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Windows 8 — Shockingly poor on a Surface Pro

November 18, 2014
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The Surface Pro 2. On the surface, it almost looks like a laptop, which should be a clue,

Monday evening I had my first brief opportunity to play with one of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets running Windows 8.1.

The experience was a disappointing eyeopener.

Windows 8, supposedly made to excel on tablets, turned out to be even less satisfying on a touchscreen tablet than it has been for me on a laptop.

The superficial tablet-friendly features of Windows 8 can’t hide the fact that it’s still a desktop operating system at heart. It still requires a keyboard and a mouse to easily access critical functionality. And now that I’ve actually tasted Windows 8 on a tablet I can say that nothing on show in the Technical Preview of Windows 10 changes that fact.

Who in her right mind would buy one of these?

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The Surface Pro’s power plug is magnetic just like Apple’s except different.

Yesterday a friend of mine told me she had just come out of what she personally referred to as the “looney bin” and into some money related to finally doing her taxes.

What she did is she went into Future Shop and bought herself a Microsoft Surface Pro, which, if nothing else, suggested her recent enforced psychiatric holiday wasn’t long enough.

She sat herself down beside me Monday evening to show off her toy, which she called a Surface Pro 2.

Surprising. Even though Microsoft released the improved Surface Pro 3 in June of this year, Future Shop sold her a one-year-old Surface Pro 2.

Surface-Pro-2-3

On the left, a Surface Pro 2, beside the larger Surface Pro 3.

The Surface Pro 3 is a notable improvement over its predecessor: faster processor, larger screen, thinner body, lighter weight and longer battery life. However, hardware can only be as good as its software and both generations of the Surface Pro are running the same Windows 8.1 operating system.

More computer than she needs; less tablet than she wants

Her first question to me was why couldn’t she get Google Play to work?

If I was even half as smart as I think I am, a clear premonition of danger should have caused me to be somewhere else five minutes before she showed up.

Even as she powered up the Surface Pro, I told her to return it and get an Android-based Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. I knew that she’d had one just a few months ago.

Had she not liked it, I asked her.

“Oh yes!” she told me. But someone had stolen it and she didn’t want to get another one — yet.

It might have looked cowardly but I could still have run away at that point.

Instead, I breathlessly explained how Google Play didn’t “play” with Microsoft Windows, only Android — they were completely different operating systems.

She looked at me, wide-eyed, with the honest disgust of a person who believes the only things that keep us from really being happy are facts.

While I was wasting my breath, the Surface Pro had started up so I began trying to connect it to the free Wi-Fi at McDonalds.

Microsoft apologists have been saying from the initial disappointing reviews that Windows 8 wasn’t really made for keyboard-and-cursor computers such as my Pavilion G6 laptop; it was especially designed for touchscreen tablets.

Windows 8, they said, would need something like a Surface Pro tablet to really show off what it was. I was willing to concede as much when I wrote about the first generation Surface Pro.

And I guess the apologists were right.

Two hours-or-so with the Surface Pro 2 showed me what Windows 8 was — a keyboard-and-cursor operating system dressed in touchscreen clothes.

The first generation Windows 8 was actually easier to use on my non-touchscreen laptop than the updated Windows 8.1 was, running on my friend’s new Surface Pro tablet.

Under the Surface lurks a desktop OS

The tablet-friendly aspects of Windows 8 are superficial annoyances on a traditional non-touchscreen laptop but the fundamental desktop nature of Windows 8 actually makes it almost impossible to use necessary features on a touchscreen tablet.

On a laptop, Windows 8’s tablet-centric elements look big and clunky but you can use them. However, on a Surface Pro tablet, the traditional desktop features — what Windows 8 calls “desktop mode” — such as the taskbar and notification icons, are simply too small to easily select with your finger.

You can better see what a Frankenstein patch-job Windows 8 is when you try to use the Surface Pro as a pure tablet — without the optional physical keyboard.

As I continued trying to connect the Surface to the Wi-Fi and exploring why my Windows 8 laptop had better networking diagnostics than the Windows 8.1 Surface Pro, my friend realized she’d spent too much money. Because she didn’t have a bank card she’d be without sufficient cash for the evening to buy food and drugs.

I wasn’t going to lend her more than moral support so there was nothing for her to do but take something back for a refund.

She wouldn’t take the Surface Pro back like I urged but she decided she could do with out the optional cover/keyboard. It was, she reasoned, a touchscreen tablet after all — her Galaxy Tab  had been just fine without a physical keyboard.

