UI Performance, Storage, and USB Compatibility

by Vivek Gowri and Anand Shimpi

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft did a great job of taking generation-old hardware and delivering a great user experience in spite of any silicon-level deficiencies. So naturally, with the new Windows UI, we were expecting a very smooth UI regardless of the underlying hardware. And they’ve most certainly delivered on that.

Animation frame rates are consistently good all the way through the UI, easily delivering what appears to be 60 fps for UI transitions. When pushed, Modern UI seems more likely to completely drop animations versus dropping frames, which eliminates the choppy experience you sometimes find in Android. It isn’t a common occurrence, the experience is generally very fluid. This kind of consistently smooth UI is what Google has been striving for in every recent release of Android, dedicating the release of 4.1 to eliminate the dropping of frames in even basic interactions. Scrolling, swiping, snapping, app switching - it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, RT is just really smooth. Combined with the fluidity of the gestures, the entire system just feels like liquid, there are just no real slowdowns even running on a no-longer impressive SoC like Tegra 3.

Application Launch Time Comparison
  Boot Web Browser Mail Maps Games Center / Xbox
Apple iPad (3rd gen) 32.0s 1.0s 2.4s 1.1s 1.9s
Microsoft Surface 27.7s 2.6s 7.1s 5.0s 5.0s

But there is one area that RT struggles in, and it’s something that was an issue in Windows Phone 7 too - application launch times. Anand included this table in his Surface review, and it shows that boot performance is decent, but the 3rd generation iPad just kills it in application loading. The new A6X-infused 4th gen iPad probably widens that gap too, so it’s a pretty stark difference. It’s something that Microsoft needs to really focus on when updating the OS, because it’s easily one of the most glaring flaws in an otherwise stellar interface.

From a storage standpoint, the OS takes up between 6.5 and 7.5GB of space (Anand measured 6.47GB on Surface, I measured 7.35GB on the VivoTab RT) and Office takes up another 750-850MB (830MB for Surface, 749MB for the ASUS), so you’re looking at 7.5-8GB of NAND dedicated to the OS. On my 32GB VivoTab RT, I had 25.3GB of storage to start with, so after Windows and Office, I was looking at 17GB left over for programs and documents. That’s....not a lot - a bit of music, a decent selection of applications, a couple of videos, and pretty soon I’m looking at less than 10GB of storage left over. Thankfully, we’re seeing microSD slots on a lot of the more prominent Windows RT slates, so if you run out of room, you could theoretically toss in a 32GB or 64GB microSDXC card. Depending on how much data you plan on storing, I think you can get away with the lesser internal NAND and some microSD cards.

It’s also pretty clear that there will not be a Windows RT slate shipped with less than 32GB of onboard NAND. If you’re holding out for a cheaper Windows RT device with less storage, like a 16GB tablet for $399, there’s almost no way that happens - it’s implausible to think that anyone would ship a tablet with less than 5GB of space left for data storage.

Another key detail in Windows RT is wide-ranging USB peripheral support. USB ports have been a common feature on 10” Android tablets, but device support was typically limited to flash drives and basic input devices. The goal with Windows RT was to bring the traditional Windows experience to tablets, so USB driver support is pretty important. It’s not as easy as on an x86 system, where most USB peripherals would just work, but even with more limited Windows-on-ARM drivers, it’s pretty decent overall.

USB drives obviously work as you’d expect them to. Even SATA to USB adapters worked fine when plugged into Surface. Other smartphones and tablets also worked, although their level of support varied. For example, you can plug in the iPhone 5 and have it come up as a supported device for moving pictures to/from. However USB tethering is not supported by the class driver included in Windows RT. You can even plug an iPad into Surface and get the same level of support. The few Android phones I tried to connect in MTP all worked as expected, though transfer rates off my Optimus 4X HD seemed on the slow side, likely a function of the phone’s internal eMMC.

Printer support is pretty decent, although the Epson Workforce 910 Anand tried didn’t actually have specific driver support under RT. Although development for the desktop side of Windows is limited, manufacturers can supply Windows RT drivers to enable support for some more obscure devices. Unfortunately when it comes to those devices you’ll have to play the waiting game as there’s simply not a lot of third party Windows RT drivers available for download today.


Windows Store and the 3rd Party App Situation Final Words


View All Comments

  • MadMan007 - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    I forgot about the base 10 versus base 2 conversion, which affects every single device of any kind out there (no one headline advertises base 2 sizes), but that still leaves over 4GB 'missing' even before the OS install. 4GB is a lot of non-video media or space for apps (I imagine app size is comarable to other ARM OSes because of Windows Phone.)

    Perhaps that's why we're seeing such memory sizes and pricing for Windows tablets, to make them comparable to other OSes, but companies can put flash for the same price in other tablets as well. Maybe they will and just enjoy better margins, or maybe they will and just price them lower.
  • daboochmeister - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    One of the things that's held me back from buying an Xbox is that it's $5/month to be a member of their community, so that you can chat with friends, have trophies saved, play multiplayer games, etc. As opposed to free with the Playstation Network, for example.

