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5 things Microsoft could do to improve tablet mode on Windows 10

Dell Latitude 7390 2-in-1
Dell Latitude 7390 2-in-1

I've used Surface devices as my primary device for most of the time since the original Surface was released. I love the 2-in-1 form factor and used my Surface Pro 2 (RIP) primarily as a tablet for years. I never disliked the tablet mode of Windows 10, but after getting an iPad Pro for work, I've realized that the tablet mode of Windows 10 isn't up to snuff against its competition.

This isn't an indictment on Windows 10's tablet mode. There are things that it does very well, such as snapping multiple apps and scaling UWP apps. And Microsoft has made improvements to tablet mode over the years by adding features like pen scrolling and full-screen mode for Microsoft Edge. But ultimately, the tablet experience needs to feel less like a compromise and more like a dedicated tablet experience that can easily be switched in and out of.

There are entire threads and comment sections dedicated to improving tablet mode so I can't include every change I'd like to see, but these are the top five ways that I think Microsoft could improve tablet mode on Windows 10.

Improve portrait mode

The 3:2 aspect ration is becoming more common across Windows 10 devices. And while there are advantages to having a 3:2 aspect ratio on a device like the Surface Laptop, the ratio is practically built for tablets. Using a 16:9 tablet in portrait mode was incredibly awkward so when Microsoft made the switch to 3:2 for Surfaces, it was a welcomed change. The only problem is that the operating system didn't change to meet the hardware upgrade.

At points, using tablet mode in the portrait orientation looks like someone hacked Windows 10 Mobile onto their PC. There's huge gaps of unused space in the Start Menu and apps list and the result is terrible. Compare this to the iPad which seamlessly flips between landscape and portrait and the difference is stark. I know that Windows 10 has a tiled interface compared to flat icons but that difference isn't the source of the issue.

Microsoft could further improve portrait mode by allowing devices to view apps in split-screen mode vertically rather than horizontally. The 3:2 ratio of the Surface line would scale apps split this way beautifully. If Microsoft needs any inspiration they can check out Android phones which can view two apps at once that are stacked vertically.

Microsoft also needs to find a way to better utilize the screen real estate of devices in portrait mode. Windows 10 Mobile did this wonderfully and I think Microsoft could take a lot of design cues from Windows 10's smaller sibling.

Add more gestures

There are some nifty navigation tricks to Windows 10 tablet mode. You can swipe from the left open up any of your running apps. You can also easily bring apps into split-screen view. This has recently been enhanced with the rollout of Timeline which allows you to jump to previous instances of an app. Microsoft could streamline people's workflows by adding more gestures.

Most, if not all, touch devices now have multi-touch input. That means that Microsoft could implement two, three, or even four finger swipe gestures. I'd love to see the return of flipping back and forth between your current app and whatever app you've used most recently. I understand why Microsoft focused on taskview but with multiple inputs at their disposal, they could easily add more gestures to the OS.

UWP all the things

Despite what some may say, UWP isn't going anywhere. Microsoft is going to continue to push it to developers, add features, and increase the number of APIs that are available. But pushing it to developers and leading by example are two different things. Microsoft still has significant pieces of software that aren't native UWP apps. That means they don't scale as well on tablets, lack some features like built-in back buttons, and aren't touch friendly.

In some cases, apps and services aren't available on the Microsoft Store at all. More so than just apps, some major parts of the operating system are still legacy pieces of software that don't scale well, don't implement the new design language, and aren't touch friendly.

Microsoft is working on moving legacy software to UWP apps. The Settings app is taking more and more from the Control Panel and even the calculator app features a Fluent Design but the File Explorer is still difficult to use with touch.

The File Explorer is probably the biggest oversight in regards to tablet mode. I use the File Explorer multiple times a day on my iPad Pro and jumping back to Windows 10's tablet mode is startlingly bad. File browsing on an iPad is touch friendly but still very powerful. Drag and drop support works well, in my opinion, better than Windows 10's, and it looks like it belongs.

Luckily, Microsoft is working on a UWP File Explorer but at the moment it's frustrating to use and a major knock on Windows 10's tablet mode. I understand the File Explorer that needs to be replaced is complex but that doesn't make it easier to use the current version. Furthermore, even once the File Explorer becomes touch-friendly, there are still other Microsoft services that aren't. Microsoft needs to push touch-friendy and powerful apps out of Redmond and into the hands of users.

Add Compact Overlay for Microsoft Edge

Compact Overlay was an excellent addition to Windows 10. It allows you to continue watching your favorite content without having to dedicate that much of your screen to what you're watching. The feature is especially useful when you're in tablet mode, jumping between apps and changing what's primarily on your screen, though I'd like the compact overlay to stay on the screen while switching apps. Any developer can add this feature to their app, and when it's added, it's great; myTube! being a wonderful example.

