Microsoft Surface RT Review: This Thing Confuses Me

I am truly struggling with my feelings and thoughts about Microsoft’s Surface RT Tablet. There were points on Friday when I first started working with the Surface RT (I bought a 32GB unit with both Touch and Type covers) where I literally wanted to throw up my hands in disgust, pack up the gear and send it back. But then I kept plugging away. I guess the best way to describe the Surface RT experience is that it is a work in progress. I find that somewhat in conflict with the all the hoo ha surrounding the launch and the fact that Microsoft is using the Surface RT to debut its first ever Microsoft made computer to the world. Do we call it a version 1.0 device? Yeah, sure we can. That cliché can sum up my feelings nicely.  The easy labels don’t quite fit though. Is it a device for the future? Well, yes. Microsoft proudly and boldly tells us this is the way it wants us to view the future of Windows. But, I can’t imagine that it wants us to walk away after that viewing questioning the sometimes schizophrenic approach it offers in this first version. I’m just going to say this, I haven’t had enough time to really work past the frustrations that come freely with the Surface RT to determine if this is a device that I will use on an every day basis. I’ve worked enough with the Surface RT  to know that those frustrations border on the egregious, and are indeed confusing. Best case Microsoft needs to move quickly to catch up. Worst case? Microsoft just doesn’t get it. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. This is as incomplete and confusing a major new product launch as I’ve ever seen. But at the same time, it is one that still holds great promise. So, here goes with my first impressions.

The Hardware

IMG_2292Microsoft wants to do hardware. Microsoft has to do killer hardware if it wants to play in that arena. Microsoft accomplished that goal, so tick off that check box. The Surface RT is a lovely gadget in and of itself. While I have never been a fan of the widescreen Tablet form factor, the size, weight, fit, finish, and general feel of the Surface RT are something that Microsoft has every right to be proud of. It feels good in my hands and feels solid enough to survive daily usage. Like it’s competitors it comes with a fingerprint magnet included absolutely free. The Surface RT is a nice piece of hardware engineering and design.

There has been some back and forth about the display resolution compared to the higher res screens we are seeing these days. To my eye, using the device, quibbling about the display is a moot point for all except spec hounds. Everything looks crisp and clear, HD video displays wonderfully. The display matches the crisp, clean look (and feel) of the Surface RT. It works well, provided you view your Tablet world in a landscape orientation. Holding the device in portrait mode just feels wrong to me. This is one of my objections to the widescreen Tablets in general. Given that that a big part of the Tablet experience is reading (not just eBooks, but reading what’s on the screen) I can think of no other human experience that has to do with reading that finds us holding something to read in this sort of spatial and object orientation. Well, not since the days of reading on scrolls. Portrait mode is my preferred orientation in any Tablet I’ve worked with. When I don’t have a pleasing experience with the device in that orientation it usually means things are unsuccessful in my view. Of course this conflicts with the video experience for those who want to view video in widescreen, so some trade off has to be made. Video wins which is interesting since we spend far more time reading things on Tablets than we do watching video. But other Tablets (Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, iPad) seem to have found a way to merge things a bit more successfully. At least to my tastes.

The Surface RT has a full USB 2.0 port and a microSD card slot. I’ve never missed these things on other modern Tablets, and when they’ve been there, I’ve never used them. That said, having them on the Surface RT makes some sense in ways that point up some of the platform’s weaknesses. More on that later. That USB 2.0 port will come in handy as there are quite a few devices (printers, cameras, etc…) that you can plug in and expect to work. Though not all will.

The Kickstand and the Keyboard

IMG_2294Let’s just say that I was skeptical about these keyboards given that Microsoft didn’t seem ready to let anyone outside of its control type on one until just before the device launch. I ordered both the Touch and the Type Keyboards. I assumed that I would find the Type Keyboard better suited to my usage. The Type Keyboard does indeed work well, and I feel as comfortable typing on it as I do on the Logitech UltraThin Keyboard which I use all the time with my iPad. If you need the mechanical action and feedback when you’re typing, the Type Keyboard is a good choice. That said, I was more than pleasantly surprised with how quickly I found myself getting up to speed with, and liking the Touch Keyboard. In fact, of the two, I think after only two days I prefer the Touch over the Type. Microsoft has said that there is a learning curve, and indeed there is one, but I found that curve flattening out much sooner than I expected. I’m guessing everyone’s mileage is going to vary here, so I applaud Microsoft for making both options available.

We’re all familiar with the clicking and clacking of the keyboard being joined to the Tablet and the kickstand popping in and out. All of that works as advertised. In fact, the kinetic experience of opening and closing the device with the keyboard attached is something that is designed very, very well in my opinion. Opening up the device by flipping the keyboard open and popping out the kickstand falls into the category of second nature to me. The return trip of closing the kickstand and flipping the keyboard up to cover the screen is just as second nature-ish. Some have said they can’t balance the device in their lap and use the keyboard. I’m finding I have no problems doing so. It’s not ideal, but it works in a pinch.

That said, i notice that I enjoy the experience of the Surface RT in what I call keyboard mode differently depending on what the Tablet is sitting on. It works well on my desk at work. It works less well on my table on the back porch. Maybe I shouldn’t say “works well.” Rather, it feels more natural on my desk at work than it does on my table on the back porch. Now I do a lot of keyboarding in both of these places, so this is important to me. What I notice is that moving my hands from the keyboard to the touch screen feels more natural at my desk than it does on my back porch table. There’s fundamentally no difference in the heights of the two pieces of furniture, but the way I address each obviously is different in a way that I haven’t noticed with other devices. These touch devices with keyboards require a unique physical relationship between the user and the device. In my opinion, being able to take your hands from the keyboard to the screen in an effortless manner is a mysterious piece of design to get right. In my view, the Surface RT designers got it right.

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IMG_2288Microsoft includes a power adapter that attaches magnetically, much like Apple’s MagSafe connectors. Only problem is that this was not engineered or designed for real world conditions. While you can plug it in in either lateral direction (it is long and then), the slightest movement will jostle it free. This poorly designed solution is my one real downer in the design of the hardware which I find otherwise very well done. There is a nice little light on the tip of the adapter to let you know when it is connected.

