This article will focus mainly on the Surface 2 tablet; Microsoft supplied a $449.99 64GB Surface 2, without keyboard; for my full review of the Nokia Lumia Icon, click here.
“I wouldn’t use a Windows phone even if Microsoft paid me.”
When I posted on Facebook last week announcing that Microsoft had sent me a few Windows 8.1 devices (Surface 2 tablet and Nokia Lumia phone) to test, that was the snarky reaction I received from one of my fellow journalists.
Still, I told other people about the devices I had. The reactions ranged from inquisitive (“Always wondered if those were any good,”) to insulting (“Why would you ever bother looking at those?”) to the genuinely shocked (“Microsoft makes phones and tablets?”). I had asked for the devices originally because I was curious to see if Microsoft had anything impressive enough to rival Apple and Google.
The answer, much as it might shock you read, is yes.
Microsoft banked on the ‘Surface’ line of tablets, but they’ve never really taken off. The market percentage still lies in the single digits, though Surface products did see a bit of a boost last year. While it’s never really been a serious threat to Apple or Google, perhaps it deserves to be.
New Microsoft tablets come loaded Windows 8.1. Now I’ve used 8.1 on a laptop, and it’s an odd experience if you’re using it on a non-touch interface; using a mouse with a swipe-centric screen and live tiles just doesn’t mesh. But put it on a tablet, and it all starts to make sense.
But let’s get to the meat -- what’s it like to live with Windows devices?
It’s ... quite good, actually. Far better than I expected. And, while the oft-heard criticisms are not unfounded, they do need to be contextualized.
#1: The Windows Store has no apps.
This is true, and yet it isn’t. Do you buy electronics based on the number of potential applications you can download? Should it matter to you? It depends on what you’re looking for. The numbers don’t lie - the App Store and Google Play far outclass the Windows Store when it comes to availability. It’s a classic Catch 22; developers don’t want to make apps for an OS that has the smallest userbase, but users won’t flock to Windows 8 devices because they don’t have as many apps as the competition (iOS has over a million apps, and so does Android).
This is more of a problem for Surface tablets than Windows phones, since the tablets run on Windows RT, a modified version of the Windows 8 platform - although the total number of apps for Windows 8.1 is more than 150,000, it’s estimated that the Surface can only download a third or so of that.
And let’s be honest -- how many apps do you really keep on your device? 150,000 isn’t a small number.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. More than half of the apps across all three platforms are never updated. There’s a large volume, but sheer quantity never ensures quality.
Of course, that doesn’t cover every popular application. Instagram doesn’t exist on the Surface 2 (or most Android tablets, for that matter) though there is the InstaPic app which does a nice job of translating the phone experience to tablets. There’s no official YouTube app (Google does own YouTube, after all), but there’s an app called Hyper to circumvent that problem.
A lot of good apps come bundled on the Surface 2, actually -- I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I enjoyed most of the Bing suite. Bing Sports is particularly nice, with customization for favorite teams and sports leagues placed alongside the top stories. Bing News is also surprisingly good -- and much prettier than Google News.
I did miss Google Maps though. Until I realized that Nokia-developed Here Maps is a suitable alternative, and who really uses tablets for navigation anyway?
An area where the Surface 2 does excel is real gaming. Forget Angry Birds - titles like Halo:Spartan Assault and Asphalt 8 look and play fantastic in HD. Put it this way -- they’ve been able to rip me away from my Nintendo DS, when most mobile games barely get 10 minutes of my attention.
The real dividing line here is that the Windows Surface 2 is better suited for laptop replacement than its competitors. There’s the Microsoft Office suite (included standard) if you want to do work, and an available snap-in keyboard (that Microsoft should be bundling with Surfaces!) that makes note-taking and paper-writing much easier for sustained periods of time.
#2: I’m so used to Android/iOS, and everything it’s known for. I could never switch.
There’s certainly something to be said for consistency -- iOS has never substantially changed its look or feel. If you’ve used an iPhone, an iPad isn’t going to throw you for a loop. The same goes for stock versions of Android, though at least there’s variation among all of the Android device manufacturers.
That said, there’s really not much of a learning curve to Windows 8.1. Yes, the layout is different from the established heavyweights in the market, but it’s just as simple to use -- really. The only real headscratcher I can think of is managing open applications - when you swipe from the left across the screen, the last application you had on screen takes over, or you could swipe less and split the screen in whatever percentage you want.
And truth be told, it’s not as unfamiliar as you think -- if you’re one of the 50 million Xbox Live users (encompassing both Xbox 360 and Xbox One), the layout will be eerily familiar to you. If not, you can still hit the “desktop” button on Windows 8.1 to transform the screen to the classic Windows interface, which you’ll certainly have experience with.
#3: Ew, nobody has a Windows Phone/Tablet! All of my friends have Apple/Google!
I think there’s just a preconceived notion that Windows devices are ridiculous, terrible, or downright poor. Which is strange, if you think about it -- the public buys Microsoft’s desktops and laptops without hesitation, so why write off their mobile offerings?
Microsoft was the first to the party in 2001 with the Tablet PC, but it wasn’t until Apple released the iPad in 2010 that a market for tablets actually emerged. Microsoft was late to the shindig with their own modern offerings. It’s been an uphill fight since then; the iPad is ubiquitous, and Google has only recently overtaken Apple thanks to pricing undercuts.
That’s something Microsoft should continue to focus on as well, taking note to market the Surface 2 as a light laptop replacement for hundreds less than an iPad (the 64GB Surface 2 is $449, compared to the $699 iPad Air 64GB. Microsoft will have a hell of a time breaking the brand perception, but it’s an elephant in the room.
#4: It looks weird!
Well you’re not very nice.
Seriously, though. It’s a matter of preference; I happen to enjoy the look of Windows 8.1 in general; the operating system is simple and focused on the essential aesthetics. Everything important is on a sliding screen, with active tiles in place of traditional widgets. Cast that on a black background and really quite nice font and parsing choices, and it’s a pretty package.
You can keep it clean and pin only what you want to see all the time. One swipe up and a list appears, arranged in alphabetical order. So it’s not much different from accessing an app one screen over in a drawer like iOS or Android, is it?
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you should all go out and switch to Windows phones and tablets, because a) it’s Microsoft’s job to figure out its marketing, I just write what I think, and b) there are things to appreciate about all three choices.
It comes down to what you prefer: iOS has unmatched, seamless iDevice compatibility, while Android is the king of customization and power. Windows doesn’t do any app best, but it’s peculiar and pretty.
When I share this article on Facebook, I don’t expect my previously mentioned journalist friend to say, “Awesome! I’ll stop being closed-minded now.”
What this has been is a learning experience -- after some time in the Windows ecosystem, I can confirm that it’s much better than you think it is. The question is, can Microsoft make the public believe the same?
EDIT: The test model we received was a 64GB model, which is $549, not $449.