Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What’s wrong with Windows on tablets?

I have Windows 7 on my TC1100 slate tablet, and it’s working out quite nicely.  Yet, whenever anyone reviews one of these “new” Windows slates, they complain about how Windows was not designed for touch.  While technically true, Windows was designed for use with a mouse and keyboard, I don’t seem to have a problem using it on slates. 

Admittedly, my TC1100 is not a touch slate, it’s a pen slate.  That means I have an active Wacom digitizer which senses the pen above the screen.  This is a pretty big advantage over just touch, as it allows me to see where the computer thinks the cursor is before I even put the pen to the screen.  It also allows for roll-over and hovering gestures, which can be useful when navigating menus or flash based things. 

I have also had Windows 7 on several single-touch resistive screen based tablets.  I have had both the Viliv S5 (5” slate style) and Asus t91 (9” convertible netbook).  They both have the same basic guts, and both have single-touch resistive screens. 

The Viliv is a slate style machine, so it has a bunch of helpful physical buttons to make up for the lack of keyboard controls. My favorite of these was a small joystick that could be used for a variety of things including scrolling.  I really enjoying having a physical button for scrolling.  Everything else was easy enough to do with the TIP or Windows on screen keyboard.  I did use a stylus with this one, as the 5” screen made things pretty small. 

The Asus is a convertible, which means you have a full keyboard with the device open.  It seems that less thought was put into the slate usage of that machine, as there was only one button besides the power button accessible in slate mode, and that was to rotate the screen.  Most modern tablets accomplish that task automatically with an accelerometer.  I found myself frequently needing to open the machine back up to netbook mode to do things that could have been easily accomplished using one of the extra buttons on the Viliv, like adjusting screen brightness.  It seems that when the keyboard is available, designers forget to make slate mode useful. 

So, what buttons are needed to make a slate useful?  A ctrl/alt/del button is nice to have as a shortcut for the task manager and user switcher, also when things freeze.  I frequently use the esc button on the TC1100 to pull things out of full screen mode.  If would be nice to have that toggle with F11 to make getting things to full screen easier.  I’m also a big fan of my jog dial, and I enjoyed the mini joystick on the viliv also.  Scrolling functions can just as easily be addressed with multitouch though, so physical scrolling is less essential.  On the other hand, I found switching from the pen to two finger scrolling on the x201t to be awkward.  Perhaps the physical button option is not a bad thing to have. 

What kinds of things are not easy to touch in Windows 7?  The small things that most reviewers seem to complain about are the start menu, the close button, and browser links.  There are many icon based launcher overlays coming out now that deal with making program launching more finger friendly.  The only way to make the web easier to click is to make it easy to zoom.  Responsive screens with good multitouch should take care of that.  Then, it’s just window management.  The big icon based taskbar in Windows 7 already makes it much easier to switch between running applications.  Perhaps just one more button for exiting applications, separate from the full screen toggle, would round out a useful set of buttons to help make Windows easier to navigate on a slate tablet.

We’ll see how all this plays out in real life, as I have a new Windows 7 slate on the way for review.

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