Living with a Windows “RT” Tablet

I just returned from a 17 day trip in which I did the unthinkable, I left my iPad at home.  For the last couple of years it has gone everywhere with me.  And when I’m not traveling on business the iPad (and my Windows Phone) have been the only devices I bring along.  But for this trip I knew I was going to need a keyboard and so contemplated bringing both my iPad and my Toshiba Portege notebook.  In the end though I made a risky decision.  I’d leave both behind and just take along my Acer Iconia Tab W500 running Windows 8.  Then I could gain real experience living with a Windows 8 tablet and still have a keyboard (detached most of the time) for when I needed it.

The decision to take the W500 had lots of implications.  The first was that my iPad has 3G while the W500 is WiFi only.  I actually was more concerned about this than I was about the limited set of “Windows Store” apps currently available for Windows 8.  I’ve gotten used to always having the iPad with me, and having it be continually connected like a cellphone.  What was it going to be like to need to find a WiFi hotspot, or turn on Internet Sharing on my Nokia Lumia 900, whenever I wanted to connect with the W500?

Next I had to decide how I’d configure the W500.  In particular, what Desktop apps would I take with me (besides Office 2013 of course).  I tried installing the New York Times Times Read 2.0 desktop app which is based on Adobe AIR.  It’s performance and usability on the tablet were so poor I quickly uninstalled it.  I tried installing the Android version of Zinio using BlueStacks and found that while it was finger friendly it was too slow.  I tried some other traditional desktop apps and, while they worked ok, they just weren’t (finger) Touch friendly.  So I could have used them with the keyboard (which has a pencil eraser style pointing device), but not when using the W500 as a tablet.

Finally I decided I would configure the W500 without desktop apps so that it mimicked the user experience of a Windows RT device.  This, plus the lack of a cellular modem, would give me a feel for what it would be like to live with a Microsoft Surface.  The only exception I made was to install the desktop version of Skype, something that won’t be necessary later this week when the first Windows RT (and Windows 8) devices ship with a “Windows Store” version of Skype.

Overall I didn’t miss my iPad.  There were a few apps, Zinio in particular, that it bugged me not to have yet.  I did miss not having a direct cellular connection, but this turned out to only be a modest annoyance.  I found myself using my Lumia 900 more for activities I often do on the iPad just because once I had it out of my pocket to turn on Internet Sharing it was faster to perform the activity on the phone.  And I altered my battery-related behavior for the Lumia as well.  Normally I don’t charge the battery on the Lumia during the day, but I switched to plugging it in whenever I was in the car or our hotel room.  That way the battery drain from using it as a hotspot wouldn’t leave me suddenly high and dry in the middle of the day.  Of course since I was also using the Lumia as my GPS plugging it in when driving was pretty much a necessity anyway.

But by far the biggest problem with the lack of a cellular modem turned out to be an AT&T issue.  I use a (WiTopia) VPN when using public WiFi hotspots.  Although I could have installed WiTopia’s full SSL VPN package on Windows 8, I chose instead to use their PPTP VPN as it requires no software installation (and thus will work on Windows RT as well).  It was easy to set up and easy to connect to.  However in one hotel that used AT&T to provide its WiFi hotspots I could never get the VPN to connect.  AT&T claims it should work, so I don’t know if this was a local configuration problem or something common with AT&T WiFi.  In any case, it is a problem for those of us who know how dangerously non-secure public WiFi is.

Because the Windows Store is still so sparsely populated I did have to use the web for activities that would be better with an App.  Even snappy websites are slow compared to a local app, and very few have been updated for Windows 8, IE10, or touch.  A site that might offer a customized iPad and/or iPhone page will leave a Windows 8/RT tablet user to either use their desktop-oriented or non-smartphone mobile page.  I expect that to change quickly once Windows 8 is out, but local Apps will still provide a superior experience.

