Tablets have been getting smaller. The big sellers of the past year have been 7-inch and 8-inch devices, like the iPad Mini and Google's Nexus 7. So it's not surprising that one of the key features of the upcoming Windows 8.1 is support for smaller-screen devices. We've been testing out the preview build of Windows 8.1 on Acer's 8in. Iconia W3 — the same device that Microsoft handed out to developers at its recent Build conference.
Arbitrary Snap and portrait orientations
Microsoft has made a lot of changes to Windows 8.1 to support smaller screens. Running Windows 8 on the Acer, I'd have been unable to use its Snap feature to run two Windows Store apps side by side, as it doesn't have the minimum 1,366 by 768 resolution. That restriction is gone in Windows 8.1, which allows me to run a web browser and watch Twitter while sat in front of the TV. Although many applications aren't yet designed to handle arbitrary pixel widths, those that do include Internet Explorer.
Another big change is improved support for portrait screen orientations. Windows 8 was focused on landscape 16:9 layouts, but Windows 8.1 applications should be able to run in any orientation — and as devices are book-like, it's not surprising that it feels natural to hold them in one hand and use another to work with an app. The Iconia W3's 16:10 layout is much easier to hold one-handed than a larger 10-inch device, and is well-balanced in portrait mode, allowing apps like Kindle to shine.
With significant changes to the underlying WinRT APIs in Windows 8.1, there's now the prospect of much more capable Windows Store applications — including ports of familiar desktop software. However that's an opportunity for developers, and we're left judging Windows 8.1 on the current content of the Windows Store. Microsoft has started rolling out its own sample Windows 8.1 apps and they're well designed, with support for portrait orientations. The new Windows 8.1 touch keyboard is much more suited to portrait-mode screens, and the new flick and swipe gestures for numbers and the surprisingly accurate text predictions speed up touch text input considerably.
Is desktop really necessary on small screens?
The Windows 8 version of the Acer comes with Office, and so I've been experimenting using it with an Office 365 subscription, pairing the device with the Acer's Bluetooth keyboard. Sadly, I've found that the Iconia W3's 8-inch capacitive touchscreen lacks the touch resolution to use Office's editing features. It's not just the inability to cut and paste that's a problem, it's also that useful tools like the Office quick-access toolbar become almost unusable: it's hard to tap the right button, even with Office 2013 in its touch mode.
You can of course use a mouse with the Windows desktop, and that does give you the full control that a pure touch experience fails to deliver. But carrying along a mouse adds weight — and it's clear that Acer missed a trick by not including a touchpad on its Bluetooth keyboard. Of course there are plenty of alternative keyboards on the market, and using a simple capacitive stylus can make a difference (even if it's a piece of conference swag built into a pen).
It's not what it can do, it's what you use it for
If you're going to be using Windows 8.1 on a small device, you'll need to consider how you're going to use it. Choosing to carry along a mouse and a keyboard will always add weight — especially when the keyboard is larger than the device itself. Yet even with Windows 8.1's touch keyboard enhancements, a small-screen tablet is very much a consumption device — and at its best, a companion device for quickly dipping in and out of a workflow.
One thing I've found over the past couple of weeks of using Windows 8.1 on the Iconia W3, is how little I've ended up using its desktop. That's not surprising really, as I've ended up using it for much the same purposes as I've been using a Nexus 7 Android tablet: checking email, browsing the web, playing casual games and using a small handful of apps. Most of the apps I've been using on my Nexus 7 are available in the Windows Store, or have direct equivalents, which is a good sign for the Windows Store as it approaches its first birthday. While Microsoft has kept the full desktop on small-screen x86 devices, it seems even more redundant here than on the ARM-based Surface RT — especially now that most system settings are accessible via Windows 8.1's new Settings app.
With a full desktop the only advantage that Windows 8.1 has over Windows RT 8.1, it's easy to question whether there's really any place for x86 devices this small. Desktop apps are designed for much larger screens, and although the 8-inch Iconia W3 has a respectable screen resolution, it's still too hard to use a traditional Windows application on a screen that size when you're out and about. And when you're at your desk there are far more powerful options than an Atom-powered tablet (even if it is multi-core and multi-threaded). Windows RT may not have been a commercial success at larger screen sizes, but strip it of the vestiges of a desktop (there's no need for Office on a near pocket-sized companion device, especially with touch-friendly Windows Store versions of key Office apps on their way) and install it on a device this size, and you're left with the basis of a competitive small form-factor Windows tablet.
A recipe for success?
That brings me to the key point, which is something that should be keeping Microsoft and its OEM partners up at night. If a £300 8-inch Windows device is used for the same tasks as a much lower cost Android device, then it's too expensive. To succeed in a highly competitive market it needs to be priced similarly, while maintaining hardware quality. That's going to be a problem for Microsoft's licensing revenue, and for OEMs' hardware margins. Can a small form-factor Windows tablet be built and sold for the iPad Mini's £270? Or even for the Nexus 7's £199?
It's clear that Microsoft needs to do for small form-factor devices like this much as it did with Surface: deliver its own hardware to set a benchmark for design and for performance. But it also needs to do something it didn't do with Surface RT: sell it at a price that makes it an obvious choice. The software it needs is, if not already there, then certainly on the way. All we now need is for the hardware to match it — and at the right price. With persistent rumours of a 7-inch Surface, maybe that too is on the way.