The Surface Pro 3 is already one of our favorite mobile PCs, but if there’s anything to criticize, it’s its dual-natured Windows 8.1 software. But what happens when you replace that with the upcoming Windows 10? Based on our time with the latest previews, we think it could transform the Surface into the futuristic mobile productivity device that Microsoft has been trying to build for years.
Windows 8 (and its incremental follow-up, Windows 8.1) had a black & white approach to tablet/PC hybrids like the Surface. Windows 7-like desktop OS on one side, Windows Phone-like tablet OS on the other. The two UIs felt like they were coming from opposite sides of the universe (not to mention different eras), with no continuity and too many confusing transitions.
Windows 8 did make more sense on 2-in-1s than it did on non-touch PCs. But even on the Surface it still felt like you were looking at a painting where Jackson Pollock created one side and Andy Warhol the other. Each can be brilliant within its own gallery, but try to put them both on the same canvas and you just get spilled soup.
Windows 10 fixes all of that. Skipping “Windows 9” and branding it as “10” may be a smart way to distance Microsoft from the Windows 8 fiasco, but it’s also an accurate reflection of just how big a step forward the update is.
In Windows 10 the desktop gets a modern makeover, borrowing the dark menu backgrounds and Segoe UI font from the tablet UI, while the tablet side steals a few UI elements from the desktop (like a touch-friendly taskbar and browser toolbars). When added up, these cosmetic details create the consistent interface we all missed in Windows 8.
And when you attach or detach the keyboard, Windows automatically switches between desktop and tablet mode, with individual apps following suit (they’ll automatically go into full-screen in the tablet UI and a more traditional windowed view in the desktop UI). Gone is the jarring transition between old Windows and future Windows.
You may have already known all of this, but until you’ve used Windows 10 on a Surface, it’s hard to grasp just how seamlessly it all flows together. These little details combine to create the experience that some would say the Surface should have provided all along.
Perhaps Microsoft did rush its Windows 8 strategy to try to compete with the iPad (which, at the time Windows 8 was in development, looked like the future of computing), but you could also argue that Windows 10 wouldn’t be possible without the 2-in-1 groundwork that the clunky Windows 8 laid. It’s nearly impossible to see Microsoft, several years ago, jumping from the desktop-only Windows 7 to the seamless, beautiful and 2-in-1-friendly Windows 10.
Either way, if you dismissed 2-in-1s up to this point, it may be time to question whether it was the idea you were rejecting, or simply Microsoft’s messy implementation of it in Windows 8. Because we think Windows 10’s smoother execution is going to convert some true 2-in-1 believers.
Windows 10’s handwriting recognition could be another underrated update for Surface owners. It makes it easier to enter text using only the tablet and Surface Pen, cutting down on the annoyance of repeatedly reattaching the keyboard when you’re trying to use the device as a pen-based tablet. And since you can leave the handwriting input box open at the bottom of the screen while you do other things (taking up relatively little space on the Surface Pro 3’s huge screen), it’s easy to quickly jump in and out of handwriting when you’re, say, working in a Photoshop file where you’re primarily writing with the pen but also need some occasional text entry.
This simple change gives the Surface Pen a place of prominence that it didn’t have up to this point. The pen-based productivity tablet is something Microsoft has been aiming for since long before the iPad came along – and though the Surface has done a better job than anything else so far, it never completely lived up to that promise.
There are still many unknowns facing the consumer release of Windows 10. How will the Microsoft Edge browser (known in the previews as Project Spartan) shape up in its final iteration? Will desktop users be quick to forgive the touch UI nightmare they were forced to endure in Windows 8? Will the company get Windows 10 to a completely stable place by the time July 29 rolls around (the public preview builds are still fairly buggy, even at this late stage)? And will Microsoft have a Surface Pro 4 to sell alongside the big software launch?
No matter how those unknowns play out, from where we stand now it looks like Microsoft has steered its ship back on course with Windows 10, and could be on-track for an enormous brand-redeeming update. Windows 10 will be a sigh of relief for desktop users, but it also paves a road of prominence for the Surface that we hadn’t seen before.
With Windows 8, we could kinda see a future where 2-in-1s might have a prominent seat at the table. But with Windows 10, it’s hard to imagine 2-in-1s like the Surface not playing a central role in the future of computing.