posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 10th Jul 2013 15:03 UTC
IconI have a Surface RT tablet. I bought it because I'm a Windows Phone user, and despite its major flaws, I still hate WP much less than I hate its competitors. As such, it made sense to me that I would like the Surface RT as well - I mean, my favourite UI on a tablet? Count me in! It should come as no surprise by now that Windows RT was a major disappointment, so now that the Windows 8.1 preview is here, did Microsoft address any of the major problems?

My Surface RT is a bit of an odd device. The device itself and the Touch Cover keyboard are an amazing combination, and the build quality of the hardware is downright fantastic. It's sturdy yet very light, and the magnesium case and its finish are very pleasant to the touch. The display, while far from 'retina' quality, is still much, much better than what I've seen on comparable Android tablets.

But the software.

Windows 8's Metro environment is, as it stands, far from ready for prime time. Applications load slowly, there's lots of lag in specific parts of the interface (e.g. embedded browser views are horrible), and applications, whether first or third party, are often lacking in refinement.

Now imagine all this, but in the first ARM release of Windows NT, which makes it all even worse. There's a lot of unoptimised stuff in there, stuff that wasn't built for ARM - and it shows. I knew this when I bought the Surface RT, but to be honest, it was worse than I had anticipated. Consecutive firmware and Windows updates have alleviated the situation somewhat, but it persists on Windows RT 8 to this day.

Hence, my specific interest in Windows 8.1. Aside from the various new features borne out of user feedback, I was also particularly interested in how much performance on the Surface RT would improve. I've been looking forward to Windows RT 8.1 for a while now, so when the release day for the preview was here, I was quite excited to see what Microsoft had been doing these past several months since the release of Windows 8.

Sadly, for no discernible reason, Microsoft decided to region-lock the Windows 8.1 preview - to a set of arbitrary countries, with little sense to them at all, based on the original installation language of your machine. This has resulted in ridiculous situations where machines with en-US are supported, but en-GB are not. Or, that Swedish with 8.7 million speakers worldwide is supported, but Dutch with 28 million speakers worldwide is not. While I love Sweden, it all seems kind of arbitrary, and quite frustrating for us early adopters.

Luckily, there's a workaround that is actually quite remarkable and straightforward. Go to this discussion and search for the comment by "nivin" - all the credit goes to him or her. It basically comes down to installing the en_US language and interface pack, and before rebooting to set it as default, you go into the registry and change the install-time language to en_US as well (i.e., the language Windows 8 was originally installed in). Reboot, download the preview updater, et voilĂ .

Still, it's kind of silly for a company the size of Microsoft to place these arbitrary region locks on preview software. We're in the internet age now, Microsoft, and silly nonsense like this is exactly why people don't like you.

Anywho, the actual Windows 8.1 Preview update comes in through the Windows Store, and does its thing in the background while you can continue using your Surface RT. Once it's done, it needs to reboot, and in my case, re-apply a bunch of settings that were stored online. I'm not sure if this happens for all users, or just for people like me who had to fiddle with the language settings.

I've been using the Windows 8.1 RT Preview (is that how you're supposed to call it?) for two weeks now, and I can tell you that it's quite a drastic improvement over Windows 8 RT. Windows RT was slow and unwieldly, and while the 8.1 Preview certainly doesn't alleviate all performance issues, applications do load noticeably faster, switching applications is faster, responsiveness has been improved, and so on. Performance is probably the biggest problem with Metro in general and Windows RT specifically, and it's great to see 8.1 address this as much as it does.

Still, it feels like Microsoft cheated to get to the improvements. I've noticed that applications running in the background are terminated far more aggressively, which is incredibly annoying when you watch many long YouTube videos in Metro YouTube applications (I love watching let's plays) - the application is shutdown in the background, and you lose your place in the video. Reddit applications suffer from this problem, too; you lose the place where you were reading.

There have been a lot of small changes to the Metro environment that all add up to make it a lot more useful. First, there's the option to "show more tiles". This will make all tiles slightly smaller to allow for more of them to be visible, which is great for those of us who really don't need the tiles to be as large as they were. The new tile sizes - especially the 'icon size' introduced with Windows Phone 8 - do a lot to give a greater sense of customisability.

Microsoft also greatly expanded the ability to customise the looks of the Metro environment, allowing you to - hold on to your panties - choose your own wallpaper. This may seem like a small thing to be so joyous over, but it means I can now finally have the same wallpaper on my lockscreen, classic desktop, and Metro. This does a lot to create a sense of unity between Metro and desktop.

Multitasking has been improved, and you can now have any arbitrary split in snap view. Sadly, this feature remains rather useless at this point because virtually no applications actually support it - so you get black bars along the sides of them.

There are several other very welcome improvements, such as being able to set the tab bar in Internet Explorer to 'always visible', or the fact that the Settings application has been completely reworked and expanded, so you no longer have to go back to the classic desktop for more obscure settings. There's nice touches all around the system that make it feel a bit more mature and user-friendly.

Despite the improvements, Metro still lacks refinement, which is most notable by the fact that Metro applications, well... Kind of all suck. I have yet to run into a Metro application that doesn't have weird UI behaviour, is incredibly ugly, buggy or slow, or any combination of those factors. Virtually all of them feel like they were cobbled together during breaks between coding for Android and iOS, and it shows. It's a very familiar feeling that I know from using Windows Phone (as a sidenote, a feeling so strong, even this long after release, that I'm considering moving back to Android).

Microsoft can make Metro itself nicer - and that's great and very welcome - but it needs to address the application situation for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone. Applications on Android, iOS, OS X, KDE/GNOME/etc., and yes, even on classic Windows, are simply miles and miles ahead of the leftovers developers are throwing at Metro and Windows Phone.

I still believe Metro is by far the most innovative and distinctive interface in what PR people are calling the 'post-PC era' (pronounced like a food-poisoning induced diarrhoea), but Microsoft needs more. It needs applications. And that's still where they are failing, and failing badly, and smaller tiles and a new split view do little to address this core problem.

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