The Microsoft Surface is coming, bringing the ability to run Windows programs, pen control and ability for several people to use the one device. Read more and decide if it's worth waiting for.
Windows 8 will be arriving on tablets – both x86 and ARM-based – by the end of this year. Should you postpone a purchase until Microsoft Surface tablets have flooded onto the market? Here’s a rundown of some of the unique features you can expect.
Tablets are currently single-user devices. Buy an iPad or Android tablet and – barring rudimentary parental controls – your kids will have access to all your apps, email and browsing history, with all the risks entailed. Windows 8 will be the first tablet OS to offer multiple user accounts on the same device.
Each user account has its own Metro style apps and data, so there’s no chance of your teenager accidentally sharing your business spreadsheets on Facebook. The downside is it currently looks like you’ll have to pay twice if two users on the same device want the same app, because apps are tied to each person’s Microsoft account. It would, however, be possible to set up a shared account using a separate Microsoft login, where you could download and install low-risk apps such as games.
Windows 8 will also be the first operating system that allows you to run the same apps on your tablet as you do on the desktop. Although Windows 8 does synchronise settings between different devices, it doesn’t automatically synchronise Metro style apps across all your tablets and PCs. Instead, the Windows Store has a folder containing all the apps you’ve already downloaded on other devices, allowing you to install a game you’ve already paid for on your PC to your tablet for free.
The flip side of Microsoft’s approach is that there will be no sharing of apps between tablet and smartphone, as there is on iOS and Android. Despite sharing the Metro look and feel, Windows Phone and Windows 8 are (currently) different platforms, in much the same way the Mac App Store and iOS App Store are independent of one another.
Windows 8 will, therefore, become something of a test case of which is the stronger: the link between PC and tablet, or that between tablet and smartphone.
x86 software compatibility
Windows 8 won’t only run Metro style apps, but also traditional x86 Windows software. Even on tablet devices supplied without a keyboard or mouse, you’ll still have access to the old-school Windows desktop, where applications such as existing versions of Office, Photoshop and alternative web browsers can run.
There are obvious limitations. Only a tiny number of existing x86 applications are geared for touch control. We wouldn’t recommend editing an Excel 2010 spreadsheet with your fingers and an onscreen keyboard. Although we’re yet to see final hardware, it’s unlikely many Windows 8 tablets will come with optical drives, so installing PC applications on your device could be a problem if you only have the original discs.
The biggest obstacle is users of the ARM version – or Windows RT as it’s now called – won’t be able to run x86 software. As a sop, Microsoft will bundle Metro versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint with Windows RT.
A variety of sizes
Windows 8 will certainly deliver a wider variety of tablet form factors than the one-size-fits-all approach of Apple, and maybe even the more versatile Android. We’ve already seen manufacturers such as Lenovo demonstrate convertible Ultrabooks, where the device can be used in either traditional laptop configuration or as a slate, with the screen swivelling round to lay on top of the keyboard. There will also be a selection of slates with detachable keyboards, docks and other accessories.
For professionals, meanwhile, Windows 8 will offer the best support for pen/stylus operation. Unlike iOS and Android, handwriting recognition is built into the operating system by default – as it is in Windows 7. Coupled with applications such as OneNote, it’s an extremely powerful combination for taking and automatically transcribing handwritten notes. Not to mention the swathes of bespoke, pen-based apps already being used by companies on existing Windows tablets.