Microsoft is leaving no stone unturned for its big launch in October. For the first time in almost a decade, the Windows Operating System will receive a major overhaul and while that may sound like a good thing, not every aspect of it is really beneficial to the average PC user. In order to stay relevant in this app crazy world, Microsoft is finally adding a touch-friendly interface for devices like phones and tablets. It’s not like we’ve not had Windows-based tablets and slates in the past, it’s that the OS just wasn’t designed to work in that environment so naturally, they never really took off. The new addition to the desktop environment, now called Modern UI, is supposed to change that, but do we really need it on notebooks and desktops too? I can understand if a Windows 8 tablet tries to mimic a notebook, that still works, and the Surface is proof of that. But it does not work the other way around and it seems like companies either fail to realize this or are simply compelled to create such contraptions in order to stay in the race.
OEM’s like Dell, HP, Samsung, Acer and other big names, proudly showcased their upcoming products at the IFA 2012 consumer tech exhibition in Berlin. Some of them were just concepts while some will actually make it to production in the coming months and will be amongst the first Windows 8 notebooks, come October. The problem with all these notebooks however is just that - they are notebooks. So simply slapping a touchscreen on them in order to use Modern UI doesn’t make it a very practical solution. Imagine sitting with the notebook on your lap and reaching out with one arm to swipe across the screen. This is not ergonomic at all and you’ll soon develop fatigue. OEMs also showed off All-In-One PCs running Windows 8 with touchscreens, which again, just doesn’t work in the real world. Big wigs like Acer, HP and others also showcased touch-enabled versions of their current Ultrabooks. Acer’s M3 and V5 will be the new touch-based Ultrabooks that will soon hit the shelves. As if Ultrabooks weren’t expensive enough, expect to pay an even higher premium for them now. Dell finally has the platform to bring its concept back to life called the Duo 12. First seen at CES a couple of years back, this notebook has a feature where the entire screen can be rotated within the bezel, converting it into a tablet. While this seems like a good idea as you can use it as a slate by simply flipping the screen, you’ll still be dealing with the weight and dimensions of a notebook so you really wouldn’t be able to use it one-handed for too long. Samsung took the Asus Taichi route when they showed off their 13-inch Series 9 notebook, which had dual screens, one regular and another on the lid. This way, when the notebook is closed, you can use it as a tablet and when opened, it turns into a notebook, a clever solution but again not practical since you won’t be able to use desktop apps in Modern UI so you’ll have to open the lid to use it, rendering the outer screen useless.
Not the most practical solution
What bugs me more is that despite OEMs like Samsung and Asus having hybrid Windows 8 notebooks that resemble the Surface, why are they trying to tabletize regular notebooks as well? It would have been different if consumers didn't have a choice of hybrid PCs in which case, touch-enabled Ulrabooks would have made sense for those looking for the ‘complete’ Windows 8 experience. This is just going to cause more confusion to the end user as he/she now has a choice between a standard notebook with a touchscreen or a tablet PC that can double up as a notebook, all from the same brand.
While these designs may be innovative and something totally out of the box, it still feels like most of them have no choice but to create such wacky designs, just for the sake of highlighting Modern UI. It may look and function great on a tablet since that’s something that’s designed to be used with your finger, it just doesn’t work with a keyboard and mouse. It’s not like you can’t use it, but it’s highly inconvenient and I can say that since I have been using Windows 8 for a couple of months now and the only time I switch to the Modern UI is if I need to search for an application and that’s it. Another reason why it’s a pain is that you need special apps to run on Modern UI and as expected, there aren’t many a regular desktop user would use. You buy a notebook for the traditional Windows computing environment so I just don’t see these touch-based notebooks working out once they hit retail. Apart from the Modern UI, Windows 8 is essentially a tweaked Windows 7, without the start button. Also, Modern UI is only really useful on a touchscreen whereas on a regular desktop, it’s just an annoyance, more than anything else. It feels as if Microsoft is aware that traditional desktop users don’t have much of an incentive to upgrade to Windows 8, which is why it's probably pushing OEMs to come with solutions that highlight the use of Modern UI. What this is really doing is simply driving up the prices of notebooks and giving users features that look more like a gimmick than an actual solution that would impact your day to day work. If this was bad, it only gets worse for notebooks running Windows RT as you’ll only get to use Modern UI, thereby severely limiting your computing needs. These notebooks will be more akin to Chromebooks, thin and cheap(er) but won’t offer much in terms of serious computing.
As I see it, your Windows 8 experience will all boil down to three broad options. The first will be a regular notebook or Ultrabook that will have gesture support for Modern UI using the trackpad. This will be the cheapest route for OEMs as all they have to do is add these gestures to the trackpad so users can interact better with Modern UI rather than having to use the keyboard and mouse pointer. The second viable option is the hybrid PC route. Here, you’ll get the best Windows 8 experience thanks to the touchscreen and tablet-like form factor (eg. Surface) but you will have to compromise on screen size. These two will probably be the most successful Windows 8 experiences that users will actually consider adopting. The third route, which seemed to be a trend at IFA 2012, is simply adding a touchscreen to regular notebooks and Ultrabooks. I don’t see this solution working since not only are these going to be large and bulky to be used as tablets, they are going to be ridiculously expensive and will be nothing more than a tick mark in an OEM's portfolio.