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.

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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.


SD Expansion

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.

Screenshot 11:13:12 10:33 AM

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.

Screenshot 11:13:12 10:40 AM-2


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.

Bing Apps

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.

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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.


  1. Once again, Warner, thank you for an excellent, even entertaining, feedback article.

    You comments confirm a decision I took mentally a few months ago: Roger (me), resist the RT tablets (any manufacturer) and wait for the Windows 8 Pro models.

    Why? Because I want a tablet to supplement my notebook,by using it mainly in meetings, travel etc using HANDWRITTEN notes most of the time. I will continue to use Dropbox to be able to access my documents between my two main devices, and my smartphone. It may seeem like overkill, but I work in developing countries and need a reasonable device as a back-up, plus I can use the tablet for play when I want to.

    Question: will 64Gb SSD handle both Windows 8 Pro and Office 2010 or 2013, and have just enough space for the odd confidential file, photo or movie?

    The Samsung Ativa Pro is looking good at present!

    • I have a 32GB SSD on the Surface RT. It leaves about 16GB free after all of the Apps and Office (the Student version) are installed. As to Pro and Office 10 or 13, I’m not sure how much will be left over.

  2. I received the Surface on Saturday, and since it was a gift I truly wanted to like it. However, I have to give it a thumbs down. Keep in mind that I am a casual user and not a tech guy. Here’s what I don’t like:

    1. It doesn’t handle certain websites well at all. For example, SFGate. It freezes or shuts down and gives me some weird message about “not running consecutive scripts.” This is a site that my iPhone handles no problem (and I am mean the full site, not just the mobile version.)

    2. The touchscreen is not responsive enough.

    3. The screen dims sometimes for no reason. I have checked all the setting and also had my girlfriend (who is a web developer and much better at this sort of thing) check and we can’t figure out why it does this.

    4. It’s heavy. But bear in mind I have never owned a tablet before, so I don’t know if it’s any heavier than an iPad. Still, it’s a little too heavy to hold over your head while you’re lying down and read it like a magazine, for example.

    5. There are some odd redundancies. OK so there’s a browser that you access from your desktop, but also one that you access from the weird tiled start menu thingee? I don’t understand why this was necessary. I suppose this qualifies more as a “quirk,” though, than as a point-against.

    6. Speaking of quirks, it took me a while to figure out that the little window on the side of the screen was actually a button. For a long time I was like, “OK so why the hell did it just switch over?” But again, more of a quirk than a negative.

    All in all, this one was not ready for prime time.

  3. Having many of the same problems and found this review, and all of your comments, spot on. But I really want to root for the underdog here and yes, strangely enough I now consider Microsoft the underdog in the tablet space. The Surface is just SO cool to look at, and the keyboard so delightful, that I really want Redmond to kick things up a few notches ad mke this product a winner. It’s going to take some real work to do it. And we need the developers to get on-side with their awesome apps. Provide te apps and the users might follow. It worked for Apple and Google. RIM’s playbook never had the app support and as a result it floundered. Let’s hope Ballmer and his new VPs are prepared to stick it out long- term and support the product, unlike the Zune.

    • Lloyd,
      I’m actually hoping we see this turn around as well. It will require a great deal of effort to make that happen on many fronts including those within Microsoft that are not technology related. I’d like to see this happen.

  4. Warner, I’m in agreement with your impressions of the Surface and Windows RT for the most part, however I do have a couple of points:

    1. Although you cannot use the Share charm from the desktop apps, you can indeed share text from a desktop app and a Metro app simply by using the clipboard. You can CTL-C text in Word to copy it and CTL-V to paste it into the Mail app, for example, just like you would use the clipboard on any other Windows environment. Certainly the Share charm is a big improvement over the old clipboard and it would be nice if it worked on the desktop, but the clipboard works perfectly well for most tasks.