The Software and User Experience

This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to Tablets. If the software and hardware are not built in concert, you end up with, well, early Android Tablets that failed miserably. The merger of the OS and the hardware on Surface RT is where the biggest frustrations and confusion exist. There are times when everything makes perfect sense, and then others that just defy logic. At least to me.

Inking

Let me get this out of the way. If you’re a digital inker the Surface RT is not for you and will disappoint. That should not come as a big surprise if you’ve done your research. While I find Microsoft’s decision to not provide a good digital inking experience on ITS FIRST MODEN TABLET THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FUTURE (caps intended) disappointing, I don’t find it surprising. Microsoft came close to nailing digital inking back in the prehistoric days of Tablet PCs and then forgot that it had a winning feature. But Tableteers know that story all too well. Supposedly the Pro model of the Surface Tablet (due in January) will offer a good digital inking solution and we’ll also have to see how digital inking works on third party Windows 8 Tablets. But don’t count on anybody’s RT Tablet offering a good experience. This feels like the inking experience that Microsoft and OEMs offered on UMPCs. That is not a compliment. Yes, there’s a capacitive touch screen, and yes you can use a stylus to ink, draw, or paint. But the experience is not a good one. If fact, it truly suffers in comparison to what you can accomplish currently on the iPad. You can do handwriting recognition by selecting the Windows 8 version of the TIP, but it is subject to the flaky and inconsistent handwriting that the screen allows you to lay down.

Out of the Box and Setting Up

This was the first big wave of frustration. Bluntly, I had a miserable set up experience. I’ve set up earlier builds of Windows 8 on machines previously, so I knew what to expect. But I didn’t expect what happened here. My experience (it may not be yours) with the Surface RT setup was just painful. Now, let me say this, Microsoft suffers from its timing here. The fact that it basically had to start from scratch and take three years to bring the Surface RT and Windows 8 to market, allowed others to not only get a foot hold in the market, but to establish a set of expectations as to how we set up and use new mobile devices. My expectations from setting up previous iOS and Android devices is simple: boot up, enter my credentials, sync things over, and go. Microsoft looks to provide a similar mobile experience but in my case it felt more like trying to install a Service Pack update on an old Windows install.

First, I booted up the device and entered my credentials. All seemed to be working as designed, (including a wait that feels very familiar for a first time setup on a Windows device).  Then I noticed that the onscreen volume up/down display wouldn’t go away. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of it, nor change the volume level with the hardware switches. So, I did what any Windows user would do in such a circumstance. I rebooted. That cured that problem, but after this reboot, scrolling the screen back and forth by swiping felt painfully slow. I rebooted again. All seemed normal.

Now I knew that there was an update to the OS, the installed Apps from Microsoft, and also an Office 2013 update to take the Student Edition from a trial to the non-trial version. So, I swiped the Charm menu onto the screen. Chose settings. Chose Change All PC Settings from the bottom of the Charms Menu, then scrolled down to Windows Update.

The Apps and the OS began their update. And then it happened. I’ve now seen the Surface RT version of a Blue Screen of Death as you can see from the picture below.

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After the reboot, I repeated my actions and things looked promising, but then the system hung when updating the Video App. Uh, oh. There’s no error message, no sense of something gone wrong, other than that feeling you get when you watch an update progress bar to see if things are slowly advancing or not. Suffice it to say, I had to reboot again, and checking Windows Update it appears that the Video App did indeed update.

But, I also noticed that Office 2013 did not. This was the first time that Microsoft’s schizophrenia reared its head. To make that update work, you have to open the Windows 8 Desktop, choose Control Panel, and choose Windows Update from there. (You can also zoom out to view all of your Apps in the Metro interface, choose Control Panel from there, but that essentially performs the same steps in a different order. The Office update proceeded. Then I got an error screen you can view in the picture below.

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After it completed I opened Word. I got a quick succession of error screens, saying something wasn’t installed and then the entire system crashed without any form of Blue Screen.

After yet another reboot, all seemed OK. I headed to the Desktop. Started Word, got an error message that came and went quicker than the blink of an eye, and was staring at a Blank Document with a cursor blinking. I typed a bit. I went to save the document. Crash. Dead machine.

This is the point when I was making sure I had all of the original packaging intact. I’ve spent enough time with Windows machines in my past to know that this probably meant I got a bad unit. That happens. I went on line (using an iPad) and started searching to see if other users were reporting similar install issues (It was Friday night. When my device arrived I had a busy day at work so I didn’t get started on things until early evening.) I didn’t see many reports so I’m thinking, yeah, I got a lemon. But I decided to give things one more try. Under settings there is an option to wipe things clean and reinstall Windows. I did just that and kicked off the Windows Update process, this time going straight to the Desktop and going through the Control Panel. The system update and the Office update worked without halting. Then I went to the Windows Store and updated the Apps. So far so good.

I opened Word. Got the quick flashing and disappearing error messages again, and then… well, and then everything seemed to working the way it was supposed to. I rebooted the machine once again (old Windows habits die hard) and I haven’t seen those error messages in Word since. I was up and running. (UPDATE: The error message is now back randomly as of this morning. By randomly, I mean sometimes it appears when I attempt to save a document. Sometimes not. After trying to close the message several times, all seems to work as normal. What’s that word? Frustrating.)

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I was also out of juice, as the power plug had jiggled free (the Tablet was sitting on a table during all of this) so I plugged the cable in, put the device to sleep by shutting the keyboard and went to bed. I had every intention of returning the Surface RT when I went to bed. I had the same thoughts when I woke up. But, geek that I am, I thought I’d use the weekend to experiment further. I may still have a lemon and that may be why I had such problems. More testing should prove that in the days ahead. (If you ordered your Surface RT from Microsoft you have a 30 day return window. If you bought it in a pop-up store you have 14 days. I ordered online so I’ve got some time.)

