Upon Further Review: Microsoft Surface is Still Confusing and Conflicted
In William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the character Lucio in trying to move the heroine, Isabella, to action warns her, that “our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” If ever there were a major move by a major tech company that seems to have been stymied by its own doubts, Microsoft’s Windows 8 and especially its move into creating its own hardware/software combo with the Surface devices is it. You don’t have to dig much below the Surface to see that there are huge inner conflicts that keep what might have been a great, new, first step out of the darkness, into a muddle that offers some great innovation crippled by confused thinking.
I’ve been using the Microsoft Surface RT quite a bit since it first showed up on my doorstep over two weeks ago. I published a review after using it for the first few days and it is time to revisit, perhaps revise, and perhaps extend some of my remarks in that post. My overall sense of the device after putting it through everyday paces is that the Surface RT concept is still confusingly handicapped and needs as much, if not more, work than most generation 1.0 products need. If this points the way to Microsoft’s future, as the iPad and iOS point they way to Apple’s, then Microsoft may have gotten some things right, but still has some serious evaluation and work to do with its business model expectations and legacy approach if it wants to succeed. I’m still conflicted, because the Surface RT and Windows 8 and RT, offer a fun, fresh, way to do work while mobile, to share data, and relate to your device. But the problems outweigh the benefits at this point.
I’m still very impressed with the hardware’s design and construction. Every time I pick up the device I like how it feels in my hand and I continue to think that Microsoft made a good investment in understanding how the Surface RT with either a Touch or Type keyboard and the kickstand will be carried around and opened or closed. Opening and closing the device just makes tactile and emotional sense to me. When I think of this device as a Tablet, I’m still not a fan of the desired landscape orientation. Nor am I a fan of the device in portrait mode. It feels like I’m holding a menu at Denny’s or some other Anywhere USA restaurant chain. I also notice that my sweater or shirt sleeves keep catching on the edges of the Type keyboard when it is folded over and I’m holding the Tablet in either portrait or landscape mode. In rehearsals this week, I found this distracting enough that I went back to my iPad for accessing my script. When I think of the Surface RT not as a Tablet, but as a laptop, the landscape orientation makes more sense.
As for the guts and innards, I still find the Surface RT to be a slow performer on most tasks. The processor choice (ARM) accounts for that. I spent some time looking at Windows 8 machines in stores during the last two weeks. These are all running Intel chips, and while it might be comparing one family of fruit to another, the performance difference is quite noticeable. The Surface RT feels like a stepchild in comparison. I spent some time with an Asus Vivo Tab RT (not an Intel chipset) and noticed some slight improvement in performance there, but the comparison isn’t really apt because I was obviously not running the same stuff on both devices.
I’m more than fine with the display. The pixel counters may want more pixels, but the Surface RT display looks quite nice in everything I’ve thrown at it. In fact, while checking out Windows 8 machines, I actually like the quality of the display (color depth, saturation, etc…) better than what I saw on some of the Windows 8 laptops and ultra-books.
The power connector is still a troubling issue and requires too much precision to make sure it is connected accurately enough to charge the device.
The Touch Keyboard
I wrote in this post that I preferred the Touch Keyboard better than the Type keyboard. I still go back and forth between them, but when push comes to shove, the Touch keyboard is still my choice for reasons stated in that post. This, like any keyboard decision, is obviously a very personal choice, but I like how things feel when I’m using the Touch keyboard very much. I’ve used the Surface RT and Touch keyboard enough now (I’m using it to type this post) that I’ve developed enough speed and accuracy to notice that I can type faster than the processor/software combination can keep up with at times.
Now, there is an issue with the keyboard, and I’ve noticed it with both the Type and the Touch. I don’t remove the keyboard often, instead folding it over when I use the device in Tablet mode. Randomly, when I bring it back to laptop mode after using the device as just a Tablet, the connection seems to be lost. The device will not register that I want to now use the keyboard. At times, disconnecting the keyboard and reattaching it will make things work again, but on at least 5 occasions (3 with the Touch and 2 with the Type) I’ve had to reboot the device to make things connect up again. I find this very troubling. In fact, I find it sad because I like how this keyboard/Tablet combo works.
