Home / Opinions / Windows 10 on the Surface 3: Tablet mode is a total failure

Windows 10 on the Surface 3: Tablet mode is a total failure

Andy Vandervell


Surface 3

OPINION Andy Vandervell revisits Windows 10 a week after launch and decides the tablet mode is a mess.

A week with Windows 10 hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm for it much. In fact, I’m more confident than ever that it deserves to be called "the best Windows ever". It edges Windows 7 into a close second, with Windows 8 and Windows ME only just escaping the wooden spoon that's handed to Windows Vista.

But since I’ve started using a Surface 3 running Windows 10, it’s become abundantly clear that the tablet mode is the worst part of Windows 10.

For all the small, finicky things you can unearth in Windows 10 if you try hard enough, it’s the "pure" tablet experience that has suffered the most. It almost makes you wonder whether Microsoft even cares about it any more.

An inconsistent experience

For a short while I was convinced that the tablet mode was the best way to use the Surface 3 all the time, even when I used it "as a laptop". The fact that you can snap apps side-by-side in tablet mode gives you great flexibility, while swiping from the left to switch apps is quick and easy. I’m not mad about how the Start screen now scrolls up and down, instead of left to right, but I can get over that.

But it doesn’t take long to pick holes in it. Let’s take this morning as an example. As I write, I want to keep an Edge browser window open so I can follow ball-by-ball updates from the cricket. I have my Word window on two thirds of the screen, with the BBC Sport website covering the rest.

Windows 10 surface 3 3This is what you see in tablet mode – a non-optimised version of the BBC Sport website

Here comes the first problem. While window snapping is one of the finest features in Windows 10, the Edge browser does some odd things in tablet mode. For reasons I don’t understand, in tablet mode I get the non-responsive desktop version of the BBC’s website, yet on the desktop I get the responsive version that reshapes nicely to fit this smaller window.

Windows 10 surface 3In desktop mode, the website automatically switches to the responsive version that's easy to use in a small window

This doesn’t make any sense – it ought to be the other way around. This isn’t an isolated incident, either. Every responsive website I visited behaved the same way – responsive on the desktop, non-responsive when in tablet mode. Open up Google Chrome, however, and websites respond as you’d expect – even the "legacy" Internet Explorer gets the right setup.

A compromised Start screen

There’s also something slightly disappointing about the Start screen you get in tablet mode. In landscape, the essential search bar is hidden behind an icon for Cortana, despite the fact that there’s ample space for it. On desktop, it’s there until you switch to portrait where it hides again – why can’t tablet mode do the same thing?

As for the main Start screen, it somehow contrives to give you less information while using more space. Compare these two shots of the Start screen and menu.

Windows 10 surface 3 11

In desktop mode, all the space is used well. It’s an information-rich, touch-friendly interface that gives you everything you could want right there. It’s great.

Windows 10 surface 3 5

Contrast that with the tablet mode. Now the list is hidden behind a "hamburger" menu in the top left. This isn’t a terrible thing, but you don’t gain more "tile" space and it isn’t intrinsically more touch-friendly – it’s just bigger. In fact, you actually see fewer tiles in tablet mode. Ho hum.

Windows 10 surface 3 7

Things get much worse when you switch to portrait. Here you’re left with a narrow stream that’s basically the same as on a phone, which is ridiculous when you’re using a 10.8-inch tablet.

Windows 10 surface 3 13

Yet again, you actually get a better experience in the desktop mode. Here the Start menu gives you a similar narrow stream, but you also get the list to the left. Moreover, it’s actually easier to use, since you can reach all the icons using just your left hand.

What exactly is the Windows 10’s tablet mode for?

All of which leads me to ponder why the tablet mode even exists in Windows 10. It’s clear the developers have lavished the desktop experience with love and attention, but the tablet mode is a mess. It feels as tacked on as the desktop experience was on Windows 8.

But this doesn't mean Windows 10 is bad on the Surface 3 – far from it. After a few days of switching back and forth between the two modes, it's clear that it just doesn't need the tablet mode. Or, at least, it doesn't suffer for want of a good one.

Apps that are hard to use on a tablet aren’t any easier to use in tablet mode, while apps that are designed with tablets (or touchscreens) in mind work just as well in desktop mode. It often feels like the only serious benefit to the tablet mode is the hidden title bar, which gives you a tiny bit more desktop space.

There are one or two small things that don’t work quite so well like this – it’s sometimes tricky to resize windows using touch alone, for example – but the benefits outweigh the minor inconveniences. On a tablet the size of the Surface 3, Windows 10 works just fine without the tablet mode.

