With Windows 8, just what does "no compromises" mean?

With Windows 8, just what does "no compromises" mean?

Summary: Over the past year, Microsoft has consistently used the phrase "no compromises" to define its overall goal with Windows 8. My experience in a cramped coach seat on a trans-Atlantic flight helped me understand what that phrase really means.

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TOPICS: Windows, PCs
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Last week I had a chance to briefly explore the first Windows RT device to appear in the wild. Although we’ve seen controlled onstage demos before, this was uninterrupted hands-on time. (You might have seen the videos.)

But let’s be clear: Holding a tablet with one hand and stabbing at the touchscreen with the index finger of the other hand while trying to keep both hands out of the way of the video camera isn’t a test of usability or productivity. It’s a peek under the covers, nothing more.

eb-hands-on-ativ-tab

To be even more clear: the 20 minutes or so that I was able to spend with the Samsung ATIV Tab wasn’t nearly enough for me to make a thumbs up/down decision on it, just as my even more limited time with Microsoft’s Surface wasn’t enough to do more than catalog first impressions and speculate about the future.

But I’ve spent enough time with tablets (a decade, actually) and traditional PCs (three decades) to know what works for me. And an experiment I conducted out of necessity on the way home from Europe made one thing abundantly clear:

I wouldn’t want to use a tablet— iPad or Android, Windows 8 or Windows RT—as my only computing device. That pesky onscreen keyboard covers up a shocking amount of workspace, and it is rarely as accurate or as easy to use as a physical keyboard, with its tactile feedback and ergonomic design. And designing options for use with touch means simplifying them dramatically, often to the point of losing access to the full range of things you want to do. Compromises.

And yet there are times when a touchscreen is a welcome alternative to a physical keyboard that might be more suitable for everyday use. Like right now, as I sit on a trans-Atlantic flight in what should be called the Economy Minus section, with a seat pitch that seems to be measured in millimeters.

If I open my 13-inch Ultrabook so that the screen is visible, I have to pull it so close that the trackpad is practically in my gut and I can type only by using my vestigial T-Rex arms, tapping the keys with wrists bent unnaturally and elbows pinned to the back of the seat. No fun.

So I put the Ultrabook away and am writing the first draft of this post using the onscreen keyboard of a Samsung Series 7 tablet running Windows 8, with my words going directly into Microsoft Word 2013 on the Windows 8 desktop.

eb-word2013-keyboard

The entire exercise gave me an excellent opportunity to think about the strengths and weaknesses of tablets and of the future of the PC ecosystem as Windows 8 approaches.

One year ago, when Microsoft first began talking about Windows 8, the consistent message included the phrase “no compromises.” And in the past 12 months Microsoft’s critics have been quick to jump on any perceived flaw or limitation in Windows 8 as proof that “no compromises” is either an impossible dream or a big lie.

“No compromises” is, of course, an impossible dream. Every hardware and software project demands real-world design decisions that involve tradeoffs: physical constraints or hardware limitations define how some features are implemented, the economic realities of scarce development resources dictate others, optimizing for battery life influences still others. That’s certainly true of the iPad, which is arguably the only successful tablet on the market today.

Good engineering can find elegant solutions so those compromises don’t feel so painful or awkward. But sooner or later you notice the missing pieces.

Case in point: I’m returning from the IFA 2012 tradeshow in Berlin, where I came away with the usual selection of press materials on USB flash drives. If I had an iPad, I’d have no way to open those files without a separate PC or Mac or some sort of custom peripheral—iPads don’t have USB slots. That’s a pretty big compromise.

By contrast, every certified Windows 8 and Windows RT machine must have at least one USB slot, which means I can use those files. But USB slots add licensing fees, require chipset support and drivers, and take up space on the device itself. More compromises.

This particular thumb drive has a collection of images in JPEG and PNG formats, some Word documents and PDF files, and a bunch of Zip files, all organized into some 27 folders.

So how do I browse those files on this tablet? Even if I could figure out a way to open it on the iPad, there’s no native way to browse the file system. That compromise was made in the name of usability. Likewise, there’s no equivalent of File Explorer in the touch-centric Windows 8 environment. Files search on the Start screen doesn’t find files on removable drives. I can pick photo files from the Photos app, and browse for PDF files from the Reader app, but there’s no Windows 8 app that handles Word or Excel documents. Compromise.

