Microsoft really is shaking things up with Windows 8. It’s a remodel down to the foundation, a monumental effort to start a new era of personal computing.
The showcase of this work is the Surface tablet, the first computer made and sold by the company.
Simultaneously, Microsoft overhauled all of its major programs and services, from servers to spreadsheets to Skype.
Some may see this as a sharp turn by a lumbering aircraft carrier to avoid running aground. Others may see a superpower launching a new fleet, in tandem with allies around the world.
Either way, it’s an overwhelming show of force by Microsoft and the PC industry, a duo that’s been less than dynamic in recent years and largely written off by Apple-loving media, investors and gadget aficionados.
The best way to see what’s coming is through the 11-inch screen of the Surface tablet, the magnesium fighter jet in Microsoft’s new arsenal.
With its minimalist design built around a set of online services, the device epitomizes the way we’re using computers mostly as consoles to stay connected to our personal collections of people, programs and media.
You can do this on a PC or phone, but many prefer a slim tablet that starts right up and runs a full day without recharging. Until recently the best option was an Apple iPad, but most every major tech company offers models in different sizes.
After a few days with Microsoft’s Surface, I think it’s a decent alternative, especially for people who haven’t yet added a tablet to their computing mix or have yet to strongly embrace the online realms of Apple, Google or Amazon.com.
The Surface is a refined and elegant combination of hardware and software with a distinctive style and feel that make it stand apart from any other tablet on the market. It feels fast and smooth and is simple enough for my kindergartner to navigate.
Starting at $499 for models with 32 gigabytes of storage and a bundled version of Office 2013, the Surface pricing compares favorably to the latest iPad, which costs $599 for a 32 gig model and doesn’t come with Office.
Shoppers will have to do their own math to decide which is a better deal. More important, though, is feeling each device and trying out their very different software interfaces.
The Surface’s case feels sturdy and purposeful, almost Teutonic, with a metal kickstand that sharply snaps into place. The charging cord also snaps firmly into position, held by magnets, as do the accessory covers with built-in keyboards. It’s slightly heavier than an iPad and feels more dense.
Those covers are pricey but dramatically boost the usability of the tablet, particularly the $130 “Type Cover” with a physical keyboard that’s just a quarter-inch thick. The $120 “Touch Covers” is remarkable. Even with slightly raised keys, it’s just an eighth-inch thick, but I couldn’t type fast on it.
On a single charge, my Surface ran through a workday of heavy testing, including streaming part of a movie to my TV via an HDMI cable. It was still going the next morning when I used it as a platter to carry coffee to my wife, read the news on it in bed and then played music and checked my fantasy football team at breakfast. The battery held out through this brutal regimen until midmorning at work.
Unlike the iPad, the Surface has a memory-card slot. It also has a USB port that worked fine with an ancient mouse, but not my Verizon LTE wireless stick, which isn’t yet supported on the platform. Microsoft should have offered a Surface version with 4G wireless built in.
A big question for many tablet buyers is the selection of apps. Apple’s numerical advantage is misleading. There are 275,000 apps specifically for the iPad, but many are duplicative and most people use only a handful.
That said, Microsoft’s Windows 8 app store is still strikingly bare, even with some 10,000 apps at launch. This is a particular concern on the Surface and other new tablets running Windows RT, a special mobile version of Windows 8 that runs only new apps offered through Microsoft.
Not everything needs an app. Facebook and Twitter don’t have Windows 8 apps yet but you can use them through the browser.
But there are notable holes. Barnes & Noble has yet to release a Windows 8 Nook app, despite Microsoft’s investing $605 million in the company last spring.
“Angry Birds” is also missing. But the most shocking absence is Microsoft Solitaire, which doesn’t run on Windows RT devices. Thus, buying a Surface requires a leap of faith that your favorite apps will come to the platform or that you’ll be fine with what’s there so far.
I’m surprised so few companies have Windows 8 apps since it’s a free opportunity to put dynamic billboards in front of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Companies used to spend a fortune for a piece of Windows desktop real estate and now they’re mostly shrugging and pointing to the iPad.
It remains to be seen whether the quality and style of the Surface and Windows 8 can overcome this bias and restore Microsoft’s reputation for bringing innovation to the masses.
Microsoft knew for years there was a huge market for handheld displays filling the gap between the phone and the PC. It pounced too early, though, with its Tablet PC software in 2002 and other projects in the twilight of Bill Gates’ tenure as chief software architect. Then the company lost interest until Apple showed that the hardware and market for tablet computing had ripened.
Now the larger opportunity is beyond gadgets and in online services where people live their digital lives, connecting from whatever device is at hand.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to build a new interface not just for PCs, but for this kind of computing.
When you first set up a Windows 8 system, you’re encouraged to sync it with online services such as email and Facebook. Windows 8 comes preloaded with Microsoft’s online suite, including Skype and the SkyDrive online storage locker. Files are saved online, and accessible from other devices you log in to.
Once it’s all connected, the big tiles on its home screen display constant updates, as well as news headlines, weather reports and other sources you select.
The idea is to be able to see at a glance what’s happening, then easily choose which program or service to launch. It works especially well for email, weather and news. The steady flow of images from social networks doesn’t provide usable information; it’s more of a shiny lure, pulling you back to the services.
Reinforcing the personal feeling of the software is the conversational tone used in its messages. When you first open the music or photos applications, it says “it’s lonely in here” and suggests you “open or play something.”
The flip side of all this personalization, of course, is that Microsoft knows more about you and binds you tighter into online services that it may use for marketing products to you.
Windows 8 system controls fade into the background to maximize the display space, which is a nice concept, especially on devices with smaller screens like a tablet.
But it requires an extra step to activate the controls, and you have to learn how they work or you may get stranded.
With a Surface tablet, these controls feel more natural than on a Windows 8 desktop or laptop.
A slight brush of your right thumb calls up the “Charms” controls, including search, settings and “Start,” a button that takes you back to the home screen. Flicking the left thumb scrolls you through recently opened applications.
Sweeping a finger up from the bottom of the screen reveals additional controls. A downward swipe closes the open program.
You can do all this with just a mouse and keyboard, but it feels less intuitive.
The mandatory minimalism has its limits. Microsoft shouldn’t have followed Apple in eliminating the physical “back” button. As a result, you end up going to the start screen often to “back up” or exit applications.
You frequently have to toggle to the software back to an “old fashioned” Windows 7-style PC desktop to get things done, such as configuring a tricky wireless connection.
Even the key Microsoft program on the Surface — the new version of Office that comes with the device — has to run in old-fashioned “desktop” mode. When you click the Word 2013 tile, it launches the program and switches the desktop back to circa 2009.
You can use the new “search” feature to find files or programs in the new interface.
But I prefer to use Windows Explorer, so I “pin” the trusty old app to the Windows 8 desktop.
Windows 8 is a fresh and fun new operating system, but it will take a while for people to fully embrace Microsoft’s vision of the future. Ready or not, here it comes.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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