    2. It would indeed be nice if the Office apps were Metro instead of the desktop, and I expect that to happen eventually, but I really don’t mind that much that they’re not built with a “touch-first” interface like Metro apps. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a flaw in Office, but rather a flaw in touch interfaces in general. They’re just not as well suited for getting “real work” done in traditional productivity apps as a keyboard and mouse (or touchpad). I have no issues at all navigating around in the Office apps on my Surface when I’m simply reading a document or consuming content. But when it comes to creating content, I set my Surface down on a table and use the keyboard and a Bluetooth mouse, just like I would a laptop. That, to me, shows the power of the Surface over, say, an iPad, where that sort of use is just not possible. I still use and enjoy my iPad, too, but my Surface has taken over much of the role that my iPad used to play, and most all of the role that my old Tablet PC used to play.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, Perry. I was, at first, shocked to discover how full-featured the Office suite truly is – this is not some scaled-down version of the apps designed for a tablet but full-blown applications, making them extremely useful and convenient. The Surface is a combo device: tablet for when you need a tablet, laptop for when you want a laptop. All in one slim device. One less piece of technology to buy or carry around with you. Pretty darn convenient. Once the apps come in full force, we will also be smiling more. I am eager to see what the Surface developers have for us over the coming year. Should be exciting.

    • Perry,

      Call me crazy, but Microsoft says this is how we want you to view Windows from now on. One of the strengths of this new approach in my view is how they have devised “charms” to search and share across Apps. While you are absolutely correct that that you can use copy and paste to move things back and forth, this, to me, is a fundamental flaw in Microsoft’s logic, planning, and implementation that harkens back to the problems it has had for some time. I can’t see it any other way in the context of what we know about Tablets and doing work on them today AND in the context of what Microsoft says it wants us to believe.

      • the point that I see is that using an iPad we had to deal with issues worse than those and find work around for everything. and nobody complains. I own and iPad. so I know what i’m talking about.

        • To each his own when it comes to Tablets. I’ve already said that. We had to wait quite a bit for things to come around on the iPad. No question. My larger point is that MIcrosoft doesn’t have the luxury of time that the iPad did for developers to create Apps. Second, Microsoft is sending developers confusing signals if you can’t Share into the desktop Apps. Let’s assume you can do that at some undefined point down the road, does that mean Apps have to be recoded to work with this?

          Again, to each his own. I want to see this work out well for Microsoft. But they need to get their act together more quickly than I think we’re going to see them do so.

          • And you are right, MS does not have the luxury of time, but I’m afraid that we are cutting down the little time they have without giving them a chance.

        • I couldn’t agree more. When I bought my first iPad (first day they went on sale in late March of three years ago), I remember running into all sorts of roadblocks, including:
          – no printing capabilities out of the box
          – VERY few iPad-specific apps (most of the apps were resized iPhone apps and looked horrible on the iPad screen at the time). This has, of course, improved significantly since that time.
          – No carrying cases or accessories available, except for a few overly-expensive Apple-branded cases and cables (has changed dramatically since that time)
          – email kind of sucked
          – calendar kind of sucked (still does)
          – contacts kind of sucked (still does)
          – no iWorks apps available at launch, so no word processing, spreadsheet or PowerPoint capabilities for awhile -and then they were $9.99 each to purchase when they did arrive
          – web browsing was a bit clunky and slow
          – no cameras on the first version of the iPad
          – iTunes was needed through a Mac or PC to transfer anything back and forth (no longer an issue due to wifi sync, etc)

          That is just the stuff I can remember. Three years is a LONG time in the tech world. I’m sure if I went back and checked my emails from that time I can track down a whole pile of other stuff that drove me crazy about the iPad. But the bottom line? It was a cool device that “changed the space” and how I surfed the web, read the news, etc.

          Also, many of the early reviewers totally panned the iPad. It was only after it took off and was runaway successful that many of them had a change of heart.
          I think it’s human nature to slam the new guy and embrace what you’ve already invested time and money in (oops… understatement of the year there!).

          A year from now, my hope is that the Microsoft Surface product line will be thriving and our RT devices will be considered successful. I know in my small office (60+ staff) alone there are already three of us who have, individually, purchased Surface devices. That’s not bad for a product that’s only been out in the marketplace, in limited numbers, for 2 weeks.

          • And the worse thing is that we all the bad press of these insignificant point we are going to kill the first step in more than 20 years of creating a new or at least different OS and the hardware around this OS. For every single thing mentioned not just in this article and page, I can mention many features that make me a believer in W8 RT and the Surface.

