The Windows ecosystem in 2013 is more diverse than you think

The Windows ecosystem in 2013 is more diverse than you think

Summary: Just what is a PC, anyway? In the past year, the traditional definition of a Windows-powered PC has been blurred as a wave of decidedly nontraditional devices appeared on the market. Here's what I've learned after using more than 20 of those devices.

TOPICS: PCs, Windows 8

Over the past year, I’ve used Windows 8 on more than 20 different PCs. Over the past three months, I’ve upgraded a dozen or so of those devices to the Windows 8.1 Preview and, more recently, to the Windows 8.1 RTM code.

Now, when I say used, I’m not counting devices where I had a few minutes of hands-on time at a tradeshow. That total includes devices I spent quality hands-on time with, for at least days and often weeks or months. In every case, it was long enough to get a solid overview and a feeling for the relative strengths and weaknesses of a very wide range of devices.

I’ve also spent lots of time working with end users at all skill levels, listening to their feedback and helping them adjust to the sometimes steep Windows 8.x learning curve. In this post and the accompanying image gallery, I want to share some of those experiences and the lessons I’ve learned.  

Intel NUC HP Pavilion Elite m9600t Mac Mini Dell XPS 18 Lenovo Carbon X1 Samsung Series 9 Dell Latitude 10 Surface Pro HP Envy X2 Image Map

The Windows Ecosystem: Click a pictured device to see more details

Two fundamental observations stand out for me when looking back on all that hardware.

First, the definition of a PC has expended greatly in the past year. The PC industry’s sales may be dropping, but the total is still a large number—every month, OEMs sell tens of millions of Windows-based devices. Increasingly, those devices are blurring the lines between what we used to call a PC and what we currently call a tablet. As more hybrid designs reach the market, we’re seeing a very different answer to the question, “What is a PC, anyway?”

Second, Windows and its ecosystem have evolved tremendously in the past year as well. There are many more third-party apps today than there were a year ago, including a new wave of apps that the general public won’t see until Windows 8.1 is released in October. The new Mail app, for example, is a profound improvement on its Windows 8 predecessor.

That still might not be enough evolution to satisfy some critics. It might take another two rounds of refinements and new features to get Windows 8.x to the “good enough” level for some people. (Good news for them: Windows 7 is years from its expiration date.)

I get the frustration over Windows 8. I know a lot of people who rejected Windows 8 because of a disappointing and confusing initial experience, even after making a good-faith effort to adapt. After spending three months with the Windows 8.1 Preview and a couple weeks with the Windows 8.1 RTM code, I can tell you it does indeed soften the rough edges of Windows 8 on hardware designed for Windows 7 or earlier. But those rough edges are still there.

To be blunt: PCs designed for Windows 7 are very different from those designed for Windows 8.x. In fact, Windows 8.1 really doesn’t make sense until you start using it on hardware that was built with a touch-first interface as its reason for being. The reasons why Windows 8.1 works the way it does come into even sharper focus when you switch between multiple touchscreen devices with apps, settings, personalization, and data files syncing between them.

I have been covering Windows for more than 20 years, and I cannot remember any other release where using the new OS on new hardware is so crucial to having a decent experience. On older PCs, adding Windows 8.x makes for a mixed bag, in terms of the overall experience. On mobile devices using modern hardware (especially 4th Generation Intel Core CPUs, aka Haswell), the differences are profound. The devices I am using most often these days can boot from a cold start in less than 15 seconds and resume from sleep instantly. They get far better battery life than equivalent models that were built just two years ago, and performance is generally light-years better, if only thanks to Moore’s Law.

But the most important ingredient for mobile devices, in my opinion, is a touchscreen. On the multi-monitor desktop I’m using to write this post, I don’t need a touchscreen—I’ve mastered the keyboard and mouse shortcuts, and the Logitech T400 Touch Mouse has enough gesture support to handle most scrolling (horizontal and vertical). But for everything else, if it doesn't have a touchscreen, I'm not interested.

When I sat down and wrote down the names and model numbers of all the Windows 8.x devices I’ve used over the past year, I found that they fit neatly into these seven categories:

Ultrabooks and notebooks (no touchscreen)

The first generation of Ultrabooks shipped a couple years after Windows 7. The contrast with the best hardware from just a few years earlier, in 2009 and 2010, was eye-opening. I owned and used two of the best examples from that first wave of Ultrabooks: the Samsung Series 9 (which was my wife’s main PC for roughly a year) and the ASUS ZenBook UX31E (which was my main mobile computer for 18 months). They’re still amazingly light and responsive…or so I’m told by their new owners. They’ve been replaced in our household by newer, lighter, faster models that include touchscreens.

