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All screens great and small: Windows 8.1 on an 8-inch slate and two Retina Display competitors

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Gallery Photo: Microsoft Build 2013 stock images 1020
Gallery Photo: Microsoft Build 2013 stock images 1020

Microsoft's Windows 8 introduced some interesting new user interface paradigms, but it did so on a very limited selection of screens. To have a compelling touch experience, you pretty much needed to have a laptop or tablet with a low-resolution display larger than 10 inches. Here at the company's Build conference, though, the company's trying to let us have our cake and eat it too, scaling the interface to high-density displays, huge desktop monitors, and diminutive 8-inch tablets. This week, we got to try all of those out on the Build expo floor.

A gift horse whose teeth are hard to ignore

Acer's Iconia W3, an 8-inch tablet given free to all Build attendees, is a gift horse whose teeth are hard to ignore. It's surprisingly heavy, a little unwieldy, and the 8-inch screen is extremely poor. Still, that 1280 x 800 screen and Atom processor let us check out how the Windows 8.1 Preview runs on smaller tablets, and the results are actually pretty good. It's the same interface you'd expect, only small enough to fit in a purse and with some important tweaks on top.

For one thing, the virtual keyboard's been specifically redesigned for portrait layout, and alongside Windows 8.1's new autocomplete feature (just slide your finger along the spacebar) typing isn't particularly tough in "Metro" mode. In landscape orientation, you can snap two apps side by side, and in 50:50 mode each has enough real estate to be useful. You can't do that sort of multitasking on your average Android or iOS slate. The build we tried was definitely not ready for primetime, with bugs and stuttering here and there, but it unmistakably felt like a real computer in a portable package rather than an upsized mobile experience.

A real computer in a portable package

On the other end of the spectrum, laptops and tablets with high pixel density are indeed more usable. When we reviewed the Toshiba Kirabook, a premium 13-inch Intel ultrabook with a lovely, super high resolution 2560 x 1440 touchscreen display, we had to note that the same high resolution made it difficult to use certain apps and parts of the operating system. However, with Windows 8.1 scaled to 200 percent resolution, effectively doubling the pixels in every image on screen, the UI becomes large enough that it's way, way easier to tap icons, drag windows, and select options in menus with just your thumbs. The same goes for the 11-inch Acer Aspire S7, a tiny laptop with a 1080p resolution, and desktop monitors as well, which can have their scaling configured independently of other displays. While Windows app developers will need to make sure their apps support 200 percent scaling in order to avoid a blurry mess, many Windows elements already look great as of the Windows 8.1 Preview build.

While both the Kirabook and Aspire S7 have real physical keyboards attached to their screens, many tablets do not, and so we were also happy to see that Windows 8.1's virtual keyboard is now sized appropriately for each computer's screen. With any luck the full version of Windows 8.1, releasing this fall, will assist Sony in finally driving the nail into the coffin of ugly low-res computer displays.