All things modern.
I shall start experimenting with the non touchscreen X220.
As soon as the device boots things are already radically different. Instead of the traditional log on screen, I get a full screen picture with the time, and a couple of status icons. Two of them, the Wi-Fi signal strength and the message counter are fairly innocuous. There is also some text displayed which was the next appointment in my calendar. The scene is very reminiscent of the windows phone login screen just much larger. It was a bit disconcerting however to see my next calendar appointment before I had even logged on. If this were my personal laptop which it is, then that would be just fine. But what if this was a shared computer? Would you want whoever sits down in front of it to see your next appointment? Honestly this doesn’t bother me, but it may bother some people. In summary though, the logon screen is quite attractive. To actually log on, a simple click on the touchpad buttons slides it up and away leaving the proper log in fields. I must mention that on my ThinkPad with fingerprint reader, swiping on the reader at any point in time logs you on.
Once logged on, you are presented with the new metro start screen. There are a few live tiles which show nothing of importance. To the right of them are a few shortcut tiles which launch applications. Scrolling around the tiles was very easy whether using the TrackPoint +middle mouse button or using two-finger swipes on the touchpad. Each method seems equally intuitive and would suit users of either preference. Flicking to the corners of the display with either the TrackPoint or touchpad instantly brings up the corner menus. In summary, navigation on the start screen is blissfully simple and effective even without a touchscreen. Of course to start an application that does not have a shortcut tile, simply start to type its name. As I use this method anyway with windows 7, this was not unusual for me.
As far as the X220 Tablet goes, it was its turn to be problematic. I spent ages trying to figure out why the touch experience was so poor. Touches wouldn’t register, they would be inaccurate, and scrolling would be slow and jerky. Eventually I followed some advice on a couple of forums and uninstalled all Wacom and Lenovo supplied touch software and drivers. On rebooting the computer after this, all touch methods worked as expected using the Microsoft drivers. I could now get on with reviewing the UI.
On seeing such a well laid out colourful start screen as this, the immediate reaction is to start playing with the tiles moving them around and seeing how they react to touch instead of mouse pointer. Scrolling the tiles sideways was nice and fluid with just one finger and a bit better than using a mouse as I had more control of scroll speed. Moving tiles around was initially a problem as I couldn’t figure out how to do it. They didn’t seem to want to move by finger and I resorted to using the pen. Later on I figured out that in order to move them, you need to hold your finger on the tile for about half a second and then gently tug it downwards. This detaches the tile from its neighbours and can then be freely dragged anywhere.
There are several of these tricks which need to be learnt. This makes the experience a little frustrating at first. However as soon as you learn these ‘standard’ gestures, the whole UI becomes extremely easy to use. Some of these tricks are:
Dragging from the right side to bring up what I call the main controls
Dragging from the left to bring the last application back.
Dragging from the left edge and then dragging back to the border brings up thumbnails of all the other apps running, from which you can then select another.
Dragging an app from said thumbnail and depositing it to either the left or right of the current app leaving it sin ‘1/3’ mode.
Swiping from the top to bring up context menus in each app.
Swiping from the bottom to do the same thing again.
In internet explorer swiping left and right from not quite the edge of the screen goes forwards and backwards respectively through your browsing session.
I am sure they are many more tricks than these, but those are that I learnt by using the metro interface for one night.
The metro UI is very nice to use as a tablet being much more user friendly that iOS and Android. The trouble is, after a few hours of playing I realised that I really wasn’t getting anything done. Well it was all fun and games, but what about real work. For this I had to dive into the desktop side of windows 8.
At this point, the touchscreen becomes much less useful as icons revert to their typical miniscule size. For most operations, the finger was accurate enough but on many occasions I found myself reaching again for the pen to hit the tiny icons in word and excel. Even the standard minimise, maximise, close buttons were too small to hit with the finger. Particularly problematic were the little ‘close tab’ icons in Google chrome. Trying to hit that with a finger resulted in everything from opening a new tab to closing 2 tabs at once to resizing the chrome window.
Then I decided I wanted to try out the touch input functions and I did with the following unedited results:
Ok. So now I am typing on the touchscreen on the X220 Tablet. The solit dcreen keyboard isn’t bad. Yes it is. Lets see what the handwriting recognition is like. This is extremely do-able. It is quite acetate even with quite bad writing
And then back to handwriting recognition.
End of quote.
So that was not horrendous but I would certainly not like to write an essay using the touchscreen alone. It is good enough for a reviewing a document, making small changes or adding comments. It is certainly ideal for making last minute changes to that important presentation on the train en route to your interview for example. However to be honest, I am now back on the proper keyboard to type this part.
Day 2 reflection
Both experiences were much better than I anticipated them to be. After only two days, I can confirm that windows 8 definitely has a split personality. One the one hand there is the metro UI which is all fun and games, and then there is the desktop mode which is all about work. What was startling was how engaging the metro UI was to surf the internet, play music, read email, check the weather and so on was. So much so that hours passed before I realised I wasn’t actually doing anything useful. The thing is, this type of use is exactly what a typical iPad or Android tablet is for. With this in mind, I can safely say that I think that the metro UI trumps both of these competing UIs when it comes to plain old fun tablet use.
On the desktop side of things, most of the UI is almost exactly like windows 7. There are definite improvements in the overall look of the windows although this is merely my opinion but there are other more important improvements. Without wanting to stray too much from a strict UI and usability comparison, the task manager is much improved, so is the file explorer application. Office 15 in particular blends in beautifully with the redesigned UI and is exceptional in itself.
But back to usability, I initially imagined a confusing disconnected see saw of diving to and from the metro UI to start programs and back to the desktop to run them. In reality, when I was doing work, like typing up this essay, I totally forgot that a second metro UI existed at all. The furthest that I had to go into metro was to start a program and that only involved pressing start and typing, exactly as I did in windows 7.
My conclusion for today therefore is that I am amazed at how easy windows 8 is to get used to, despite my initial prejudice. I found the experience on the X220 to be just fine while the X220T enabled me to dive into the metro side of thing to have a good time yet still allowing me to place the laptop on a desk and do proper typing. I can see therefore that while windows 8 may be quite adequate on either a touchscreen only, touchscreen + keyboard convertible or non-touchscreen device, definitely the convertible tablet form factor will be the most versatile. The other two form factors will have drawbacks one way or the other but this will depend on the intended use.