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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  • steven75 - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    iPad 4-finger swipe is pretty damn fast. I'm not sure how it could be faster.
  • eaanders22 - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Microsoft has managed to clutter up what could have been a decent tablet with remnants of an aging operating system. Can you imagine Apple putting a few hooks to the OSX desktop into its iOS tablets that don't give much of the functionality of OSX? A DOS prompt in a tablet, give me a break!

    Let's face it. Tablets are basically big phone technology. They're not computers in any real sense. Apple recognized this. They had a successful phone and they configured a tablet from it. Doing any significant input or serious analysis on a phone or tablet is a non-starter. You need a decent keyboard and special purpose software for many different kinds of tasks a full blown computer can do.

    There is a third approach. Windows and OSX have become beasts of the tech world with complicated user interfaces to give the flexibility and power to do complicated tasks. An alternative to the phone/tablet approach, which is basic output only driven, are devices like the Chromebook which relieve casual users of burden of complexity by doing most of the work in the cloud. This dramatically reduces the learning curve for new users and frees them of the busy work of backups, updates, and security considerations. It can mean cheap, light weight systems with no moving parts that perform both input and output in the simplest possible way. Novice users are put off by the complexity of full blown computers and even by the complexity of modern smartphones and tablets.

    Microsoft could have been successful by keeping RT a tablet version of Windows Phone and coming out with a web based verson of Windows like Chromebook. These devices haven't taken off like tablets due to the fact that the user experience with phones easily transferred to tablets, while Google didn't have a base in the full blown computer world to build on. But, there is an audience out there, particularly new users and older users that are tired of putting up with the complexity, lag, and busywork associated with bloated full blown operating systems they don't need to do a little writing, emailing, and multimedia watching. The new $249 Samsung Chromebook that just came out sold out everywhere in a couple days. The new RT devices are twice as costly and twice as complicated to get up to speed on for people looking to continue their quite simple use of a computer for a little emaling, writing, and multimedia watching. Who needs a touch screen for that. It just gets in the way.

    The Windows 8 systems are another story. There you get full computing power and the functionality of a tablet in one package. This will fit a wide audience of sophisticated computer and smartphone users.
  • Dorek - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    "A DOS prompt in a tablet, give me a break!"

    Uh, I think it's awesome. It lets you do a lot that iOS could never, ever do.

    Chromebooks are never giong to take off. Can you even sync an iPod to a Chromebook?
  • Shadowmaster625 - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Eventually someone is going to release either a compiler or binary translator or emulator or something that lets you convert a visual studio project to RT. Or even run the x86 executable itself. Right? I should be able to compile my own sleep.exe and launch it from a batch file. How can they stop that, and why would they?
  • andrewaggb - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    They might require all apps to be signed to be run. Any apps in the store could be signed by them and any apps that come with windows could be.

    It would really make it hard to get viruses etc but it would also stop compiling your own without going through the store.

    I don't really know what measures are active though.
  • Jugklutzz - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Hey Guys. Great review.

    Tablets play a huge base in cloud base storage. What are the options for mounting a NAS?

    Best Regards,
  • mattlach - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    RT does nothing for me.

    Main reason I have not bought a tablet is because of both Android and iOS not being able to run full featured desktop software.

    To me the brilliance of Windows 8 is what it does for x86 tablets, that can be both for full desktop use AND tablet use.

    We don't need another limited tablet OS like Android and iOS. RT Is a complete waste IMHO.
  • THizzle7XU - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    "If you’re really concerned about the state of third-party apps, you just have to wait and see. I’ve seen a lot of snap judgements made about Windows RT in the last couple of days based on the dearth of good applications in Windows Store, and while I agree with that sentiment, I feel like it’s extremely shortsighted to write off the ecosystem already. Neither version of the OS has gone on sale yet, and we know that there are a number of applications that will go live on the official release date, as well as many more coming in the weeks ahead."

    Exactly what I was thinking when reading the complaints on The Verge and some other sites. They claim there are no apps, and I'm thinking...well, technically there is no Windows RT yet for anyone because it's not out yet! And as a developer, I know how they think. Why release something earlier than you have to? You want as much time as possible to work on code and QA. If no one but some media and beta testers don't have the OS yet, what's the rush to release a version 1.0 app? So these sensationalist pseudo-tech editors can rip your early app apart too?
  • nofumble62 - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Apps launch time is too slow for my patience.

    Haswell convertible laptop would be a killer.
    Tablet and laptop will converge next year.
  • gsurath - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Fantastic review. From this point of view I can now clearly see corporate boardrooms across the world with RT based tablets sitting on the desks. I can see people carrying them all around the office. I think that is where RT will win big. I see corporates creating their own RT apps for employees to access. This review along with Anand's on Surface reconfirms to me that Windows has just paved the way to dominate the office market for a few years to come. Will this mean that people will then use this single device across all their needs? No so sure given the number of gadgets we tend to collect, I still think will find a space. With Office 2013 for ARM being made available, Android too will have the capabilities of RT in the future. All in all, the future is interesting.

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