Windows 8 Pro on Microsoft's Surface: A usability nightmare

Potential buyers are eyeing the x86-powered Surface running Window 8 Pro over the ARM version running Windows RT for reasons of compatibility. But could this be too much to expect from a tablet?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Of the two flavors of Surface tablet that Microsoft announced last month, by far the most popular based on feedback from readers is the x86-powered version running Windows 8 Pro. This is what ZDNet's James Kendrick and I are both hearing.

When Microsoft made the surprise announcement that it was preparing to wade into the tablet market, onlookers were surprised that Redmond giant was willing to fire both barrels and unveil two different tablets. There an x86-powered version that runs Windows 8 Pro based around an unidentified Intel "Ivy Bridge" Core processor, and an ARM version running Windows RT based around an also unidentified ARM processor.

On the surface -- (pun intended) -- the two tablets look alike. Both have a 10.6-inch screen, with the x86 version running at full-HD (1080p) and the ARM version running at HD (720p). Both are thin, both are light. Both have an integrated kickstand, both have a complement of ports, including a full-sized USB 2.0 port on the ARM Surface, while the x86 Surface enjoys USB 3.0 support. Both support storage expansion through the use of micro-SD cards.

The biggest difference that will catch the eye of consumers will be the respective price tags of the devices.

Microsoft has said that they are "expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel ultrabook-class PC". This puts the ARM version in the $600 price bracket and the x86 in at around $1,000 -- give or take a few bucks.

Given that the x86 version will command a premium price tag, I'm somewhat surprised that this is the flavor that most people are interested in. However, when you quiz interested consumers about what draws them to the x86 flavor over the ARM version, one phrase keeps cropping up: "backward compatibility."

This should send some clear signals to the Redmonians.

First, and immediately most worrying for Microsoft, is that buyers -- lowly consumers and enterprise buyers alike -- are willing to pay a premium amounting to a few hundred dollars to avoid adopting the Windows RT platform and its reliance on Metro apps. If this is how things pan out across the board, it doesn't bode well for the long-term viability of the Windows RT platform, the Windows 8 Store, or the touch-based Metro user interface.

The second take away is that Surface owners are expecting the tablet to offer backward compatibility, not just for existing hardware and software, but also for intangibles such as workflow. (Yes, people want new, shiny things, but they want them to work exactly as the old stuff did.)

People want things to change, but at the same time they want things -- especially anything that created a learning curve or puts a speed bump in the way of workflow -- to stay the same. We're talking about you, the enterprise. 

Well, that's going to be a bit of a problem.

Not only has Microsoft's insistence on cobbling together the "Classic" and "Metro" user interfaces resulted in an absolutely repugnant user experience, but a tablet is hardly the place to start hoping that things will work the same as they do on a desktop or notebook system.

While I've no doubt that the Metro UI and Metro apps will work quite well on a 10.6-inch screen, the idea that legacy applications designed to be driven by a keyboard and mouse on systems with 17-inch+ displays are going to be pleasant to use on a tablet is, quite frankly, ludicrous.  

If you're looking to a tablet to offer any degree of backward compatibility, you're heading to buy the wrong thing. Turn around at the other bench at the Microsoft Store.

Unless you're already using a Windows-powered tablet -- and chances are you're not -- then what you're really looking to buy a notebook, or if you want portability, an ultrabook.  

And if you're truly looking for workflow backward compatibility, then you might just want to stick with Windows 7 for the foreseeable future.

Image source: Microsoft, CNET.

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