Small tablets will suffer

This is good news if you own a Surface 3, or a Windows tablet of a similar size. But anything smaller than 10 inches is a bad idea on Windows 10. The relative lack of dedicated tablet apps is still troublesome, and many of them are buggy – Netflix keeps crashing on the Surface 3.

You could argue, I suppose, that the poor tablet mode doesn’t matter in a world where sales of 5- to 6-inch phones are booming and interest in tablets is waning, but it’s a weak argument. Cheap 8-inch tablets are popular and Windows ought to work on them.

Related: Windows 10 vs Windows 7: Should you upgrade?

Microsoft’s done fine work to make the standard experience work on the Surface 3 and similar tablets, but its work on tablets isn’t done. I hope to return to this topic in a few months and see some significant progress.


August 7, 2015, 12:06 pm

Before ranting on about the Start screen, perhaps you should first investigate the Settings. In the Display settings, you can select the zoom factor to change what is displayed. On my Surface Pro 3, if I set this to 150% then I see 3 columns of tiles in landscape mode, as opposed to the 2 columns which you see. In portrait mode I see 2 columns, instead of the single column which you see. Therefore, it's the settings which determine how much space is wasted or not.

My conclusion: tablet mode is NOT a failure. It actually works great. Sure, there are bugs to iron out and improvements to be made, but it's certainly not a failure!

Dead Words

August 7, 2015, 12:13 pm

The general consumer should not have to dive into the Settings menu in order to make Tablet Mode useful, I'm just saying.
Tablet Mode isn't horrid, but there's a lot of room for improvement. If Threshold 2 doesn't bring some big improvements there's going to be problems (not with me, as I don't care).

Nazir Taib

August 7, 2015, 12:16 pm

Yup. I do believe he need to investigate the setting.


August 7, 2015, 12:52 pm

The bad part of tablet mode is that it ask you to revert to desktop mode when you want it in tablet mode. The only setting I see asks if you want to be asked or automatically revert to either desktop or tablet mode.
Upon further checking, there's a setting that allows it to remain as tablet mode and it won't revert back to desktop mode.


August 7, 2015, 1:01 pm

I am aware of the settings, but they don't really help on the Surface 3. All the above is on 150%, which is also the default when you install Windows 10 on the Surface 3.

You have to switch down to 125% to get a better experience, but that just messes things up on desktop – menus are far too small to be comfortable to use. As solutions go, using the system wide scaling setting isn't a very good one – on the Surface 3, at least.

I'd like to see a pinch-to-zoom feature in tablet mode. Using that to scale the size of tiles on the Start screen would help a great deal, without having to mess with the whole system setting.


August 7, 2015, 1:21 pm

When you say 125% messes things up on the desktop, what exactly do you mean? I mean, if you're using the desktop, the whole idea is to be using a mouse and keyboard.

BTW, a little tip if you find some menus too small for your fingers - tap and hold anywhere in the menu and then slide your finger to the item you want to select, then let go.

Pinch-to-zoom, it's still present in various apps in the form of Semantic Zoom, but yes I agree it would be nice have it on the Start tiles too.

EDIT: You can also set the font size for menus (and other items) for desktop stuff independently.


August 7, 2015, 1:46 pm

I mean many UI elements in apps, especially desktop ones, are too small to be used comfortably. Photoshop is especially bad, as is Chrome. You could use them like that, but I'd rather not and – on 150% – everything is about right most of time, aside from the tablet mode at least.


August 7, 2015, 2:34 pm

It's been a week for me and I could not revert back to Windows 8 quick enough. Microsoft has completely fubared the experience for Surface Pro 3.
Windows 8.1 was, by far, the best UI / experience for a tablet / hybrid ever made. They have completely over-reacted to desktop users who have no clue what a delight it was using Windows 8 on a touch-screen.
Thanks for caving to luddites and moving a huge step backwards, Microsoft!

Stephen Hayden

August 7, 2015, 3:10 pm

I really like Windows 10, but agree with most of this. The biggest issue I have going from 8.1 to 10 is there's no effort on the part of any browser (including IE now) to provide a nice touch-based tablet experience akin to what we had in 8's version of IE.


August 7, 2015, 3:12 pm

I prefer Windows 10 on my Surface Pro 3, now that I've set it up to work like I want it to, rather than stick with the defaults.


