Hands on with touch enabled Windows 8, Metro, Surface/Slate

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Since TechEd  2012, I have been trying to sort out all the new tech coming from Microsoft in the coming few months.   I’ve been working with Windows 8 and Server 2012 since the Dev Preview early in 2012.  I recently won a Samsung Series 7 Slate PC (which is what the surface is largely patterned after) and have been able to put it through its paces since with Windows 8 Release Preview, and Metro with a touch interface.

First lets talk Surface (via Slate):

Microsoft Surface on a Slate

There is endless debate about if it’s a good idea, bad idea, pointless, or awesome.   Being that 99% of the people who have opinions on Surface or the Metro interface under Windows 8 have never used a touch interface for Metro, the arguments and  debates are funny and largely uninformed. 

Microsoft is taking an unprecedented step (for MS) in securing the future of their flagship OS and Apps (Windows and Office) by building their own Slate device.   Reason is that for Windows 8 to be fully appreciated needs a touch screen.   Office 2013 will also have a Metro version (bundled in with the ARM version of the Slate, but from what I understand for sale for the x86 versions of Windows 8), and will be a killer app for those who want office productivity tools on the go with their tablet. 

Windows 8 is a transitional OS IMHO.  It is an OS that lets users start to leverage Windows Metro Apps, the Windows App store,  and getting developers online to build for that interface.  While it also supports the desktop everyone has used up until this point.   The Win 8 Pro Surface offering looks to be focused on that market.  Where the Win 8 RT Surface looks to be for those who want to go all-in on the Metro market place and apps.   I don’t think there is a wrong move here, MS is betting everything on Windows 8/Metro/Surface, they aren’t going to let it fail easily.

A key measure of this, is typically MS owns a market by its 3rd release of a product. For those keeping score, this is MS’s 3rd OS to support touch features (XP to a limited extent (the XP tabs were awful), Windows 7 more-so, and now Windows 8 is fully built around it).   

The Surface looks to be an evolved Slate PC with an ARM variant.   The Samsung Slate is what was handed out (or a very close variant of it) at the BUILD conference last September to announce Windows 8 to Devs.   The Samsung Series 7 Slate I have is the evolution of that BUILD device and was release in October of 2011.   I have been using it daily to get an idea of how Windows 8 will work on tablet devices.   And am going to use that as the basis for what I think Surface will be in this article from a high level. 

Not just another iPad wannabe:

One of the bits that I found interesting right off the bat is how versatile the slate type devices can be.  

Use it as a Tablet: You can use the Metro apps and leverage it VERY similar to an iPad.  The Metro apps and the Windows store are very similar to iOS apps and the app store in how they work.  The apps are all sand boxed (isolated from one another), and its a click to install a new app from the store.Slate Metro Interface

You can stay in the metro apps, and do most of the things you normally would do on a tablet, surf the web, read/reply to email, and many other things.   MS is going to be and already is subsidizing large amounts of developers to port apps over to the ARM and x86 versions of Windows 8 from other platforms (iOS, Android).   If MS knows how to do anything, they know how to build the Windows platform up from a software side. 

As you can see in the pic there are already 3rd party apps in the “App Store” for Windows 8.  Given its probably .01% the app count iOS has, but its a completely new platform, so I am not too worried… Besides MS has a trick up its sleeve – Desktop app compatibility.  Non sand boxed, fully capable apps. 

Compared to my iPad, the Samsung Slate (which is less efficient than what they are calling for with the Surface) gets worse battery life by a pretty good bit.  I would say its better than my Mac book Air, but not as good as the iPad by a few hours or more of run time.

And the touch interface on the iPad is more refined.   Drivers are still beta and developmental for the Slate/Surface so I expect them to evolve and get better as time goes on for Microsoft.

As a Laptop/Desktop replacement:

I have an iPad, a Mac book Air 11" (Running Windows 8), a Desktop, and some other bits around here.   So the Slate initially struck me as a Swiss Army knife.  Where it did lots of things but none of them as good as the more specialized devices I had.   It’s easy to stop there and write off the Slate device as nothing more than that.  

But in closer inspection, and adaptation, I’ve found the slate to not only be as good as my Mac book, but in some ways far better! (screen size, weight, disk/memory capacity all exactly the same between them)

As an Ultrabook Replacement

Using a Bluetooth Keyboard and mouse I can do just about everything I did with my Mac book or my desktop for that matter.   For Surface you wont even need either of those as the cover/keyboard/touch pad will give you all that functionality.

