8th day thoughts on the Microsoft Surface RT

So, a little more than a week ago, I made the impulse decision to purchase a Microsoft Surface. I ended up spending most of my lunch hour in line at the Microsoft Store in The Domain in a mostly chilly morning with about a 115-120 other shoppers. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who had lined up, although most of the pleasantness was not recognized at the time, because it was pretty chilly and I was in shorts and a sweatshirt

Anyhow, let’s get to the meat of this entry: the Surface RT itself.

Everyone has talked about the beauty of the hardware itself and I am mostly in agreement with that. Of course, I have not owned any other tablet device, so I do not have a comparison point, but I have used my parent’s first generation iPad and I would say that it easily blows that device out of the water (which it should do for a device that is a few years old). Compared to the various laptops I’ve owned, this definitely feels nicer and sturdier. Microsoft has promoted the sounds of the hinge and the clicking in of the cover. I’m not sure what is so special about it, but again I have not had the benefit of comparing it to another high-tech device with a hinge. The clicking in sound does sound pretty satisfying but I found, after 8 days of usage, that the only time I was clicking the cover in or out was when I wanted to demonstrate the sound to another person.

Let’s move on to another piece of the hardware: the Touch Cover. When the Surface was first announced earlier this year at an Microsoft keynote, this was the thing that immediately caught my eye. In fact, I even remember immediately posting a picture of it on Facebook, in awe. Unfortunately, Microsoft elected not to bundle the cover in the price of the base device, which I think was a misstep. That said, the keyboard itself works phenomenally for a device that is so thin and non-keyboard like. I am writing this entire review on the Surface so that I have the benefit of a relatively large document to test the keyboard out. I still make several typos and have to use the backspace key liberally, but it is eons ahead of any on-screen keyboard. In fact, when I’m in tablet mode on this device and the on-screen keyboard shows up, I can only use it for a few short words before I just flip the keyboard around and use it. The trackpad is also surprisingly responsive and challenges and, in some cases, betters the performance of several laptop trackpads. It supports multitouch, as well.

The problem areas for me with the keyboard are the space bar and the left shift key. In general, it seems that any key that needs to be fired with my pinky are slightly problematic as my brain needs to readjust to the fact that I need to apply more pressure to those keys than I’m used to. I suppose that is a con, but it is something that doesn’t really affect me that much. I will also concede that long typing sessions will probably cause fatigue to the wrists because there is no rest area for them. In conclusion, though, the keyboard is a fine piece of engineering.

The camera is unfortunately a letdown. I haven’t had a chance to do video chat on it yet, so I don’t know whether it will suffice for that purpose but for everyday picture taking, it is not very usable. I guess that makes sense since it is kind of silly to carry around a 10″ device to take photos, but it would be sweet if it packed a higher-resolution¬†camera. The angled back camera also makes sense if the thing you want to tape is right behind your device but kind of an inconvenience for anything else. I tried to use the camera to take photos during my Halloween party last week and it was hard to use and produced pretty crappy looking photos.

Next, let’s move on to the software. The Surface RT comes bundled with Windows RT, which is essentially a handicapped version of Windows 8. When the Surfaces were first announced, I had my heart set on a Surface Pro as my laptop replacement. However, once Microsoft announced the pricing model of these devices, I realized that the Pro would probably fall out of my budget, especially given that my current Sony VAIO still works fairly well. In addition, I wanted to take advantage of the slightly lighter Surface RT as well as the fact that it was available now (see earlier comment about impulse purchase).

I did download a couple of the Windows 8 previews this year but did not get the chance to use it extensively. I set it up on my HTPC that is connected to my computer and found that the interface, while beautiful, is really not designed for a point-and-click environment. Which is why the Surface is the perfect device to take advantage of the “Modern UI” that Microsoft has been pushing. As a multi-year owner of Windows Phone devices, I have already completely been sold on the live tile-based UX and was excited to see it expanded. Having used the Surface for a little more of the week, I have to say that the gestures are very well designed and consistent across the Modern UI. I find myself swiping the Windows 8-style gestures when on my Lumia 900, now.