But sadly, Microsoft needs to operate under the assumption that developers aren't going to implement every API that's available. Windows 10 doesn't have the mainstream developer support of iOS so Microsoft needs to do as much as they can on their end to fill gaps and fix problems. Adding Compact Overlay mode to Edge would make the feature available for more sites and services.

Take YouTube for example. Google has a track record of not only ignoring the Microsoft Store but doing things that hinder YouTube clients. If you added a Compact Overlay mode for Edge, you could watch YouTube videos in a picture-in-picture mode directly from your browser. This same principle extends to any service that doesn't have an app that supports Compact Overlay, from Vimeo to Microsoft's Mixer that doesn't even have a first-party UWP app. This addition would be primarily for watching videos but could also work with PWAs such as Twitter.

Microsoft is going all in with Microsoft Edge, pointing more users towards it with features like Sets. Adding Compact Overlay mode to Edge would fill the gaps that developers and companies are leaving and also make Edge a more versatile browser. Additionally, it would allow users to have more persistent content on their screens while jumping around in tablet mode.

Bring back quick actions

One of the features that Windows 8.1 users miss the most in the current tablet mode is the Charms Bar. This bar allowed you to almost instantly perform tasks like sharing content. Microsoft replaced the Charms Bar with the Notifications and Action Center. This new area can perform some things quickly, like toggling settings, but doesn't create the instant shareability that the Charms Bar did.

I don't think Microsoft would ever bring back the Charms Bar, and I'm not sure that's even the right thing to do, but they could add back the quick actions that were in it to the Notifications and Action Center. This is configurable anyway so they could add plenty of options and let users pick and choose what they'd like to use. Having this setup would mean a swipe from the left brings up taskview, and a swipe from the right allows you to do quick actions, utilizing the bezels that persist on tablets these days.

Microsoft could take it one step further and allow multi-finger gestures to perform specific actions or make them configurable. Imagine if you could two-finger swipe from the left to share something or three finger swipe from the left to cast your screen.

Wrapping things up

The tablet experience of Windows 10 is by no means terrible, but it still feels like a mix of a tablet and a desktop in some ways If 2-in-1 devices are going to compete as tablets, not just as ultra-portable PCs, then they need to be able to compete as just tablets.

What part of Windows 10 tablet mode would you like to see improved or changed? Is there another part of Windows 10 that you think needs fixing? Let us know in the comments below.

Sean Endicott
Sean Endicott

Sean Endicott is the news writer for Windows Central. If it runs Windows, is made by Microsoft, or has anything to do with either, he's on it. Sean's been with Windows Central since 2017 and is also our resident app expert. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com.