I discounted the touch screen functionality of a laptop for a long time, but using it in practice with a keyboard/mouse/touchpad was a revelation.   To be able to just tap the screen instead of hunting with the mouse or touch pad to do something or switch apps works very well.

The ability to run any app that runs on my PC regardless of if it was made for Metro, or made for Windows 8 in most part, is a huge plus.  There is no conversion nightmare here, you just use the apps you always did, until a metro version fits your needs.   This absolutely is a device that I can use for just about everything and grow into the new ecosystem with. 

Stylus:

Another feature that the iPad cant compete with, is a super high res/sensitive stylus. (pictured later in this post)  Samsung has included a stylus that works very very well when it comes to desktop apps where there may be not enough room to use your fat fingers in menus and such.  Windows 8 also packs a nicely evolved hand writing recognition system for text input that even can handle my terrible hand writing!

The Stylus has no battery yet has 2 buttons on it that either work as a click, double click, or an erase feature. 

This works hand in hand with the 10 point capacitive touch screen to give you some great flexibility depending what you are working on.

Performance:

The Surface will pack the new Intel IvyBridge procs, my Slate has an Intel Sandybridge Core i5 proc in it w/ 4GB of ram and 128GB Samsung SSD.  Performance of the Slate with Metro/Desktop apps is faster than anything my MBA can do (its a late 2010 MBA) with its Core2Duo proc. 

It plays back 1080P video without issue over the built in HDMI, but also has Intel WiDi capability if you have a wireless video end point.  Adobe Lightroom, or other higher end video/photo apps have no issue with the Intel HD3000 embedded video.  I will say the Windows 8 Drivers are still quite immature though and lag behind the same video proc under Windows 7 in benchmarks still.

For work apps, it handles Outlook, Word, Excel, System Center Tools, Various other management tools, Remote Desktop (both Metro and Desktop versions) just fine. 

Drivers overall are still immature for video, network, system, touch, etc… but they are getting better as we near RTM.  Much of the same back end systems are running the Surface (Wacom touch drivers, Intel Centrino NIC, etc…) so you can be sure companies are rapidly finishing up drivers in prep for the launch of the new MS tab.

Utility:

This week I have been standing up new Windows 2012 environments in labs to demo portions of what is coming for my job.  I have been doing much of this with the Slate to manage the deployments, configurations, and health of the systems I am standing up.

Running vtUtilities to monitor Hyper-V 2012 Hosts

Being able to load full management tools  (Like the vtUtilities suite above, or the System Center management tools) and run them on a tablet device is a big bonus. No longer do I need to wait for some dev to release a hack into the iOS app store to connect to a system to manage it and pay $9.99+ for the privilege of doing what I already could do on a desktop.

One thing you may be asking is how easy is it to manage or maniupulate desktop apps with just a touch screen.  The answer is surprisingly well.  There is a learning curve and gesture functionality seems to be evolving still.   The biggest problem is going from iOS gestures to Windows 8.  Many are the same, but many are also different. 

The soft keyboard and the stylus work hand in hand along with the general touch screen to make desktop operations pretty seamless. 

I have had issues with remote desktop sessions and text imput, but those are bugs that I’ve already forwarded to Microsoft.

Some of my gripes are:

  • Zooming is cumbersome. MS should have it universal to make it easy to zoom with a pinch in the desktop or RDP sessions.   There is a zoom capability, and it works well once you understand it, but is cumbersome and uses the margins to scroll/zoom.
  • Keyboard pop up.  There doesn’t seem to be a gesture to force the keyboard to pop up in metro apps.  This means in an RDP session I have not found a way using Metro Remote Desktop to do text input without a keyboard attached…
  •  More gestures/multi touch customization required.  Mature Wacom drivers that support more multi touch functionality is required, but not here yet.  If MS could mimic the multi touch functionality I have under iOS with iTAP RDP’s app for desktop functionality that would be awesome.  But its not there yet.
With that said, the soft keyboard for Metro and Desktop is fantastic in its implementation as seen below.

Keyboards:

There are 4 different soft keyboard options under Windows 8 (all available in desktop or Metro mode!)  In Metro you just click into a text field and it pops up just like in iOS.  In desktop mode you tap the little keyboard icon on the task bar to pop it up.

Simplified Keyboard: (this is similar to the standard iOS keyboard)

Simplified Keyboard

Just like in iOS, to get access to the numbers and symbols you click the “&123” button.

Thumb Keyboard:

Thumb Keyboard

The thumb keyboard is similar to the iOS split keyboard but you get the full number pad in the middle as well.