And to be fair, I basically agreed with her.  The so-called Type Cover which magnetically snaps to the Surface Pro and doubles as both a protective cover and physical keyboard was — almost — the worst keyboard/trackpad I had ever used.

The inside of the fabric-like face Type Cover has slightly raised keys and a square recessed trackpad area.

I shouldn’t be so hard on the keyboard; it may have had all the ergonomics of a piece of paper but the keys worked. The trackpad, on the other hand, was amazingly unresponsive — like pushing your finger across a sheet of sandpaper covered with garden slugs.

Right click, wrong kind of device

The Type Cover’s trackpad didn’t visibly include left and right click buttons. Microsoft says they are there, unmarked on the bottom left and right of the track pad. But nothing I did could coax a right-click menu, which is still where Windows 8 hides useful technical options, like the ability to troubleshoot networking problems.

And If I couldn’t see how to do a right-click on the Type Cover there was no way I’d guess how to do it with my fingers alone.

Explanations of how to achieve a “right-click” with just your finger tip are so embarrassingly convoluted, with talk of modes and contexts, that Microsoft should be ashamed of themselves.

Computer programmers and engineers sometimes refer to particularly messy solutions as “kludges“. The idea of incorporating a right-click on a touchscreen is the very definition of “kludgy”– of a quick and dirty workaround.

My friend and I were both wrong. Unlike an iPad or Android tablet, the Surface Pro really can’t function properly without a traditional keyboard and trackpad. Not if you end up in desktop mode (which you will).

With the Type Cover you can at least maneuver a tiny on-screen cursor and select the tiny notification icons in the desktop’s taskbar.

No chance of doing that with the onscreen keyboard or one of your stubby fingers.

Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Once the Type Cover was on it’s way back to Future Shop I almost immediate needed to use the onscreen keyboard.

First I rebooted in a sneaky attempt to reset the Wi-Fi adapter. Login was no problem but accessing the troubleshooting option in the Wi-Fi menu dumped me onto the desktop.

There was a possibility that the Surface Pro was finally connected to the Wi-Fi. I launched Internet Explorer from the taskbar to go to the McDonald’s consent page.

Internet Explorer said the Surface Pro wasn’t connected but sometimes you need to coax the browser by forcing it to go to a website.

As I was watching the Wi-Fi notification icon in the taskbar in case it changed to a connected icon, I clicked in Internet Explorer’s address field so I could enter a URL.

And I watched the onscreen keyboard rise up from the bottom of the screen, completely covering the taskbar and all the notification icons. I would never be able to see them both.

Of all the @%& #$%! stupid…

Windows 8 is itself a kludge

I was never able to get the Windows 8.1 Surface Pro to connect to the McDonald’s Wi-Fi even though I had been able to get my Windows 8 laptop to connect.

I could never see how to access the right-click troubleshooting that a friend of mine uses with his windows 8.1 laptop to coax his way onto the McDonald’s Wi-Fi.

All-in-all, my first hands-on experience with a Surface Pro was surprisingly negative. More than that, it was something of a revelation.

A real tablet OS has no need of keyboard-and-pointer functionality.

Unlike any other touchscreen operating system I can think of: Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android, or the Palm/HP WebOS or the Blackberry PlayBook’s QNX OS, or even the antiquated Palm OS5 — unlike any of them, Windows 8 most definitely still needs a keyboard and a pointer to be fully functional.

That’s because Windows 8 is not a tablet operating system.

With the “optional” Type Cover, A Surface Pro costs over $1200.For the same money or less, a person can choose from a large selection of lightweight ultrabook-style laptops, all featuring Windows 8, touchscreens and solid state hard drives. Or, for the same money, a person can go out and buy the leader in the ultrabook category: A MacBook Air.

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Surface Pro as a piece of hardware. It’s a handsome, well-made machine. I’m saying that it deserves a much better operating system.

Unless Windows 10 has a radically revamped tablet interface from what is evident in the current Technical Preview then Windows will surely be the death of the Surface Pro.

And I think the success of tablets will be the death of the Windows operating system.

Back in May a writer with Forbes magazine spent a week using a Surface Pro 3. He makes some of the same points but he liked it a lot more than I liked using the Surface Pro 2.

In his satirical science fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams regularly referred to an absurdly successful and inept computer company.

At one point he wrote that the galactic success of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation’s products was founded on one rock solid principle:

“– their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.”.

A person could swear that Adams was writing about Microsoft and Windows 8. Click the image to enlarge it.

From → Google, Windows

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