The Two Faces of RT

The thing that gets me here though is both conceptual and operational. If this is the future of Windows why are basic functions like Updating Files different on both the Metro (future) and Desktop (past) sides of things? OK, the Office Suite is obviously a Windows 8 App and not a Metro App. Why is that? It raises the same issue that many have brought up about Surface RT and the way it uses the Desktop. Unlike Windows 8 (not RT) the Desktop is not a place where you can install your x86 Apps. The Surface RT runs on the ARM platform. The Desktop allows you to run the Microsoft Office Apps (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote) as well as some familiar Windows utilities and that’s it. If you’ve purchased a  new Windows 8 (not RT) machine you can leave the Metro interface and get to the desktop and be relatively comfortable that you are in a familiar Windows environment. It seems like Microsoft can’t make up its mind and wants things both ways. On Surface RT, if you really need those Office Apps, well, go back in time to the desktop. But on a Windows 8 machine, if you don’t like that new Metro way of doing things so many are scared of, well, come on home to the Desktop you know and love.

If nothing else this two-faced, dual-approach, transitional, schizophrenic world we are about to live in with Windows 8 and Windows RT is sending confusing signals. It has been said by many that Microsoft has not done a good job of telling us the story of Windows 8 and Windows/Surface RT. I have to agree. I followed this closely and I still don’t get it. Errors aside, in my first boot experience, having no clear path to update a new device to newer settings in today’s mobile world is falling short of expectations. Having to switch back and forth between two different environments (three if you count the Windows Store) just doesn’t jive with what Microsoft wants us to believe about this new way of looking at Windows. I say that not wanting to believe that Microsoft likes things this way.

The Desktop

To be honest, after using the Surface RT more I hate having to go back to the Desktop and this extends my thinking on this bedeviling duality further. Surface RT is not only the way Microsoft wants us to view Windows, it is Microsoft rising from a graveyard of its own making when it comes to Tablet and Touch. I get it. I buy into it. I don’t understand why Microsoft has shown us that it doesn’t. Case in point: The Office Suite and other Windows Desktop utilities. I think it is a reasonable expectation that the Microsoft Apps we see on the Surface RT are somewhat Touch friendly. These Windows Apps are not. This may be Office 13 here but the controls in these applications are decidedly Office 2010. I know we’ve seen a Touch friendly version of Microsoft Paint somewhere sometime before. Yeah, I know, it is Microsoft Paint, but seriously, to use old school non-Touch friendly controls in an App that begs to touch the screen is just baffling.

There is one exception here and that points to perhaps what should have been. OneNote is included in the Office 13 Student Edition. There is also a Metro version of OneNote. In that Metro version a press on the screen serves up a radial touch menu for controls. This makes sense from both a touch or stylus point of view on a Tablet. The Desktop version though does not come with this kind of touch goodness. Instead that same hold and press yields a ribbon like toolbar.

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Microsoft’s big two public facers, Steve Ballmer and Steve Sinofsky keep saying that this is a reimagining of Windows and Microsoft. That may be true in some respects, but when it comes to the obstinacy Office folks have about change, refusing to go along with Touch, Inking, and other innovations from other parts of Microsoft, it sure looks like more of the same old story with what we see delivered on Surface RT.  To be honest, this may be more than the biggest failing in this bold new world Microsoft is trying to create, it may be what inevitably brings the whole idea crashing down.

Let me just ask this question. Microsoft has a Cloud version of its popular Apps, Office 365 up and running. Doesn’t it make some small snippet of sense to perhaps include an introductory subscription offer to this Cloud version of Office on the new flagship Tablet? I’m not saying Office 365 is any more Touch friendly here, but if you’re moving both of your main product lines in new directions, shouldn’t there be some sort of common direction? Tablets are meant for the Cloud correct? Yeah, I know Skydrive is the Cloud and you are given that option for your documents. I may be crazy, but it just makes sense to me that Microsoft should have left the Desktop behind when it came to the Surface RT and found a solution to use Office 365 in the Metro interface. It will happen someday. Why not take advantage of all of this re-imagining and redirection and go for broke. It can’t be any riskier than this half-baked solution we have now.

Here’s another example of this duality. If you are on the Start Screen and you want to see all your Apps, you swipe up and hit the button that says All Apps. So, let’s say I want to go to a desktop App from this view. When I’m done or need to shift course I want to get back to that All Apps page. There is no way to do so from the Desktop screen without going back to the Start page first.

There are other examples as well. We’ve got two instances of IE. One on the desktop and one in Metro. They seem to be blissfully unaware that the other exists. Why? If I choose a Desktop App to launch from the Start Screen, why when I exit that App am I left on the Desktop and not returned to the Start Screen?

Screenshot (11)Aesthetically, I’ve not been a fan of the Metro interface. Yes, I’m still calling it Metro, regardless of what Microsoft is calling it because of its legal foul up. We’ve got a Metro UI, Metro Apps, and until someone issues a cease and desist that’s what I’m calling them. That said, I see the utility and the functionality, and the refreshing difference that Microsoft’s Metro UI brings to the mobile world. This may be the place where Microsoft wants us to see Windows as it sees it. I do, and my own personal aesthetics aside, it works.

For a Touch Tablet, Microsoft has come up with UI that does require a learning curve but once you’re around that bend, it feels very natural. Hold the Tablet in your hands in the preferred landscape mode and just about everything is available to you with a few swipes of the thumb, except the Windows Logo in the middle of the screen that serves as a home button. That’s quite a reach for me that requires me to take my hands off of the sides of the device. Not to fear though, you can reach that by swiping in from the right, accessing the Charms menu and hitting Start button.

For a Tablet that is sold with a keyboard as a preferred attachment/accessory, Microsoft has also made the UI work well with keyboard shortcuts. Heck, if you’re using a mouse or the new keyboard’s trackpads it works well.

Live Tiles are a great way to get notifications and being able to place them on the Start screen as you would like is also nice. Did you know you can change the name of a Live Tile? Here’s how.

