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Tuesday
Nov132012

Review: Surface with Windows RT

Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla 

One of the most intriguing devices to come out this year, Microsoft’s Surface tablet is Redmond’s answer to the iPad, its big play in the tablet OS space as well as a peek into the future of Windows.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet is the first computing device designed and built by Microsoft. We’ve seen tablets before and we’ve seen notebooks but the Surface exists just within the boundaries of these two types of devices.

Is it as good as or better than tablets or notebooks, or is it just full of compromises. That’s what I tried to find out.

My Surface experience


As an avid tablet and notebook user, I saw the Surface as a fresh new product that brought all the conveniences of a tablet plus the productivity potential of a notebook in a smaller form factor. I was intrigued by the design, the Touch Cover and the fact that it brought along a Windows RT version of Office. This is something that both iOS and Android lack (although they both feature various office-type suites).

I was impressed by the level of care and dedication exhibited by (the now departed) Steven Sinofski and Panos Panay and their teams as well as their passion for Surface. I watched the streamed launch event last June as well as the videos of the Surface demo earlier this month with a lot of interest

Seeing that review units from Microsoft were not forthcoming, I pre-ordered a 32GB version of the Surface with a Touch Cover on the first hour preorders were allowed. That unsavory purchasing experience has been well documented here, so I won’t touch on that.


My initial impressions of the Microsoft Surface could be summarized as “So far, I like the Surface more than any 10-inch Android tablet I have used, hands down. I see it as a different device from the iPad, they really are world's apart in approach and I can see the content creation focus the Surface is going for even if the iPad is more mature and more accomplished (and still more intuitive).” 

Two weeks later, I’ve learned a lot more about this device. I love the form factor, the screen is the best video viewing experience on a tablet that I have had simply because it is the best oriented tablet I’ve tried with a 16:9 aspect ratio. I can get work done on it with OneNote and the Office Suite provided I use it on a solid table. I've learned to work around many of its quirks and I still feel happy when I pick it up each day.

Here is what I have learned as I have tried to integrate Surface into my life and work, its potential as well as its limitations have become obvious.

Things I learned the hard way 

The first thing I learned about the 32GB Surface is that it isn’t a bargain. A similarly priced 4th Generation iPad only has 16GB of memory which seems like less but iOS only takes around 5GB of space.

Windows RT and installed apps that you can’t remove take on around 18GB from the Surface, this becomes evident from the moment you first turn on the device. This means you’ll have 14GB left for files, documents or videos.

Yes, the Surface offers expansion via USB 2.0 and a microSD slot, but this won’t take apps or even files downloaded from the Internet using the Surface (you have to install files elsewhere for playback on the Surface.) This isn’t ideal.

I also quickly learned that Windows RT has something of a split personality. If you use the Live Tile accessible version of Internet Explorer and use a webmail client like Gmail (which sometimes runs painfully slow on Internet Explorer on the Surface), you can’t place any attachments in an email message. The program goes through the motions (find file, select file) but it never gets sent with the email.


You have to use the other version of Internet Explorer, the one in the faux desktop mode in order to attach files created within the desktop mode or saved in that environment.

The lack of Flash plugin (or SilverLight, for that matter) completely impedes the functionality of using a web based blog tool. I contribute articles to Future Shop Blog and because Flash is not installed on the Surface, I was unable to upload images to the web client which left me pretty much screwed.

Then there’s the realization that a number of key applications I use on a daily basis may  never make it to Windows RT.

Some of these include Google’s Chrome browser and Mozilla’s Firefox. It seems that Microsoft is looking to monopolize the browser experience on Windows RT as a matter of policy. If you want to use another browser on Surface, you are SOL. A post on Mozilla’s blog states as much, 

It’s reported that Windows RT (the name Microsoft has given to Windows running on the ARM processor)  will have two environments, a Windows Classic environment and a Metro environment for apps. However, Windows on ARM prohibits any browser except for Internet Explorer from running in the privileged “Windows Classic” environment. In practice, this means that only Internet Explorer will be able to perform many of the advanced computing functions vital to modern browsers in terms of speed, stability, and security to which users have grown accustomed. Given that IE can run in Windows on ARM, there is no technical reason to conclude other browsers can’t do the same.”