Full Standard Keyboard:

Standard Keyboard

This is what I would call the standard Windows Keyboard.   Its a bit busy, but does give you access to all the numbers, and keys in one screen without any more screen real estate being used up.

Stylus:

This is the most unique… I haven’t used it much, but for someone who takes notes by writing more than typing on a glass screen, this could be quite functional.

Stylus Keyboard

The accuracy and intelligence of the Stylus word input is pretty amazing.  I have terrible hand writing and this picked up what I wrote easily and on the first try almost every time. 

Overall the keyboard accuracy and hand feel when you type on the glass and responsiveness is every bit as good as the iOS versions.  I find the keyboard spacing to be pretty solid, but since the screen is 16:9 vs 4:3 like the iPad, you get more hand space and its a bit easier to type on than the iPad.

Other novel Windows 8 Features:

Account Setting Sync:

Accounts can be tied to your Windows Live ID and you can sync browser settings, saved passwords, wall paper, lock screen settings, app settings, etc… between devices.  You can choose what to sync on each device.   This makes it handy that when you add in a new device into your life running Windows 8, it instantly gets setup with all your preferences without you doing anything once you associate it to your account.

This is similar to how Apple’s and Google’s universal logins tend to work, only at a base OS level for configurations now.

Picture Password:

If you don’t like having to type in a password on a slate/surface device, don’t worry.   You can do a picture password.  Which means you associate a picture to your logon, and draw a series of gestures on it.   Then to log in, you just replicate those gestures with your finger, and it uses that as a password.

Here is a picture of my password/picture login screen:

Picture Login

Somewhere in that picture are 3 gestures I need to replicate to log in.  this picture worked well because there happen to be 3 mountain goats.  The gestures are a series of lines/circles that you do in order to log in.  In some ways I feel this has the potential to be more secure than a text password if you are creative on how you do it.

As you can see… I also have the option to use a text password if I would like.

Charms/App Commands/App Switching:

Swipes and flicks are largely how you control Windows 8 with a touch interface.   with that there are a few different ways to manage apps, settings and functions in Windows 8 on the desktop and Metro Apps. 

First thing to know is the “Desktop” is considered an App in Windows 8.   So you switch to the Desktop from other Metro apps just as you would between apps. 

App Switching:

To go between apps you either just do a quick swipe from the left and it will flick to the app next in the order, or you swipe ¼ way and go back to the left margin and it will bring up an app list similar to how iOS will on the bottom:

App Switching

Then you can just pick the Metro app you want to jump to or pick the start menu at the bottom.

Charms:

I hate the term Charms…  But these are essentially what you use to manage app settings, and the overall system when needed.  You also will find the Search and other functions there depending on the Metro app or Desktop.  You access it with a swipe to the left from the margin to the left.  This is also the new home of the “shutdown/reboot” button when you click on “settings”.

Charms.

App Controls and Features:

By swiping up from the bottom margin you can get access to various app controls depending on the Metro app.  In Metro Internet Explorer 10, you get the address bar, and the listing of the other tabs you have open at the top.  In Weather apps you may get an option to set your location, look at Maps, etc…  Its essentially just app functions.

Another swipe from the top margin all the way to the bottom will close the application you are in.  If you do this on the desktop it will just throw the Desktop into the background and put you into the next app that’s open, or to the start menu.

IE App Control

If you touch back into the center of the screen the app control borders ( the address bar and tabs in the picture above) go away.


Closing:

There is much more about Windows 8 and Metro to talk about, this is just a high level primer on how it works and why this is an important step for Microsoft.   I have much more to dive into on this and will in the coming weeks.  

I said over Twitter (@_joekelly_) a couple weeks ago that Windows Server 2012 is the most disruptive enterprise software suite to come around in a decade (shaking up Virtualization, Storage, Networking, Remote Desktop, Security, Remote Access, etc…. ).   I think Windows 8 and the Metro interface has the potential to not necessarily be disruptive tech, but is bringing Microsoft into relevance with a market that was already shaken up by Apple starting a few years ago.  Perfecting what has been started.

I don’t think there will be any true losers with Windows 8 and Surface coming to market. I think this will help push the tablet/touch industry and UI developers harder than ever to make touch/mobile/dynamic systems more capable, and functional in an enterprise environment rather than the almost toy/surf on your couch level that the iPad is largely held to.

More to come!  Going to be talking about Server 2012, Private Cloud and more about the functionality of touch screen computing with Windows 8.

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