But I can browse, copy, open, and manage files on that flash drive by going into File Explorer on the desktop. It’s not exactly touch-friendly, but I can get the job done with minimal frustration. Would I want to organize hundreds or thousands of files that way? Of course not, but the imperfect option to browse those files and copy the ones I needed is welcome.

At any rate, I was able to write a 500-word draft of this post in Word 2013, on a tablet, using nothing but the onscreen keyboard. It took a few minutes to adapt to the layout and feel of the keyboard (something that is equally true when switching between different designs of physical keyboards). I didn’t find the experience frustrating; on the contrary, the more I worked, the more comfortable I became with the mechanics of entering, selecting, editing, and formatting text.

When I got home, I put the tablet in its docking station, with a keyboard and mouse attached. I’m using that hardware combo right now to polish the draft I composed at 36,000 feet, expand its arguments, and insert links to online content. In a few moments, I’ll paste this into ZDNet’s content management system and hit Publish.

I was able to do all of that on one device, which acted as a tablet on that tiny airline tray and as a full-fledged PC back in the office.

That’s the basic idea behind all the new hybrid PC designs I saw in Berlin last week. In fact, that is exactly what the designers of Windows 8 have meant by “no compromises” all along.

Earlier this year, in a novella-length post on the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft’s Jensen Harris explained:

We designed Windows 8 to take into account the desire to have a PC that works the way you do—whether you want a laptop with a permanent keyboard, a tablet with a keyboard you can attach (wired or wireless), or something in the middle. Touch works across all of these form factors, and you choose which input method to use when. This is what we mean when we say Windows 8 provides a no-compromise experience.

That isn’t revisionist history, either. The August 2011 post that introduced Windows 8 included the exact same message:

You don’t have to compromise! You carry one device that does everything you want and need.  You can connect that device to peripherals you want to use. You can use devices designed to dock to large screen displays and other peripherals.  You can use convertible devices that can be both immersive tablets and flexible laptops.

And now, finally, we’re seeing third-party hardware and the Windows software come together to express that vision almost exactly as laid out a year ago.

At IFA 2012, I saw at least a dozen hybrid devices designed to bridge the gap between touch-based devices and conventional notebooks. I know which ones caught my eye, but until we have a chance to actually use them, we won’t be able to see which ones are truly promising and which are a collection of compromises.

Topics: Windows, PCs

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248 comments
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  • W/ keyboard and mouse gone and a small 10' screen

    I don't know how to avoid compromise when compared to my 24' desktop user experience.
    LBiege
    • i also

      read the whole post and found not 'no compromises' but a compromise at every single step...
      polarcat
      • You better check...

        You better check your definition of compromise. He was able to do everything using the same device. Wake up.
        kstap
        • Are we changing the definition of compromise?

          Every step of the way Ed ran into some sort of compromise in tablet mode or notebook PC (desktop) mode. There's really no great advantage here over having separate devices (notebook and iPad for instance) on the road because you will be using both in vastly different ways anyway. With the cloud, I can also start typing on the iPad and finish it on my Notebook when I get back to the office.
          dave95.
          • cloud

            but with your ipad, you can't see any of the data that was on the USB thumb drive, and at 36,000 ft you'd be stuck watching a movie on it, not doing any work, and most likely you can't access the cloud to pull up the data either.

            no thank you..
            dundonrl
          • Guess what?

            "at 36,000 ft you'd be stuck watching a movie on it, not doing any work, and most likely you can't access the cloud to pull up the data either." You won't be pulling too much data from the cloud on a "Surface" either, and you better hope it's a short flight, as the Surface won't get iPad like battery life
            Troll Hunter J
          • Convenience & money

            > There's really no great advantage here over having separate devices (notebook and iPad for instance)

            Except for convenience and money
            Why have a tablet, a net-/notebook and a desktop? You use one device - the hardware is potent enough, it's just a question of form factors.

            1. Convenience of not having to sync between more devices (internet is not always available nor free - especially abroad)
            2. Weight: why carry both a tablet and a net-/notebook?
            3. It's obviously cheaper to have one device than many. Instead you can get a good external monitor, keyboard, 3 TB HDD etc.
            JonSawyer
          • Convenience & money

            "1. Convenience of not having to sync between more devices"

            Syncing couldn't be easier with Apple's suite of productivity Apps. It does it automatically for the user. I can type out 500 words on the iPad (on an Airplane with no wifi) and it automatically syncs over iCloud once I am connected again.


            "2. Weight: why carry both a tablet and a net-/notebook?"

            An iPad and MacBook Air together are not exactly shoulder breakers lol.