This early on, it seems that Windows RT isn’t as friendly or open a platform to third party developers, specially those that have products that compete with, or are better than what Microsoft is offering.

This may and should change. I can’t see Microsoft being more closed than Apple’s iOS (which after some time started offering various browser alternatives to Safari.)

That said, Internet Explorer 10 is fast, seems pretty stable and while it exists in two alternate universes (in the Live Tile and the makeshift ‘desktop’ versions), seems to work well most of the time.

In my two weeks of testing, here are some of the applications I have found no counterparts for in Windows RT.

  •  Image editing software
  •  Blogging tool
  •  Facebook client
  •  Video player (like VideoLan)
  •  No bit-torrent client
  •  No video editing software

This is hopefully going to change moving forward but for now most of the above tasks/utilities are done through the browser when possible. Not ideal if plugins are needed since you can’t install any of them on Windows RT. 

Sadly, I also realized that Windows RT is buggy and unlike Windows 7, which has a number of  ctrl-alt-del type escape keystrokes, it is easy to get stuck in a loop where nothing is happening. Like when the Charms bar can't be accessed for some reason (which means you can't even turn or or restart the Surface).

There was also an instance when I took the Surface to a meeting and found that it was completely drained (even if it had been fully charged earlier that day). Something was running in the background eating up the battery.

Included Apps

The included apps on the Surface have been impressive so far. Skype and OneNote have been particularly fun to use and have been re-imagined to run on the new touch-focused OS.

Microsoft Office is great, at times even better than Office 2010. If you use Office a lot, this may be something to consider. I practically live in MS Word, and find my experience in Surface’s version to be surprisingly good. All the necessary features are there and the application offers more than what most people will need.

The Bing apps diversify the search function and also push specific News, Travel, Business and Sports information into their own dockets. Fun to look at and make for good demo but I uninstalled them to free up space for apps that I really want to use. Geez, Microsoft, users shouldn’t have to be making these choices, why is Windows RT such a pig for disk space?

Netflix is great on the Surface, possibly the best interface of Netflix I have used and I have Netflix running on everything.

The Video app runs XBox Store bought videos great. I rented the standard definition version of Homeland and have enjoyed watching it on the Surface’s 10.6-inch screen without letterboxing. Too bad Surface is so picky about what video formats it will play back.

Microsoft bundles Mail, People and Calendar applications that also work as Live Tiles. The Mail program is just awful and coming from Microsoft, simply disappointing. It’s difficult to set up and it lacks so many basic features that we’ve come to expect. If I had another option, I would not use the Mail app.

Bugs


I’ve experienced some bugs on the Surface and this is expected for a gen 1. device. What I am hoping for is that Microsoft puts the same fervor and dedication into squashing these bugs and improving the experience as they did in designing  and developing the Surface.

One would think that closing and opening the Touch and Type Cover would turn the screen on and off and it does, but not always. The Type Cover doesn’t seem to trigger anything when opened. Weird. 

The on screen touch keyboard also needs to be invoked each time by going to settings and choosing keyboard. This happens even if you place your cursor or finger on what is obviously a text entry point like say on a browser. Every other tablet on the planet will instantly pop-up a touch keyboard, the Surface gets confused or simply ignores this.

I’ve also had the Surface’s battery completely drain because some app was still running or hanging in the background. This only happened once but it concerned me because there was no low battery warning to alert me of the situation.

Some apps will just quit for no apparent reason and tkae you back to the Start Page. No error notice and no indication of what caused the freeze and crash.

Learning RT 

Another annoyance is the way Microsoft has decided not to include a manual with the Surface (or any advanced user tutorial).

I get that they’re trying to be like Apple with the cool packaging and ‘less is more’ approach. Sadly, the Surface isn’t anywhere as intuitive or idiot proof as the iPad or iOS.

Apple’s OS doesn’t rely on any gestures or menus hiding behind, above or under the screen. As simplistic as the iOS layout is, it is incredibly easy to figure out (see icon, press icon, app opens. Press Home button,  app closes).

Surface RT requires various multi-touch gestures to invoke the Charms bar, access app settings and swipe to switch between applications.

