Microsoft Surface 2 Review Part 2: Apps and the Problems They Cause
When it comes to Tablets and their future, Apps are where the rubber meets the road. The right App for the right task can turn a slab of electronics with a glass touch screen into whatever you wish it to be. Great Apps can make the Tablet experience wonderful. So-So Apps are just that. So-So or worse. So, Apps do matter. Gadget bloggers have used the numbers game a a shortcut to talk about App disparity between platforms. But thankfully that seems to be coming to an end as the major platforms all have enough numbers to make a quantity measurement less valuable. Quality on the other hand is a big differentiator. Between the big three platforms (iOS, Android, and Windows 8.1) many feel that a certain parity among quality Apps has been reached between iOS and Android. In my view, Microsoft sadly lags behind in its RT initiative. To a large degree, that is due to the less than successful intro of the Surface RT concept.
The future of the Surface RT initiative, in my view, depends largely on how Microsoft can overcome that early failure by building some momentum within the development community that focuses attention back on the Metro side of its three-pronged approach to Windows. There’s a lot of work to do.
Microsoft’s Store feels like walking into a shopping establishment where there is plenty to catch your eye, but once you start focusing on what’s for sale, you realize that anyone can put up a good display that hides the lack of quality merchandise. You might find a real treasure hidden amongst the gack, but you need to do some searching searching to do so. Those who have used other mobile OS platforms will see many familiar faces among the catalog of Apps, but sadly those faces are like Halloween masks that hide hollow shadows of Apps that don’t come close to matching the capability they demonstrate on other platforms.
In this, the second part of a three part review of the Microsoft Surface 2 experience, I’m going to talk about Apps on the newly released Microsoft Surface 2 in three categories:
- Metro-style Apps included with Surface RT
- Desktop Apps included with Surface RT
- Apps you can acquire from the Store
But before we get to that, let’s talk about some context. When Microsoft first began talking about how it would approach the post-PC era with Tablets, the Surface RT was viewed as a lighter weight (meaning less-Windows) companion to the heavier and beefier full Windows 8 devices. Both would feature the new Metro-style Apps and both would feature Microsoft Office capability. Users who didn’t need full Windows could do their thing on RT devices with ARM equipped devices that had better battery life and less overhead, but still tied them into the Windows world. To work in this new Metro ARM powered world, the Metro Apps on RT would take a different approach than the Metro-style Apps in full Windows running on Intel based processors.
So, using a popular App like Evernote as an example, there would be two versions in the Store. One would be for the RT world and one for the Intel side of things. While it might sound cumbersome the theory, if you bought into the concept of two sides of Windows 8, it made some logical sense. Logical as it may or may not be, it required developers to think (and code) in two different worlds.
Those two different worlds require, in some cases, two different allocations of resources when it comes to developing and supporting Apps. Software companies large and small go where the audience (and possible revenue) is, and when the Surface RT began to founder it is not surprising that App development did as well. This created a dangerous wait and see cycle. App developers are waiting to see if users support the platform. Users are waiting to see if App developers are going to support the platform. And while in the early going it was all about a numbers game, it really was about the quality and selection of Apps that would make a difference. Microsoft (and others) claim there are over 100,000 Windows RT Apps in the Windows Store. Most look like they aren’t worth downloading, and many (not all) of the usual big name suspects are there. But some haven’t devoted the resources necessary to approach App parity with their offerings on other platforms.
With the debut of the Surface 2, the second attempt at fulfilling Microsoft’s post-PC vision, we’re still in that deadly wait and see phase of the game. We won’t know the results of that for some time, but, in my view, the legacy of the failed original debut of the Surface RT makes the equation a more tenuous situation.
The benchmarks and potential for what a mobile OS platform and device can do are set early on by the company that pushes out the toys. Apps delivered with new devices should show the potential and capabilities to both consumers and developers. In some cases Microsoft succeeded with the original launch of the Surface RT, in others it failed miserably. With the launch of Surface 2 and Windows 8.1, Microsoft upped its game a bit and improved the quality of the Apps it brought to the table.