            "3. It's obviously cheaper to have one device than many. Instead you can get a good external monitor, keyboard, 3 TB HDD etc."

            That Samsung Series 7 Ed used cost $1,200. A consumer can purchase an iPad and still have left over for a good notebook PC. Or for $200 more buy the true best of both worlds, an iPad 2 and a 11" MacBook Air.
            dave95.
          • It's a headgame to make Windows tablets seem cooler

            I find the combo of iPad and Mac Air extremely powerful and portable. Regardless of market hype of iPad, Android or Windows 8, a tablet is a tablet when you don't have it docked to a keyboard. The headgame is that somehow all the peripherals make it an all in one without them. When you're in a cramped little space, and need a tablet, an iPad is going to be just as functional as Windows 8 or Android, minus the flash drive (you just got it from a secret agent and had no time to upload it to any of the numerous cloud storages or use any number of wifi sharing apps).
            The flash drive is handy, but in real life I've never needed one for something I had to do on an iPad, and really, synching something to google docs, iCloud, sharing it via web/network, whatever or even synching it via iTunes and the appropriate app is just as functional as putting it on a flash drive, and very convenient.
            The air will likely be a lot less clunky than carrying all those peripherals if you really want to call it an "all in one". It is more expensive, but way more powerful and functional and handy in a variety of situations.
            ossoup
          • Circular

            "The flash drive is handy, but in real life I've never needed one for something I had to do on an iPad"

            because you didn't have the option in the first place?
            12312332123
          • Actually, I do many times and it's useless for every day

            If I have a very large file I need to work on, I have a flash drive. You know they fit right on your key chain now and can hold a lot more than you probably have free on any tablet, right?
            I said I have not needed one for anything I would need to work on my iPad or any other tablet with. The only thing a flash drive has ever been handy for is expanding the space for certain apps, or carrying a movie library, and accessing it is generally much slower than copying it to the device anyway, which you can do without paying a dollar either synching via USB. If I want to watch a move, sure it would be handy to have a small extended video library on a flash drive, but I've never needed to watch a movie right now on the go. We're talking portable, tablet situations, and the times you're going to need to work on a document you just received on a flash drive with no computer around are very few and far in between. Course, if you had your Mac Air it would be no problem. Synch it real quick and move on with your tablet, even in the tiny space scenario described above. To me, that's no compromises. Having to get home to hook it up to a real monitor, mouse, keyboard, etc. is a style I moved on from a while ago. Going home to use the real power computer for cpu intensive work, I can see.
            ossoup
          • I've tried more than one tablet you know.

            I used to have a Xoom I had to root and put my own image on to finally get the flash drive to work since Motorola hadn't included support for it the first year at least. The payoff was real tiny, because for a tablet, the lifestyle use was synch something if I was going to use it. Granted, it wasn't a standard USB port, but a MicroSD slot, but I did play with loading things and really, with google docs, dropbox, network uploads, USB synchs, etc., the expandable drive was more a gimmick than practical in use, access being slower, SD cards easier to misplace, etc. I do speak from experience, and all those methods of accessing and synching data exist for the iPad and iPhone, plus more, as well as iCloud seamless work across devices now.
            You will get more cred talking about what you can now do with windows, versus pretending Mac or Apple user are missing essential functions they already know they get by fine now with myriads of options. In real life, the iPad could be better, and a USB slot would be nice, but I settled on it because it was superior for me and my work to the android device that had all the things Windows RT has. You can make android a USB flash drive host even, but for real work I used a real flash drive, which stored a lot more inexpensively. You could use SD cards, but in realty, I didn't need my whole media library on little sticks carrying around all the time, and nobody ever gave me a flash drive I just had to look at "right now", even if I had my Air with me...
            ossoup
          • What works for you is no good for me...