Apps

Anyone who didn’t know there would be a paucity of Apps on launch was not paying attention. Yes, there are quite a few popular Apps missing. This may hurt Microsoft in the short run, and one of the real benchmarks for potential success will be to see how quickly this changes. Or not. A few of the popular Apps made it to Launch Day including the Kindle App, Netflix, and Angry Birds Space. The Kindle App points up the problem I have with reading in portrait mode on this device’s long and tall portrait orientation. I don’t think I’ll be doing much reading on this device. The Netflix App does what Netflix does, but is curiously lacking a search function. Angry Birds works fine.

Yes, we have no Twitter. And that’s a major slip on the banana peel in my view. I can understand why there aren’t many 3rd Party Twitter Clients available for the RT platform given Twitter’s recent restrictions. That’s bad timing. But I find it sadly typical that Twitter itself didn’t have a client ready for a major platform debut. I know it probably would not have been a great App, but that’s beside the point. Getting up an tweeting is one of the first things many do on mobile gadgets. The best solution I’ve found so far is MetroTwit.

Microsoft also has its own fleet of Apps that include Mail, Weather, Store, Messaging, Camera, Games, Music, Video, Stocks, Sports, and a few others. The Mail App needs refining and isn’t sufficient for those who do a lot of email processing. It is slow. The Music App takes you to Xbox Music where you can stream to your hearts content. Just make sure you have earbuds or a headset as the speakers on the Surface RT are lousy. Video takes you to Xbox Video and you can rent or purchase movies. Note that you can put your own music or videos on a SD card and they will play fine in these Apps. But, they won’t show up under the “My Music” or “My Videos” section that displays your most recently played content. In fact, I don’t even get a thumbnail or name listed with content I have stored on my SD card.

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I don’t have an Xbox. But I imagine that the Surface RT  is going to be real winner if you’re one of those who have invested in that console and ecosystem in the same way an Apple TV and an iOS device are a great match.

Again, we’ll have to wait and see what happens with third party Apps. Even some of the Apps that do exist seem buggy and rushed. Evernote, as an example will not sync over all of my notes. This may be a hardware or OS problem, because it always stops at 30% of my notes synced. I’ve noticed this on one other App as well, that a large volume of content syncing seems to choke the system and crash the App.

Touch and the Pinky Test

The multi-touch on the Surface RT is five point touch. For scrolling left and right, up and down, it works very well. That said, I experience an occasional lag that is inconsistent. I also experience some lag occasionally when I’m tapping a button. Again, this is inconsistent, so hopefully this might be remedied with a software update. When lag doesn’t present, things seem very fluid. So I have hope for improvement here. Swiping in from the edges to reveal controls that you need seems very natural with this device. The inconsistent lag means that the Surface fails the Pinky Test.

Here’s an example of how inconsistent Touch can be. To close an App you swipe down from the top of the screen. The full screen window of the App becomes smaller as you swipe down. There is a moment in this process when things pause and I assume this pause exists in case you want to snap the app to one side of the screen instead of closing the App. But while I find dealing with this method of closing an App works well 80% of the time, the other 20% the timing just doesn’t work. This should be something that with training you can do easily each time, but for some reason in that 20% I’m unable to complete the gesture successfully and the App bounces back to full screen.

Speed and Performance

Surface RT is running on an ARM chip set. In my early view, and this borders on speculation as it is such an early view, Microsoft has the OS tuned nicely for performance, but the Apps need some work, including the ones offered by Microsoft. I’m puzzled by the sluggish loading with some of the Apps. This may go away with updates, but at the moment it is a drag on the experience.

As I said earlier, I’m frustrated because there are some really nice things that Microsoft is trying to accomplish here with the hardware and the experience. They are behind the curve in the mobile market, have set large expectations for themselves and their customers. Unfortunately I feel like they’ve made a sad, insufficient, and confusing first impression in the area of software and how it melds with the hardware to create the Surface Tablet experience. That’s surprising because Microsoft is a software company. When Microsoft announced its move into the hardware world, a move I think they needed to take, the conventional wisdom was that this would fracture the seemingly age old Microsoft/OEM partnership. On one hand, I think Microsoft’s OEM patterns should be feeling some relief, because I can’t see this version 1.0 Surface RT taking a lead in the market. On the other hand, if they problem is indeed the software, where does that leave the OEMs who rely on that software if they are going to create an RT Tablet?

While the inclusion of the Office 13 Student Edition and a keyboard gives the impression that this is a Tablet to use if you want to get some work done, in the final analysis, that creates a conflicting confusion between two different Microsoft worlds. I wouldn’t recommend a purchase of the Surface RT in its current state if Office and getting work done is the attraction. If you’re an Xbox owner who wants a Tablet to augment that experience, this might be a great buy.

In sum, while I’m still going to keep plugging away with the Surface RT, Microsoft didn’t hit the home run it needed to with this first new and exciting hardware debut. The hardware is great but Microsoft failed in marrying the software to that hardware to create a successful out of the box mobile experience that its competitors have conditioned us to in its absence from the playing field. Instead it has created a dual headed beast that at best is frustratingly confusing, but at its worst seems to be at war with itself. I can forgive a learning curve on something new. That’s more than acceptable. The user needs to be the one learning, and that implies that the maker needs to be doing the teaching. I can’t say that Microsoft knows what it wants to teach with the Surface RT, and that’s too bad.

 

Comments

  1. mikecane says

    >>>We’ve got two instances of IE. One on the desktop and one in Metro.

    Do they each have separate settings? What if you want to clear cache, etc — do you have to do it both in Metro *and* Desktop?

  2. Doug says

    Wow!!!! Warner, I have always valued your opinions. Thank you. If this thing confuses you, how is the average Joe suppose to figure it out. This is bad news for Microsoft!

