Hands on with Windows 8 on a hybrid: Symbian on the desktop

Hands on with Windows 8 on a hybrid: Symbian on the desktop

Summary: After spending many hours using Windows 8 on a new hybrid, it is clear that Microsoft's latest OS is trying to do too much and delivering too little. The lack of intuitive operation brings to mind the near extinct Symbian OS for smartphones.

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Microsoft has shaken up the PC world with Windows 8 by producing an OS that tries to straddle both the desktop and the mobile space. It is trying to do too much and not delivering enough for this user. The more I use Windows 8 on a new hybrid PC the more it reminds me of the Symbian platform for smartphones.

I have spent many hours using full Windows 8 on the innovative Lenovo Yoga 13 hybrid computer. That time has been divided equally using the hybrid as a laptop and a tablet, since that is the future Microsoft sees for us. In building Windows 8 to deliver the two radically different user scenarios presented by tablets and laptops, the new OS fails to deliver a good user experience in either one for this writer.

The largest failing of Windows 8 for tablet devices is the total lack of intuitive operation. For a tablet to deliver a compelling user experience, the OS driving it must be simple to operate without a lot of practice. You need to pick up the tablet and start doing things in an obvious way.

Windows 8 fails in this horribly. Controls needed to perform common tasks are not obvious in their functions when spotted, and worse some are totally hidden from view. You must know they are there and how to swipe in from off the display to engage these controls when using a touch tablet.

As I logged hours on the hybrid with Windows 8, it struck me that the user experience was much like that on Symbian phones.

In my many years of using mobile devices, hidden controls that are seldom used are bad enough, but common controls that can't be seen on every screen are deplorable. If using a mobile device requires learning basic operation, and then practicing said operation, then this is a major failure of UI design. That is the antithesis of intuitive operation, vital for devices used by touch.

Inexplicably, Microsoft has chosen to make these common touch controls work in a totally different way for devices with a trackpad/mouse. The hidden controls operated by swiping from the sides of the screen by touch are accessed by moving the cursor to the corners of the display. Again, you have to just know the controls are there and then move the cursor all the way to the corners to activate them.

These two methods of control, neither of which is intuitive by design, are exacerbated on the very hybrid devices that Microsoft is pushing hard (think Surface) for Windows 8. You not only have to learn and practice one set of bizarre controls, you must do it twice for use on hybrids in both tablet and laptop arrangements.

As I logged hours on the hybrid with Windows 8, it struck me that the user experience was much like that on Symbian phones. The Symbian OS started as a simple platform for cell phones, but evolved into a sophisticated OS for smartphones.

The oft-maligned Symbian was surprisingly powerful and sophisticated, but what plagued the platform was the lack of intuitiveness in operating phones running the OS. Symbian was designed to be run on phones via simple buttons, and as it grew in functionality it became hard to learn and hard to operate for new users.

This is exactly what plagues Windows 8 in my opinion. Sure it is easy to operate once you learn it inside and out, but that's the very definition of something that is not intuitive by design.

Like the hundreds of millions of Symbian enthusiasts over the years, no doubt Windows 8 will have it's horde of happy users. Like Symbian before it, however, that doesn't mean Windows 8 is a great platform for all of the user scenarios Microsoft is pitching.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Mobile OS

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23 comments
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  • disappointing

    james, I used to like your articles, but now a days your articles are becoming like click-bait, no doubt your articles have great info, but they don't appeal to reader or intuitive to read anymore. Sorry for being blunt.
    Ram U
    • Sorry you feel that way

      I can assure you I don't do click-bait, nor do I need to. I do call things as I see them and will continue to do so. Mobile tech is personal in nature and while others may see things differently I give my own take on things.

      I had great hope for Windows on tablets and am frustrated by what I find in Windows 8.
      JamesKendrick
      • Agree with both of you

        My feeling was that you do a lot of "click-bait" articles, maybe not as bad as AKH or Morgenstein (sp?), but they still read that way.

        I don't feel that way about this article, but I still disagree with some of it.

        With my Surface, I find the swiping from the edges in is a great way to bring up the controls while keeping screen real-estate. Really appreciate how each app is the same. And I find it works really well.

        On my laptop, where I work at a longer distance and it doesn't have touch, I find the mouse equivalents a bit of a pain and prefer to use the keyboard shortcuts. But I prefer the shortcuts anyways: keeps me on the keyboard where my actual work is being accomplished. I tend to use my tablets more for consumption. Not everyone has a job where they can just type away in some kind of web based content management system.
        mep01378
        • So why did you choose a Surface....

          Microsoft always said that it was a content generation device, whereas the iPad was consumption only.

