Well, it’s been an interesting 24 hours. I spent most of yesterday afternoon—and much of last night—working to install Windows 10 Technical Preview 2 on some of my Windows mini-tablets. The experience was excruciating, and while I can only claim partial success, this episode highlights, I think, a broader problem with the Windows tablet ecosystem.
Here, I’ll discuss two of the devices I tried because I think these two most clearly help demonstrate the problem that Microsoft now faces. They are:
Dell Venue 8 Pro, a late 2013 mini-tablet that ably represents the first generation of Windows 8 mini-tablets and was, when I reviewed it, a stunning example of what just $300 could buy.
HP Stream 7, a late 2014 mini-tablet that represents the current thinking in Windows mini-tablets, with very inexpensive ($99) pricing and a Windows 8.1 Update 1-based “compressed OS” that is designed to help Windows run better on low-end devices with minimal specs (1 GB of RAM and up, 16 GB of storage and up).
These machines are fascinating to compare. Yes, the screen sizes are different—8 inches for the Dell and 7 for the HP—but they are/were both, in their day, the state of the art of the entry level Window device. In 2013, this meant about $300, but thanks to Microsoft’s Crazy Eddie “zero dollars” licensing and the technical work done in Windows 8.1.1 to make the OS more efficient, PC makers could shoot much, much lower just a year later. Seriously: We went from $300 to $100 … in one year.
(Looking for an even closer comparison? You can buy the HP Stream 8—yes, with an 8-inch screen—for $150 from Amazon.com right now. So the price point for an 8-inch device got halved—halved!—in one year thanks to Microsoft’s licensing and technical changes to Windows. That really is amazing.)
While products of their respective eras, the two devices provide similar experiences overall, but differ in two key areas. First, because the Dell doesn’t benefit from those technical improvements that helped make the HP Stream 7 possible. That is, despite having 32 GB of SSD storage, a stock Dell Venue 8 Pro has less than 8 GB of free space available on disk after installing all of the available updates (and before installing Office). And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not enough space to perform an upgrade install of Windows 10 Technical Preview 2. Oops.
And then there’s the HP Stream 7. This device also has 32 GB of internal storage, but it has over 18 GB of free space after installing all of the available updates (and, yes, before installing Office). So there’s no issue getting WTP2 on there, at least from a storage space perspective (and assuming you haven’t filled it up in the meantime).
That said, you still can’t upgrade to WTP2 on this device, albeit for a completely different reason: The HP’s extra storage space comes courtesy of what Microsoft calls “OS compression,” and Microsoft says that “some PC processors and hardware configurations aren’t supported by [WTP2], including a small number of older, 64-bit CPUs, and some 32 GB and all 16 GB devices running a compressed operating system.”
So the HP falls into that category of “some 32 GB devices running a compressed operating system.” I know it will be supported eventually, but it’s not supported now.
Some have documented ways in which you can get WTP2 applied to an HP Stream 7 or similar machines like the terrible Toshiba Encore Mini. (And this support note on HP’s web site might help.) But as noted above, I spent all afternoon on this effort and came up short. I will spare you the details about how one might enter the UEFI firmware on these devices, examine and modify boot orders and other settings, and the general screaming and threats of physical damage that emerged from my office yesterday. Let’s just leave it at, I failed.
So last night, I decided to take the easy way out and use PC Reset to blow the Dell back to its factory fresh state, install all of the available updates, and then upgrade to Windows Technical Preview 2. This story is itself not worth telling but for one bit: While the reset was pretty quick (it is Atom-based, after all), the process of installing all of the Windows Updates that have appeared since this device was first released was mind-bogglingly-slow. I started at about dinner time, say 5:30 pm or so, and after nursing it through updating while watching TV with my wife, the night ended with me falling asleep on the Dell at about 11 pm with those updates still not installed. Infuriating.
Anyway, after waking up this morning, I finally stewarded in the final updates and got to installing WTP2. No problems there, and while it took the better part of an hour—again, Atom—I finally got it up and running.
The experience is about what I expected. And if you’re familiar with Windows 8.x, the edge gestures will be familiar or at least more logical. They are:
Swipe in from the right side of the screen. This used to display the Charms, with access to Start, and Settings (and thus the PC Settings app and the power options). In Windows 10, this launches the Action Center, which includes Quick Action tiles for many of those Charms-based settings from before. But not Start: You’ll need to hit the Windows key on your tablet (or tap the onscreen Start button, if visible/available) to do that.
Swipe in from the left side of the screen. This used to let you flip through available running applications or, via some difficult gesture gymnastics, access the Switcher task switching interface. This works much more logically in Windows 10: Now you get the ALT + TAB task switching interface, which in WTP2 also includes access to multiple virtual desktops (Task View). A nice improvement, and one that Windows 8.x users will switch to (ahem) intuitively.
Swipe in from the top. While running Modern apps in Windows 8.x this would display the app bar(s) for that app, with whatever app commands. In Windows 10, this gesture displays the app’s title bar, which provides access to the new app menu button (hamburger) plus minimize, maximize, fullscreen toggle and close buttons. For legacy Modern apps, that means two more taps to get to those commands, but a new generation of universal apps is doing away with app bars, so that issue will disappear over time. Regardless, I think this gesture works more intuitively than it did in Windows 8.x, and I think users will adapt quickly.
Swipe in from the bottom. In Windows 8.x this worked identically to swiping in from the top of the screen: it would display the app bar(s) for the currently running Modern app, with whatever app commands. In Windows 10, this gesture displays the taskbar, so you can access the Start button and menu, and whatever running apps. Here again, I see something that is different from Windows 8.x, yes, but also something that is more logical than the Windows 8 system.
Put simply, I feel like Microsoft is handling the transition on touch-based devices just as elegantly as they are doing with the desktop in Windows 10. Though of course we will need to see the desktop-less version for phones, phablets and very small tablets that is coming in February to know the full story.
What Microsoft is not addressing—because, they can’t—is that the Windows tablet story is still a bad one. That is, the software giant can refine this all they want, but if the apps and content ecosystems aren’t there, it won’t matter. Using a Windows 10 tablet of any size will be just as futile an experience as was using a Windows 8, 8.1 or RT-based tablet. There’s just not enough there there, if you will. And while we can at least run desktop applications like iTunes, Spotify and Photoshop on these new(ish) devices, the experience on an iPad—heck, on an Android tablet too—is only about 1000 times better.
This is a problem with no easy fix. It may be a problem with literally no fix at all. As I’ve often joked ruefully, while the Surface Pro 3 may very well be the tablet that can replace your laptop, it is most certainly also the tablet that cannot replace your tablet. And this is a problem that impacts all Windows tablets, regardless of size or proficiency.
So we’ll see how the ecosystem evolves this year. Or see whether it evolves, I guess. I’m impressed by the quality of many low-end Windows devices right now, but fixing the tablet ecosystem is a far more gargantuan task than fixing the hardware. And Windows 10 doesn’t do a damn thing to help, sorry.