  3. Yamirokuai says

    Very interesting. I think what is confusing about the Surface it’s it’s laptop soul. It’s a bit jarring seeing regedit or PowerShell in a tablet but I’m sure lots of people like me will love to have that option.
    This is not a toy like the iPad, that’s for sure,

  4. Ryan Spooner says

    Personally I love my Surface. Have only been to the desktop twice. Once to run Windows update, and another time to check out the new office after updating. The Metro is very nice indeed on a tablet, and the hardware is to die for. One comment on this article though… the Netflix app DOES have a search function. It’s the same search function that every other Metro app has access to, and it works.

  5. Michael says

    I believe the inking experience should be much improved on the Surface Pro, which is what I’m holding out for.

  6. Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

    My own experiences with Surface RT over the past few days is strongly in simpatico with this review – I’m a former Softie and did have some higher expectations of this device given the verbiage that preceded it

    I totally agree with the notion of the “duality” in the platform – to me, it feels not just disjointed but rather cynical in motivation, in the same way Windows 95 was in reality just a front-end on top of DOS. I realize it’s a sweeping comparison, but that’s how it /feels/.

    There was a big opportunity for Microsoft to impress with a device that would be the “glue” between XBox and other Windows devices in a consumer home. It’s early days, but it takes a real apologist to not acknowledge that they missed the mark in a lot of critical ways that call into question whether the Pro version will be that much better.

    One thing not mentioned here are the poor quality 1 megapixel cameras that no amount of post-processing can improve, along with the curious inability to directly share photos from the camera app. Image files are sent directly to your Photos library, so they can’t be shared at the point of capture (the “share” charm just rebuffs you with a message that there’s nothing to share). When you try to share the images from the library, you’re told that you can’t share from the desktop. You need to manually upload the images to your SkyDrive.

    To me, a no-brainer killer app would have been a slick camera that would automagically synchronize with SkyDrive, given all the hype that’s Microsoft has plowed into cloud this, cloud that, cloud the other.

  7. steve says

    I’ve been a windows tablet user for years, and I don’t find surface RT to be the least bit confusing or mystifying. I was planning to hold out for a Pro model to get inking and to be able to run VBA-enabled office projects, but I couldn’t resists trying the RT model out, and I now don’t know if I will bother with the Pro.

    First off: If it weren’t for the “disjointed” existence of the old-school desktop, this device would lose a lot of its attractiveness. Unfortunately, some of us need to work in the real world of browsers and spreadsheets and word processors, and having them side-by-side or easily swappable in an old-school desktop means productivity is nearly at laptop level for when you need it. (Something you can’t say about any other tablet.) Ditto the ability to navigate a home network and move piles of files from machine to machine or NAS. As much as I love the metro interface, and as much as the snapscreen is an improvement over the one-or-none choices from an iPad, it still wouldn’t be good enough to get work done. The regular desktop is there when you need it, familiar and fast, and gone with a single swipe or key click. Nothing confusing about it.

    The synchronization between Microsoft cloud and other windows machines is very robust and even uncanny. (The surface figured out that my home PC’s “pictures” library was a big NAS full of images, and it started cataloging them immediately.) Xbox started music matching on my surface, gleening information from I know not where — perhaps the play history on the abovementioned computer. I was then allowed to download from the Xbox music store titles I already own and had played on my Windows phone and/or zune desktop software. This thing also found my Xbox (and streamed a video from my network, back over the network to the Xbox, as a test). Heck, it even found my internet-connected Samsung TV in the basement. I had no idea it could do that.

    I work a lot with sharepoint documents on a work server and the RT machine works perfectly with those, and after I opened one document from the remote site, Office remembered that location so I wouldn’t have to visit the browser again to get documents from its libraries. This is a big deal and a great productivity booster. The office products included are as full function as 99% of office users could need. (I’ll miss my VBA code on this machine, but you can’t have everything… yet)

    I was surprised to find “inking” available as input and in OneNote. Both are pretty snappy and work well with a finger — much worse with the spongy pen from my wife’s iPad. The inked remarks I put in One-Note were fully searchable in the usual ways, meaning another strike for me against springing for the Pro later on. No, it’s not the digitizer pen on my lenovo convertible, but it’s a decent little perk and again, something you won’t get elsewhere.

    I find the metro aps very snappy. When anyone complains about load times, I wonder if mine came with superchip or something. I don’t experience loads of anything more than a second or two. The pictures hub is great, bringing in Flickr images, something the Windows Phone photo hub should do. One thing it misses (that WP includes) is people tagging, which should be added pronto. I’m used to Windows Phone mail and I find the included program in need of a few tweaks — perhaps moving to a checkbox-type function like on the phone rather than a swipe-right to highlight. On the plus side, the mail app grabbed my hotmail, gmail, and work exchange accounts without a single hitch, mail, calendars and contacts. It also shuffled in linkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook contacts as seamlessly as does Windows phone, linking entries so you don’t get a pile of dupes. The contacts screen is clean and useful, with instant-link mapping, quick buttons for video calls and messaging and more, plus social updates, all at your fingertips from a contact screen. Again, no one else has this level of clean integration. Those yearning for Outlook, well, I don’t get that. I’m moving further and further away from outlook and hoping never to look back.

    I have no sympathy for complaints about the camera. They’re perfectly adequate for video calling, which is what they’re intended for. (I do wish that Microsoft messenger system on this platform supported video calling in addition to the integrated Skype calling, as there are some folks on messenger who aren’t on skype, believe it or not…) Back to photos — once the still have been run through the obligatory and cheesy hipster effects that make them art, they’ll look as bad as what everyone else uploads.(A retired photographer, I carry a real camera with me at all times, since that’s what real photos require.)

    While we’re on that subject, how many tablets can you stick a memory card into (or a USB reader) in order to offload photos mid-safari? The Surface RT prompted me for import perfectly, and when I went to the pictures folder to move the RAW files I shoot in by hand, I found out that Windows RT hadn’t skipped them, as I suspected it would, but instead had dropped them into the same folder as the jpegs. Then, it was a beyond-simple matter for me to send the images directly to my NAS. (Simpler yet would have been if I could have added an automated move routine started on another machine, but the homegroup capabilities on RT don’t allow network sharing from the outside in.)