            Just read these articles:

            In more than 3 years of iPad supremacy they have not provided us consumers any of these solutions. Come on, it’s time to look toward the Sun and see the beauty of it and no the black spot. Yes, they are there, we are not blind! But there are more than those black spots.

            Out there we do not have anything in the tablet market that can give us a decent level of productivity until know. Let’s help this new concept. Let’s open our minds.

          • Could not agree more that the bad press is like a virus – it keeps replicating (apparently out of control) and many of the comments I’m reading are from folks who I don’t think have really even spent any time with a Surface device. Yes, the Surface is a hybrid. But so is a Prius and people adore their Prius vehicles. I don’t have to carry a laptop and a tablet any longer — I can carry JUST the Surface, load its generous 64 gigs with music and shove a whole bunch of movies on to a 64 gig SD card (it’s rare to find ANY tablet that will support that size of external storage). I can plug a mouse right into the USB port or I can use bluetooth to link a mouse to the device. I can even listen to music through bluetooth headphones, which I enjoy doing. The touch keyword works for ME (I know it’s not beloved by everyone, which is understandable) but if folks don’t like it they can opt for the Type Keyboard or even a standard bluetooth keyboard of their liking.

            As a device, the Surface is extremely versatile and it has an enormous amount of power under the hood and capabilities that most of us have yet to access. It’s going to take some time to get proper RT-compatible apps up on the Microsoft Store but the iPad ran into exactly that same problem when it first came out. These things take time to develop. Developers need time to write their apps. I think Surface will surprise us all and really start to shine soon. But only if the bad press can be tempered. The bloggers are knocking the product often for the sake of knocking the product, with a sense of glee that Microsoft “might” have stumbled. I don’t think they did stumble and I believe they will continue to turn this platform into something really useful and productive for many of us.

            iPad lovers, keep loving your iPads. they are awesome. But let us enjoy our Surface devices too, please. To each his own.

  5. I am a little stumped by this whole review. You say much that is very favorable, but get really hung up on Office as if Office is the anti-Christ. Hate to tell you this but office aint going away any time in the near future. Literally millions of people use it everyday, not so much in their home life, but in their work like and this will not be changed without a MASSIVE sustained effort to change it. Companies would have to change the way they are managing, using, providing configuration control documents and on and on. Besides which, Office is an excellent tool that is very useful. Yes, there are still some shortcomings in Office that have always bugged me, but for the most part it makes life simple. Word and Excel (especially Excel) are powerful tools.

    That being said, I absolutely love my Surface RT. I struggled with the decision but once I saw how perfect the device looked and felt, I decided to buy it. What do I use my PC for? Most of the time is spent using Office (primarily word, excel, powerpoint), using the internet and checking e-mail. I could accomplish every one of these things with the Surface RT. What would I want from a tablet? To be able to play games, watch movies (occasionally, like on planes), listen to music and read e-books. (Yay, Nook app appeared Wednesday night!)

    What tablet allows me to do every one of these things? The Surface RT or Windows tablets in general.

    I have used it now at home, on the couch, sitting in bed, at my desk. I have used it in airports. I have used it on planes. I have used it at the office. I have even used it while giving a presentation at a meeting. So far it has made me very happy and has done everything I wanted, everything I expected and more. (have you tried using your finger as a stylus? it is absolutely amazing what it can interpret correctly – imagine if I actually buy a stylus!)

    Anyway, as you said, to each his own, but I kind of felt like you wanted to not like it (hence the repeated harping on Office).

    Will I check out the Surface Pro when it comes out? You bet. IF I decide I want it, I will sell my RT (or my daughter will inherit an excellent tablet). :)

    The only negatives I can really come up with at this point (so far) are when you don’t have a good internet connection it can be sluggish. When your internet connection is strong, it zips along. So I think that is some of the sluggishness people have alluded to. I also have had the weird brightening/dimming of the screen a few times and don’t know what is causing it. Have not had a chance to investigate yet.

    Anyway, I specifically held off on getting a tablet for so long because I wanted an all purpose tablet, and the Surface (whether RT or Pro when it comes out) is all purpose.

    But the bottom line is, reading your article, I still get an overall favorable impression from you, so I didn’t understand your negative take.

    Now, if only Sprint would get a Windows 8 phone in the next few months I would be very happy to be running all my devices on one Windows 8 (or RT).

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