          Now that people are finding Office 2013 extremely weird on touch, is MS touting that their tablet is better at consumption.
          cosuna
      • james thank you.

        I am not saying you always write marketing material like AKH or SJVN does, but the quality of the content is fading because you are writing just from your POV, which is not bad. I am used to your articles, which would discuss about the issue from different POVs. that is missing. I hope that would come back agian. Love to see your posts.
        Ram U
  • I don't find Windows 8

    to be that unusable. I have been using the RTM version since it was release (a versions prior to that). Once you learn where everything is, it works just fine for me on my desktop and laptop. I don't understand why having to learn something is that bad? As long as it's easy to learn in the first place then it's not a problem.
    Sam Wagner
    • It matters to millions of regular folks who are not geeks like us

      From the article: " hidden controls that are seldom used are bad enough, but common controls that can't be seen on every screen are deplorable. If using a mobile device requires learning basic operation, and then practicing said operation, then this is a major failure of UI design. "
      It is a given... If you are posting on this site you are NOT NORMAL. You are a geek. You are adept at figuring out the quirks of new tech deelybobs and doodads, and you Like To Learn new things. On the other hand, normal users of Windows, who have gotten used to the standardized design and behavior of the OS over the last SEVENTEEN YEARS are not going to think that learning to do what they can already do is good. It is BAD. It is REALLY BAD! You might as well be selling new cars with the steering wheel on the right and hidden door handles, glove box and trunk. (Allowing that I am in the USA)
      notme403@...
      • notme has a point....

        Several companies on the past have tried the hidden door handles with almost no success... the Edsel was infamous for having touch button automatic transmissions.

        Keeping the car metaphor, Windows 8 looks and behaves like the Nash Metropolitan of the 50's and early 60's. It tried to be an "everything" car for "everybody". It was a small car that looked big. In the end, other more aggressive companies like Datsun and VW stole the market and finally Honda and Toyota defined what a car should look like for last part of the 20th century.

        Today, cars don't look like the 80's Corrollas or Accords, but share a common ground. The Met was a blend of the past with the future, mashed up in an uneven way.

        That's precisely Windows 8 and the whole "The UI Formerly Known As Metro" are. And maybe that's the reason they both share the Met stage name.
        cosuna
  • Learning Curve

    What a crock. EVERY device has a learning curve. My teenage son has used an Android device for about a year now, and is fluent in doing what he needs to do. He got an iPod Touch not that long ago, used, with no instruction manual. Guess what, it took him a little while to be fluent in doing on the iPod what he was used to doing on the Android. It wasn't difficult to use, and it didn't take him more than a couple of hours of playing with it for his actions to be completely natural, but he did have to learn how the iOS operates. This is no different than on any new device. There are plenty of reasons to not buy a device, but saying you don't like it because you had to learn something new is LAZY.
    moth25
    • If he is using any other version of windows...

      Get him a computer with Windows 8. The Android and iPad are both more intuitive than Windows 8. See how his user experience with Windows 8 compares to the others. Then do the same thing with your mom or grandma... Take notes.
      notme403@...
      • from my experience

        My two teen daughters didn't need any instructions to operate their two nontouch laptops with w8, they handled my wp7.5 phone without instructions even when they are both on Android phone..
        So, lets talk about intuitivnes and steep learning curve...
        I guess, it's about dinosaurs more...
        Andrej.G.
  • "Sure it is easy to operate once you learn it inside and out"

    We forget that learnability is just as important in usability in the overall user experience. As long as an interface is useful and you can consistently perform with low levels of failure as you learn how to use it, I'd consider that a success.
    jaboonday
  • 100% disagree

    I used a few of the hybrids in my local best buy on top of using the betas (and today my Windows 8 Pro disc arrives for installation on my desktop). Thankfully, the non-ZDnet reading public won't read this nonsense.

    So you're upset that you use different pieces of hardware (touch screen/trackpad) differently? Unless you have a sensor on the bezel/dead space on a trackpad, how can you register "swiping in from the side" as a different motion than just playing your finger there and scrolling? You should recognize that as a supposed tech enthusiast. Of course your motion is different. Why do I have to move my mouse cursor to the corners an opposed to simply flick my mouse while the cursor is off to a side? C'mon James... really?

    I played with all the different hybrids my local Best Buy had to offer on Friday. I had no problems showing my wife everything that it did on a touchscreen (had never used Windows 8 on a touchscreen prior to that) as I was doing the motions for the first time. She said if we had the money, we would have bought at Lenovo Yoga right then.