    Is there any kind of implicit tax like that in order to use this as a gaming device? If you don't have an Xbox and don't join any such paywall-portal, do you lose access to any games, or capability within any games you do have?
  • mcnabney - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    You will never install anything on RT that is not Microsoft approved and they will get a cut of the money too. Unsigned apps cannot be installed on RT - and only apps sold specifically to YOU on the MS App store are signed.

    But no, there won't be a monthly fee just to have a Surface tablet. The apps you want to run might...
  • Visual - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Uh... "you can chat with friends, have trophies saved" even without Xbox Live Gold. In other words, it is free. You only need to pay to play in multiplayer. Reply
  • aepxc - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    The review seems to indicate that Windows RT is an OS for desktop computing, but with a touch layer. But what does touch add to desktop computing? In what situations would a Windows RT tablet be preferable to a Windows 7 ultrabook? Or is it just a question of a Windows RT device being cheaper (especially taking into account the bundled Office) by much more than it is worse? Reply
  • VivekGowri - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    No? It's an OS for touch computing, with the traditional desktop layer underneath. I tried to spell that out as clearly as possible in the conclusion. Reply
  • aepxc - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    That's the argument that I did not really understand. To me, the clearest distinction between computing pre-Android/iOS and the computing those OSs have now enabled, lies not in how you do things (with gestures and touch) but in what you do. I used "desktop computing" in my initial post in the sense of activities one would do at a desk, to the exclusion of the outside environment. Android and iOS ('mobile', 'post-PC', whatever) seem to me to instead focus on tasks that augment one's environment. Google Now or the iPad's use as a flight bag, or Kindle's textbooks (or even messaging services that are more SMS than IRC in spirit) would, to me, be emblematic of the new approach.

    What you praise WinRT for -- multitasking, (computer-centric) productivity, etc. would to me be very 'desktop' (again, in the sense above) centred. Given that, they are already very well (IMHO, better) served by Win7. Hence my original question -- what does touch (especially at the expense of lower power and a smaller screen) bring to the game? What does it do better than an ultrabook?
  • ludikraut - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Having used the Windows 8 beta on an Asus EP121 tablet, I can attest to what Vivek is saying. To me Windows 8 (any version) on a tablet, at a minimum, extends the capability of what we might call the 'traditional' tablet (e.g., iPad, Andriod) by allowing me to use it effectively for productivity apps like Office. Trying to write long e-mails, online posts, word docs, etc. on an iPad, for example, is an exercise in extreme frustration to me. No such issue on Win8.
    So to me Windows RT offers an expanded tablet experience, if you will, and full-blown Windows 8 on a powerful tablet allows me to ditch all of my other tablets and notebooks in favor of a single device. A Haswell version of something like the Asus Transformer Book is what I'll be waiting for.

  • steven75 - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    "Trying to write long e-mails, online posts, word docs, etc. on an iPad, for example, is an exercise in extreme frustration to me."

    And why are the same not any issue on Windows RT? Because you connected a hardware keyboard?

    Then why not do the same with an iPad?
  • karasaj - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Well for starters (imo), battery life and portability. Find a 600$ ultrabook constructed as well as surface. You won't. Many people have given it the same quality as Apple's products.

    You can't compare things one to one and expect something reasonable. In a world where surface and ultrabooks are the only things that exist, and specs are all that matters, yes, ultrabooks come out on top.

    Look at the ipad though. Sure, it has apps. But x86 has WAY more. x86 is WAY more powerful. But more people buy the iPad than many windows computers. Tablets (despite being low power) are cannibalizing the PC market. Why is this?

    All day battery life, family friendly media consumption, etc. Sure, an ultrabook does all of this - so why doesn't it sell as well? Tablets have a certain appeal - being able to sit in bed and lay on your side and watch netflix without worrying about a keyboard for example. Having 10+ hours of battery life while internet browsing (many notebooks, even ultrabooks, achieve half that).

    Now look at Surface. Don't compare it JUST to an ultrabook. Do both. It's bringing a level of productivity to tablets that never existed. I (as a student) can take Surface and take notes with it in class on Office, and watch movies in bed with it. Tablet's have an appeal because they excel at their tasks - media consumption and (now) basic productivity. You don't *need* more power for those things. If you have more complex needs, then of course you need a laptop.

    But if all you do is Netflix, office, and the occasional game, + internet browsing, (me), there's no difference. Surface can do all that and be more or less just as smooth. Applications might take longer to load, but that's a one time thing that can even be improved with software optimization. I have a desktop for more powerful needs (gaming, programming).

    PCs have always been more powerful, but their sales are declining. That's because the average consumer (a media consumer, not a power user) puts more emphasis on portability than having a quad core i7 - they don't need that much power.

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