August 7, 2015, 3:37 pm

I am not liking the tablet mode either on my SP3. I am hoping in the coming months that MSFT will update and enhance the tablet mode. What I do not get it is why MSFT did not get this spot on first time around. Since last weeks update I am now having to reset my SP3 because windows 10 weirdly corrupted my wifi connection and there was no fix for it I hope this does not happen again!


August 7, 2015, 3:50 pm

I am hard pressed to say which I prefer Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 on my tablet...
I can safely say that my other Pc's will remain on Windows 7

Alain Sylvestre

August 7, 2015, 4:02 pm

the title of this artiicle is way too sensationalist for nothing. w10 will be better overtime.


August 7, 2015, 4:36 pm

Why though? Don't people want their PC's to run faster? Both Windows 8 and Windows 10 have brought considerable speed improvements, especially to older hardware (as long as you have the driver support).

Windows 10 is a great replacement for Windows 7 desktops.


August 7, 2015, 10:02 pm

I miss as a surface pro 2 user, win8.1. Onenote app, mail app, ie, all back-pedaled. I feel the majority of insiders were PC power users and not win8.1 tablet lovers like myself...


August 7, 2015, 10:02 pm

Windows 10 is great.. you don't have to see more tiles in tablet mode if you can actually scroll them, that's why they're bigger. EVERYTHING IS BIGGER IN TABLET MODE, FINGERS, GET IT? The lateral space is there so you can see all programs on the left and the notification center on your right without interfering too much with the tiles, you hide them all and it's a visual mess.
The BBC website is not recognizing correctly between tablet mode / mobile and desktop versions, do you actually know that some websites need to be updated to newer browsers in order to adapt themselves to their corresponding visualizations?
If you don't like Windows 10, stay on Windows 8 or just go to Mac, no one will miss you. This is a great OS optimized for productivity, it might just not be for you.


August 7, 2015, 10:05 pm

I miss the horizontal scrolling of the win8.1 start screen, as well as full screen scrolling of all my apps and group selecting of tiles...


August 7, 2015, 10:29 pm

The thing is, the start menu has a lot of wasted space along the sides and down the middle. The account profile isn't visible by default, i feel that left screen swiping went backwards. If win10 declares to be the best of both worlds, MS needs to address these things, and I'm sure they will, since it's still in its infancy. Win8.1 was a great update to win8 vanilla, so win10 will only get better.


August 7, 2015, 11:31 pm

Believe me, I tried. I really wanted to like Windows 10. However, there was absolutely nothing that improved my experience from 8.1. And, as mentioned, a whole lot of changes that made the experience much much worse.


August 8, 2015, 12:46 am

>revisits Windows 10 a week after launch and decides the tablet mode is a mess.

>A week with Windows 10 hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm for it much. In fact, I’m

>more confident than ever that it deserves to be called "the best Windows ever"

When you have low standards or expectations anything is possible ...

Mark Mallarde

August 8, 2015, 1:18 am

8.1 was better for me on Surface. I was just getting the hang of 8.1 and really starting to like it. Microsoft needs a very thorough going over with this new OS because there are tons of bugs and design flaws.


August 8, 2015, 2:41 am

You are arguing windows 10 tablet mode is a 'total failure' just because you didn't like the start menu and some sites didn't work for you!!! This is Ridiculous. Please know that tablet mode is more than just the start menu.


August 8, 2015, 12:15 pm

This is the biggest issue for me - really miss the metro IE when using the Surface 3 as a tablet.

Menorca Man

August 8, 2015, 1:33 pm

For me the biggest downside is that you can no longer choose to host your OneDrive on a removable SD card. It is now always hosted on the limited internal memory. Yes, it can be done but it involves creating a Virtual Disk on your SD card and running a special homebrew script file during each startup in order to mount the resultant VD.

I guess maybe Microsoft removed the feature in case someone removed or swapped their SD card, thereby causing OneDrive to throw a wobbly. However, surely they could have retained the capability to easily move the OneDrive folder onto your SD card, albeit with a health warning about SD card removal? The way things are now, the maximum size of your OneDrive is going to be limited by how much free internal memory your tablet has!!

Mark Coppock

August 8, 2015, 3:59 pm

For me, the bottom line is this: if Windows 8.1 rated 8/10 for tablets/touch and 2/10 for desktop/keyboard/mouse, Windows 10 rates 7/10 for tablets/touch and 8/10 for desktop/keyboard/mouse. In other words, Microsoft fixed what was most broken and didn't completely break what was working. I think that's a good compromise at this point, and should only get better over time.

comments powered by Disqus