Does Windows 8.1 work on an 8in tablet?

27 Jun 2013

Microsoft has been at pains to emphasise how well suited the newly minted Windows 8.1 is for compact tablets at this week’s Build conference. Steve Ballmer himself came on stage brandishing an 8in Acer Iconia W3 running Windows 8.1 during his keynote speech – and then promptly made himself the most popular man in San Francisco by announcing he was going to give one to each of the thousands of developers here at Build. I've got my hands on one, too. So can Windows 8.1 really compete with iOS and Android on compact tablets?

I’ll stress I've only had a short while to play with the W3, and my opinion may well change over time, but my early impressions are that Windows 8.1 does scale nicely to the smaller screen.

The strange thing about running Windows 8.1 on a compact tablet is that you tend to hold such devices in portrait orientation, like an ebook reader, whereas the side-scrolling Windows 8 (and many of its apps) was patently designed primarily for landscape. Microsoft says it’s put in plenty of effort to make the OS work cleanly in portrait mode, and for the large part it appears to have succeeded.

Even though Microsoft has improved the split-screen performance of Windows 8.1, it’s sensibly decided to let you only run one full-screen app in portrait mode. App behaviours change to suit the screen orientation, too. If you click on a message in Mail, for example, the message itself opens full screen in portrait mode, whereas it opens in a side panel when you’re holding the tablet in landscape orientation. Both are good decisions given the screen space available.

The improvements to the software keyboard make a difference for compacts, which normally ship without physical keyboards to keep costs down. The software keyboard now attempts to predict words as you type.  Suggestions appear just beneath the word you’re typing, and you can swipe right on the space bar to move to the next word, pressing space again to select the word. As with all predictive text systems, it really only comes in handy on longer words, but we had no problem getting up to a reasonable typing speed in both portrait and landscape modes with Windows’ already excellent software keyboard.

There are some oddities. Swiping in from the edges of the screen to view the list of open apps on the left, or accessing the Charms on the right, feels a little awkward when you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode. The Start screen tiles have to reorganise themselves too -- a perfectly tessellated grid of apps in landscape becomes a gappy jumble when you flip to the other orientation. The problem is exacerbated by the two new tile sizes, which make it even harder to keep the Start screen looking neat. It’s an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare.

Performance isn’t blistering on the Iconia W3, which packs a relatively lowly Atom Z2760 processor and 2GB of RAM. There’s a wee bit of stutter as you move between apps and it takes a second or two to rejig the screen as you move from one orientation to the other, but this is still only a preview of Windows 8.1 and performance may improve.

The two big remaining questions are battery life and the price of devices. I’ve not had long enough with the W3 to pass judgement on battery life, but I’ll post an update when I’ve had a day or two more to test. The Iconia W3 will start from around £280 for the 32GB version, which is more expensive than a Google Nexus 7, but competitive with the iPad mini. And given that these small Windows 8 tablets are now shipping with a full copy of Office Home and Student, the price doesn’t seem unreasonable at all.

Much will again depend on third-party app support, but does Windows 8.1 make a decent compact tablet OS? Yes, it most certainly does.

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