    Of course, it isn't Linux-based or Apple. We've been over this before. You may have had your Windows blogger certificate or whatever you call it (VIP?), but the keyword there is had. Microsoft wouldn't endorse this nonsense now.
    ikissfutebol
  • You found swiping to pan around the content and tapping to start apps

    unituitive? Because thats the "basic" operations of a tablet user and you say this Win8 tablet hybrid had "total lack of intuitive operation". That you spent many hours with it and couldnt grok the learned gestures that can be counted on one hand says a lot more about you than it does about W8. That MS built their UX such that the control ux is so simple to learn AND gets out of the way when not being used is very nice. But by all means go ahead and install a copy of XP on it instead.
    Johnny Vegas
  • Hands on with Windows 8 on a hybrid: Symbian on the desktop

    Looks pretty easy and intuitive to me. You click on the tile you want to open and presto, that app opens. It doesn't get any easier than that.
    Loverock Davidson-
  • Very surprising artcile from staunch tablet supporter

    Not sure who is making you write this, but you are completely wrong about it.

    Just holding the tablet in landscape mode, every function of the device is accessible just using your thumbs.. give it a try if you still have not found it. No other tablet can do it.

    All you need to learn is swipe from the edges, even the keyboard is split for your convenience. That's all to learn from the touch side. If you are using mouse, the only thing you need to know are the screen corners.. just click left or right in the corners and surprise.. all Windows functionality is accessible to you.

    Hope you have guts of changing the opinion later, as you will have to do it some day soon.
    ninjacut
  • there's this thing called a 'LEARNING CURVE'

    I installed the developer preview on my wife's 2 year old PC back in January, and je was able to use it as a pro after 30minutes, she said she loves the interface, and she is the most technologically retarded :) person you'll meet (heck she doesn't know how to even set up her email account on her phone). So when you say Windows 8 isn't intuitive i really don't get it, I am tempted to think you're the one with a problem with all respect. In July I bought an ASUS EP121 Windows 7 tablet and installed the consumer preview on it, it took me about an hour to get use to the touch commands,after that it was great.
    I was very skeptical of Windows 8 on a non touch device,reason why i used Windows 7 on my laptop till 2 days ago, even thoughmy wife was already using the previews i just didn't believe its meant't for traditional non touch laptops. All this changed on Friday when i decided to upgrade my Lenovo U410 ultrabook to Windows 8, it took me about 2 hours to get use to using a traditional non touch screen laptop running Windows 8 and installing all the necessary apps i needed. I love and i think its great.I already knew it was great on touch,but i always discouraged anyone to run it on non touch,but now i think its great on both.
    all ican say is there's this one thing called a LEARNING CURVE
    kenny.rawlins
  • I feel the same as James.

    I was actually lost the first time I used Windows 8. I couldn't find the control panel. I couldn't find the start page once I went to the desktop. Heck it is difficult to get to the all programs area. What is a charms menu and why do I care? Shutting down takes way too many steps. As a desktop os I find it horrible. I haven't got to play with it running on a tablet yet.
    alslayer@...
  • Lifelong Learning

    I sympathise James, I do. I had the same reaction when I was forced to use that Unix pig with lipstick, OS/X. Close buttons in the wrong place, weird animations, a toy dock, trying to find a Del key, that everchanging menu that makes me think I'm still stuck in Lotus 1,2, 3, having to format pre-formatted hard disks, the list goes on forever and please don't get me started on Linux UIs.

    But even though I dislike it, I learnt it and it's just a case of switiching to another series of non intuitive input methods, like driving on the right when I visit the states.

    I know it's hard to believe James. but none of these interfaces is intuitive. You obviously didn't have to teach your parents XP ;-) Take a novice to a Win 7 desktop, There's little hope they'll discover that if they hover over the Windows icon, it will eventually say Start and when they press the LEFT button - not the right, a menu pops up. Good luck if they try that on an icon on the desktop, because that's not going to work until they double click that pesky left button, but it will work on the task bar. Then there's drag and drop - least intuitive of all.

    However, once you bother to learn, it all fits together and the same with Windows 8. Having used Windows Phone for some time, I can see the advantages over Android and Apple, still stuck with their endless grids of dead icons leading to siloed apps. I'm also going to give the best designers and programmers in the world with the most feedback and usage data the benefit of the doubt while I learn Win 8.

    I saw a 3 year old use Win 8 and I'm now 60 and I seem to have no trouble - except I still have to wait a few more days for my Surface and probably a few weeks for my Windows 8 phone.

    I don't like Windows 8, I love it ;-)
    Tony_McS
    • Star Trek IV - the voyage home

      I forgot the funniest example of "intuitive" computer interfaces, when Scotty tries to use a Mac in 1986 and starts by addressing it as "Computer", when nothing happens someone points out he needs to use the mouse. He sighs and immediately picks up the mouse and says "Computer" into it ;-)
      Tony_McS