    The experience hasn’t been perfect. Mine dropped WiFi fairly often, a situation I remedied by telling my router to change keys less often. This networking challenge was outweighed by the flawless discovery of my horrible network printer (a Brother) and the flawless printing of a web coupon I needed. There are some *great* advantages to having this thing built on the bones of older windows.

    Throw in the gorgeous applications — the Bing weather and Finance apps are useful eye candy — and the growing number of them (and they will grow, because by the end of the first week of Windows 8, there will probably be upward of 10 million target consumers for developers to target) and Surface tablets will only get better.

    Having been in Windows Phone 7 since day one, I saw how dedicated Microsoft was to improving the native apps and that ecosystem, and I believe we’ll see the same here. Don’t hate this because it’s not what you’re used to or what you expected. See what it can do that other tablet can’t, and appreciate that.

  8. RossNWirth (@RossNWirth) says

    Warner I’m surprised, you and several of the folks I’ve followed since the Tablet-PC and UMPC days have had similar feedback, or outright skipped the Surface.

    My experience was closer to Steve’s than yours, I’m really enjoying this thing. the integration to SkyDrive, Exchange, and SharePoint is huge for utilizing it as more of a productivity tool at work, than my iPad, or HTC Flyer, Nook Color, or Galaxy Tab could have ever been.

    I will give you the disappointment over active digitizer, but I’m pretty sure with a bit more practice I will be able to type faster on the touch keyboard than I can write.

    I do have some annoyance with the quality of some of the apps, but agree with others, that with Win 8 rolling out that’s poised to changed (more so than it has been to date for WinPhone). My biggest app complaint is Mail, more Outlook capabilities (categories, smart folders) should be included, or Outlook should have been included in the desktop.

    • Warner Crocker says

      RossWirth and steve,

      I’m glad you guys are having a better experience than I seem to be with the Surface RT. Like all things mobile it really is going to be a different experience based on different users, their needs and expectations.

      • ctitanic says

        I do not know what to tell you. The update failure is something to be worry about. I would recommend to reset to factory settings and try to update it again. If you do not do that you will be suffering the whole time. The inking experience using the keyboard is not good but it’s the worse I have seen. About the rest, I’m enjoying mine like I have not done since the UMPC time. I gave my iPad to my wife and using the Surface as full time and main PC at home.

      • ctitanic says

        Oh, and mine passes the whole time the pinky test. The only times when I had experienced some lack of performance is when using the metro IE and I hade many pages opened some of them heavy in adds. I also found that if I use the option to be opened in the full version everything works fine there.

  9. Barry says

    Warner, to close an app in Windows 8 swipe down from the top bezel to the bottom bezel in one fluent motion. It works 100% of the time. The trick is to swipe from the top bezel and just keep swiping until you hit the bottom. Quick and -once you get the hang of it- easy.

  10. Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

    I returned my Surface RT today – I was the 3rd person in a 30 minute window for the local pop-up store doing so, and definitely not the first or last. A lot of unhappy Microsoft fans bringing the devices back, all with similar grievances as enumerated so far. The bloke who was in front of me in the returns line and I shared our experiences with the staff who patiently took them down (albeit on stickies).

    Common refrain: Should have launched with Surface Pro – RT too crippled and bizarre.

    I’ll wait for Pro in New Year and decide if it should get my $1000 CDN, or just upgrade my laptop and be done with it at that point.

    • ctitanic says

      so far all cases of people returning it are those who bought it without fully understanding the differences between WinRT and Windows full version. let me put it in simple words. WinRT is a version of Windows with limits in what can be done on it. less limits than in an iPad (in which applications are all time filling those holes or going around the limits). By January these firsts weeks will be a thing in the past because of the new applications currently being release daily.

      • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

        I and the other people that I spoke with in line understood that there’d be shortcomings, but weren’t prepared for how many and how extensive. And to be clear: They’re not all software, they’re hardware related, too. The customers covered a cross section of occupations, as well: Students, consultants, etc so everyone had different expectations and desires from the unit. We were of the same opinion that the device didn’t feel “ready” for prime time and certainly didn’t jive with the expectations that were set by Microsoft.

        However: I get your drift. If there was one other common sentiment between us all as we dropped our units off, it was feeling a bit like suckers.

        • ctitanic says

          There is nothing to be a shame of. This device is just not for you and the PRO is it. If I could I would have bought both. But I can’t so I went with the RT. Why? Because here is where all the fun is going to be. The PRO is just one more PC with a new OS. I love the feeling of finding new stuff every day and see the improvement.

          The other thing was the processor, I do not want anything with fans or dealing with heat issues. The PRO could have these issues.

          So far, in the majority of the cases all issues are software and that’s fixable. I myself have not found hardware issues. The speaker volume is ok for me. My WiFi works fine. I do not know of any other complains.

        • Ryan Spooner says

          So let me get this straight… most of you returned your surfaces because you had no clue what Windows RT was before you paid hundreds of dollars and that you were ignorant to the face that you could only run Metro apps?

          This thing is absolutely no different to the iPad when it launched in that regard. You couldn’t run Mac OS X apps on it… and the number of apps available at launch was limited. How is the surface any different? In fact the Windows 8 app store actually had MORE apps in it at launch than the Apple app store did at launch (talking about iPad apps here, not iPhone stretch iPhone apps)..

          How is wilful ignorance on your part a fault of Microsoft or the Surface?

          Also what are these mythical hardware issues you speak of? You seem to have failed to mention a single one. Personally I think the hardware is very very nice. The engineering on the casing, the keyboard, the hinge and pretty much everything else is top notch.

          I agree the software is a little flaky in places, but a few patches will sort the glitches out. This is certainly no worse than any other platform on release.

          • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

            Curious strategy of blaming the consumer for being rubes – best you don’t pursue a career in marketing or public relations.

