Microsoft’s forthcoming operating system, Windows 8, is designed with a touch-first approach, meaning that most of the OS—particularly those portions of the OS that follow Metro-style design patterns—is optimized for use on touch devices. But tablets capable of running Windows 8 are often expensive or cumbersome. Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience Windows 8 on a tablet device that you already have, like an iPad or an Android tablet? Well, you can…for the right price.
Earlier this year, Splashtop, Inc. released an app for the iPad, Win8 Metro Testbed, that can remotely connect to Windows 8, letting you use it from your iPad. Splashtop already sold other remote access apps and services designed to connect to your Mac or Windows PC from a vast range of mobile devices, including iPads, Android tablets, the Kindle, Nook, Playbook, and even HP’s short-lived TouchPad. They also released an Android version of Win8 Metro Testbed last month.
With an obscure name like Win8 Metro Testbed, Splashtop clearly isn’t targeting the average consumer with this product. Instead, they’re positioning this app for developers and enthusiasts. With deep pockets. At $24.99, a purportedly special introductory price before going up to $49.99, Win8 Metro Testbed is Splashtop’s most expensive consumer offering.
So here’s how this all works: You’re going to download and install the Windows 8 Release Preview on a computer or virtual machine on your home network. Then download the Splashtop Streamer and install it on your Windows 8 desktop. Using the streamer’s needlessly-skinned settings dialog, set a security code and make sure the program is set to start automatically with Windows. If you want this to work when you’re not connected to your home network, you can sign in to your Google account. Splashtop uses some magical password authentication through Google Talk that effectively allows you to access your computer from outside your firewall. I have no idea how it works—it just does.
Now it’s time to shell out some money to purchase and install the mobile app. Splashtop, Inc. provided us with a copy of the iPad app for this review. The iPad app, for iOS 3.2 and later, is available in the iTunes Store. The Android version, supporting Android 3.1 and later, is available from Google Play. You’ll need to install and configure the app on your tablet, providing the security code you created on your computer and, if applicable, your Google account credentials. For the best experience, make sure you select the “best fit” resolution option in the advanced settings for the connection. If everything is set up properly, the app should find and list your computer. Just tap it to connect and prepare to be amazed.
If you’re running a decently-spec’ed machine on a network with good bandwidth and wireless, you should have the fast and fluid experience that Steven and the team have been touting for the past year. Suddenly Windows 8’s gesture substitutions for accessing core system features make sense. Swipe or drag to scroll, flick to select, pinch to zoom or expand. Swipe in from the edges to switch between applications, expose the charms, or expose an action bar…this is the experience Microsoft was envisioning with the new Start screen, the charms, large fonts, and finger-sized targets.
Remote connections made outside your home network are far less fluid, introducing a certain amount of lag and pixelation, depending on your conditions. Nonetheless, for remote access to a computer, it’s entirely tolerable.
On a local network, music and video plays fairly well, though full-screen video can get a little choppy…it’s good enough for YouTube viewing. Some video games and, notably, Windows Media Center in full screen mode may not work at all, prompting a warning about direct video not being supported. When asked about support for Windows Media Center, Splashtop’s official answer was that they “have never supported” it, though posts on their support site suggest that it might work with the right NVIDIA card and driver on your PC.
Using the desktop is somewhat cumbersome, as it always has been with Windows on touch devices. Testbed offers an expanded iPad keyboard with cursor and function keys, but you likely won’t need that, since Windows’ own built-in on-screen keyboard and handwriting recognition is excellent. We highly recommend using a stylus on the desktop for the best experience.
Not surprisingly, Windows won’t see or be able to use your device’s local camera or any other local resources. Similarly, there’s no feedback to Windows about the orientation of your device, so don’t expect to see (or test) your desktop or Metro applications in portrait mode. The app is smart enough to know whether your local audio is muted. When that’s the case, audio for videos will play at the PC, and audio apps won’t even allow you to play content—a very elegant way of handling things.
As for using Windows 8 in tandem with other apps on your tablet, forget it. Win8 Metro Testbed appears to have no multi-tasking or state saving capabilities. Switching between apps on an iPad severs the remote connection and switching back appears to reload the app from the start. Consequently, device notifications interrupt and sever any session in progress—a pretty significant annoyance that we hope Splashtop addresses in a future update.
If you use Windows 8 on Splashtop’s Win8 Metro Testbed long enough, you may just forget you’re not using an actual Windows tablet—the experience is that fluid and that convincing. This app makes it easy to see how great Windows 8 can be on a tablet, and it gives you, the developer or enthusiast, an opportunity to use Windows 8 on a tablet without having to invest in new Windows hardware.
That said, you have to really want this. At the discounted price of $24.99, the adoption cost is steep—it’s probably the most expensive app you’ll have on your tablet. Splashtop knows they’re alleviating your need to purchase a new device, and they’ve priced this product with that in mind. Call it evil, call it opportunistic…or just call it an early adopter tax.
As good as it is, it’s hard to see how Win8 Metro Testbed is anything more than an evolution of Splashtop Remote with the touch and gesture support that Windows 8 requires. Even the app name on the navigation bar itself, Splashtop Remote Win8 Edition, suggests this. So one has to imagine that these features will ultimately make their way back into that product, which currently sells at a much lower price point. The question is: how badly do you want to run Windows 8 on a tablet right now?