User Interface, Gestures, and Multitasking

by Anand Shimpi and Vivek Gowri

By now you should be fairly familiar with what Windows RT’s Start Screen looks like, at least from a distance. Power on a Windows RT tablet and you’ll be greeted by the new Windows UI. A big, horizontal canvas full of live tiles, a feature that first debuted in Windows Phone 7. Based on the Metro design language, and referred to as Metro UI for much of the development cycle, a trademark dispute has forced a name change to Modern UI. There’s no getting around it, there’s a definite learning curve to the interface. It doesn’t matter if you’re used to Windows 7, OS X, Android or iOS, the touch enabled Windows RT UI is going to feel different, and probably downright first.

If you put in the time to learn and get used to the interface however, it is easily among the best tablet user interfaces I’ve ever tried. Everything we despise Windows 8 for on the desktop makes perfect sense when viewed through tablet colored glasses.

As a recap, Windows RT (and Windows 8) relies on edge swipe gestures for much of the macro control over navigation. Full screen apps are left purposefully barren, with their focus primarily on content. The power is in what lies (virtually) beyond the edges of the screen. 

There’s no capacitive sensor array in the bezel of a Windows RT tablet, instead what the touch controller does is looks at starting position and velocity of gesture to determine whether your swipe originated on or off screen.

There are only four edge swipes you need to learn, one for each edge of the display. Swipe in from the left and you flip through apps, giving Microsoft the win for quickest task switcher among all tablets. By default a left edge swipe will switch to the previously used app, or if you just switched from that it’ll move to the next most-recently used app.

If you have a lot of apps to switch between simply left edge swipe in partially then swipe back out, revealing a more traditional task switcher (Windows + Tab also brings up this switcher). Of all of the Windows RT gestures the swipe in/out to bring up the task switcher is the most clunky, but it’s easy to get used to.

Go to the opposite side of the screen and right edge swipe in to reveal the charms bar. Here you get direct access to the software start button as well as a bunch of key tools, among them are search and settings. 

Although the appearance of the charms bar never changes, the function of these buttons do. Start always takes you to the start screen, but search and settings apply to the app currently in focus. I can’t stress how much of an advantage this is over iOS. If I need to play with an app setting on the iPad I either need to go home and to settings then find the app or hope the developer has stuck a tab somewhere in the app where I can play with options. 

Even better is the fact that I can toggle things like an app’s ability to run in the background and whether or not it’s allowed to give me notifications on the lock screen directly from the app settings page. The icing on the cake? Playing with settings never forces me out of the app itself, Windows RT simply devotes the right 1/4 of the screen to settings, leaving my app still in focus on the left. It’s perfect.

Also perfect? The ability to snap applications to the right or left edge of the screen and have a different window open in the remaining portion. This was called Metro Snap before use of the Metro name was discontinued, and it’s one of the more interesting features here. Snapping requires a screen with at least 1366 horizontal pixels, allocated as 1024 to the main window, 22 to the splitter, and 320 to the snapped application panel. It’s great for having an IM conversation or email inbox open on the side when writing, browsing, or doing essentially anything else. 

One of the biggest issues I’ve had with tablet multitasking to date is that it’s all been very focused on the active window, which makes doing things like messaging an absolute pain because you’re continually flipping between whatever you were doing (let’s say browsing the web) and the messaging application. In Windows RT though, you just snap the conversation window to the side and continue browsing, just with a narrower browser window. 

Messaging is just one usecase though - email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype video calls (their implementation is pretty cool - more on this later), music, a small browser window docked on the edge while writing in the main screen, the possibilities are endless. You could even theoretically turn it into three near-equal size windows using Aero Snap in Windows desktop, though that severely cuts down on usable space. But generally, the Snap feature gives the end user a lot of flexibility and makes multitasking a lot easier. 

Top and bottom edge swipes end up being more application specific. Swipe up from the bottom and you usually get some additional options, while swiping down from the top edge is usually more of a navigational tool (e.g. showing multiple tabs in IE10). 

Although Windows RT borrows from its iOS and Android brethren in that it will automatically pause and unload unused apps from memory, you can always manually move the process along by edge swiping down from the top and dragging the window off the bottom of the screen. This also works from the task switcher on the left side, drag over and down to the bottom of the screen to close. There’s some built in lag to ensure that you don’t accidentally quit something of importance but otherwise it works fine. 

Overall, the edge swipe gestures take some getting used to but once you’ve made it over the hump they really unlock a totally new level of tablet usage.

I believe Microsoft is on to something real here with the new Windows UI for tablets. This new OS feels ahead of the curve on major issues like multitasking, task switching and displaying multiple apps on the screen at the same time. I was always told that marketshare is lost and gained in periods of transition. Microsoft missed the first major transition to new ARM based smartphones and tablets, but it’s perfectly positioned to ride the wave to notebook/tablet convergence. In fact, when it comes to figuring out how to merge those two platforms I don’t believe Apple or Google have a reasonable solution at this point. In Apple’s world the two are distinctly separate, while Google is arguably even worse off as it doesn’t have a good notebook OS at this point (the verdict is still out on Chrome OS, as promising as the new Samsung Chromebook appears to be). It’s unclear how big this convertible/hybrid market will grow, but I see real potential here. There are users who want an iPad and I don’t believe Microsoft does anything to change their minds. The iPad and iOS remain a very polished, very accessible platform that is really optimized for content consumption and light productivity. For anyone who wanted more however, there’s now an alternative: Windows RT.