59 Comments
  • What I wish, is that the start screen in tablet mode of Windows 10 did horizontal scrolling like it did in Windows 8/8.1. It is a subtle change, but the feel of this navigation worked better with live tiles. I think what would be awesome is if it could do horizontal swiping in landscape, and vertical in portrait.
  • This, times a Billion!!! I also would like to see some Windows 8 wallpaper or Bing slide show themes, natively built in and brighten the background wallpaper in tablet mode, as well. I also want an option for a colored Taskbar, in tablet mode.
  • Or at least a slide gesture to open and close All Apps, instead of poking that small All Apps button and poke Start Home to go back. Having gestures will make it more user-friendly and natural to use for touch and even for trackpad users. Seriously, Windows 8.1 have this, so does Windows Phones and W10M of all of their existence. Microsoft is seriously a weird company when it comes to UX sometimes. On other side they do some great job, while on other side they left things there and put something there and be done with it. This has been posted and even voted many times on Feedback Hub, and its already a 4 freaking years.
  • Charm bar, and the clock it brought up made 8.1 so beautiful, and easy to use...
  • I wholeheartedly agree. When moving from 8 to 10, one of the gestures I found myself making was swiping from the right to see the time, but in 10, there's nothing there. And the time displayed in the taskbar is so small...
  • Great analysis I agree with it... I think we're all right, it feels incomplete... I extremely disliked Windows 8.1... however, it did have a much better tablet experience... so as the commenters above, I also miss the clock and charm... the on-screen keyboard seems more responsive then or less buggy, there are so many times in Windows 10, when I want to fill a text field, the keyboard fails to launch...
  • The touch keyboard is so broken it's not funny. It straight up doesn't pop up much of the time when you want it to in specific apps and situations. It makes the whole tablet mode on 2-in-1s pretty much unusable with any reliability.
  • It seemed to get worse with the Fall Creator's Update. It was way better before.
  • And more often than not they keyboard puts out but the text box the focus is on stays hidden behind it...
  • This is the kind of stuff that happens when you cut corners and try to stretch your desktop platform into a mobile platform. Microsoft needs to make an actual mobile platform designed for touch from the ground up.
  • Yeah this is still an issue especially for Win32 apps. The touch keyboard is just dumb and it covers the area where the text box or the cursor really is, let alone the other UI elements. What Microsoft and the Windows team should do is to move the window itself up when the touch keyboard is open so it won't cover the text area, where the cursor is. I understand that resizing or moving individual UI elements on a Win32 apps may not be that easy, but moving the whole window should at least do similar trick. They already do this when you over-scroll and the whole Win32 window bounce instead of the text area. Microsoft never seem to really care much of their UX on Windows despite their talks, there is a disconnect between what they say and what they really do. Also, we still have two touch keyboards under Microsoft. One is WordFlow that is used on Windows and SwiftKey on iOS and Android. Why they still haven't merge the two? There area some features from SwiftKey that we need especially the wider language support and multi-language predictions and some from WordFlow features too such as the cursor control.
  • Agree... a sort of pan/zoom the screen to the point that the elements that had focus aren't covered up by the touch keyboard. once you submit the action, then hide the keyboard and shift/pan the screen back to where you were before... I know they can do this stuff... They could adopt the technology of Office Lens.....
  • And on some apps, if I start typing a word, then pick one of the predicted words along the top, it adds the word to what I've already typed, instead of replacing it. That's incredible poor implementation.
  • Maybe a halo tablet to run on? No, I do not see Surface Pro as such device. Surface Pro is an class of it self.
  • I still miss the left-side swipe to flip through open apps. That felt a lot like flipping through a magazine, very natural. I'd love to get that gesture back as an option. In Win 8.1 you could see a 'task switcher' with a left edge in-out swipe, so if they had an option to map the in-out gesture to the new task switcher, I'd be in heaven.
  • 1000 times this! It was much better than the current option! Why cannot this be an option? :(
  • 1) Remove that black ugly task bar and move it to right edge which can be accessed just like charms bar.
    2) replace navigation buttons with optional gestures
    3) move action center top down position just like other tablet os.
    4) redesign start screen for tablets and provide option of app grid also.
    Bring back bird eye start screen view.
    5) copy ios 11's slide over and drag and drop features.
  • 1) my taskbar is always on the left and with app icons ok very handy.
  • I'd like:
    1- Pinnable Action Center allowing it to stay open if we need it to
    2- Horizontal Tiles in tablet mode like in 8/8.1. This allowed us to keep our hands on the sides of the tablet and still access all tiles with two thumbs.
    3. Direct Access to Desktop in Tablet mode without going through File Explorer. Like the Desktop live tile we had on 8/8.1. But this time it could be added to this new "Folders List" above the start button where Settings, Documents, Pictures, File Explorer etc reside now. Something that will take you to Desktop and not the Desktop folder in File Explorer.
    4. An option to allow users to enable Left-alignment in "All Apps" during Tablet mode, so you can access everything using left thumb, without the need to let go off the other hand. Basically one column list like all apps on the Windows Mobile.
  • This is easy. Make it "EXACTLY" like Windows 8.1! While providing us with a Touch Edge that worked "EXACTLY" like Touch IE worked in Windows 8.1. Problem solved.
