need a table to work. I can perch a regular laptop on my, well, lap when I’m fighting for a seat on the train in the morning or at a crammed press conference. But without a flat surface to rest the tablet’s stand on, I’m absolutely snookered. It is possible to rattle out an email or a couple of hundred words using the onscreen keyboard with the tablet flat on my lap, but that’s very much a last resort. It’s one of the reasons I’m gagging to get my hands on a proper Windows 8 Surface tablet or one the many other laptop/tablet convertibles (the HP Envy x2 is high on my wishlist, too).

Performance

Ergonomics aside, there are many other positives. Initially, the problem of squeezing all my files and applications onto a 64GB SSD proved a headache, but the inconvenience of having to keep a careful eye on free disk space is ameliorated by the performance gains. Heavyweight apps open in just a few seconds, searching a massive inbox in Outlook 2013 is near instant, and everything just whistles along beautifully.

When something does go wrong, a reboot isn’t the grating chore it used to be. My tablet can undergo a full restart in a little under 10 seconds, and the desktop’s ready to work from the moment I click on its icon – there’s no dangling around waiting for security software (I’m using the baked-in Windows Defender) to sort itself out or other applications to load in the background.

Where Windows 8 does compare poorly to the iPad is the time it takes to resume. Pick an iPad up and press the power button and it’s ready to go in the blink of an eyelid; Windows 8 takes three or four seconds to rouse itself, and that small delay can be the difference between me picking up the iPad and my Samsung tablet when I quickly want to check an email or respond to a tweet.

However, there’s no denying that Windows 8 blows iOS out of the park when it comes to doing the day job. There’s no way I could work full time on my iPad: there’s simply nothing to match the power of Outlook, Word or Excel in the App Store; working without proper multitasking, with two, three, four or more windows open at the same time is simply unthinkable; and having the ability to work in a full web browser with easy access to the file system and extensions is critical.

The iPad is a magnificent companion device; a Windows 8 tablet is a magnificent all-rounder. Yes, it does involve compromises: the Windows Store is relatively weak, the jump between Metro and the old desktop interfaces can be jarring, and you will definitely need a keyboard and mouse.

But if I was forced now to choose between by Windows 8 tablet and my iPad, it would be the Apple tablet that was going on eBay.

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