            Here are the hardware issues – a collection of oddities, inconsistencies and downright bad UEX/UI behaviours that distract from what should have been a much more “complete” tablet from Microsoft. I and the other returners discussed these items with the staff at the store for about 15 minutes while they wrote them down. Feedback is ostensibly going to Redmond.

            Re: iPad1 had certain limitations on launch – granted, but this late 2012, not early 2010. Precedents have been established in the market, and consumers have performance expectations from competitive offerings.

            In no particular order:

            1) Embedded digital compass yet no GPS – no-one could figure out the relevancy of knowing what direction you’re pointing in yet having no idea where you were.

            2) 1MP cameras on front AND back. Universal disappointment in the quality of photos the device takes, especially given most cellphones have at least 5MP. We’d all have settled for 3-4MP as a sop.

            3) Speakers – the group was divided on this: Everyone agreed they were too low, too muffled but this wasn’t a deal-breaker. It was noted that other tablets have more decent volume.

            4) Touch interface inconsistencies: Everyone reported issues with getting pinpoint touch gestures to work, eg. clicking on web page or app UI elements – to the point where you needed to click several times over, producing unintended actions. Especially true for Office 2013 apps.

            5) Touch keyboard – issues here could most likely be alleviated by ponying up for the upgraded keyboard. Number one problem was the location of the mouse buttons in relationship to the touchpad: It’s difficult to make solid presses (slips off) so clicking and dragging becomes a rather frustrating cat & mouse game.

            6) Display flickering: Half the group reported this when swiping the surface left to right. Not known whether this is due to the ambient light sensor or the ambient light conditions.

            7) Only a few of us (me included) knew there was a MicroSD slot for expanding the memory – I was the only one who actually put one in and it was very awkward.

            8) Only half the group reported WiFi drops. I had this occur once and it was before downloading the updates. Don’t know if they’re related or not.

            9) Bizarre proprietary power connector; everyone likes the magnetic connection, but it takes effort to properly seat, and it’s prone to popping out when using device while charging.

            Surface RT Software Issues

            Everyone had their units for about a week, so they put them through their paces, some more than others. Again, in no particular order:

            1) Two versions of IE – why? Most noticed this; it’s an inconsistent experience: From the “Start” screen, it’s crippled; from the “Desktop” it’s more fully-featured. With the caveats that some Flash sites won’t work. Definitely an incongruous experience when it comes to working with Office apps – eg. you want to clip a website into OneNote but, d’oh! You’re using the “Surface” side IE. Gotta cut & paste the URL, go to the desktop, etc.

            2) Can’t work with PDFs out of the box – getting a PDF into OneNote is especially tricky, which a student related. Not a deal-breaker, but a definite annoyance.

            3) Virtual keyboard experience is different depending on which “personality” you’re working with: On “Start”, it’s automagic. On “Desktop”, it’s hide-and-seek, tending to pop up and get in the way.

            4) Poor UI/UEX cues to tell you how to use apps and OS features – mostly non-existent. This should be a friendly experience to woo new customers and wow the disillusioned veterans.

            5) Everyone had issues with the email app. It works, that’s not the point. It’s how it works. For example, rotate the Surface and try using it in portrait mode. It’s puzzling that you can get a better experience with Hotmail/Live and OWA – this seemed like an easy win.

            6) Everyone understood the lack of apps in the store and the quality: It’s early days.

            7) No AD integration – yes, it’s been touted ahead of launch, but it’s still bizarre. It makes the Surface RT the ugly red-headed stepchild of devices.

            8) No SkyDrive integration from the Desktop as you can with Win7; given that you need to spend time on the Desktop working with Office Files, it’s odd to force the user to go to the Start screen to manage their files.

            9) The rationale for the Desktop and Windows Explorer was questioned openly, given you can’t use the Share charm on files nor move them easily into SkyDrive.

            10) Even with the updates, the Office Apps performed sluggishly. I was the only one informed enough to point out that the Office and Surface teams were segregated until the last irresponsible moment, hence the discontinuity and the patch barely getting out in time.

            11) Two of us noted how Surface RT feels like the modern version of Windows 95 – bolted on-top and not well-integrated. No one disputes how nice it looks and how much they wanted to use it – just the fit & finish.

            These are the ones I can recall being most top of mind for everyone.

            Do note: Everyone was, by their admission, Microsoft users and very pro on the Surface RT. Everyone agreed that they could probably have overlooked a lot of the issues if it were priced lower. Those of us who had XBox 360s really liked the integration story there and how well it was executed. Each of us had different play/work profiles, that we wanted to use the device for, yet universal disappointment.

            In short, it was a well-informed/rounded group of people that should have been easy soft lobs to buy and enjoy this device.

            You might take issue with the points I’ve raised here, and again try to blame the consumer for “imagining things” or being too fussy or just not agreeing to overlook the cynicism with which it /feels/ it’s been offered.

            I think with just a little more thought & care a lot of these issues could have been avoided and there wouldn’t be a need to have asterisks on the features. Do a few things really well to establish the Microsoft brand on the tablet experience.

            Unfortunately, Surface RT feels compromised in its execution. A lot like the Zune was.

          • ctitanic says

            Could you filter your post and show us the hardware issues? Beside the speakers not being loud and some WiFi issues? The rest seems to me issues with UI. Once again, bought RT and W8 expecting to see and use it as it was W7.

            One more thing, MS was not committed to Zune as it’s now with Surface. Just show me a publicity video of MS about Zune ;-)

            Chris, do not buy the PRO, you will be disappointed too. You better go with something still running W7, Android which is a copy of the iOS UI, or better wait for a year when the Windows Store will have 1000s of Apps there and every single software issue has been patched. This is my honest advise to you after reading all your comments.

          • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

            I hear your cautions and I’m considering just upgrading to a Win8 laptop vs. the Pro given the higher pricepoint which will be beyond an iPad4. I appreciate everything you’re saying.

            But I do still forcefully argue that the overall experience is very much in-line with the author’s – split and not well integrated. It could be argued this is a “feature” – but it really shouldn’t be.

