First Take: Windows 8.1 on smaller-screen devices

First Take: Windows 8.1 on smaller-screen devices

Summary: Windows 8.1 adds support for small form-factor tablets. Here are our thoughts after a couple of weeks of using it on an 8-inch Atom-based device from Acer.


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.

Windows 8.1 running on an 8-inch Acer Iconia W3 tablet (Photo: Simon Bisson/ZDNet)

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.

Screenshot (6)
Kindle in portrait mode.

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.

Screenshot (3)
The Windows 8.1 Start screen in portrait 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.

Screenshot (4)
Snap on a 1280-by-800 screen.

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.

Screenshot (7)
Casual gaming works well on 8in. screens. So now you too can bring Halo along on the Tube.

 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.

Topics: Windows 8, Reviews, Tablets

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Is This The End For Microsoft's Tablet Hopes?

    With the demise of Windows RT, the only OS Microsoft has left to offer for touch tablets is full-lard Windows 8. Yet here you are saying things like "still too hard to use a traditional Windows application" and "using it for much the same purposes as I've been using a [much cheaper] Nexus 7". So where is the point of a device like this? Yet another Microsoft vanity project?
    • Huh?

      "the demise of Windows RT"? There has been no such demise.
      • No but ...

        RT certainly has a Zune-like funk of failure and death all around it. Only the most ardent MS fanboys will even look at them.
        • RT will only demise if...

          ...they don't sell millions of them at the new real price point they have established. If millions do sell count on millions more being made available.

          I laugh with glee at the fools who thought, and so many that still do that think the early offering price of RT was THE real price of RT's.

          A few people had asked me what I thought the totality of MS's "deal" with their OEM's was that was so widely spoke of, was it simply in fact not to immediately sell at places like Best Buy. My personal opinion was that the real meat and potatoes of the deal was not to sell at a price point as low as they have now been moved to.

          All we have now is the apparent conclusion of the deal time frame, and the gloves are off and the RT is really on sale for the first time as of now.

          Lets see what really happens now. Its not like we all have to be on some other planet by next week. We are all here, lets just give a watch over the next 2 months and lets just see.
          • Re: .they don't sell millions of them at the new real price point

            At that price point, they're going to lose money on every sale. Why do you think the OEMs are giving up?
      • RT is just getting started

        Microsoft has big plans for RT, there is a big future with embedded. the surface RT is just a fringe product. there are much greater things to come. but most people cant see beyond chrome wheels. The core of RT is where the magic is, a full windows OS for ARM and an app runtime.
    • But...

      @ldo17: That IS his point... that there is no point. Get it?
  • Windows 8 on 10" tablets / Windows RT on 7-8" tablets

    I suspect this has Windows 8 because RT has a bad reputation but it's clear Windows RT is well suited to sub 10" screens. There's just no need for a full blown desktop here.
  • No one is going to spend £300 on an 8" tablet

    Both this and the Galaxy Note 8 for that matter are over priced.
    • Lets see

      - iPad mini 32 gig = $329 on Apples website

      - Galaxy Note 8 16 gig = $379 on Amazon

      - Acer Iconia W3 32 gig = $299 on Amazon

      - Acer Iconia w3 64 gig = $349 on Amazon

      One can generally buy a device for much less than it's MSRP.
      Don't fear the future
      • Edit to Apples price.

        iPad mini 16 gig = $329 on Apples website. 32 gig is $429.
        Don't fear the future
        • Edit to Apples price

          300 pounds - not dollars. 300 pounds is around $600.
          • Exchange Rates

            It's a long time since we had 2:1 USD:GBP.

            300 GBP is around 470 USD right now.
    • Agreed.

      So is the Surface Pro, for that matter.
      • How much is a Mac Air again?

        I depends on how you view it. If the Surface Pro was "JUST" a tablet, then I would agree; too expensive. But it's a 2 in 1. It has the same specs as a Mac Air, except the Surface Pro has a 1080p screen compared to a 768 screen, 10 finger multi-touch, and digit pen input, (Wacom pen included). Gig per Gig, the Surface Pro without the keyboard is $100 cheaper than a Mac Air. With the keyboard it is roughly $30 more expensive than the Mac Air.

        I see Mac Air's everywhere. A Surface Pro can do everything those things can do, but it also is a tablet, which the Mac Air can't do any of that.

        You may say the Surface Pro is a compromised Ultrabook experience. And that's why you have a choice. A Surface Pro is a tablet that converts to an Ultrabook. If you want an Ultrabook that converts to a tablet, look at the Lenovo Yoga 11s.

        It all comes down to what your needs / wants are.
        Don't fear the future
        • Comparison to Mac Air doesn't help price argument...

          ... as Apple is guilty of severe overpricing. I get what MS was trying to do. Position Surface as a premium product. The thing is, you can't do that when your product is new and unproven.

          Regarding ultrabook comparison: if the Surface Pro had Macbook Air battery life and included a cover, then I think it would be fairly priced. As it stands, I still think it's priced way too high. That's not to say they should be $200, but I think ~$600 is reasonable.
          • Agree

            the Mac air is way too expensive for something without a touch screen and a Wacom digitizer
          • Only one way the Mac Air has better battery life than a Surface Pro:

            If you are comparing the same specs Mac Air and Surface Pro (3rd gen. core i5), the specs are literally the same. The only way the Mac Air CAN have better battery consumptions is if something in the hardware is UNDERCLOCKED.

            A 3317u processor is a 3317u processor. 1600 MHZ dual channel DDR 3 rams is 1600 MHZ dual channel DDR 3 ram.

            The only way to get it more efficient is to limit its turbo capability, to reduce frequency somewhere. (CPU, RAM)

            HMMM, the Mac Air gets really, really thin near the edge of the keyboard. I doubt it could handle the heat the same way the Surface Pro does due to its UNIFORM thickness and DUEL circumference fan. The Mac Air is thick near the screen but gradually gets thinner. That allows heat to build up. More heat causes the frequency of the processors to reduce.

            Bottom line, a Mac Air has better battery life because it's slower.
            Don't fear the future
  • This is awesome slate

    But...but..but....Isn't this the slate that got 3.9 rating by Theverge..
    sent from Acer Aspire running W7
    • Everyone realizes that particular tablet has a terrible screens.

      In this article she was analyzing how 8.1 will work on smaller tablets, not necessarily the tablet itself. Once 8.1 officially comes out (especially after bay trail) other manufacturers will like come out with smaller windows 8 tablets as well.
      Sam Wagner