So you want to buy a tablet — you have a choice between the iPad, Android tablets, and now Windows 8 or Windows RT tablets. Windows tablets are often the most expensive. Software availability is crucial when using a tablet.
Now that the Windows Store has reached 70,000 apps and it’s been over six months since Windows 8 launched, let’s take a look at the Windows Store and determine just how competitive it is with the other tablet platforms.
Video-playing apps are actually fairly well-represented in the Windows Store. It contains apps for Netflix and Hulu Plus — some of the most popular streaming video services. The Videos app included with Windows 8 allows you to rent or purchase videos from Microsoft’s video marketplace.
Windows tablets do fairly well here, but they still can’t stack up to other platforms. There’s no Amazon Instant Video app (only available on the iPad and Kindle Fire), official YouTube app, or app for Sony’s Crackle service. If you subscribe to a service like HBO Go, DirecTV, or Comcast Xfinity, you won’t be able to stream their videos with a Modern app.
The included Xbox Music app offers free music streaming in Windows 8, which is useful. However, if you’re already invested in another music service, you’ll probably be disappointed. Streaming music services like Spotify, Rdio, MOG, and Rhapsody are not available in the Windows Store. Pandora is only available as an unofficial app.
You’ll find some popular services like Slacker and TuneIn Radio, so it isn’t a complete miss — but Windows 8′s selection of third-party music services is fairly poor.
You could try listening to these services in a browser via the Internet Explorer app, but the music will stop playing when the browser goes into the background. If you want to listen to Spotify on a Windows 8 or Windows RT tablet, you’ll be doing it in a browser on the desktop.
The Windows Store actually has a good selection of eBook services, with official apps available for Amazon Kindle, NOOK, and Kobo. If you want to use your tablet for reading eBooks, Windows 8 can do it.
The store can be a bit limiting if you want other services. There’s no app for the Flipboard news reader, which is wildly popular on iOS and Android. There are no official apps for read-it-later apps services like Pocket and Instapaper. There are certainly RSS readers and read-it-later apps — which probably won’t integrate with any of your existing services or be as polished.
The Windows Store does have a selection of simple tablet games. Depending on how much you play games, you may be happy with the time-wasters available, which include popular games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope.
Unfortunately, even the selection here is limiting. While two sequels to Cut the Rope have been released for iOS and Android, only the first is available in the Windows Store. When it comes to Angry Birds, only Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars are available in the Windows Store. However, they are each $5, while they’re free on other platforms.
If you want a tablet for gaming, it’s barely even a contest — the iPad is out in front. For example, Telltale’s critically-acclaimed Walking Dead game is available for Windows desktop, Mac, Xbox, PS3, PlayStation Vita — and iPad. It’s not even out on Android, so it’s unlikely to ever make its way to Windows 8 in a touch-optimized form. Many big-name games are only ever released on iOS. Many other games are released on Android much later. And the Windows Store is way behind Android’s Google Play when it comes to touch-optimized tablet games.
Windows RT devices come with Microsoft Office, but it only works on the desktop — it’s not a touch-optimized interface. Windows 8 devices don’t come with Office, although it can of course be purchased and installed.
You might expect that, given the Windows platform’s history as a productivity platform, the Windows Store would be strong when it comes to productivity applications. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Microsoft offers a Modern app for OneNote, all the other office applications are missing in action in the new environment. The Windows Store isn’t much help either. A search for “office” brings up an app for Office Depot and various desktop office apps. The same search on Google Play brings up over seven different tablet-optimized office productivity apps on the first page alone.
If you want to use completely touch-optimized office applications, you’re much better off with an iPad or Android tablet — at least until Microsoft releases Windows Store versions of its Office apps.
The Windows 8 and RT experience offers some unique advantages, such as the ability to use full Microsoft office and the ability to use multiple applications side-by-side. However, very few productivity apps are available in the new, “Modern” interface.
So how is social-networking on Windows 8? The People app offers some integration with Twitter and Facebook, but let’s focus on full apps.
Twitter offers an official app in the Windows Store. However, the selection gets thin after that — there are no official Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, or Tumblr apps.
The Windows Store doesn’t help its own case, as searches for these apps (and other common ones) bring up many poor-quality apps while the same searches performed on other platforms bring up higher-quality apps. This contributes to a perception that the Windows Store is full of junk.
You could of course use the social network’s website in your browser, but you’ll give up the advantages of live tiles, the ability to use the social network in the sidebar while you browse (as only one browser app can be running at a time), and push notifications, so the experience just isn’t the same.
Google services are obviously well-represented on Android, Google’s own platform, but Google’s apps are also well-represented on the iPad.
However, Google and Windows 8 don’t play well together. There’s an official Google Search app and a Google Chrome browser (which only works on Windows 8, not Windows RT), but that’s it. You can read your Gmail in the barebones Mail app included with Windows 8, but you can’t even view your Google Calendar in the Calendar app anymore. Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Calendar — these are all services you’ll be using in a browser, and not with a dedicated app, if you choose a Windows tablet.
Many other services are also missing in action, including an app for the popular Mint website that helps you keep track of your money. It isn’t all bad — Dropbox offers a Windows 8 app so you can continue to use your Dropbox account and not become invested in SkyDrive, for example.
Touch-based image editors aren’t as well represented on Windows 8 and are nowhere near as powerful as the apps you can get on an iPad or even an Android tablet.
Over 70,000 apps and more than six months later, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to turn Windows 8 into a credible tablet platform. It’s just immature — many popular and important apps are unavailable and many of the available apps aren’t as mature as the options available for other tablet platforms.
The number of apps isn’t the most important thing — 70,000 would be more than enough if they were the high-quality ones people wanted — it’s about which apps are available. Once you start looking at the Windows Store, it’s clear that using a Windows PC as a tablet will involve many trade-offs.
Of course, you may love Windows on a tablet and be okay with the limited software available for it. You may prefer the Windows tablet interface (which offers real multitasking) and the design of the interface formerly known as Metro. Windows on tablets has a lot in common with Linux on desktops at the moment. Whether you’re buying a Windows tablet or installing Linux on a desktop, you should know that you’re giving up a whole wealth of available software.
One thing’s for sure — the Windows Store needs to be a much stronger offering. It’s no surprise that Windows RT devices aren’t selling very well when they’re as expensive as an iPad (or more expensive) and have so few apps available.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 05/14/13