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.

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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.

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.

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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.