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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  • tipoo - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    I'd like to know that as well. But if it kills even my Core 2 Duo, I don't expect current ARM chips to fare well with that many tabs, but I'd still like to know how it handles background tab loading.
  • Mahadragon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Thanks Anand for the best review of RT I've seen yet. Gives me better idea of what's to come, however it doesn't address the question should I buy Win8 for desktop? The upgrade offer ($40) is out now but I don't seen compelling reason to buy it. You mentioned in your review that Apple has their desktop computer and mobile offerings separate, but the way Win8 is being implemented it sounds like maybe they should have kept it that way.

    In your review you said it was jarring how it would revert back to the desktop environment when you touched on a desktop app. It's comments like this that make me wonder why upgrade from Win 7? Are the apps that will eventually come to the desktop be all that useful? I suppose if there were a handy Calendar App that could auto-sync with my mobile device that would be nice, but there are already many apps (like Google Calendar) that I can already use to sync between mobile devices.

    Your review has given a great many reasons to purchase a Surface tablet, but that's not the decision many of us are facing right now. $500 is not chump change and that doesn't even include the keyboard which is another $100. I just bought a new iPod Touch and will be using that for mobile computing since my Windows Phone 7 device is not nearly as user friendly.

    I think MSFT could have kept Win8 same as Win7 with an option to run ARM apps built-in. I think this would have made more sense since they don't have too many apps to begin with. Also, I don't think these little apps, which are optimized for tablet, will necessarily give a great experience on a desktop monitor that you won't be touching.

    It almost seems like MSFT is trying to encourage people to buy the tablet by frustrating them with a rough desktop experience and making it smooth on the Surface. Thank you for going over the history of MSFT's initial forays into the tablet space. It's something very few people realize. Yes, MSFT, always the innovator was the first to come out with a tablet over 10 years ago, but nobody even knew about it.

    Fortunately for MSFT, there is a god (or rather, Apple) who has always been there to show them the light. Apple: "Use a touchscreen, not a stylus!" MSFT: "Ok, sorry, we thought everyone would cherish the thought of using a digital pen to interact with their tablets. Apple: "Make an App Store and sell software programs through it so people can add functionality to their devices!" MSFT: "Ok, that's a great idea, wish we thought of that." Apple: "Add a camera! People like to take photos." MSFT: "Done." Apple: "Come out with your own retail stores so you can sell to people directly!" MSFT: "Ok, we can do that." Apple: "Always remember to copy us verbatim but not too much. We don't want to have to sue you (again)." MSFT: "Ok, we'll make our products geeky instead of dead sexy how about that?"
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    If you're already using Windows 7, chances are pretty good that you'd just be wasting money.

    Windows 8 obviously was made for mobile devices. Then perhaps it will perform somewhat faster on the same hardware. But if you're looking for better gaming performance you probably will not see much of a difference there.

    The app store is a terrible idea in its current incarnation. I do not know many ( any ) software developers who would be happy about paying a 30% forced fee for any software platform. These same developers who draw users en mass to an operating system by creating many, useful applications. Or, I should say *did*.
  • Dorek - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    "Apple: "Add a camera! People like to take photos.""

    Uh, the Surface doesn't have a rear camera. Rear cameras on tablets are freaking stupid.

    Anyway, if you care about such things, Windows 8 has much faster performance than Windows 7. Well worth $40 bucks to me.
  • shermanx - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    where's the Wacom digitizer/pen/stylus? while so many tablets are trying to be different from others, I am surprised how few have included a functional pen for taking notes. that is really important feature for education business, and there's nothing that's really working well now. I just need Wacom Bamboo level of experience with a screen on it at a reasonable price.
  • darkcrayon - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    There will be a digitizer on the Surface Pro, though I think the pro will be even more of a different market than the RT, considering it will be even larger and heavier.
  • yyrkoon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    "The only applications that are allowed to run in desktop mode under Windows RT are Explorer, IE10, Office 2013 and the command prompt "

    This will either make or break Windows RT. Also, I bet this is a form of DRM imposed by Microsoft. While not DRM per se, they get to say which application we can install on our systems. Good, or bad ? I really do not know. It really depends on how they implement their online store. As I have not used windows 8, or Win RT. However, if it is similar to the google app store. Developers are required to pay an annual $25 USD fee. Which if you ask me, is slightly detrimental to the given community. In that people will be more inclined to charge for their applications, instead of providing FOSS( free open source software ). $25 USD though, really is not all that much.

    One thing I can say however. Is that Microsoft sure is pushing their latest mobile software development kits through their mailing lists. Good or bad ? Again, I do not know. I am currently with android development, and unless I see something inspirational from Microsoft. That will likely not change soon. If ever. That is, for mobile devices. On the desktop I still prefer to develop with / on Windows using the .NET base class library.
  • yyrkoon - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Also Anand,

    I really do not think third party apps will be a problem. At least where the browser applications are concerned. With all the javascript libraries that abound now days, coupled with HTML5 and CSS3. "Offline webapps" will be easy to make, and provide a lot of possibilities. These apps, should work the same on any OS.

    Native apps . . .is where Microsoft excels on the desktop At least from a developers standpoint. The .NET base class library takes a lot of work out of software development, and provides many, many useful classes. How this works, or will work cross platform from x86 to ARM I am not exactly sure. But I suspect Microsoft has it covered. As always. Having done a lot of research lately on mobile device development, I know that Microsoft is providing a lot of software development kits. Some that look extremely attractive at first look.

    From a software developers standpoint. Windows 8 / Windows RT looks really attractive right now. Since the market is virtually wide open for software developers to make themselves a name.

    Now do keep in mind that everything mentioned above is from a developers mindset. As a user . . . yours truly really likes to keep as much freedom as possible. How that works out again is based on how Microsoft implements their app store. Also, if Microsoft can somehow remove the mobile device from the stigma of being a toy. I think they'll have it nailed. We know the OS polish is going to be there for anything Windows lately. So it basically boils down to ( again ) good software availability.
  • yyrkoon - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    Yeah, disregard what I said above.

    According to what I have just read. Microsoft wants a 30% fee for using their app store. From the developer . . . so yeah Microsoft can kiss my ass as far as Windows RT is concerned.

    If they keep on like this, personally I do not care how much work the .NET framework saves me. I will move to another platform and write off their operating systems al together. And I know im not alone.
  • ~joe - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    I have one question to anybody owning Windows RT device (particualry Surface). I'm writting from Poland, and so far there is no plans for selling this device here. So I want to buy my in USA. My intention of use is 70% content consumption and 30% content creation using Office. But I need for my work Polish language. The question is - can I switch language to Polish (or ownload Polish language pack)?

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