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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  • Flemo86 - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    With WindowsRT (oh God what an awful name) they're now competing with Apple on Apple's terms, and Apple have had a 5 year head start with iOS. It's just ridiculous that they have .NET, XNA, DirectX etc at such a sweet spot right now, with so many developers on board and able to program whatever the hell they want for the OS (complete with file system!), and then they just change the game entirely by tearing x86 out and putting in what may as well be an Apple chip.

    They should have come up with a better solution to use ALL existing software and their architectures with every device, not just the "Pro" version. That would've been real competition with the iPad. Imagine being able to port all Xbox live arcade games and every .NET application to the "Windows App Store"/Marketplace (whatever they're calling it). All Microsoft would have to do is verify each piece of software and then bada-bing bada-boom, you've got yourself tens of thousands of apps within the month, and an extremely easy set of tools for devs to use.

    Of course, this would've required more effort on the hardware side. Maybe less battery life? A lower screen resolution? More effort on Intel's part? I really hope Windows RT falls by the wayside and Windows 8 Pro tablets become the de facto standard. I hate the idea of them throwing a decade worth of development tools out on one of their operating systems.

    Sorry for the rant, just an XNA fan!
  • stimudent - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    Since this system uses Windows and an ARM processor instead of an Intel processor, that makes it 50% respectable. To achieve the other 50%, it would have to have Linux installed.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Ok, I'll bite.

    Whats so good about Linux ?

    Polish ? Security ? painless upgrade path ? The majority of modern games played on the PC are written for this software platform ?

    Or is it that you can feel good about your own self using it for free. Without having to use pirates bay ?

    Seriously. Grow up.

    Also, please tell me you use Ubuntu. So the rest of us can have a good laugh, and totally disregard what you have to say in the future.
  • B3an - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    That made me laugh, because it's true.
  • foolsgambit11 - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    that points out that the autumn of 2000 is just before the turn of the new millenium, not just after....
  • milkod2001 - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link


    what's good about Linux?
    lol u gotta be kidding

    Android is based on Linux so iOS . That covers all Apple platform and the rest of all smartphones and tablets. Most servers are running on Linux. Not enough?

    The majority of modern games played on the PC are written for this software platform ?
    The majority of modern games are coded for console kids(Xbox and PS3), then ported to PC.PC games market is only the niche part of games market anyway.

    Ubuntu is for geeks/scientisc/developers and not for average uneduceted joes

  • solipsism - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    "Android is based on Linux so [is] iOS."

    Um... double no.

    Android uses the Linux kernel and some underlying code but it is not Linux in the way stimudent is talking about which is why we call it Android and not Linux or Android Linux.

    iOS uses Darwin OS and foundations and frameworks found in Mac OS X. "Darwin is built around XNU, a hybrid kernel that combines the Mach 3 microkernel, various elements of BSD (including the process model, network stack, and virtual file system), and an object-oriented device driver API called I/O Kit.[6] The hybrid kernel design compromises between the flexibility of a microkernel and the performance of a monolithic kernel." All this came from NeXTSTEP and BSD before that. There is no Linux in iOS.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Yeah notable features at least in my mind is that Android uses ( as standard ) A virtual machine to run each application. Kind of, but not the same as JRE..

    Big difference from Linux just in that. The architecture is really interesting. Despite the fact that java is the primary development language used for creating apps. Unless you choose to write native C/C++, or use a third party "scripting language". Passed that I'm sure you'd be able to write standard kernel level drivers, but yeah . . .

    Mono for android is particularly interesting to me, but a bit pricey.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Ubuntu is garbage.

    Architecturally it can be unstable, it has a very poor upgrade path track record, and they want to put google search on your desktop.

    All that despite the fact that is based on one of the better distro's around IMHO. Debian.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Oh and yeah to follow up on what was left out of the comments to your post.

    Most network admins I know that want the least bit of hassle when dealing with servers do not always opt for Linux. Just for the sake of using Linux. These people realize that an operating system is a tool, all of which have their strong and weak points. With OSX being somewhere in the middle. My post above down to the first four lines of text were pure sarcasm. With the fifth and sixth lines being tongue in cheek.

    Any operating system is only as good as the user using it. It does not matter what it is. IF the user is a dumbshit, or does not care .The given OS will probably not work optimally (ever). With varying degrees of optimal operation in between, based on how well the user understands his/her operating system.

    Also, we're talking computers here, not gaming consoles. With *ALL* PC games being written on some form of a PC. For the PC. Some being Linux dev machines for cross platform development, but most being Windows / visual studio developers. Ask around the game development community sometime, and ask who uses Windows / visual studio versus Linux / eclipse or some other IDE. You'll find out for yourself. This is for a good reason too. Windows / directx being the prevalent software gaming platform. For the PC. Not to mention the fact that porting games to the xbox is fairly trivial now days. Depending on the tool set you use.

    "Ubuntu is for geeks/scientisc/developers and not for average uneduceted joes"

    Uh yeah . . . I think this "sentence" speaks for its self.

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