  • Go back to a UI that was universally hated? For some reason that sounds like a bad idea.
  • The thing they should fix most in tablet mode is to improve polish dramatically. Windows 10's visual polish as a whole is lacking, but tablet mode looks flat out broken most of the time with it's flickering animations, terrible and broken looking touch keyboard, and various other bugs.
  • I really got a kick out of this... After all, if the critics and bloggers were more open to 8, there would be a good possibility that windows would be words ahead. But like many things, the loud dissenters screwed it up for us all. After all, just look at mobile.... They all loved windows 7, so what do Android and iOS look like? Let's see, static icons and widgets to fake live tiles. How out of date
  • You think Google should only allow square icons and featureless widgets (aka Live Tiles) on Android? Would that be futuristic to you?
  • Live Tiles is still better for at-glance information though, which something I wish Android and iOS would replicate in some form. Widget system is powerful but underutilized for some reason, not to mention the visual inconsistencies that it doesn't look great when you use different widgets from different apps, heck even Microsoft own apps have slightly different looking widgets to each other. I wish Android would just standardize widgets UI under the Material Design framework. This way the widget system will be both functional and beautiful. On Windows, I don't know what is in the minds of Microsoft and Windows shell team but they still haven't implemented Interactive Live Tiles that Microsoft Research demoed years ago. I think they killed it despite the potential for Live Tile to evolve into something more useful.
  • I don't think they are going to keep Live Tiles much longer. I bet they are dropped in Windows Core. Widgets are just as glanceable. They still show the weather, currently playing song, newest message, or daily health information. What makes them actually useful is the interactive parts. You can actually control the music, scroll through messages, or initiate an action. You aren't hoping they randomly show you the right information, and even if they do, you cannot easily access it. After the third time seeing an interesting post or news article and then not being able to find it, I was done with Live Tiles. Useless.
  • Finally someone has faced perfectly the topic. Thank you!
  • Windows Hello working ! I have to tilt my sp4 to landscape for it to sign me in.
  • Make Edge in tablet mode more like IE was on 8/8.1 with the address bar at the bottom, that seems so much more natural when in tablet mode.
  • Windows 8 was EXCELLENT on touch screens and tablets. Windows 10 is positively USER-SPITEFUL. The idiotic use of tiny wireframe icons makes it painful, at best, just to DO anything (much less SEE in less the optimum conditions). Absolutely great points you made about File Explorer and the Charms bar.
  • Then why did Windows 8 fail so hard, especially on tablets?
  • It was the Windows 7 Desktop Users who complained about no start button and a full screen Start Menu in Windows 8. So Windows 10 became a hybrid approach to address Desktop needs and tablet needs. But Windows 8 was truly Microsoft thinking outside the box. But as was stated they caved to the users who wanted the old start menu and other features back. And I agree some tweaks to 8 were needed like the ability to close a UWP app with a mouse click on the X or displaying UWP apps in resizable floating Windows.
  • It was readily available on tablets and they flopped. The UI and experience just wasn't good. If it was, people would have become used to it and started to like it. They didn't.
  • I know this is a late comment, but I thought it important to address your comment for the record. You're conflating unrelated issues. Windows 8 failed as a Windows version because it had a terrible desktop experience, breaking important UI rules (unfathomable to me how they could have released 8 with the broken Desktop experience it provided -- Microsoft is still paying for the PR fallout of that decision). Windows 8 tablets failed as distinct products because of a lack of apps. Windows 8 had great reviews on its tablet UI, but a good tablet UI doesn't make up for limited app selection and devices with poor battery life. I also don't recall a single review or fan of tablet mode who claims that Windows 10 improved on tablet usage over Windows 8. Windows 10 is great for the desktop experience now. If Tablet Mode worked more like Windows 8's tablet UI (without breaking the desktop advances), that would be a good thing.
  • This is likely more a hardware issue than W10 itself, but I would like to be able to disable the power button and/or volume rocker (one on each side) of my HP Spectre 2-in-1. I use it in tablet mode to read sheet music and unless I awkwardly prop up one corner while it's sitting on my music stand, either the screen turns off or I have to look at the on-screen volume bar, which has to be either at 100 or 0. If there's a way to do this, neither I nor HP have figured it out.
  • Surfacebook has the same issue.
  • pls fix your OS first... the latest update is a mess! So are my PC's!
  • April update working great here at home on my 12 PC's, laptops, AIOs and SPs
  • Why I think the tablet mode needs to have is a dedicated windows tablet.
  • my take? Well duh! Ever since nadella took over MS has been on a downward slope. Do not expect anything good until he has gone.
  • Can you link that graph you referenced?
  • UWP FILE EXPLORER AND REMOVE LEGACY CRAP JEEEZ
  • No thanks. You want a less functional file explorer? Thats what will happen if it goes UWP.
  • I agree with whoever said that Microsoft should come out with a halo tablet. Surface Pro is made for the laptop experience first. Touch/tablet is an afterthought on that device. If they came out with a device where tablet mode had to be the priority it would force them to think more about the tablet mode experience. The biggest thing for me is gesture controls. I know there are downloads available for that but I think that makes for a lame user experience.
