Microsoft’s bet on touch interfaces led to some of Windows 8’s most frustrating design choices, and the company has been doing damage control over it for the past three years. Windows 10 is the culmination of these efforts, bringing back desktop-friendly features like the Start menu. But this doesn’t mean Microsoft is giving up on mobile computing. In fact, by paying more attention to the desktop side of things, it’s created a more interesting experience — and even helped justify the existence of Windows tablets.
Windows 10 handles tablets with a system called, unsurprisingly, "tablet mode." It’s a bigger, slightly simplified, more Windows 8-like interface that can be toggled on and off as needed. In tablet mode, the Start menu becomes a Start screen, the task bar gains an Android-style universal "Back" button, and windowed apps turn into fullscreen ones. It’s more like a rearrangement than a transformation, making the switch between them remarkably natural. In fact, tablet mode — at least on a convertible device like the Surface — feels best when you don’t have to think of it as mobile computing at all.
Read next: Our Windows 10 review.
Tablet mode works best when you don't have to think of it as mobile computing at all
Using Windows 10’s tablet mode reminds me how locked-down mobile operating systems can feel. It’s not just that iOS and Android either require or heavily encourage you to use only apps from Apple or Google’s official ecosystem. (Microsoft, obviously, wants you to shop in its store, too.) It’s that those apps, by and large, grew out of a mobile design language that emphasized uniform minimalism and discouraged multitasking.
Windows 10’s tablet mode does this to some extent; while you can split the screen between two apps, you can’t arrange them as windows. But it subverts this with little touches. The new task bar at the bottom of the screen can be set to show app icons, letting you move between them in one tap instead of bringing up a dedicated task switcher. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’re actually using a multipurpose machine, not just shuffling through a series of apps.
Microsoft has had some trouble building a decent app catalog for its phones and tablets, and that may not change with Windows 10. But since Windows also doesn’t discourage you from using desktop programs in tablet mode, you’ll rarely be completely shut out of something. At best, it’s a truly usable version of the convertible Windows laptops that existed before the iPad — pull the keyboard off your laptop and get a portable, touch-based version of whatever you were doing before.
The flip side is that Windows 10’s tablet mode can be as unpredictable and awkward as a desktop PC. Android and iOS devices might be limited, but everything on them has been designed and vetted to just work. Tablet mode is fine with apps that are created or curated by Microsoft, but it’s still not sure what to do with everything else, even when the overall experience is good.
Steam, for example, turned my point-and-click catalog into a ready-made collection of mobile games. But Windows wouldn’t bring up the on-screen keyboard to let me log in. Civilization V would launch in desktop mode but freeze in tablet mode, and since error messages wouldn’t pop to the front, it was possible to not even realize what was going on. Chrome was a great complement to Microsoft’s Edge browser, until I was struggling to install an extension by poking at its tiny, tiny menus. Everything stops just a step or two short of being seamless.
Windows 10 for tablets can be just as unpredictable and awkward as a desktop PC
Windows 10 is being sold as a work in progress, so future versions will probably smooth out at least some of these rough edges, and more tablet-optimized apps are theoretically on their way. But the rough edges — its ability to handle things that weren’t precision-engineered for a mobile device — are precisely what makes tablet mode more than a late version of iOS or Android with a smaller catalog.
My quintessential Windows 10 tablet experience was deciding to install the Unity game editor on a Surface 3. It began with a mild sense of novelty, then moved quickly into something approaching glee — all the options of a powerful desktop program, without the bulky inconvenience of a keyboard! And then the inevitable moment of disappointment upon realizing that few sane people would want to use Unity this way, some basic features weren’t supported, and a touch-optimized version probably wouldn't be coming any time soon. But at least Windows 10 had the good sense to stay out of my way.