Long-time readers of the DMZ will know that I’ve been a big fan of Windows 8 on tablets since the original launch of the Surface RT. While many people, including many of the other writers at the DMZ, have found a lot to dislike in the operating system, I’ve grown to love it. As we see Windows 10 continue to evolve I fear that I, along with the other small group of fans, are going to be pushed to other platforms for a quality tablet user experience.
When Microsoft announced Windows 10 last year they didn’t focus on the consumer aspects of the new operating system. In fact, they hardly even mentioned the tablet use cases. I wasn’t all that worried. Clearly Microsoft needs to win back the desktop users with the next version of Windows. So they focused on desktop features, and they told us that in early 2015 we would see a more consumer-focused preview of the operating system. I patiently withheld my concerns. I feared Microsoft may skew the user experience too far in the desktop direction. This week Microsoft released the Windows 10 Technical Preview 2, also known as the January release. Finally, a version of Windows 10 that made sense to install on my Surface Pro tablet. Would it pleasantly usher in a new era of consumer computing, or leave me considering competing tablets?
One of the new features in Windows 10 is called continuum. It’s designed to ease the transition between desktop and tablet mode when using a two-in-one device like the Microsoft Surface. Of course, inside of Windows you’ll never actually see it called that. It’s simply called Tablet Mode. If you pull off the Surface’s keyboard, a notification pops up asking if you’d like to enter tablet mode. If you select yes it makes a few changes to the layout. First, all of the apps, both “modern” and desktop, that you currently have open will switch to being displayed in full screen mode. The other immediately noticeable change is that if you tap on the Start button it will display the Start menu full screen.
Running modern apps in full screen mode makes total sense, and it’s exactly what I would want to happen. Frankly, even when I’m using my Surface outside of Tablet Mode I tend to keep the modern apps maximized. I also have a hard time arguing against making the Start menu a full screen experience when in Tablet Mode. One could definitely argue that it should be configurable, as keeping the Start menu as a simple pop-over can be handy also.
The Start menu may be presented in full screen, but it is still absolutely the Start menu, not the Start screen from Windows 8. The left column of the menu presents you with the most used and recently installed apps. Then you can click a button to expand that list into a vertically scrolling pane to see the rest of the apps that are installed. I don’t hate the list, and I can understand why it’s there. They want to provide quick access to your most frequently used apps. Who could possibly argue against that? The problem is that I’m also very likely to pin my most frequently used apps to the Start menu so that I can quickly glance at their live tiles. If I have an app pinned, why does it also need to consume space in the frequently used list?
There’s another feature of the Start menu that really drives me insane though. The left column is a vertical list that is obviously designed to scroll. So why am I forced to tap the All apps button at the bottom of the list to make it scroll? It should just scroll naturally into the complete list of all apps. Don’t make me reach for a small target near the corner when I could slide the list quickly and easily with my thumb or finger.
There’s one last annoyance about the Start screen in Tablet Mode. When I wake the computer in Tablet Mode, make it show the Start menu! Microsoft has spent the last two years training people to quickly glance at their pinned tiles for easy access to important information from their favorite apps. With Windows 10 it seems as if they are doing everything imaginable to hide those incredibly useful tiles.
While there’s plenty to dislike about the new Start menu, that’s only the start of the problems. Microsoft has almost completely removed the edge gestures that were paramount to tablet usability in Windows 8. While a lot of people complained about the Charms bar when using a desktop or laptop, it was a fast and easy way to access many critical actions and settings. When using a tablet, it was also dead-simple to use. You would simply swipe in from the right edge to reveal the Charms bar. From there you had easy access to the Start button, Search, Share, and Settings charms. All of these charms were critical to completing many of the most common tasks.
The Charms bar has been completely removed in Windows 10. Instead, when you swipe in from the right you are presented with the Notifications bar. It’s a combination of a notifications list with settings buttons at the bottom. The Notifications bar is where things really start to fall apart with Windows 10. In Windows 8 you could easily adjust volume and brightness levels, modify your wireless connection, and put the computer to sleep, reboot, or shut it down after clicking the Settings charm. In Windows 10 you can’t do any of these things from the Notifications bar. In fact, I haven’t found a way to adjust display brightness at all in Windows 10! These are tasks I do daily on my Surface as I’m frequently watching videos, often in dark rooms where I don’t want to illuminate the entire room with my tablet.
Accessing settings through the Charms bar in Windows 8 was the only way to modify options for most apps. To access app options in Windows 10 you first need to swipe down from the top and tap the new hamburger menu icon just to reveal the same set of buttons that used to be in the Charms bar. If the Charms bar was too hard to find in Windows 8, they’ve managed to make accessing options in apps even more difficult to find, and harder to access quickly, due to hiding them behind significantly smaller touch targets.
You’ll need to get used to swiping in from the top with Windows 10 though. If you were used to swiping from the bottom or top to get to app command buttons, Microsoft has over-complicated this process too. Now you need to swipe from the top, tap the hamburger menu, then select the App commands option. So where you used to make one swipe to get to an app’s most frequently used buttons, now you need to swipe (in a different location) and tap two small buttons.
Another edge gesture that Microsoft has modified for Windows 10 is the left edge swipe. Previously, a fast swipe would launch the previously opened app. It was a very fast way to switch between full screen apps. If you were to swipe in from the edge, then quickly swipe back out, it would display small screenshots of multiple apps that are open along the left edge of the screen. Then you could simply tap on the one you want to open. This could typically be accomplished without removing your hand from the bezel as the screenshots were well within the reach of your thumb. With Windows 10, when you swipe in from the left it tiles screenshots of all the open apps across the entire screen. If it sounds like a traditional alt+tab hotkey display, that’s because it is the new alt+tab display in Windows 10. To switch apps you then need to tap on one of the tiled screenshots. There’s no one-swipe gesture for going back to the previous app anymore. Even worse, if you’re holding your tablet with two hands you’ll almost definitely need to remove one hand from its grip to reach into the center of the screen to select your new app. This really slows down productivity when quickly swapping between a few apps.
I’ve found all of these issues in less than one full day of usage. It’s certainly not a promising sign to see all of these massive usability issues. If Microsoft doesn’t tweak any of this then we’ll be stuck with little more than touchscreen Windows 7 tablets. No matter what your thoughts were about Windows 8, no one thinks that Windows 7 tablets are the type of device experience we’re trying to get to. The only thing that gives me hope is that Microsoft has been listening to user feedback, and directly integrating that feedback into Windows 10. For the sake of all people looking to use Windows tablets in the future, I sincerely hope Microsoft addresses these issues with the same level of thought that went into designing the original tablet experience for Windows 8.