Few of these gestures are natural or intuitive. As someone who has tested hundreds of devices and who has rigorously studied user interface design, I still find navigating around Surface challenging and most of the users I tested my Surface on got lost getting from place to place.

Where Surface excels 


Microsoft’s Surface is, at its very core, still a PC. This means there are certain features that are built-in that make it better than any other tablet in the market right now.

Plug in a mouse via the USB 2.0 port and you can use the mouse even without installing proprietary drivers (which, even if you had them, won’t work since they are Windows 7 drivers).

This USB 2.0 port just works. Plug in thumb drives, keyboards and various peripherals and it will figure it out. Simply amazing.

You can print on the Surface. You can print from network or connected printers without having to install a driver. The iPad doesn’t do this without kludgy third party software and iOS specific printers but the Surface will print on a 12-year-old laser printer easily. I can’t express just how awesome this is.

You can have two apps running on split screens on Surface. This means you can have your Twitter or email app on one side while running MS Word, or a browser, or even the video player and it just works.

That’s the quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM being put to good use right there.

Conclusion


The Microsoft Surface is one of the most surprising devices I have tried this year. It is innovative, well-built and can actually help you get stuff done provided your ‘stuff’ is limited to Microsoft Office and a handful of Windows RT apps available at launch.

That said, the potential for this platform is huge and I just hope and pray that Microsoft gets both indie developers and  big publishers onboard. Windows RT is a platform that is screaming for better and more useful apps, but please keep them affordable.

The Touch Cover is a mixed bag for me. It ‘works’ the same way stringing two tin cans together to make a phone ‘works’. I don’t like typing on corduroy and I don’t enjoy typing on the Touch Cover. Some people like it or have the patience to ‘learn to work with it,” I’d rather put that time and effort into earning my black belt.

The Type Cover is a much better option for old-school typists.

It is as good as or even better than some keyboards on cheaper laptops and netbooks. 

It is certainly better than the gamut of accessory keyboards I've used for Macs.

It is the only option for me to get work done.  The Type Cover completes the Surface experience and makes it a proper hybrid tablet PC device for work and play. 

The built-in kickstand is a good idea. It could have been great if it had various angles or settings and if you could lock it (so you can use it to prop up Surface on your lap or a table to type on-screen).

Still, nothing beats using the kickstand on a table, kitchen counter or even on a bed for watching video.

I purchased the Surface for personal use and while I feel a number of features can still be refined, the ingredients for a true content creation tablet are in place.

The Surface is a reasonably portable device, battery life is good and connectivity options are solid. Windows RT is still schizoid, but it works great when it works. 

Personally, I wish they did away with the ‘desktop’ mode and stuck with a purely all Live Tile implementation, this would cut confusion which is unfortunately abundant when experiencing Surface for the first few weeks.

Surface is better than any 10-inch Android tablet I have used, ever. It is more productive than the iPad because it has Microsoft Office built in and there are fewer apps to serve as distractions and diversions.

Surface right now reminds me of a time before the Internet, when personal computing was all about Microsoft Office and Minesweeper.

For Surface to thrive it needs more apps, it needs browser options, it needs content creation software for photos, video and it needs a way better email application. Thankfully, these are mostly areas that Microsoft excels in, so if third party developers fall short, they can and should step in.

Surface isn’t for everyone. Windows RT isn’t for everyone and may prove redundant once the Surface with Windows 8 Pro ships next year but I have high hopes for this platform and for this device.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

More Microsoft Surface and Windows 8 Coverage

Microsoft Surface: First Impressions

Surface Tension: Microsoft Fails to deliver on Canadian and UK preorders, offers $50 coupons instead

First Impressions of Windows 8

A Windows 8 Primer

A Look at Lenovo's Twist and Yoga Windows 8 Ultrabooks

Video: A bit more on Microsoft Surface

SlideShow: The many faces of Microsoft Surface

Microsoft, Partnerships and the Price of Progress

Where to buy Microsoft's Surface tablet tomorrow

Microsoft Thinks $499 for a Windows RT Surface tablet is a good idea

Microsoft launches its own Windows 8 tablet, calls it Surface

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Reader Comments (1)

wow what a out class thing microsoft made ;)

March 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commentervideo production

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