The Surface RT comes with a slot for an SD card. You can stick in up to an additional 64GB of storage there. Note though that you can’t install Apps there and if you’re counting on data or media stored on the SD card to show up in one of the Windows Libraries (Music, Photos, Videos, Documents) without having to navigate a directory tree, you’ll need to do some tweaking with the Disk Manager. Here’s a tutorial on how to do that.
To say that you have this extra storage capability without a direct, out of the box, way to use it on the device seems a tad misleading in my view. It harkens back to the day when we had to format disks to use them first, or charge up a new device before turning it on the first time.
I’m on record as saying that the Surface RT confuses me. It’s not because of the hardware. It’s because of some of the choices Microsoft has made regarding moving us forward to its vision of a new way to look at Windows. Frankly, in my view, what the Surface RT (and Microsoft) need to do is just get over Office. The primary (not the only) reason for including the Desktop is so that those who feel Microsoft Office is a key part of their work scenario can have it available. I buy that and I understand how Microsoft has to deal with the cash cow that Microsoft Office is. But, and again this is my view, the one things that Tablets have taught us is the last few years, is that there are newer ways to do some of this same work that don’t require the same tool set that we’ve been accustomed to for so long. Sure, if you are going to create documents you need a word processor. But as iOS developers have proven, alternatives on a Tablet can give you (or at least me) the same way of accomplishing the task, but in a Tablet rich environment that doesn’t feel quite so tied to the past.
This dual nature of the Surface RT I’m sure makes great sense for some. Microsoft is going to have to sever that tether at some point though, and I’m still puzzled why we didn’t see a push to Office 365 with the Windows 8 roll out.
One of the confusions with this dual nature surfaces if you’re using an Office App or utility and want to go back to a list of your Apps to access a Windows utility. (They show up in the All Apps screen.) You first have to go back to the Start Screen. You can do this by either swiping in from the right, followed by selecting the Start screen Charm, or pressing the Home button on the bottom of the screen. This is followed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen to select the All Apps button. What I don’t get is why we can’t access that All Apps button while working in the Desktop. It’s a clunky method of getting from point A to point B.
One of the aspects of Windows 8 and all of its variants that excited me the most was Microsoft’s approach to Sharing. Sharing is something I do more and more of. Either through email or social networks, or just to other Apps like Evernote. If you want to share something, you bring up the Charm menu, choose Share and then you are able to send the picture or data to any App that is registered with the OS on your device.
Well, let’s amend that. You can do this as long as you’re in not in the Desktop or want to share it with most Apps on the Desktop. You aren’t able to send that data to Word, Excel, or Powerpoint. You can send it to OneNote though, but only on the Metro side in the Metro version of that App.
Let’s amend that further. If I am am working on the Desktop and select text in the IE browser or in Word, I cannot share it with any of the Apps on the device whether that be a Desktop App or a Metro App.
This just strikes me as, well, dumb. It is in fact the single most egregious flaw and inconsistency in what what Microsoft says it wants to accomplish, and points to how far Microsoft wants to go and how much further it has to travel to get there.
What if I wanted to share a piece of text via email with a colleague? How about sharing a OneNote page? That’s a non-starter using the Share system that Microsoft has set up and how it relates between the dual worlds that exist on the Surface RT. The fact that you get a message that says you cannot share this on the desktop is a real flag that something is very, very wrong here. Yes, there are other methods for doing this (creating Shared Notebooks in OneNote as an example) but the ugly devil of duality rears its head here and in my view overshadows any good Microsoft has tried to accomplish with Windows 8.
It’s understandable to an extent that Microsoft sees Office as a selling point. It is not understandable that Microsoft is creating a new vision of computing and chooses to sandbox those Office Apps from that new vision. This problem exists in both Windows RT and Windows 8.