There are two broad categories of Metro Apps that Microsoft included with Surface: I will call them Essential System Apps and Bing Based Apps. There’s a third category here that overlaps with the Essential System Apps and that is Apps that tie into Microsoft’s Xbox world.
Essential System Apps
These include Apps that I think anyone on any platform will expect to find on any new mobile device. A mail client, a calendar, contacts, a music player, a video player, a messaging client, a camera app, and a photos app. Oh, and then there’s an Internet browser. There are others but these are the basics that you need to use a mobile device and its hardware. Microsoft includes all of these essential apps and with Windows 8.1 has made some considerable improvements in a few of them.
As an example, the Mail App was a target of many complaints upon first release but it has been updated to a point where it is now a respectable, but still limited, mail client. There is still no unified Inbox and while the Mail App will allow you to work with your email it really isn’t for someone who receives and has to manage a large volume of email.
Email is one of the go to functions on mobile devices and while other platforms have seen problems their first releases of their respective Mail Apps, in my view, they looked like mature software compared to Microsoft’s miscalculation. Note that with the first release of Surface RT, unless you used the browser this was the only way to work with email on the device out of the box. That’s been rectified with Surface 2 and Windows 8.1 RT by the inclusion of an Outlook App. Note that it only works on the Desktop side of things, not in the Metro environment.
Here is a list of the included Essential System Apps on the Surface 2:
- Fresh Paint*
- Help & Tips
- Internet Explorer
- Reading List
- Skype WiFi
- Sound Recorder
The asterisk indicates that these Apps have duplicates on the Desktop side of the dual faced operating system. In the case of Fresh Paint, the original Paint from Microsoft is also available from the Desktop, although the two Apps are vastly different.
Many of the above App titles aptly describe their functionality. Some do not. For example, those familiar with Windows Phone will know that the People App is a Contacts app that pulls in contacts and notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Skype, and now Outlook, giving you access to who is doing what or contacting you in one place.
Reading List is where you can save web pages to read later and is distinct from Reader, which allows you to access and read files saved on your computer, network, or in Skydrive.
The Photos App lost some functionality in this new edition. You used to be able to view photos from Flickr and Facebook accounts in Photos but no longer. Not a new loss, but a continuing puzzle, users cannot select what photo location can be scanned for photos to appear in the Live Tile. The criteria for a photo to be chosen seems to be most recently added, so if you take a lot of screen shots, as opposed to adding a lot of new photos, the Live Tile is essentially useless.
Windows 8.1 adds the capability to put a photo slide show on your lock screen from your PC, Skydrive, or a network location. This feature gives you some control and can be accessed from Change PC Settings/PC and Devices/Lock Screen.
Like Mail, the Calendar App has limited functionality. There is no easy import of calendars from other platforms.
The Skydrive integration is much improved with Window 8.1 and on the Surface 2. The syncing that had to occur with a separate App no longer exists and Skydrive can appear as transparent a destination for your documents and content as any other drive on any other computer. These improvements to Skydrive alone improve the Surface 2′s chance of succeeding in the market place. It doesn’t hurt that Microsoft is including 200GB of Skydrive storage free for two years with each Surface 2 purchase.
While there is an Alarms App that allows you to set alarms, use a timer, and a stopwatch, there is no Clock App. While you can view the time by swiping in from the right side of the screen to view the current time it just seems like it would be logical, given the Live Tiles approach in Metro, to have a Clock App that allows you to view the time at a glance without having to swipe to a menu. I note that there are many clock Apps in the Windows Store, but if you read the review, most suffer low ratings because they either don’t have a Live Tile update, requiring you to open an App to see the time, or the Live Tiles fails to update accurately. Call me crazy, but when I’m using a device my expectation is that I can see the time on whatever screen I’m working on currently.