On a related note, all too often I had to switch to desktop IE because the site I went to used Flash but was not on Microsoft’s whitelist.  For those who haven’t been following this Windows 8/RT contain two versions of Internet Explorer.  One is a “Windows Store”-style app while the other is the classic desktop IE.  Both have Adobe Flash support built-in.  But the “Windows Store”-style version uses a whitelist to identify sites that use Flash in a way that conforms to Microsoft’s guidelines (e.g., being Touch friendly).  Very few sites are currently on the whitelist.  So after initially trying to view them with the “Windows Store”-style IE you have to switch to the desktop IE to get them to work.  Now two things will change this in time.  First, websites will continue to abandon Flash or at least offer HTML5-based Flashless versions, as they already do for the iPad, up to Widows 8/IE10 systems.  Second, those that still want to use Flash will work to get their sites on the whitelist.  But for the first few months of using a Surface, Windows RT, or Windows 8 you can expect this to be a modest annoyance.

As I previously posted the News app that Bing has provided for Windows 8 is superb and met a good chunk of my news reading needs.  In fact I think I was better off than on the iPad because Bing News gave me not only the search-based newspaper capability but also direct readers for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.  USA Today, which I also frequently scan, was one of the first to put an App into the Windows Store.   Now if I can get the Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette, and Jerusalem Post either as apps or more complete support in News my needs will be complete.  On this trip I let the News app’s stream of the most recent stories in the first two suffice, and used for the latter one.

Of course with the W500 it is inconvenient to carry the keyboard around, so it mostly sat in my briefcase.  I did use it to write a couple of blog postings.  With the Surface I’ll always have the Touch cover with me, and I plan to swap to the Type cover when I think I might need to do heavy-duty typing.  The W500 also relies on its keyboard dock as a stand, and I never did find a suitable cover for it.  So when I was carrying it without the dock there was never a way to prop it up.  None of this will be a problem for the Surface, so as good as my W500 experience was the Surface experience should be much better.

As it turned out the experiment was perfectly timed.  The lack of a cellular modem, and the fear that I’d need to supplement the “Windows Store” apps with desktop apps, had almost convinced me to skip the Surface and wait for the Surface Pro (or another Windows 8 tablet).  But when Surface pre-orders opened up in the middle of my trip I’d already concluded that I wanted to replace my iPad 1 with one.

I did make use of some of the unique features that Microsoft is bringing to the table.  Over dinner my Uncle mentioned his PC was acting up.  It sounded like malware to me (though it turned out not to be) and I offered to stop by and take a look.  Of course one of the critical tools here is a bootable malware scanner, but you want to create that DVD or USB Flash Drive on a machine known to be malware free.  How was I going to do that since I hadn’t brought a PC with me.  Well, actually, I had 🙂  I created a Windows Defender Offline USB drive on my W500 and used it to scan his machine.  Now this is something that wouldn’t work on the Surface (or other Windows RT machines), at least not until someone creates a Windows Store app for creating bootable USB drives.  There was also a case where we needed to print something and I was easily able to do it with the W500 whereas we couldn’t solve the problem with my wife’s iPad 2.  For me these things just validated Microsoft’s support for USB ports on tablets, and its general approach of providing considerable legacy device support, compared to the iPad.

Apple, I love what you did with the iPhone and iPad.  They are still awesome products.  But they are stale.  And it looks like there are now options that are fresher and cover a large range of my needs.  So I’ll be permanently retiring my iPad on Friday.  Maybe I’ll be back.  After all you may still have the capability to introduce new products that I just can’t resist.  But I don’t think you have the ability to catch Microsoft sleeping the way you’ve been able to do for the last five years.  And now they’ve become the guys doing the interesting work.  Oh you’ll still have a place in my household.  Microsoft has a long way to go before my wife trades in her iPhone and iPad.  Although once she gets her hands on my Surface I may be forced to revise that assessment.    Especially if Microsoft can really grow the Windows Store so it has the apps she wants.

In any case Apple, you’d better watch out.  There is a new force in town.  And if she doesn’t blow her foot completely off with bad naming decisions (already made) and more poor marketing (still TBD) then your customers are the ones sitting in the auditorium and she’s the one throwing the sledgehammer at the screen from which you preach.


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1 Response to Living with a Windows “RT” Tablet

  1. Bob - former DECie says:

    Unfortunately, give past history, I would not be surprised if she trips and throws the hammer full force at her own feet.

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