One of the reasons we've been so excited about the arrival of iPad rivalling tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Archos 7 Internet Tablet is their use of the Android operating system more commonly seen on mobile phones. Being designed from the ground up to use a touchscreen interface, it feels natural and easy to use with just your fingers. Conversely any Windows-based tablet devices we've seen have tended to be rather less accomplished, feeling clunky and difficult to use. Hoping to change that perception is the Slate from Exo PC, which we've recently had the chance to briefly play with.
This Intel Atom-powered tablet uses a custom interface that sits on top of Windows to give quick and easy access to applications and shortcuts. The long and short of it is that you have a grid of large dots, which you can fill with as many or few apps and shortcuts as you like. You can also arrange them in whatever order or pattern takes your fancy – just hold down your finger on an icon and move it. The effect is something akin to the grids of icons you get on most modern day touchscreen smartphones.
To the left of the grid are a selection of links to general features like settings and the Windows desktop while on the right appears a list of the apps you have running. Above this is a home button for getting you back to the main grid from inside a program. You can also swipe the running applications off the sidebar to close them, which is a neat touch.
New apps can be downloaded or added to the interface via another option on the left sidebar. Apps that run through the Exo PC UI can be written in all manner of languages and the Exofactory PC framework can be installed on any PC running Windows XP or higher so development should be easy, which will hopefully result in lots of compatible apps. The unit we were using was a little buggy and was having trouble connecting to the internet so we couldn't fully appreciate the depth and breadth of available content yet.
Nonetheless, it all looks and sounds rather good and in many ways it is. The multimedia apps like the music and video players all have slick finger-friendly interfaces as do the ebook and magazine apps. The whole thing also feels reasonably responsive and easy to use, and is certainly a huge improvement over the standard Windows options. However, as per usual with these interface shells, there are times where you're dumped back into the standard Windows interface in all its un-fingerfriendly glory. Admittedly these occurrences are rare, but when they do happen it can be quite frustrating.
More of a problem is that we found the circular icon arrangement quite difficult to use, as we couldn't actually see what all the apps were. As such we spent all too long twiddling our fingers as we tried to work out what app was what. A large part of this was simply that many of the apps on the demo unit were random games that no-one recognised, but even so the general chaos of so many multi coloured icons staring at you and the lack of text explanations didn't help.
You would, of course, get the hang of it after a while as you learn what icon is what and where you've placed them. However, for an interface that is all about adding usability, it's a bit of a fundamental mistake.