Also a curious omission is an App for note taking. I’m not talking about Inking here. I’m talking about a simple note taking App, like Notepad. Yes, Notepad is available on the Desktop side of things and there are quite a few note taking Apps in the Windows Store, but it would seem like a natural to be included out of the box.
The Bing Apps
In case you’ve been living on a desert island you know that Microsoft’s search engine is Bing. In addition to more tightly integrating Bing into Search for the Surface 2, Microsoft has also improved the series of Apps which are tied closely to Bing services. These Apps include:
- Food & Drink
- Health & Fitness
Open any of these Apps and you will see them labeled as “Bing (name of the App).” Each App brings curated information into a magazine like viewing experience that offers rich content and also tasks and tools to book a flight, or find a recipe, or look at sports schedules, etc…and also search for more content through Bing.
These Apps show off quite well the capability of what the Surface Tablets can offer in terms of visual style and functionality. In addition to offering very good content and being excellent tools to show off Surface Tablets, they should also provide developers with inspiration on what the platform is capable of.
For Xbox and Xbox services users, Surface Tablets can be quite an companion. I am not an Xbox user, so I can’t comment one way or the other on Apps that relate directly with the Xbox experience. I will comment on the fact that the Music and Video Apps, which tie into respective Xbox services have been updated in the past year and seem to have knocked out many of the complaints that came with those first editions.
The Xbox Apps included on the Surface 2 include:
Note that there is an Xbox 360 Smartglass App available through the Microsoft Store that lets consumers use a Surface as a second screen to interact with their Xbox. I’m not that much of a gamer, so I haven’t tried many games on the Microsoft Surface 2. Suffice it to say, those that I have tried look quite good on the newer higher res screen of the Surface 2.
The Music and Video Apps work as expected and now that it is easier to have these Apps find content on an SD card, they work much better than with the previous Surface RT. On the original Surface RT, you had to jump through considerable hoops to make to access content on the SD card. With the Surface 2 it is now just a matter of telling the Video and Music Apps where to look for content and then it will be included as available when you open the App in the future.
One of the biggest issues surrounding Microsoft’s Surface initiative has to do with the inclusion of the Desktop. I have stated, and firmly believe, this was the only way Microsoft could include Office on these devices. That belief of mine is born out by a statement from Microsoft’s outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer saying that Office will be available for the iPad “when there is a touch-first user interface.”
Let’s examine that statement for a second. How long has Microsoft been working on multi-touch devices? Longer than this current generation of Tablets have been in existence. How long as Microsoft been milking the Office cow? For much longer than they’ve been working on Touch interfaces. This just poses a very simple question: What the hell is taking so long?
If one of the confusing issues with the Surface RT initiative is the duality that Windows 8.1 presents (Metro and the Desktop) there are only a few possible reasons for this:
- The Office Team has historically been reluctant to play in the Touch and Pen world and still is.
- Microsoft doesn’t have the skilled engineers to code Office for Touch.
- Business models are conflicting is such a way as to prevent this from happening.
Only those on the inside know what’s really up, but that audacious statement from Ballmer says more than is on the surface. Imagine for a moment that there had been no split focus between the Desktop and Metro environments and Microsoft had been able to roll out Office apps for Windows 8 with”touch-first” user interface. My hunch is Microsoft would not have taken the hit it did with the original Surface RT, given the confusion and complexity created by including the Desktop environment to run those non touch-first Apps.
All of that said, we’re stuck with the Desktop for the moment on Surface 2, even though Microsoft has done its best to hide it in Windows 8.1 (See Part 1 of this 3 part review on Surface 2 for more on this.)
Of course there is a sliver lining. Users receive free copies of Office 2013 with each Surface 2. If you’re an Office addict (or even a regular user) and want a Tablet, the Surface 2 is obviously something you might want to consider. The included Office Apps are:
Each of these Apps works as advertised but you can tell that Ballmer’s comment rings true. I would strongly recommend using a keyboard and/or a mouse to get around in these Apps because they are just not touch friendly enough. Though there are some touch enhancements.