Meet Windows RT Bridging the Gap, the Dichotomy of Windows RT
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  • Sherlock - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    IMHO WIndows RT on ARM is an stop-gap solution till the x86 architecture becoms power efficient to give tablet like running times. I belive Microsoft began working on Surface about two years ago & at that point of time, there was no viable competitor to ARM, in terms of power efficiency. This is the primary reason I belive Microsoft had to create an ARM version.

    Several of the commentators on this site have mentioned that they see no reason to buy an ARM over x86...and it definitley makes sense. Why have an fragmented ecosystem?

    I believe that as time passes on & people get used to the Modern UI & the x86 architecture catches up, Microsft would phase out their support for the ARM version.

    Microsoft could have chosen to do away with the "Desktop" environment with Windows RT & created a Moder UI version of Office (I don't agree with the argument of they not having enough time...they have been at it for 2 years) but I guess they deliberately chose to retain it so that users experience the familiar environment while using their killer app in this war - Office. I think people have underestimated the importance of bundling Office with Windows RT which remediates the biggest shortcoming of Android/iOS tablets
  • prdola0 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Hi, the article is nice, but I keep wondering about one thing. Why do Apple articles start with a nice and colorful image of the devices, and a lot of it's competition articles start with a smudgy ugly images or devices turned off? Maybe it's just accidental, but please give it a thought. It looks a bit like bias.
  • B3an - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Lol i've said this before! They often put more effort in to images taken of Apple stuff, which i've never liked as it's bias in way.

    But to be fair, this time the image at the start of this article is old and to show the Win 7 tablet. It makes sense to have it with the opening of the article.
  • beginner99 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    ...but doubtful very usable in practice. I really like the thinking behind Surface with the touch keyboard cover and other things. According to this review Windows 8 isnt that bad on tablets. I'm just gonna believe that.

    However the Application load times are very, very bad. 7 sec for mail app? That is just frustrating. Just shows that ARM is still very much underpowered....Or that surface uses an extremely crappy flash storage.
  • milkod2001 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link


    this site belongs to Anand a trully Apple fanboy plus there's no such thing as unbiased review, any review on any web is only as good/positive as much is reviewer/site owner getting pay
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Funny, I thought the review was rather in favor for Microsoft. This review, and the Microsoft surface review. Both.

    Anand is no dumbie.. I absolutely HATE anything Apple based on pure personal beliefs / reasoning. Yet, even I, can not deny that iOS as far as polish goes is second to none. Until now. And the hardware used is usually top quality.

    At a higher cost, with less freedom, and a strangle hold on their software regime. A lot of people claim these are all problems from Microsoft. Which may be true, but Apple trumps Microsoft in computer-land tyranny. Until now.

    It could be that 90% of the market will be driven to using Mint Linux x, in the not so distant future. We'll see if Microsoft gets another clue.
  • GnillGnoll - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    I very much like that the on-screen keyboard has cursor keys, even if it's just left/right. It's one of the main features missing from the iOS keyboard, as precisely positioning the cursor with your finger is a huge pain.

    I assume that Ctrl+Left/Right skips words, and that Shift+Left/Right can be used for selection. Does anyone know if there is a way to go up/down?

    I don't like that quick access to punctuation is so limited, though.
  • bitbank - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    From your comments throughout the article, it's clear that you're a fan of Metro and you overlook many of the shortcomings of Windows Phone and Windows RT just because of the "smooth tiled interface". The truth is that the GUI isn't that important. It's not where you get your work done. Apps are where you work.

    As you said, an ARM version of Windows is good to wake Intel from their slumber and get some competition in the low cost/low power CPU market. Intel's Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors get decent battery life and run 3-5x faster than the best ARM offerings to date. I get 8-10 hours of battery life out of my 17" HP Sandy Bridge notebook with the medium capacity battery. I would much rather have an x86 slate running Windows 8 with support for legacy apps. Having a half-baked version of Office on an ARM based WinRT tablet isn't much incentive to be stuck with virtually no apps.

    WindowsRT feels a lot like the launch of Windows CE notebooks. Interesting form factors and improved battery life don't make up for lack of app compatibility. The value of Windows is in its huge selection of apps. Win8 Pro is taking the right approach. Similar to the transition from DOS and 16-bit to 32-bit apps with Windows 95, there needs to be a transition product (Win8 Pro) which bridges the gap between old and new. When presented with a completely new device with no legacy support and very little app support, it makes very little sense for the average user to buy it. Besides reviewers and people who have to buy the latest gadget, why should an average person want to buy WinRT? According to you, they should patiently wait for the app store to get some decent apps. That's asking too much. The smart move for the average consumer is to wait a year or so and see if developers have given any attention to Windows 8's "little brother" and published apps in both x86 and ARM versions.
  • karocage - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    But the interface is how you navigate all those apps. It's legitimate to point out that WP7 and W8/RT have clearly surpassed iOS in terms of speed of navigation between things like the back button, hubs, task switcher, charms and so on. That's not a function of the tiles really - although of course the tiles are another place where MS has a much better implementation than Apple.
  • steven75 - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    Completely disagree on speed of navigation. Are you familiar with the four-finger swipes on an iPad to switch apps, bring up the "task manager" tray, etc?

    I'll give you getting to the settings screen to find apps settings takes longer but thankfully on iOS apps launch lightning fast unlike on RT.

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