Ultrabooks and notebooks (with touchscreen)

I know it’s possible to make the intellectual argument that touchscreens don’t belong on portable devices that have a permanently attached keyboard and trackpad. But that theory doesn’t survive contact with the real world. Different people will use the touchscreen to varying degrees, but I have yet to see anyone who didn’t find some set of actions that are just easier to accomplish via direct manipulation than with a trackpad. And the "gorilla arms" argument turns out to be a non-factor on notebooks. In fact, I guarantee you that after using a touchscreen device for even a few days, you will pick up your old notebook and touch the screen, expecting it do something. The Haswell-equipped Ultrabook I am currently using is one of the best-engineered devices I’ve ever owned. (It also represents another increasingly important trend: high-DPI screen technology.)

Hybrid portables (aka 2-in-1s)

Devices in this category have detachable keyboards, allowing them to go from PC to tablet and back with a snap or click. The best examples, of course, are Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro with their “click in” keyboard covers. I looked at some other alternatives earlier this year and saw still more variations on the theme at IFA in Berlin a few weeks ago. Even with all that change, you might be surprised when you see which of the devices in this category I have been using most in recent weeks.

Pure tablets

Any OEM that introduced a pure tablet running Windows 8 in the past year had an uphill climb, to be sure. One device, Dell’s Latitude 10, stands out for me, because it does something just about no other competitor does anymore, offering a replaceable battery that gives it enough range to go nonstop from the Rocky Mountains to Asia without requiring a recharge. I think the real future of this category, though, is in smaller (7- and 8-inch) devices. Too bad the only device of this size that you can buy today, Acer's Iconia W3-810, is a pint-sized disappointment.

Traditional desktops (tower, no touchscreen)

The reports of the desktop’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. I have two tower PCs underneath this desk in full-time production use—one running the software and services I use every day, the other functioning as a Hyper-V test bed hosting up to six virtual machines at a time. My main desktop used to be an HP. Now it’s a Dell. As soon as you remove the covers of the two machines, you can see why. There's a decent case to be made in some non-desktop environments for touchscreen-enabled all-in-ones, but with a couple of exceptions the entrants I've seen in this category are just new spins on old designs. (The Dell XPS 18 is one very noteworthy exception, although it's effectively a very large tablet on a stand.)

Specialty form factors

I have been trying for years to find a fanless, small form factor PC that could survive discreetly in the living room, running Windows Media Center. I finally gave up and just hid a well-built, quiet tower PC in a corner. And then, earlier this year, I discovered the Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing), which is an impossibly small fanless PC. If only it had appeared five years earlier.

Apple hardware

The good news is, Windows 8.1 runs on a Mac. Pretty well, in fact, either in Boot Camp or in a virtual machine. After I established that fact to my satisfaction, I went back to OS X on my Apple-branded hardware. I explain the two reasons why here.

For a detailed look at what I liked, disliked, and learned from those 21 PCs, see the accompanying image gallery.

Topics: PCs, Windows 8

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  • Hmmmmmm.....

    Well, the future of computing sounds great to me.... let's get going! : )
    • Windows 8 is transitional & transformational...

      I said this a year ago when it launched, and it's even more evident now that hardware designed for Windows 8.x is coming out. Microsoft has created an entire new category of device--hybrids. Soon, everyone will expect their laptops to have touchscreens... and the reason for having touchscreens on laptops/hybrids will continue to increase.

      Though a MacBook is still a quality machine, it seems so "old school" when compared to some of the new hybrids & convertibles being introduced now. Lenovo, Dell, Asus & HP are finally starting to step up to the plate... and Microsoft deserves a lot of the credit--not just for creating Windows 8, but for lighting a fire under their asses by designing the Surface & Surface Pro.

      It won't be long until Apple will have to release a touchscreen MacBook... because their customers will demand it. The question is... will it be running OSX or iOS. We still don't know... but I think Microsoft has a head start with Windows 8.
      • Ecosystem is so much more

        This column is focusing on the gadgets and Windows 8, but an ecosystem is so much more. Its not the "Windows" ecosystem, rather is the "Microsoft" ecosystem including Windows, Servers, Cloud, eCommerce, Database, Development Tools, Point of Sale, and so much more. While Apple has a good consumer ecosystem, it pales compared to the Microsoft ecosystem for both consumer and business. I wish this column would dig even deeper into all the ecosystem components.
        Sean Foley
        • Agree title does not match article

          This article is more about hardware choices than the ecosystem.

