The Windows 10 Tablet Experience in 2017

The Windows 10 Tablet Experience in 2017

I've owned an HP Stream 7 tablet for a while. It was released on September 29th, 2014 and even back then, it was scraping the bottom of the performance charts. It was released running Windows 8.1 with Bing which was Microsoft's first real (polished) and substantial push into the tablet world, to mixed success. But somehow it's still worth talking about over 3 years later, and that's pretty remarkable.

This post is less about reviewing the tablet 3 years after its release date, and more about the experience of using a full Windows tablet today.

While my unit shipped with Windows 8.1, I have updated it to Windows 10, and it is up to date with the new Fall Creator's Update. The tablet is equipped with a quad-core Intel Atom Z3735G Bay Trail processor, 1GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC storage, and I have added my own Samsung Evo U1 64GB microSDXC card.

Performance

You're probably already drawing conclusions on the performance of the machine, and chances are you'd be surprised. Of course, you aren't going to be running console quality games on the tablet, or doing any heavy debugging with Visual Studio, so if your expectations are reasonable, I think the Windows 10 tablet experience will treat you well (with a few caveats, of course). There aren't any issues with the usability of any Windows 10 UWP apps, and web browsing performance with Edge is perfectly acceptable. It's okay, really, even on a 3-year-old low-end tablet, and if it works this well on the baseline, it will work great on literally anything else.

Ecosystem

This is where I put the brakes on the positivity. Look, I think Microsoft has a really compelling ecosystem, I really do. Cortana is surprisingly useful if you give her a fair shake (oddly inconsistent search results notwithstanding), Edge is a rock-solid browser with excellent performance and a fantastic touch UI, and OneNote and the Office suite are still at the top of the productivity food chain. But it all falls apart as soon as you open the Microsoft Store.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Microsoft Store. The application itself radiates high quality, with a well-thought-out layout making navigation easy, and showing only the necessary details about each app. The problem instead comes from the vastly inconsistent quality of the apps on the Microsoft Store. There is a lot of absolute garbage on the Microsoft Store, ranging from apps that are apparently modified templates, to apps that serve no useful purpose and clutter your search results. Discovery is problematic too, with high-fidelity games like Forza Motorsport 7 and Gears of War 4 being recommended on a device that under no circumstance can run them. In fact, on the "Games" tab, I have to scroll more than halfway down to find the usual fare of mobile games, and that's in the "Best selling games" and "Top free games" categories!

Store, scrolled halfway down, finally showing tablet-compatible games

To give credit where credit is due, however; Microsoft seems to be making more attempts to curate the store, with many hand-picked categories to peruse. It's arguably not as bad as it was in Windows 8, but at this point, I don't think there is any excuse for the Microsoft Store to have still the problems it does.

The other problem I see is that this ecosystem was established far too late; too many people are invested in Android, iOS, or macOS to the point that switching OSes is just not plausible. And that's not taking into account the folks who may be invested into Google's ecosystem, with Google Drive and Google Chrome, where Microsoft's alternatives may just not be comparable.

Usability

Yet another polarizing point of Windows 10, many people criticize the new UI as it is profoundly geared towards tablets and other touch interfaces. Fortunately, this post is about a Windows 10 tablet, so I happen to like a lot of the Windows 10 UI changes, especially after the recent Creator's Updates. That isn't to say it's perfect by any measure; especially on a 7" 1280x800 display, a lot of the menu items will feel cramped and small, and unfortunately, the tablet supports a maximum scaling factor of 125%. You can change it further; I tried to use it at 150% for a while, and while that scaling factor was very comfortable to use, it caused a few visual problems that ultimately made me switch it back to 125%. Even then, some visual problems occur; for example, the following text field for changing the PC name is blocked by the keyboard (although I had to switch to the smaller detachable keyboard to take the screenshot).

Keyboard will sometimes cover Microsoft-created text fields inelegantly.

And that's not even addressing the new start menu, which works great for tablets. I would like to see better utilization of negative space. Live tiles, however, are still useful, especially for things like the calendar and weather apps.

Battery life

Yeah, this is starting to borrow a bit from a typical hardware review, but it's worth mentioning since tablets typically boast excellent battery life. I find that with Windows devices, you hardly get what's advertised, and the Stream 7 is no different. However, with careful usage and low brightness, I was able to eke a 6-hour charge out of the tablet. The newest Fall Creator's Update makes power easy to change from within the battery icon menu, which is good, but I'm struggling to see an increase in battery life or performance in the power modes that should favor those items respectively. Overall, I would say you don't get comparable battery life to an iPad or an Android tablet, but that doesn't mean it's terrible, either.

Desktop apps

Look, just take my word for it; they aren't usable on a 7" tablet.
Don't do it. Just don't.

Conclusion

It's obvious to me that Microsoft is putting their eggs in the 2-in-1 basket, and I have no qualms with that. I owned a Surface 3 for a while and loved the form factor. Windows as an OS is great for those types of computers since you get quite a bit of flexibility out of them without sacrificing your potential for productivity. But thanks to that flexibility, it still makes a compelling tablet OS, especially if you are a fan of the new Microsoft ecosystem. Should I ever recommend a Windows tablet, it would probably be a Surface Pro or other 2-in-1 device, but if you catch a good deal on a traditional Windows tablet, I will suggest that you give it a fair shot - you may be surprised.