Will anyone out there be surprised to hear that I have a new gadget? I didn’t think so.
What you might not have expected is that it’s not an Android or iOS device; it’s a Windows tablet. Not a Surface. Microsoft is positioning those as more of a laptop with a detached keyboard, or at most, a two-in-one.
This is an honest-to-gosh tablet running Windows 10. To be precise, it’s a “NuVision TM800W610L*”.
* Quite a mouthful, that, and a real loser when it comes to advertising. Who’s going to walk into a store and say “Lemme see one a them TM800W610L tablet thingies”? It’s not much fun to type, either. For the sake of my fingers, I’ll call it “Tim”.
When they’re available–and it’s currently not in stock at the Microsoft Store–they normally sell for $149, but shortly before Christmas, Microsoft dropped that to $59. At that price, I couldn’t resist the chance to see what the Windows tablet experience is like.
To be blunt, the reviews of the first generation of Windows tablets were lousy. The hardware was generally underpowered and they were further crippled by being saddled with Windows 8. But Tim’s specs are more or less in line with low-end computers, and Windows 10 is much more usable than Windows 8.
Tim did not have the Windows 10 Anniversary edition installed when he arrived. So the first order of business after connecting him to the Wi-Fi was to wait through several Windows updates. That was the first stumbling point: Tim’s hard drive is only 32GB. By the time all of the updates were installed, he was down to a mere 1.5GB of free space. If you didn’t know, when major Windows updates are installed, the old version is kept around in case there are problems and you need to revert. Windows noticed the lack of space and helpfully suggested deleting the backup. I gave it the go-ahead, and wound up with a much more usable 10GB of free space.
Of course, after installing some software–Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, Firefox, a couple of games, an ebook reader,…–I’m back down to about 7GB. It’s tight. I picked up an SD card for my data files, and that smoothed out the experience significantly.
By default, Tim will run in Windows 10’s “Tablet Mode”. That means you get the Start Screen instead of the traditional desktop/start menu interface, and all programs will be forced to run maximized. It’s a sensible approach, mirroring the iOS and Android “one app at a time” UI, but there’s a bit of a catch.
I’m going to have to digress a little here.
It’s a truism bordering on cliché (and I won’t address which side of the border it’s on) that the current generation of phones and tablets have as much computing power as a desktop computer from [insert date here, chosen to make your rhetorical point]. But part of the reason so many people feel compelled to make that point over and over is that because the portable gadgets use different UIs than desktops, we don’t really feel how powerful they are.
Holding Tim–0.6 pounds of computer–and seeing that familiar Windows interface on an eight inch screen, without a keyboard or mouse around, the truth hits you like a crowbar to the kneecaps. “This is a computer. Not a toy, not a single-purpose gadget, but a full-fledged computer.”
Which brings us back to that catch: it’s a computer. Running Windows. On an Intel CPU. That means you can install any of the zillions of Windows programs that have been written since, oh, 1995 or so. To some extent, that’s a good thing. The Windows App Store has a very limited selection of software compared to the Apple and Google stores. But the downside is that not all programs written before “programs” became “apps” play nicely with Tablet Mode.
Some don’t like running full-screen, and you wind up with a tiny window floating in the middle of a vast expanse of blank pixels. Some don’t recognize when they’re in the background and constantly demand attention with pop-ups.
The problem is compounded by NuVision’s decision to design the tablet with portrait mode in mind. Note the pictures in the link at the top of the post–they’re all vertically-oriented. The cameras are on one of the short edges. And the controls are on one of the long edges, where they’re most convenient when holding Tim with the cameras at the top.
Programs written with desktop–or laptop–computers in mind are designed on the assumption that the screen will be wider than it is tall. Maximizing them in portrait mode can make for an unusably skinny interface, with menus half-hidden behind “More” buttons and dialog boxes too wide to fit on the screen.
There’s also the matter of scaling.
NuVision has equipped Tim with an excellent 1200×1920 pixel screen. Squeezed into eight inches, that makes for very tiny pixels, which in turn makes for nigh-microscopic text and controls.
Microsoft’s solution–and, to be fair, it’s the same solution everyone else uses–is to combine multiple pixels into one, thus zooming in on the display. That makes text readable and buttons tappable, but it comes at the price of lowering the effective resolution.
By default, Tim comes set to display UI elements at 200%. That’s great for visibility, but in portrait mode it means the screen is effectively only 600 pixels wide. When was the last time you visited a website that was usable on a 600 pixel screen? No, mobile-optimized sites don’t count. Servers see Tim as a desktop computer and serve up the desktop site, not the mobile version. Nor is the problem limited to the web. Even the oldest of Windows programs assume a screen width of at least 640 pixels. Remember the days when a VGA 640×480 screen was awesome? I do–but it ain’t so spectacular nowadays.
Dial back the magnification to 150%. That makes the functional width 900 pixels, which is much more usable, but still large enough to read. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)
That’s a lot of negatives.
But honestly, now that I’ve used Tim for a month and gotten used to his quirks, I like him much more than I expected I would. I’ve been using him as my fulltime ebook reader, and it’s a pleasure to be able to open a book in an ebook editor and fix a broken tag that turns three paragraphs into italics.
I love being able to carry my current project along in my pocket, open it in the same program I’m using at home–not a web app, not a stripped down “mobile version,” but the very same software–and make changes while I wait. Sure, I could almost do that with a laptop, but none of my jackets have a pocket large enough for my laptop.
I wouldn’t want to write a novel on Tim, or even a short story. But the onscreen keyboard is good enough for adding a paragraph when I’ve got ten minutes, and with an external keyboard, I probably could manage a whole chapter in an emergency.
I’m not going to recommend everyone get a Windows tablet instead of an iPad or Samsung/Nexus/Whoever Android tablet. The current state of the art makes it a niche choice. But it’s a damn sight better than it used to be, and that niche is getting larger.