I’ve been playing with the Dell Venue 8 Pro for about a week now and so I thought I’d share some quick thoughts about my early impressions, specifically with Windows 8. With my affinity for Mac OS X, I have spent relatively little time using Windows 8 since its release last year beyond some brief interactions at a Microsoft Store or Best Buy.
Identity Crisis: Desktop or Metro mode?
In an effort to address an increasingly mobile computing world dominated by touch-based smartphones and tablets, Microsoft introduced what is known as Metro, the tile-based UI that lets you swipe and tap to interact with your computer. Worried of the response from its millions of users to adjusting to a completely new interface, it kept traditional Desktop Windows intact, though clearly not as the focal point.
One year after its release, that identity asymmetry persists. The recent resurrection of the Start button in 8.1 simply allows you to jump back to Metro, rather than display the traditional Start menu that so many had grown so accustomed to for so many years. In other words, there’s no turning back the clock.
Metro is fantastic on a tablet device, as long as your input of choice are the ten fingers you were born with. Switch back to Desktop mode and good luck trying to tap those minuscule screen targets with your clumsy fingers. Setting up your keyboard and mouse for Desktop is practically a requirement. It’s no wonder why OEMs are introducing a plethora of hybrid Windows 8 tablet/laptops. The result is that users are forced to make compromises. Yes, you have enough computing power to run desktop-level apps like Photoshop and iTunes but you lose the portability and lightness of the device as a tablet. Perhaps, it’s better to just have multiple devices for various purposes.
Place apps side-by-side with split screen mode
Imagine you’re preparing a new dish for the first time. Using split screen, you can have a Youtube video of a chef preparing the dish on one side of the screen, with a list of the ingredients showing on the adjacent side. This is arguably one of my favorite features in Windows 8. Once again, the beauty of this is how easy it is to do: as you swipe down from the top edge, move left or right to snap the app where you want.
Swipe from the right in Windows 8 and the “Charms” menu springs out offering options like Search, Share, and Settings. Swipe from the left and quickly switch back to your previous app. Swipe from top to bottom to close your app. And finally swipe up to reveal the app’s quick settings and controls. Once you learn these basic gestures, Windows 8 becomes so much faster and easier to use.
Internet Explorer “Immersive Mode”
Thus far, the only Metro-supported browser available is the venerable Internet Explorer. For all the hate IE gets, it’s actually quite slick on Windows 8. Built-in gestures let you swipe back and forth between pages. The browser utilizes every pixel of your screen so nothing is wasted. Lastly, the design itself is optimized for tapping.
Since I am primarily a Google Chrome user, I was disappointed to find that it is available only as a Desktop app. There is a setting to relaunch the browser in “Windows 8 mode” but it’s practically the same thing. Even worse, scrolling is laggy at best. Stick with Internet Explorer.
It’s easy to make comparisons of the Windows Store with the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, however such an analysis should be in the context of the various device categories they support. For instance, there is a separate App Store for Mac, iPad, and iPhone. The latter two often interweave, though in a unilateral direction in favor of the iPad (i.e., you can use iPhone apps on an iPad). The Google Play store lets you download apps for Android, which powers smartphones and tablets. Until Google decides to merge the Chrome Web Store with Google Play, comparing the Play Store with the Windows Store is not apt. Furthermore, the Windows Store itself is similarly divided by apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Because of those differences, it’s better to compare the Windows Store for Windows 8 with Apple’s Mac App Store.
Which one’s better? It’s too early to declare a winner but in my short usage so far, I’ve found a number of quality Windows 8 apps like MetroTube, Twitter, The New York Times, Mint.com, and Foursquare. I have my own personal staple of favorite Mac Apps like 1Password, Tweetbot, Pixelmator, and Pocket, none of which are available on Windows 8.
Missing notification center
According to The Verge, Windows Phone 8.1 will join its iOS and Android counterparts with the addition of a notification center feature. iOS’s Notification Center was ported over to desktop in Mac OS X Mountain Lion. Here’s to hoping that Windows 8.2 will do the same.
Setting Default Apps
Let’s say you click on a link to a tweet on your computing device. On Android, a dialog box appears asking you to choose from a set of related apps to open the activated link. Once selected, you can hit “Always” or “Just once” to set a permanent or temporary action when launching the app. On iOS, similar triggers are a bit more restricted or impossible to reach without making some sort of system level tweak.
Buried in your PC Settings, you will find a listing called Defaults, which as the name implies, lets you configure the apps you want to open for web links, email, photos, and more. You can even assign default apps based on file type and protocol. The end result is surprisingly dead-simple, and sorely missing on other platforms.
Configuring Share options
In a similar vein, Windows 8 lets you define apps to which you can share content with. On Android, you’re left to scroll through a plethora of apps installed on your phone just to reach the one you actually care about. Yes, you can find third-party apps to configure the share options but there’s nothing better than having the functionality built right into the OS.
Wrap Up: Clean, sophisticated, and a lot more to learn
While it’s too early to arrive at a complete opinion of Windows 8, my experience with it so far has been mostly positive. Yes, the duality of Metro and Desktop is an awkward implementation and no clear solution is readily available. On a tablet, it’s fantastic but how that translates on a laptop, remains to be seen. Microsoft made a bold bet when it redefined Windows in the age of touch-based mobile devices. As the company continues to refine quirks and release new features, the platform can start to mature once again.