In February, 2014, I wrote a post titled “24 Hours with a Windows Tablet“. I had purchased a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet, with the intention of using it primarily as a media consumption device, and having the added benefit of it being a full-blown computer that could run Windows applications. Within 24 hours, it was immediately obvious that Windows wasn’t ready to be a tablet OS, and that it simply wouldn’t work for my needs. So it was that my Windows tablet was returned, and I purchased an Android tablet instead.
Since then, I’ve moved on to using an iPad Mini as my main tablet device, supplemented occasionally by my older Android tablet, and my 3rd-generation Kindle as my primary reading device. But recently, I stumbled across a deal that was too good to pass up: the $79 HP Stream 7 tablet.
For $79 (plus tax, with free shipping), Microsoft was offering a tablet that typically costs $99, but also came with a year of Office 365 Personal (worth $69.99), a $25 Microsoft Store gift card, and 60 free Skype minutes per month. In all, these freebies were worth $95, which is more than the tablet itself cost. For this rock-bottom price, I was willing to give it a try, since I wanted to play around with Windows 10 in this new form-factor anyway. It also had the benefit of being a “Signature Edition”, which means no manufacturer bloatware, crapware, or any unwanted software at all. This was purely Windows on a piece of hardware.
The rest of this article describes my experience and impressions of Windows itself. For my review of the HP Stream 7, click here.
Since my original post, my requirements have changed somewhat. Most of my needs are the same, but some of the applications have changed.
- I use my tablet for both personal and work email.
- I use Feedly to read news on my tablet often. I usually check Feedly several times a day.
- The Kindle app is regularly used on my tablet, usually at work during lunch breaks.
- TeamViewer I occasionally use for remote support.
- Netflix, Hulu, and now Plex are used regularly for watching television shows or movies.
- I’ve moved from Evernote to using Microsoft OneNote, which has excellent tablet apps.
- Since I use primarily Apple devices, I use the built-in Apple apps for listening to music, and the built-in video apps for movies or TV shows.
- I’ve started using Duet to utilize my iPad mini as a secondary monitor on my computer.
- Any.do has been replaced with ToDoist for keeping track of my to-do list items.
- Chromecast has become my go-to way of getting video onto other screens in my house. I use this a lot in the bedroom, when watching video.
So those are my main requirements for my tablet.
As an example, here are the homescreens of my iPad mini, and Nexus 7 tablets:
Almost immediately after getting the tablet, I upgraded it to the Windows 10 Technical Preview. I was curious to see how this new version of Windows would work on a tablet device. Though still early in development, it’s clear that Windows 10 is far better as a tablet than Windows 8.1. Some of the biggest improvements so far include:
The latest version of this is easily accessible with a swipe from the right, and provides a handy list of notifications. Unfortunately, there’s currently no way to dismiss individual notifications, and they don’t seem at all actionable, but it’s a huge improvement over previous versions of Windows–even earlier versions of Windows 10. It’s also nice that many commonly used toggles are accessible at the bottom of this notification window.
Though this build of Windows 10 doesn’t yet automatically prompt for toggling between modes when a keyboard/mouse is connected, enabling tablet mode immediately makes the touch interface work properly for tablet purposes. Where getting the keyboard to appear properly in Windows 8.1 was a challenge, it works exactly as you’d expect in Windows 10–if tablet mode is active. It takes a little getting used to, in remembering to enable it though. There are also some strange design choices once tablet mode is enabled. For example, all of the taskbar buttons disappear, and the “desktop” gets kind of dimmed, even when all windows are closed. A swipe from the left opens the new “alt+tab” replacement, which allows switching between open apps, and even for closing existing windows. It all works, but seems strange to eliminate the taskbar icons, when it’s not entirely necessary.
In all, Windows 10 does seem to be making some huge improvements over Windows 8.1 both as a tablet OS and a desktop OS. Since it’s still in development, I’m not ready to unilaterally say if it’s going to work out the way the company hopes, but I can say that it’s a far better option than their previous efforts.
Here are some screenshots of Windows 10 Technical Preview running on the HP Stream 7, and the difference between tablet mode, and desktop mode:
As a Tablet
Despite its improvements, Windows is still not a great tablet OS. Many of the same problems I had before still exist: good tablet apps aren’t available for Windows, or they rely on their desktop counterpart to get the job done.