Touch a blank page and a context sensitive menu comes up for you to choose an action. This menu looks very much like a typical Office menu of late. Contrast this with the Metro App for OneNote where a radial menu opens with the same touch of the screen that is decidedly more touch friendly.
Yes, you read that correctly, there is a Metro version of OneNote available. If you choose to download it, you will essentially have two different versions of OneNote on your device accessing the same files.
What I mean by not touch friendly is that the targets for opening and closing applications and the menu items are just too small. At least they are for my fingers. This may be a matter of personnel preference and hand size here, so take that in that context. That said, Ballmer’s comments lead me to believe that some in Microsoft think they have missed an opportunity here.
Now, in good old blog shortcut fashion many sources proclaim that you can only use the Office Apps in the Desktop environment. While you can’t install Apps on the Desktop side of things, there are some system Apps that are available on the Desktop. They include:
- Character Map
- Math Input Panel (for use with a pen or your finger)
- Remote Desktop Connection
- Steps Recorder
- XPS Viewer
- Command Prompt
- Control Panel
- File Explorer
- Task Manager
- Windows Defender
- Windows Easy Transfer
Apps from the Windows Store
As I said earlier in this review there are a number of Metro Apps in the Windows Store that will run on Surface 2. If you take the time to read the reviews of many of these Apps you’ll notice that most aren’t that great. In fact, quite a few of them are just junk. Big players in the Mobile App Game are there, but as I mentioned earlier some of these do not seem to be devoting resources to their Metro Apps in what I define as a wait and see game. I mentioned Evernote earlier as one of these marquee Apps.
Evernote is one of those Apps that is everywhere on every platform. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say it is a marquee App. Evernote is usually an early entry and features early updates when operating systems are updated. Evernote’s cross platform nature is a favorite with geeks not wed to any particular ecosystem and thus it appears on just about every Top XX Apps for the [Insert Platform Name] list out there. It is no surprise that Evernote created an early Metro App for Windows 8. Actually it created two: one for RT based Tablets and one for standard Windows. Both are called Evernote Touch. Because I use Evernote heavily it is one of the first Apps I install on any new machine. Sadly, with the original Surface RT and with the Surface 2 doing so opened up a big bag of disappointment.
I have quite a few notes in Evernote, so I am used to a long sync when I first install it on a new device. However, I’m not used to a sync that never completes. Nor am I used to Evernote constantly crashing when attempting a sync, or sometimes when I start up the App. I’ve seen both kinds of errors on the Surface RT and the Surface 2. I was hoping that the changes to Surface 2 would allow Evernote to get some things corrected. As of yet, that’s not the case. I’m not alone. Check out the Evernote forums and you’ll see many users are experiencing the same issues and quite upset by the lack of communication and progress on Evernote’s part.
In addition to syncing and crashing issues, I’ve experienced a few new bugs on the Surface 2. In several instances (IE, Reading List, etc…) you are allowed to Share info to Evernote through the core OS sharing process. All well and good. Except what goes into Evernote on the Surface 2 stays there and doesn’t propagate to any of the other devices I use Evernote on. It will show up as a new note on the Surface 2 but not anywhere else. This bug is an equal opportunity player. Most new info stashed in Evernote on other devices never makes it the Surface 2 either.
When a new device and OS enters the market I can certainly forgive an early entry App with bugs. But when those bugs keep hanging around, even after several updates to the App (there were quite a few during the Surface RT days), then it argues that the App is just not a high priority for the developer.
And that’s where the bigger picture rub comes in. If developers sense that a platform is lagging, why should they devote resources to chasing bugs when they have more success on other platforms? In my view, Evernote is the classic symbol for what is wrong with the Surface RT platform as it relates to Apps. In fact, it is so poorly conceived, executed and supported, it is my contention it should be pulled from the Store.
