How well does Windows 8.1 really work on an 8 inch tablet?

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Windows on a small devices isn’t a new thing, Microsoft have tried it before back in 2007 with UMPCs line the Samsung Q1 which never really took off (I still have one that runs Vista). The reason for failure of UMPCs are many fold including slow hardware and an OS that wasn’t designed around touch. When developing Windows 8 Microsoft focused on touch devices (some say at the expense of desktop users but that’s a topic for another time), with Windows 8.1 Microsoft enhanced the tablet experience for small devices so how well does it really work? To test out Windows 8.1 on an 8 inch table I used a Toshiba Encore 8 which is an 8 inch tablet priced around £250.

The main issues that could prevent Windows working on a small device are speed, performance, battery life and the user interface.

Let’s start with the user interface, there is the traditional desktop and the new modern UI, we will start with the modern tiled user interface. The main difference when using a small tablet over a Windows Notebook or larger tablet like the Surface is it feels more natural to use it in portrait mode rather than landscape so apps and the operating system have to work in the narrow screen mode. The modern UI with its tiled user interface works well on any screen resolution, right the way from the 800×1280 of the Encore 8 up to the 4K resolutions on some of new devices. In portrait mode on an 8 inch screen the live tiles look great and the give you plenty of information without have to launch an app, you can have two columns of wide tiles, four of smaller tiles and any combination of sizes. Even the smaller tiles are fine, there is no problem selecting them in landscape or portrait mode. Swiping in to bring up the charms works just as well on a small devices as it does on larger devices. With Windows 8 when you needed to change settings pretty often you were dumped back to the traditional desktop, Windows 8.1 migrated a lot of setting screens to the modern UI so you don’t have to use the old desktop which is what Windows needs on a small device. Hopefully Microsoft will continue down this path.

Microsoft’s apps all support portrait mode (expect for Xbox Smartglass apps) and they all work fine on the small screen. A good example is the mail app which only displays a preview of the email when the tablet is in landscape mode. Skype, the Bing News app, people and others apps all work perfectly. What about 3rd party apps? Social apps like Twitter and Facebook actually work better in portrait mode than they do in landscape mode, there is much less wasted space. Some apps are ideal for a small tablet, the Kindle app great and the small size makes the tablet useful ebook reader. I should also say Internet Explorer 11 works great in portrait mode and in landscape mode you can two IE windows open side by side.

Where it becomes more difficult is using the desktop on the small screen, targets are very small and just about usable. Most 8 inch tables ship with Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition so you will end up at the desktop when you use Office apps. Office can be optimised for touch so it’s easy to use on a small tablet, the on-screen keyboard works well and if you switch to landscape mode you can select a split screen keyboard so it’s easy to type with two hands.
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Currently all the 8 inch tablets run full Windows 8.1 rather than the restricted Windows 8.1 RT of devices like the Surface 2. This means you can install anything you like on it, so you could install iTunes or Photoshop on it but doesn’t mean to say it’s a good idea. Some desktop apps have very small targets and using them with touch is difficult, you can of course hook up a mouse and keyboard and use the tablet as a normal PC. It’s good to have the option of using it as PC but probably not something you are going to want to do with a tablet. In an ideal word there would be no need for the desktop in Windows on tablets. Maybe that will happen with Windows 9.

What about battery life and performance? Most 8 inch Windows tablets ship with an Atom processor, the Encore 8 has a Baytrail based Intel Atom Z3740 processor and it’s certainly up to the job of powering Windows Store apps. Store games like Halo Spartan Assault run very smoothly as do video apps. I tested 1080p playback of MKV video files and they played without any issues using VLC. The metro apps like PowerDVD Mobile also played the videos without any problems.

Battery life on my test machine was about 8 hours of general use and 40 hours standby, it’s less than an iPad Mini and probably less than my Nexus 7 but you can certainly get through a day’s use. I tend to pick it up and use it for browsing the web, catching up on news and email and then put it back down again so the battery doesn’t get taxed too much. If you were editing photos or videos on it expect to get less battery life but that is one of the advantages of a Windows tablet is that you can run Photoshop or an audio editor so while you do take a hit on battery life at least you have the option to try it do it.

So does Windows on an 8 inch tablet really work? Well for me it does, Windows 8.1 almost removes the needs to go to the desktop. When you do go to the desktop the targets are a little small but you do that the option of connecting up a mouse, keyboard and external monitor. It would be good if there was a way of locking off the desktop completely and have it an optional setting, it would make it easier for new users coming to a Windows tablet.

There are over advantages using Windows, you can plug in any USB device (If there are Windows drivers and via a MicroUSB to USB adapter) which opens up plenty of possibilities. I really like Windows on an 8 inch tablet, it a great experience and if Microsoft continue to reduce the need for the desktop all the better. I hope Microsoft don’t get distracted by the criticism of Windows 8 and can push forward with the modern UI.

One thing to note is that since getting the Encore 8 I have not used my iPad or Nexus 7.
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About the author Ian Dixon:
Founder of The Digital Lifestyle.com and host of The Digital Lifestyle Show. Started podcasting in 2005, Windows Entertainment and Connected Home MVP. Lover of gadgets from the Raspberry Pi to the iPad, Android to Windows 8. Also a massive motor racing fan