Speaking of Those Darn Legacy Apps
Yeah, Office is a cash cow. Yeah, many feel like cutting that umbilical chord is just one snip too many in today’s mobile world. All well and good. If Microsoft really isn’t ready to bring us all into a Cloud based subscription model with Office 365 just yet, it should at least invest resources into making these legacy Office products work well with touch on a… wait, let me get this just right… TOUCH BASED TABLET. In my earlier review some commenters said they had no problems with the size of the touch targets on the Surface RT. I think that’s great. In my usage, I have a problem with the size of the touch targets. I also find it curious that the Metro version of OneNote has a nice, touch-centric radial menu, while the Desktop version displays a floating tool bar. Actually, I don’t find it curious, I find it insulting.
I also find (in writing this review and too many other times) that Word wants to crash when I try to access documents that I save on SkyDrive. Troubling.
SkyDrive is Microsoft’s Dropbox or iCloud or Box, or pick an online service. This is where you stuff gets stored in the Cloud. SkyDrive works across platforms (there are Android, iOS, Mac OSX Apps for SkyDrive) and yes you can save documents, photos, and other data into your SkyDrive and access it on multiple devices. Unlike some of those other competing services though, I find that SkyDrive doesn’t immediately sync over document changes, which is troubling. In fact I find the timing of syncing data over quite random which is even more frustrating than just being slow.
Microsoft has given us a small shopping basket full of Bing Apps, including Search, News, Maps, Stocks, etc… Each of these Apps show us and App developers how Microsoft envisions Windows RT and Windows 8 and what they expect us to see in the future. I have to say, I’m impressed with what I see here and hope we see App developers taking advantage of the language that Microsoft is trying to establish.
Apps and Media Ecosystems
We already know that there aren’t many quality Apps for Surface RT. Here’s hoping they will come along. Here’s hoping some that already exist clean up their act. I’m looking at you here Evernote. (There’s a known issue that won’t let your data sync over.) If you are an Xbox user Microsoft’s media plans are tailor made for you to use one of these devices. Microsoft recognizes that having your media flow between your screens is a key to its future and from what I’ve seen this is a great first step to putting that in place.
As I was finishing up this review word came across last night that the head of Windows, Steve Sinofsky was leaving Microsoft, effective immediately. Pushed out as a mutual decision by Sinofsky and Microsoft, I think this decision points to something deeper here that illuminates the duality and the confusion that is Windows RT and the Surface RT.
It is no secret that the Office world of Microsoft is a cash cow and has enjoyed grazing and getting fat in luxurious pastures, while resisting change and innovation. Sinofsky led that part of the business before he took over the Windows portfolio. I’m not sure if he left a legacy of intransigence behind when he moved up, or if he viewed Office has too much of a sacred cow to try and change. Regardless, Microsoft has lived off of this fatted calf for quite some time and obviously needs to figure out a path to change its business model in a way that brings some of that revenue with it. Unfortunately, the Windows RT approach compares to this way of thinking in the way that eating large steak dinners every night does to a vegan menu. Windows RT wants to be slim, svelte, light. The Surface RT wants to be the device that shows that off, according to Microsoft. In this first, conflicted version, it tries to present this light Tablet approach, but can’t break free from the gravy bowl.
I do not know who made the decision to sandbox the Desktop Apps off from the Metro side, or why that occurred. But it looks like the Office folks are still controlling far too much of Microsoft, at least when it comes to moving forward. In my view, it feels like Ballmer bet the company and its future on Windows 8 and came close to succeeding. It wasn’t his competitors who held him back, it was his own Office folk. To be fair, it may be his decision. We don’t know. If we ever see a day when Metro and this new vision rules and the legacy steps back, Microsoft might actually be on to something. But if the last three years has proven one thing, it is that in the mobile world what you see today is old news and old thinking almost before you hear about it. If it takes six months for Microsoft to make major changes here it is too long. If it takes a longer period, it is game over.
In the meantime, I cannot recommend that you pick up a Surface RT or any Windows RT device at this point. I don’t usually offer those kind of recommendations, but in this case I feel I need to. I’m not doubting myself when I do that. It’s actually an easy call made so by Microsoft’s own self doubts in bringing this conflicted product to market.