          Regarding hardware choices the hybrid section is really short. Hybrids are where the real innovation and completion is now. It only mentioned rips. There are also twists, spins, rip & twists, flat hinge, back flips, and sliders.

          Also, why skip traditional desk top with touch. I have this and really like it. Those that complain about gorilla arms are desk vegetables and need the exercise
          • Answers

            I agree the hybrids are the most interesting category, but they're still selling very small volumes.

            As for traditional desktop with touch, the only ones I've seen are all-in-ones. My wife has one of these. It's useful but she rarely uses the touchscreen. I should mention it as an interesting category though, especially for nontraditional environments like living room and kitchen.
            Ed Bott
          • Probably a real small nich

            At my desk I have 3 touch screen monitors. They mouse takes to much effort to move around this much. I use the touch all the time to get to the general area and then grab the mouse for details. Sometimes in a document I just use the cursor keys to move around.

            As your noted with ultrabooks and notebooks that do not have touch. I have seen people with tablets that touch their desk top monitor. If touch monitors become cheap enough you will see more of them on the desk.
          • Not small enough

            Either way you are still running Windows and letting spies in through the NSA backdoor. You might as well put a camera in your bathroom and stream it on the internet.
  • Unfortunately, at the Office, we'll be stuck with our black boxes

    for a long time to come. Most workplace IT shops are focused on cost now wizzy wow, since they have so many installations that have to be kept standard and holding the line on price.
    • Not necessarily...

      I work at a Fortune 500 company & we don't use desktops. We all use laptops attached to peripherals. We do this because in NYC, real estate is expensive, so employees are encouraged to work from home one day per week... this way, less seating is required (note that we don't have assigned seats, but check-in to a workstation every day... usually it's the same, but not always). My guess is that in a few years, these laptops will be replaced with tablet/hybrids & convertibles. It just makes too much sense not too.
      • Depends on the environment

        For example, let's look at a call center. Desktops work great in the environment due to cost and the fact that they won't walk away under someone's coat.
    • A Microsoft really doesn't care

      Most companies are on a subscription with their OS and software. So Microsoft gets paid 15 times if you use XP for 15 years. Its sort of like using a 10 year old phone on AT&T. You pay for a new phone every 2 years whether you use it or not. The same is true for using Windows.
      A Gray
      • Artificial Intelligence always beat real stupidity

        Only a stupid person or company would pay the Open Licensing subscription with Software Assurance, and not use what is being offered in a timely manner.

        You conspicuously ignore the fact even though you might run Windows XP, you have full access to all OS from Microsoft above XP all the way to the latest and greatest.

        What is actually being offered by Microsoft is access to all your licensed products on subscription "up / down" meaning if you are on Windows 7 Pro (or above), you automatically get access to Windows 8 Pro and 8.1 Pro (or above) with access to the media and licensing included as well as the option to downgrade to Windows XP PRO, even for bare metal installs; if and when YOU choose to do so during the term of the subscription.

        Meaning YOU get the complete flexibility of what / when / where to deploy the software into production. You also have the freedom to develop, test, validate and setup your own corporate standard images, before implementation and deployment. How do you get access to the software in the first place?

        From the asinine and erroneous implication you made (ie: complete FUD), here's the colloquial equivalent:

        "Most stupid people are on a yearly subscription to a restaurant with their meals and drinks. So the restaurant gets paid 15 times even if you only eat a meal once, in 15 years."

        Now whose fault is it? The restaurant or the stupid people?

        A man may fall many times, but he won't be a failure until he says that someone pushed him.
        ~ Elmer G Letterman

        Testing is like sex. If it's not fun, then you're doing it wrong.
        ~ An experienced tester

        Software is like sex. It's better when it's free.
        ~ Linus Torvalds
    • Not unfortunate at all...

      ... because for productivity at the office, the desktop metaphor with "keyboard-mouse first" still wins hands down. I keep waiting for Microsoft (or anyone) to produce a video showing how anyone in a business environment with multiple applications running (and usually two monitors) can be more productive with the Tiles interface. I say it can't be done as they are two different animals with radically different purposes.