            Personally I've never been in such situation where I'm in cramped in small space where even net-/subnotebook would not work but still just enough that a tablet would be usable I would think that it should be uncomfortable enough to keep me from using even a phone, let alone tablet, unless I really had to get something done right there (in which case I would probably have had previously a case of utter failure to plan my working reasonably). I already heavily dislike having to work with virtual touchscreen keyboard (it's awful for typing, let alone efficient modification of large articles or code) and consider tablets pretty much worthless for my needs - that is as long as there are proper alternatives (I can work even with having to type an article with a numpad of non-touchsrceen phone *if I have to*, so I guess even they are not *totally* worthless for such things).
            With all this and the fact that if I actually found a need for tablet there are tablet notebooks available - I'd rather compromise with them being slightly thicker and heavier than equivalent plain tablet... And they have a USB port, which I have (as is the case with many people) often needed - even though I have equivalent of Cloud service (I prefer not to place my files on 3rd party servers if not for good reason, but I ran a server at home, which I have and will configured to provide whatever services I'd like regarding online data storing).
            Finally, I don't like to carry anymore "clunk" than reasonable - and as I can set up a blazing keyboard driven environment I don't need to carry my tiny wireless laser mouse if I feel it's too much. That don't mean that I'd consider it a worthy compromise to not be able to plug in that mouse or whatever USB devices I should sometimes need/want to get an extremely thin and light system in exchange, when with tiny subnotebooks the thickness or weight never has bothered me.

            People have different needs - and for me a tablet is useless and connections for peripherals are worth it. What really matters is battery life and being able to choose what software I want / like to run on it. My usual setup for lightweight netbook use is an environment highly efficient and customizable, yet (mostly) extremely minimalist - which has quite an effect on how much runnig time I can squeeze out of battery.
            I don't claim that what I prefer would be nice for others - I know I have extremely customized environment that average people could not use if I had not, for their sake, set up alternative desktop and more "common" software variants available if needed. But really I would be comfortable using any small net-/subnotebook available - my issue is with tablets, which I prefer to leave for others to play with.
            robsku
          • New models coming out next month

            Yes, that was an expensive machine, kind of like the first MacBook Air, which was about $1800, IIRC. The new Samsung Series 5 slate will be $799. The Surface RT will probably be about the same, maybe less. Want to compare those prices to the total price of an iPad and a MacBook Air next month?
            Ed Bott
          • Except 1 thing

            With the notebook and tablet you'll need to carry 2 devices. With a Windows 8 device it will be one device.

            Windows 8 is more like a Swiss Army knife that does multiple things instead of just a knife. Or how about a military transport that can run on land and water as opposed to having to have a truck that has a boat in tow.
            rkegel@...
          • Swiss Army knives are terrible at everything.

            You've just proven the point. You buy a seperate tablet and notebook because you buy devices that are the best of each class. You don't buy one mediocre device that stinks at both things. Just like you buy a great screwdriver and a great saw and a great knife and a great corkscrew, etc. instead of one awful Swiss Army knife that isn't any good at being any of those things.
            RationalGuy
          • The iPad IS the swiss army knife

            it has 101 tools and does everything...albeit half baked.
            The Samsung Slate in comparison is a laptop (a full sized tool) that works as a swiss army knife (tablet) at a compromise.
            I see no compromise in using the Samsung Slate as a laptop with a keyboard.
            warboat
          • the slate is cool

            But you're comparing it to the iPad, when it's going to cost twice as much and is really a different device. You should be comparing it to the Air, which runs Windows, Linux and OSX, which is an extremely powerful UNIX based system all on its own.
            I think it would help your argument if you didn't throw in inaccurate statements not understanding what an iPad can do though. It seems like anyone who has anything good to say about Windows 7 has to slam (inaccurately by the way) on iPads and Mac Airs. An iPad follows the UNIX philosophy of tools that do their job, and do them well. but in the end, it's just a tablet using a tablet OS, much like Windows 8 RT versions.
            ossoup
          • i do mean the high powered one :)

            The cool Slate appears to be 4GB i5. I'm not sure about the 2/64GB "Clover Trail" one that is only slightly more than an iPad, because it seems more like the low end RT market, but we'll see.
            Either way, both seem like a decent device. The "cheap" $750s will likely compete with the iPad, and not do much more, limited to RT, while the more expensive ones will be much less functional on their own than a Mac Air (which will run Windows 7, 8, Linux, OSX, etc.). By less functional on their own, I mean, I've owned many devices and in the end a tablet is limited by its form factor. To lug around a bunch of plug-ins, or have them at home, does not make it more functional on its own, and you could just as easily have a Macbook pro or air at home instead of a bunch of wires and components.
            ossoup
          • Wow

            I'm not sure I can count the number of things that were wrong in that comment.

            The Clovertrail devices run full Windows 8, not Windows RT. The hybrid devices I looked at don't require "a bunch of wires and components." They snap in and out of a single base. There are also slider models and the Surface, where the keyboard is the cover and doesn't have to be removed.

            At $799, the Samsung Series 5 is the same price as an equivalently spec'ed iPad with external keyboard would cost about the same.
            Ed Bott