            Hardware in a nutshell: Poor rear-facing camera/picture quality, irrelevant digital compass, no GPS, bad pointer tracking from touching the screen, mouse on Touch keyboard poorly positioned/too small; awkward MicroSD slot that’s almost invisible; laggy feel of app performance, esp. w. Office 2013 even w. updates. Forgot one other: Odd aiming angle of the front camera leading to rather “dramatic” shots when using the kickstand – when in frame.

            I can’t agree with the notion of “buying RT and Win8″ and wrongly expecting it to work as Win7. None of us went in thinking this was a Win7 laptop replacement, but we did go in expecting the integration and fit & finish story to be better because our expectations had been set by Microsoft’s own publicity, leaks and advance media stories. Bad on us for not being more skeptical.

            More to the point, however, was Ballmer’s own comments: “This is the tablet consumers want.” He’s absolutely right on the money with the expectations: We want a scaled-down, Microsoft laptop that unifies our investments and gives us the solid experience that’s been advanced by Win7 and XBox360 and XBox Live and SkyDrive and O365. We wanted a fun competitor to iPad that wasn’t a clone, but something that stood up well nonetheless, especially for the price.

            We’re just not getting that with this device, and it seems like the Pro will only hit part of this mark. I’m not alone here – there’s a growing discontent that can’t be explained away. And as an old adage goes, when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

          • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

            Re: GPS is used for more than just navigation – geo-location of photos is a good example, so is proximity sharing of data. But, let’s agree here: Why include a digital compass, then?

            Re: Cameras – We all questioned the REAR camera, not the FRONT. Agreed that you don’t need high res for Skype chats. Taking photos off the back, well – if you’re going to phone it in with 1MP, why bother? Save the money, cut it out.

            Re: 3G Not a big thing for many of us as we either use the WiFi or have hotspots. Getting yet another dataplan wasn’t interesting to anyone, especially because we have some of the highest cellular rates in the world here in Canada, and we tend to lag behind in decent coverage beyond metropolitan centres.

            Re: Market research: Disagree. Compromises are always a reality with bringing a device to market – I and others get this. That said, it /feels/ like Microsoft was convincing themselves and not their market that this was a good balance. In retrospect, the downplaying of RT as an iPad competitor should have been a clue. And again, disappointing that the integration story wasn’t as complete as it could have been,

          • ctitanic says

            No GPS, could you give me any statistics of how many users use their iPad as navigation device? The fact is that it’s to big for that use and the screen performs poorly under sun. So why to include one knowing all that.

            More MB in both cameras. For Skype few MB are ok. I have seen very few cases of people using the iPad as video camera. It’s too big, again only practical indoor, poor zoon, no enough space on it for long videos. Tablets are not video cameras, period. So why waste more money putting a high MB cameras on them.

            Thanks god you did not mention the lack of 3G.

            Microsoft simply has included in Surface what’s really needed and really used in Tablets. They did a good market research this time.

          • ctitanic says

            Chris, the rest of your hardware issues are in fact issues of taste. I like the fact that the MicroSD card is so hidden. I use it as an HDD extension and removing it accidentally could result in unpredictable consequences. The same applies to the mouse in the touch keyboard. The fact that you do not like the design does not means that those are hardware issues.

            The other issues mentioned, like the Office’s, those are software issues that could be resolved.

          • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

            Re: Taste vs. “Real” issues. Again, poor strategy to blame the customers – I and others have observed these as issues that affect the usability of the device. They aren’t invalidated by your disagreement or indeed anyone else’s. When you do usability testing, you pay especially close attention to these things.

            Certainly the staff at the Microsoft Store were *very* interested in sitting down with us and getting our feedback – they were primed for it and were really patient. That was the most stellar customer experience I’ve ever had returning a product! I felt validated as a customer, which keeps me loyal.

            Re: MicroSD – Hiding the slot to the point where it’s invisible and requires Google searches to find is poor UEX. It could have been remedied with a simple embossed highlighted dot or arrow and moving it down from the kickstand hinge so many different finger types could use it.

          • ctitanic says

            The compass comes from the same chips used for geolocation using the WiFi, etc. But GPS you only gets it including the 3G chip. So one thing you got it for free, the other you need to add more stuff to get it. About the back camera I agree, they added because the iPad has it. It should have been eliminated.

            About your comments about the market research, again I think that’s a matter of taste. I believe that they did a good job.

            BTW, Microsoft employees have been instructed to hear any type of complains and do not try to convince anyone of being wrong. Those are marketing rules. The last thing you need is a confrontation in a store.

            There is not point in continuing this discussion. I just hope that take my advise and stay away from Surface, no matter what version at least until some new patches are released and the Apps number reached few 100000s.

          • Chris R. Chapman (@DerailleurAgile) says

            I agree; no ill will here: I appreciate the rigour with which you’ve tested my assertions, especially given we don’t know each other from Adam, nor who we know or what we’ve done in our professional careers.

            Cheers!

          • ctitanic says

            I’ll read everything you have wrote with the biggest attention, even when I disagree with what you are saying, and will defend your right to say it ;-)

            Offending or diminishing anyone is not a tactic that I ever use. I take your opinion seriously and I respect it. My objective is to help no anything else.

            Cheers,

  11. Bill says

    I cannot for the life of me figure out how to email an attachment from Surface RT. Is it even possible? The biggest draw for me is the ability to work with MS Office apps, but if there is no way to email a word document that I edited to a colleague, it is a non-starter. Am I missing something? When I try to “Share” an office document via email I am given an error message saying there is no “Mail” app configured. What’s up with that? I can live without Outlook, but not being able to attach a document is laughable. Please tell me I am missing something here.

  12. Bill says

    Nevermind, I figured it out. Sorry for the rant. ;) Just need to get used to the new ways of doing things. You can attach documents by swiping from the bottom when composing an email and selecting “Attachments”. Seems so obvious now. My bad.

  13. drrjv says

    I can’t stand this thing! I’m sending my Surface RT back to Microsoft – just got an RMA

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