Let me go back to the handicapped nature of Windows RT, for a moment. As you may or may not be aware, the Surface RT packs an ARM microprocessor which means it is not compatible with Intel x86 code. Which, for the less technically-inclined, is essentially any Windows software that you have encountered prior to Windows 8. Microsoft ported a version of Office to the ARM processor but apart from that, any “apps” need to be installed from the Microsoft store. As a developer, I haven’t had the chance to play with the SDK yet and haven’t really followed the Build sessions so I do not know how restricted the available APIs are for Windows RT. It would certainly be neat to be able to run some legacy stuff, especially drivers (my printer is not supported) and stuff that rely on browser plugins (such as my work VPN as well as Google+). The porting of that legacy stuff will depend entirely on the commercial success of the device.

With regards to the stability of the device, I would give it a decent score. I do encounter some lag when I have a lot of stuff open or in some specific apps (Xbox Music being a prime example) but in general it doesn’t affect me on a daily basis. I did encounter a situation yesterday when apps seemed to crash to desktop when attempting to use them. A restart (and the restart itself is quick) fixed the issue but it was still a minor inconvenience. That said, I have applied the workaround that allows me to get to any Flash-enabled website that I want, so I’m not sure if the Surface was equipped to deal with the crappiness of Adobe’s platform.

Let me talk about the stock apps a little bit, now. Unfortunately, almost all the stock apps that I use on a daily basis are pretty sucky. First, there’s the Mail app. This app is pretty slow and definitely needs a second pass before it is usable on an everyday basis. It syncs down fine and everything but is just very laggy. Next we have the Calendar app. First of all, the Calendar app neglected to sync down my Facebook calendar properly and it is still an issue¬†I haven’t figured out. Secondly, it appears Google still hasn’t enabled multiple-calendar support for the Surface so only the default calendar gets pulled in. I downloaded some trial software to sync my work Notes calendar with Outlook.com and it promptly brought my Calendar app to an unusable slowdown. Luckily, the live tile and notifications still work fine, so I don’t have to go into the actual Calendar app that often.

Next, there’s the Xbox Music app. Unfortunately, I think this app is a drastic downgrade from the really solid Zune desktop app. I sure hope the development team at Microsoft work on improving this app (they’ve pushed out several updates since Windows 8 was RTM’d) because right now it is buggy. I encounter everything from random songs being skipped due to Xbox Music Pass issues to the UI becoming unresponsive when trying to control my playlist. Once I get everything queued and started, it works pretty well, but that is not an ideal usage scenario.

The People Hub also appears to be a downgrade from the experience in Windows Phone. The biggest problem I have with this is the live tile doesn’t mark items as being read so I have notifications from several days ago still flipping around. Without a first-party Facebook app (so far) the People app also does not bridge the gap well enough so I find myself going into the browser-based experience often. Speaking of the browser, IE10 is very solid. The Modern UI app works really well and gives me a nice, full-screen view of the pages I want. There is still room for improvement in the form of the back and forward actions, which appear to reload the page from a very, very slow cache.

All this said, it is gratifying to note that none of the stock apps are part of the operating system, which means that they will have the ability to be updated regularly. Whether we actually see Microsoft throwing resources towards the continued improvement of those apps is anyone’s guess.

In conclusion, I’m very happy with this device. The major negative areas for me appear to be in updatable software portions. I expect Microsoft may have cut some features in their stock apps to be ready to ship by holiday season, and I hope those features get scheduled in the next few updates. This device isn’t ready yet to replace my laptop, but that is mostly a function of it not being an x86 device, something I knew going into the purchase. The Remote Desktop app actually functions pretty well so I can theoretically access anything I want from the Surface as long as I am on a network with an x86 computer I can remote in to.

I would recommend this device to anyone who is willing to deal with the growing pains of a 1.0 device. I think the keyboard is a must-buy if you get this device because it is what sets it apart from other products in the same form factor.

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