- ToDoist has apps for virtually every platform on earth, except for Windows as a modern application. No touch-friendly version is available, which means relying on the standard Windows desktop version, which isn’t great on a 7″ touchscreen.
- No official Feedly app (and no decent alternatives) means relying on the website within Internet Explorer. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but in a touch-first interface, it’s not as easy to navigate as it should be. Performance is also pretty poor here on cheap tablets.
- There are still essentially no Google apps available for Windows, and there likely never will be. Those heavily invested in Google’s ecosystem (which is basically everyone these days) are left out.
- TeamViewer’s modern app is still terrible, and in fact, I had to Ctrl+Alt+Delete to even get it to close properly.
- Amazon’s Kindle app is perhaps even worse than it’s ever been. Users still can’t read personal documents, and I couldn’t even locate a way to change the font size within the app. Considering most people would want their tablet to double as an e-reader, this is a huge problem for Windows tablets.
- Netflix worked pretty much as expected, yet the taskbar remained visible the entire time while playing video. There didn’t seem to be a “full screen” option, which was odd. It was also surprisingly slow to buffer video before playing.
- I never could get Hulu to work at all. This may be an incompatibility with the Windows 10 Technical Preview, but it was still disappointing.
- I didn’t test out Plex, since the app costs $5, which I wasn’t willing to pay to test.
- None of the Windows apps have native support for Chromecast, which is a huge disappointment. Both iOS and Android devices support Chromecast through apps like Netflix, Hulu, Plex and many others. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker to most, as many people would be content to watch video on their tablet itself, though.
- Keyboard typing in Windows as a tablet also leaves a lot to be desired. There’s no double-space for periods, and though Windows will automatically capitalize the first word in a sentence, it treats it as an autocorrect, rather than immediately placing the keyboard into capital letter mode after a period. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but just different from how other mobile devices function.
- The Start Menu makes a return, with a kind of hybrid form of menu and of the Windows 8.1 Start Screen. It works much better than the old Start Screen, but is still a hodge-podge that I’m not crazy about. I still don’t have much use for the live tiles, and having to configure the Start Menu like I would the homescreen on an Android tablet feels wrong, somehow.
That said, there were some highlights that I found while using Windows 10 on this tablet:
- Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps are excellent. Touch-friendly versions of Office that are pretty fully-featured show the promise of good software on these types of devices. Unfortunately for Microsoft, these same apps (with the same capabilities) are already available for Android and iOS devices. While this will keep users hooked to the Microsoft Office software, it doesn’t provide a valuable incentive to stick with Windows.
- OneNote for Windows tablets is just as good as the Android/iOS versions, but again, not a Windows exclusive at this point.
- Snapped windows and split screen functions are probably the killer features here. While watching Netflix, I was able to snap it to one half of the screen, and browse the web on the other half. Some Android phones have this type of functionality, but on such a small screen, it’s pretty much a gimmick. Here, it actually works–well, sort of. Performance on small, low-power tablets was poor enough that it made it virtually impossible to actually do both activities at the same time, but it is at least theoretically possible. Perhaps with further optimization, Windows 10 will handle this better in the future. Still, this is a feature that is apparently coming to iPads, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Android adopt something similar in the future. I would certainly welcome being able to have 2 windows open side-by-side on my iPad.
So after spending another 24 hours with a Windows tablet, I plan to keep this one, though I’m not sure how useful it will be. I’m primarily interested in how Windows 10 progresses, and will update it with the latest versions as the development continues.
However, unless software developers make dramatic improvements to the availability and functionality of Windows apps for tablets, I can’t see it making much difference. My initial conclusion is pretty much the same, Windows doesn’t work well as a tablet OS, and small devices don’t work that well for using the desktop interface. Windows 10 has made great strides so far, but it may not be enough to overcome its competition.
That said, for a $79 tablet, the functionality that Windows provides is outstanding. This is a full-fledged computer, that will run the full version of Microsoft Office, if you’re willing to put up with some idiosyncrasies of dealing with a screen this small.