      Microsoft needs to get the message out that the desktop and Tiles are strong and equal partners and will be for the foreseeable future. Their marketing really is horrible, is it not? ;)
      • Its only fashion

        Until devices can converse well in human speech we will need keyboard, mouse, and large monitor(s) to be productive. I suspect the traditional large black box will be replaced with a tiny black box (Intel NUC?), but it will still be functioning as a PC. I have sen people attempting to use a smartphone to edit documents, etc. in a vain effort to abandon the PC that is soooooo last century. Reminds me of women wearing horribly painful shoes because they are so fashionable and look so good.
        • blackbox? Nope, laptop - or tablet.

          Standard setup at my workplace is laptop + docking station + keyboard + mouse + 1 or 2 monitors.

          We will over the next few months be rolling out tablets with docking stations for those that want them, the difference in the office is actually negligible. Chuck the tablet in the dock, continue using the keyboard/mouse/monitors you already use. The touchscreen becomes somewhat useless.

          When you're out and about the small size and convenience of the tablet will be an advantage some will like to make use of.
      • I don't need to produce a video to show this

        I do it every day with windows 8.1. I have a nice multi-monitor setup and I'm productive as any Tom, Dick or Harry running Win 7. I actually prefer 8.1 over any version of Windows to date.
      • to borrow a sci fi visual..

        The console used by the head guy in Caprica; desktop has a flat touch interface, projected (vertical) screens in a panorama setup. The flat console controls applications and provides digitized pen/draw; status browse/type/code on verticals.

        We're really very close.... cost for the displays could easily total $2k-$4k; but I paid $2400 for my first 20" 1280x1024 monitor long, long ago, so maybe its not as far out as it seems...
  • Touch screen is what you say

    I wasn't sure that touch screen would be all it was cracked up to be, but since the mantra always has been "you have to try Windows 8 on touch", it was a requirement when I recently bought a new laptop. As you say, Ed, within days I was fruitlessly poking at the display on my old work laptop because I am already adapting to faster ways to do things.

    My wife, who professed her disdain for gadgets but agreed to let me buy this to replace my desktop PC and desk (and evacuate the room that morphed from office to baby room) thinks this laptop is "very cool" and now prefers using it instead of the ultralight I bought her as a wedding gift a few years ago.

    By the way, regardling fanless PCs, I remember a number of years ago at a tech event related to E3, VoodooPC was showing off high end gaming machines that were completely fanless. The case was a giant heatsink, dual video cards, the PSU, CPU and chipset all channeled their heat to the radiator-like case. It was one of the coolest designs I ever saw, and one of the engineers from VoodooPC mentioned that it was eerie to walk into a room full of these and have no sound at all. I wanted one, but the starting point, IIRC, was around $6500, with well-equipped models reaching well into 5 figures.
    • Exactly...

      Windows 8 on a touchscreen (especially with the 8.1 improvements) is great... as long as you're using the touch environment. When I'm in front of the TV with my Surface RT, the last thing I want to do is wander into the desktop.

      This was Microsoft's mistake at launch. It should've only licensed Windows 8 to devices designed specifically for touch... at least in the beginning. That would've changed the perception of Windows 8 in the minds of consumers A LOT. But, eh, hindsight is 20/20.

      The reality is that Windows 8 has pushed the envelope and consumers will increasingly expect their tablets to "do more"... like a Windows tablet... and the iPad model (I believe) will fall away.
      • Damned if they do...

        While I did upgrade my old desktop to Windows 8 (and I am not complaining because I did so), I agree that for best results, an OS should be restricted to the hardware it was designed for. But just look at the shitstorm MS caused by not upgrading WP7 to WP8. Look at all those people who bitch at their carriers for not upgrading ancient phones to latest versions of Android. Listen to the iTards giggle with glee that their iPod nano just got upgraded with IOS7 (moments before they announce they are getting a new device because their iToy is now very slow and must be getting couldn't possibly be the overhead for unsupported features their benevolent ruler bestowed upon their device).

        Some people have a sense of entitlement that what is old can be renewed every OS upgrade cycle. This usually is not the case, and more often than not, it is simply a poor idea. What MS probably should have done is delay retail versions of their product for 6 months or so, and let the new OS germinate only in an environment consisting of hardware designed to support all of its features. Word of mouth would have been much better, and when they do release the upgrade/retail versions, acceptance would have likely been better even though the user experience is no better than it is now on legacy hardware. After all, Apple customers on old hardware suffer just as greatly when a new OS is put on their old hardware, but they've managed to spin this pain as a good thing. Or perhaps Apple just attracts a masochistic audience.