Note that the Evernote Touch App works well on the non RT side of things with non-RT Windows 8 and 8.1 devices.
Some Apps I’ve downloaded work just fine. Facebook didn’t make an early appearance on the Surface RT but rolled out its first Metro App with the release of the Surface 2. That App seems to work just fine. I do note that Facebook get with its own design language and not that of Metro. I contrast this with Evernote and Twitter both of which seem to have embraced the simplicity of the tile design to their detriment. Another popular App, Amazon’s Kindle, looks quite nice when it displays your library of books but I find it disappointing that there isn’t a page flip metaphor for navigating through a book. Instead, you touch each side of the screen to go forwards or backwards. It brings back early memories of the original Amazon Kindle though.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some very nice looking Apps available that behave quite well. Much like the included Bing Apps mentioned earlier in this second part of the Microsoft Surface 2 review, games associated with xBox look very nice. Some third party Apps such as CNN follow the magazine like format of the Bing Apps and also work quite well. In fact, Apps that focus on video content usually look quite good.
The Windows Store
The Windows Store itself has gone through some changes since it first debuted. I find the design a bit empty, and while easier to navigate than the original version, I find that I am swiping too much to get to information about an App. Much like the iOS App Store, I find it also to be one of the most inconsistent Apps available on the platform. The Windows Store App has actually crashed more than any other App I’ve run and when it crashes it is quite spectacular, requiring a reboot. It also is the slowest loading of any of the Apps I have tried.
There is now a Live Tile on the Start screen that provides App recommendations. Curiously though it keeps recommending Apps I’ve already downloaded and installed. I’m also curious as to why this Live Tile doesn’t show that App updates are available. The Windows Store is where you go to see if there are updates for Apps available and it only makes logical sense to me that we should see a notification displayed on the Store Live Tile.
Discovering and making Apps available isn’t just one of Microsoft’s challenges. Both Apple and Google have similar issues with their respective App Stores. But, Microsoft is struggling under the well deserved impression that it is playing catch up with its two competitors. (Again, forget the quantity game, it is largely irrelevant.)
In many ways, Microsoft would benefit from stricter guidelines within its App Store. I don’t think Apple would have allowed Evernote to present such a weak App. Google may have, but its App Store is largely like the Wild Wild West where anything goes. My impression was that Microsoft would fall somewhere between Google and Apple when it came to App Store submissions. But, in my viewing and testing of Apps, Microsoft is far too lenient on what it allows into its App Store, especially considering the messaging it needs to create and maintain to try and build some momentum for Surface 2.
Summing Up Part 2
Apps are what make a Tablet experience for any user. The App choices one makes for work or play define the Tablet more than anything else. Microsoft is lagging behind in the quantity of Apps it has to offer in its Windows Store and is caught between developers who are waiting to see if the Surface 2 will catch consumers’ interest, and consumers who are waiting to see if developers will be willing to deliver quality Apps. Time will tell how that plays out. So, we’ll wait and see.
That said, if you’re a Microsoft Office user, the Surface RT is indeed worth a look, especially as a companion device. Getting the Office 2013 Apps for free is a major savings. Combined with tighter and better Skydrive integration makes using Office Apps with other devices extremely convenient. And if all you want to do alongside your work is view content on Netflix or Hulu, or you are an Xbox user, the Surface 2 could work very well in those scenarios.
Other Posts about the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface RT
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review: Less Confusing and More Viable
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review Part 2: Apps and the Problems They Cause
- Chicago Microsoft Surface 2 Launch: Bread, Hockey Sticks, and Tablets
- Checking out the Microsoft Surface 2 with a First Timer
- Microsoft Surface RT Review: This Thing Confuses Me
- Upon Further Review: Microsoft Surface RT Still Confuses Me