  • Tablet Mode is dead. There has been no meaningful improvement to the experience in over two years. Even Surface, the "tablet that can replace your laptop", is now marketed strictly as laptop. Maybe Andromeda devices will be different, but for regular Windows, Microsoft simply doesn't care about the tablet use case anymore.
  • You lost me at "I bought an iPad for work."
  • He is a writer you noob. What more would he need if not a cool device that can be attached to a keyboard a and a word processor, all of these that are superior on iPad that simply works?
  • I agree all the way, except for Charms, though I like it but the UI would be mismatch to the current UI when Taskbar and Action Center already exist. It needs to redesign the whole UX again to incorporate that without going to the route of duct-taping it. Compact Overlay is seriously a must for Edge and I don't understand why this still haven't been implemented, while Opera and Safari got it. It won't be too long for Firefox and even Chrome to have similar features too. If Edge support this, it will be another stand-out feature that most people will actually use or appreciate. Improving the portrait mode for Tablet Mode is still the pain points in Windows, and I don't know why Microsoft don't realize this. Maybe because they already think that a Surface Pro is a "laptop", with desktop mode always on, not a tablet. So this kind of mentality as to why there is no improvements to the tablet UX in Windows. They really need to improve the tablet mode multitasking especially on portrait mode, and I wholeheartedly agree that a vertical snap is needed on Tablet Mode when on portrait orientation, which Microsoft seem to refuse to add. Heck, even on Desktop Mode, we can't even resize snapped apps when they are snapped vertically. It needs work and rarely calls them for it, which I'm glad that Windows Central is actively try to give a heads-up about these issues. In regards to adding more gestures. I want to add that it also needs gesture to slide open All Apps on Start menu/screen, not just to poke that All Apps button on the upper-side of the menu. We had this on Windows 8.1 and the whole existence of Windows Phones and W10M, and yet this is still missing on Windows 10. Again, thanks that at least we got some articles about this. Microsoft seem to avoid these improvements for no reason, despite their whole Surface line-up have touch screen and two of the products can be a tablet (one is pure tablet with keyboard accessory).
  • Windows 8 was the best tablet OS. If they can bring back the charm bar, left swipe for switching apps, top swipe to close..it would be fantastic.
  • Windows 8 failed. Hard. Even the tablets were a flop. They should not bring anything back from Windows 8. They need something new and revolutionary. Not some old ideas that were already proven to fail.
  • As I responded above, @bleached, you're conflating poor success of Windows 8 and Windows 8 tablets (both of which did fail) with poor performance of the Windows 8 tablet UI. Windows 8 failed for the bad desktop UI and Windows 8 tablets failed for the same reason Windows Phone failed -- lack of apps. Dedicated Windows 8 tablets also suffered from confusion with Windows RT or, if running full Windows, poor battery life. None of those drive a conclusion that the Windows 8 tablet UI was bad. Reviews at the time and ongoing praise years later from users suggest that was the one bright spot in Windows 8, it just wasn't bright enough to overcome the other problems.
  • Sweeping from the right opens action center which I think makes sense, they just need to make sure everything you could do in change is easy and available in action center. Swiping from left opens a talk view... Which I think makes sense.... That's app switching. If I swipe from the top to the bottom it closes the application I'm using. I feel like a lot of the same functionality exists, there just isn't enough change from desktop mode to tablet mode. They seemed to have tried to creat a UI that would meet both needs rather than an adaptive UI that would be really good for both.
  • Everything. The entire tablet UI and UX is a bad joke. Pathetic!
  • Good article, I hope Microsoft does something with this. Personally I also miss the thinkpad-like mouse button on the windows 10 keyboard, which is there on the windows mobile keyboard and the swype keyboard should have some scaling slider/option cause now its tiny on my convertible laptop.
    Also maybe its just me but I miss the old way selecting text with touch, it was way faster for me than moving those bullets/points around.
  • You hit the nail on the head with these 5 points. To add a growing list of items that need adressing in the tablet (mode) experience: https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/insider/forum/insider_wintp-insider_...
  • Hi Sean, I like most of your suggestions. Where can I upvote in Feedback Hub :)?
  • There is not a darn thing they can do to improve it. No body wants it, no body uses it. I've been using the Surface Pro ever since gen 1. I'm now on the Surface Pro 4. The idea of tablet mode sounded good at first, but it is not practical or useful at all.
  • Well that's a bit extreme. Obviously there are people who use tablet mode frequently (look at many of the comments above). My daughter uses her 2-in-1 (ASUS version of the Surface) almost exclusively as a tablet. The only exception is when she needs to type a fair amount of text, then she'll pop on the keyboard and switch out of Tablet Mode. I use mine (HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 260) mostly as laptops. It depends on the user and the tasks to be performed. Either way, I would say that I couldn't live today without a touchscreen. I constantly use that to move windows, scroll, etc. even in desktop mode. All actions where using a touchpad or even a mouse are much less efficient.
  • To add to this: Fixing bugs would also be nice. I just discovered, that when attempting to pin a tile from an app, the modal dialog on the desktop of allowing the tile to be pinned is rendered in the background of the start screen which cannot be dismissed in tablet mode, so you are stuck unless you turn off tablet mode (if you can)