Tablets are fantastic devices, whether for reading, playing games, watching movies or simply browsing the web. But in all these activities, the user is a consumer. There is pre-created content that you access. A tablet, whether it’s the iPad or an Android device, isn’t suited for creation; for true productivity, if you will.
Windows 8 was meant to work well on touchscreen devices with its Modern UI, while still retaining the core functionality with the ‘Desktop’ app, which transported you to the familiar Windows interface. There have been plenty of touchscreen laptops running Windows 8, but they don’t offer the kind of portability that a tablet does.
The Acer Iconia W4 changes the game. It puts Windows 8 on an 8-inch tablet, just like the iPad Mini or the Samsung Galaxy Note 5100. Is this the first tablet that actually lets you be as productive as you would be on a laptop?
The short answer: Nope! The Acer W4 is a great example of the massive gap that lies between theory and practicality. On paper, you get the convenience of Windows with the added benefit of being customized for touchscreens. In reality, it’s an operating system that fails on both aspects.
The Problem With Windows 8
There are two distinct personalities in Windows 8, or the subsequent 8.1 update. The first is the Modern UI, which features fancy “Live Tiles” and a new breed of apps that are made for touchscreens. The other is the Desktop mode, which appears as an ‘app’ in the Modern UI.
Modern UI is satisfactory as a touchscreen interface alone. It falters in some aspects when compared to the likes of iOS and Android, but scores on some others — there’s plenty to like and dislike, just like any operating system. But its undoing lies in the lack of a good app ecosystem. The Windows Store simply does not have the same number or quality of apps that are available on Android, let alone the iPad. And because of that, it’s almost impossible to recommend it for tablet use alone. Unlike the traditional desktop, touchscreen devices rely a lot on apps optimized for touch usage; without those, Windows 8 isn’t an experience that’s worth the money.
And then comes Desktop mode. When you first tap it, the sense of familiarity it provides is a feeling that you lack on Android and iOS. This is Windows. On a tablet, this is Windows. You know it, you’ve worked with it, you know what you can do with it. But the moment you go beyond the looks, it starts falling apart. Since it wasn’t made for touch inputs, it’s difficult to operate it with your fingers. You will need to pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard and a trackpad too — make no mistake, you still need that trackpad for a regular mouse’s input when you’re in “productivity mode”, as such. There’s an awkward keyboard accessory, but it is too cumbersome. In fact, there isn’t a single keyboard for any tablet out there that turns it into a laptop without compromising on portability. The Microsoft Surface comes closest, but even that hasn’t cracked the engineering yet. So without that input of a keyboard and mouse, Windows 8.1 on a touchscreen feels lacking.
Put the two together and you can see why Windows 8 doesn’t work on a tablet form factor yet. For it to be a device that enables productivity, it needs a lot more: a keyboard, a mouse, and a USB port for pen drives.
The Key Is Input
The iPad was made for touch input. Android is made for touch input. Windows 8 tries to serve both touch and non-touch; and in doing that, it loses out on both markets. I have used Windows 8 convertible laptops, and in those, it makes sense to use it as a regular notebook PC for 90% of the time in Desktop mode and undock the screen for the 10% to indulge in some reading or light browsing in Modern UI.
With an 8-inch tablet, the bulk of your usage is in the Modern UI, which does not have the apps to be a good tablet OS. And there’s no real way to use it as a laptop, unless you prop it up on a table and attach a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.
In the end, I’m left confused. I don’t know how I’m supposed to use the Acer Iconia W4, or what I’m meant to use it for. The iPad and Android tablets are clear in their purpose as devices to help you consume data, which is what I do on them. With Windows 8, I’m not so sure and that confusion meant that the tablet spent more time lying on its side than in my hand.
By Mihir Patkar