In the world of tablet PCs, dominated by operating systems - from Google's Android to Apple's iOS to Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS - Microsoft is set to prove its mettle with a new one, the Windows 8, starting October 26.
We spent some time with it on a Samsung tablet, testing Microsoft's claims of the operating system's intuitive ability, especially with regard to the touch generation. The first few minutes with the Windows 8 were exasperating, and even confusing. But, after several days of using the OS on the tablet, and testing it in two ways - solely as a touchscreen tablet and then like a PC with wireless keyboard and a mouse - it didn't seem so intimidating.
Similarly, we also put Apple's latest iOS 6 and Google's latest Jelly Bean up for comparison, and used them with and without a keyboard and a mouse. Here are some of our observations, and why we believe it's not fair to write off the Windows 8 before users have had a go-see themselves:
HOMESCREEN AND USER INTERFACE
Microsoft has altered its traditional layout by layering a new animation-enabled user interface (UI) where each tile (metro-style as found in Windows Phone 7) represents different apps, such as a music player or messaging. You can pick and choose the tiles you want to "pin" to the Start screen with rest accessible from the all apps button. Live tile apps like weather app will display the temperature in a city without requiring to click on it. Similarly, a tile for Windows Live Mail will show the latest message, while a tile for a social networking app will show notifications. Even on older touchscreen tablet PCs, like Samsung Slate that we used, where bezels tend to get in the way, swiping the charm bar and app switcher in from the left edge of a touchscreen did not have us fiddling. Windows 8 allows to scroll using a mouse wheel, scroll bar, or the arrow keys on the keyboard
With the new updated OS, the main user interface remains largely unchanged. Apps on the homescreen are static, unlike Microsoft's live tile. Most wireless keyboards that work with iPads and iPhones won't allow scrolling through iOS homescreens or browsing of apps since the platform is meant to be used as a touchscreen
With the fifth major release of Android, Google has upped the game. The homescreen supports resizable widgets and notifications (from apps) is one of the biggest visible changes. Other additions are the ability to preview incoming emails and pinch notifications to expand or collapse them
GETTING STARTED WITH APPS
Once connected with Windows Live id and other online accounts, the apps on the homescreen come to life. Pin some friends on the messaging app, choose city to display weather and synchronise mail, photos, appointments and friends, and you will see why Microsoft is so bullish on its OS. The Messaging app makes good use of the screen to show conversations from friends on Facebook and Windows Live. Win 8 has an Internet Explorer 10 browser. It works perfectly with touch and keyboard. We also liked the fact that Photos app lets one view local photos and also pictures from online services such as SkyDrive, Facebook, Flickr, and other PCs with SkyDrive installed
Apple has made a few upgrades to its in-built apps. For instance, the iOS Mail app now lets users flag contacts as VIPs, which means all emails from those contacts will be placed in the special VIP inbox. The YouTube app is now missing in iOS 6, but the official YouTube app on the App Store is a better replacement. Apple maps, however, lose the plot with misleading and incomplete data
Jelly Bean has a number of apps - Google currents, Chrome and People apps. The Chrome browser's beta was available on Ice Cream Sandwich but with Jelly Bean Google has released the fully fledged Chrome, the best mobile browser. The People app focuses on Google+, retrieving photos of user's Google contacts & synchronising them with Google+ profiles. Google Current is a news reader that collects news sites and articles into a custom interface. It can show Google Reader subscriptions in magazine form
CLOUD INTEGRATION & SOCIAL TOOLS
The OS is big on the cloud. In addition to its online account feature where users create a Live id and can carry settings across Windows devices, Win 8 also enables you to connect to various cloud-based services. Once the online Live id is hooked to the device, Win 8 plugs in accounts from services such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, or whichever the user permits
The updated iOS now integrates Facebook more closely. It means you can update status and upload images from various apps, synchronise contacts, and have your Facebook events coordinated with your iOS Calendar. Apple's cloud tool, iCloud, allows users to store their content on the cloud or carry their apps, data, photo, and browser settings across Apple devices
Android Jelly Bean brings cloud in the form of Google Drive, an exclusive storage service from the web giant. So, if you start watching a movie, or reading a book on a tablet, you can pick where you left off. It's that simple. Like Apple and Windows 8, Jelly Bean, too, has a great Facebook contact integration that allows users, through the Settings page on the device, to integrate Facebook contacts with the address book on the hardware platform
WHAT WE THINK
We don't have any qualms in admitting that the Windows 8 is an impressive touchscreen OS, but, when put to work with a keyboard and a mouse (like in traditional desktops and laptops), the learning curve could turn out to be frustrating. Nonetheless, it running on an Intel tablet will undoubtedly resolve many corporate requirements (enterprise apps and integrating Microsoft Win 7 apps, etc), provided the prices of hardware that roll out with the new OS are kept competitive. If Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is a thing of beauty, then iOS 6 is simplicity personified. Not to forget that the Apple iOS 6 and Android Jelly Bean have been in user reach for long. This is possibly their biggest advantage over Windows 8.