The Microsoft Surface 2: Thoughts After One Month

I’ve now spent a month with the Microsoft Surface 2 and I consider it time well spent. The Surface 2 is by no means a perfect machine and I would still label it a work in progress. I stand by my initial thinking that the Surface 2 is a very good next step for Microsoft and a very good improvement over the disastrous first version in almost every respect.

That’s comparing this year’s model to last year’s model. Most consumers won’t be doing that kind of comparison. For them, the Surface 2, depending on their needs, offers a legitimate Windows Tablet experience. I have no idea what a legitimate Windows Tablet experience really is, but then I don’t think anyone at Microsoft does either.  Microsoft might have erased RT off of the name of the Tablet, but it hasn’t erased it or changed it from the OS version of Windows 8.1 that it runs. If there are problems with the Surface 2, they exist in a still confused approach as to how this device should work. More on that later.

Microsoft Surface 2

Microsoft Surface 2

I have to give Microsoft credit for several points with the Surface 2 and the concept of the Surface RT platform.

  • While slow to develop and deliver, Microsoft saw the writing on the wall and new it had to get back into the Tablet game by creating its own hardware. It did so with very good hardware.
  • The design and implementation of the Surface 2 is unique compared to other Tablets on the market.
  • While your preference may be for a different screen orientation or a Tablet without a keyboard, Microsoft delivered a hardware product that lined up with its big software money maker, Office, and also created a Tablet that can hold its own for consumer media consumption.
  • Microsoft has worked hard to deliver firmware updates that have improved the Surface 2 since launch.
  • Microsoft’s Skydrive is well integrated into the OS and is an almost transparent way to work with documents and data in the Cloud and on small

The major drawback is that it hasn’t quite found a successful approach to reconciling business models with current day Tablet use trends, nor has it solved the mystery about what the RT platform is and could be. Or maybe it has and we just haven’t seen it yet.

Read: Microsoft Surface 2: Less Confusing and More Viable

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Microsoft recognizes that there are legions of Office users out there as well as potential Tablet users who are afraid of anything without a keyboard. The Surface 2 platform offers both. Office 13 is tossed in for free. A keyboard cover is an essential accessory for the experience, but you have to pay extra to obtain one. The Surface Type and Touch Covers are excellent accessories in and of themselves. The Xbox gaming market is also a part of Microsoft’s strategy. With Xbox SmartGlass, the Surface can serve as a good second screen for a Xbox user. Xbox SmartGlass is also available on iOS and Android as well.

So there’s a market or two out there for Microsoft to tap into. But it still needs to do some work on the platform and the OS.

Here are some observations I’ve drawn after using the Surface 2 for a month. Some are positive, some are negative, and some are just personal opinions. But then Tablets are very personal devices.

What Needs Improvement

Windows Store

App Stores are the circulatory and pulmonary systems for mobile devices. Create clots and breathing obstacles and you can choke the life out of what you’re trying to accomplish. The Windows Store needs major surgery to keep this patient alive. The number of Apps has improved but those numbers come complete with crappy Apps. Big name Apps on other platforms have yet to appear. And some big name Apps that do exist are shadows of their cousins on other platforms, indicating that there is no real investment in the RT platform. Since purchasing the Surface 2 I have only seen 2 non-Microsoft Apps push updates. One of those is Facebook, which didn’t make an appearance until the Surface 2 launch was nigh. The other I can’t remember.

Microsoft needs to do a better job of curation and light a fire under developers to clean up and update their Apps.

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The Windows Store has user experience issues too. In order to access a control screen to view “Your Apps” or “Your Account” you have to use the same gesture and pull down from the top of the screen that you use to close any running App. It’s a frustrating trial and error experience to get it right. Once you’re at the Windows Store homepage the cycling through of new Apps on the Store happens so quickly you can’t catch the information until it cycles through again.

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And it only makes sense that the Live Tile on the Start screen should have a notification announcing available App Updates. This would certainly be preferable to the constant recommendations for Apps that you have already acquired.

While preparing this article two App updates came through. Both from Microsoft. The Mail and People Apps were updated as was the Skype App. That’s great. But there was no indication of a change log to let us know what may have changed. Nor is there any Apps update history I can find that would tell those who choose to automatically update Apps which ones have updated.

Live Tiles

There’s a nagging inconsistency with Live Tiles. This is Windows way of giving you notifications. I don’t understand the engine behind this, but at times various Live Tiles just appear to quit working.

Photos 

The Live Tile for the Photos App needs to offer more control for users to pick which photos they would like to display. The caching of selected photos displayed needs to also offer more frequent updating and and a larger range of pictures that rotate.

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Give Me A Clock

For some strange reason Microsoft hasn’t provided a Clock App. Not only that, developers who have tried to provide one have largely failed at creating a Clock App that can show time updates in a Live Tile. Call me crazy, but when working on a computer or a Tablet I want easy visual access to the time on my home screen. This isn’t a casino where we want to keep the time hidden from customers, although when Live Tiles are working the Start Screen can resemble a slot machine. To see the time on a Surface 2 you have to swipe in to reveal the Charms Menu. Apple found a way to update its iOS Clock icon to show the current time. I can’t think that keeping time and displaying it should be that difficult.

Desktop

Microsoft confused the world with the original launch of the Surface RT platform by giving the OS two faces. The Metro, or Modern UI, face and the Desktop. With Windows 8.1 you still need a Desktop to access the Office 2013 Apps. But you can not install non-Metro Apps on the Desktop the way you can with an Intel based Surface Pro or other Windows 8.1 machines based on the Intel chipset. Microsoft has gone a long way to camouflage and hide the Desktop on the Surface 2 so that the confusion is somewhat muted this time around. That’s a plus, but there are still issues. Rumors say that if the RT platform goes forward we will eventually see the Desktop disappear. The biggest hangup? Microsoft hasn’t yet created Metro versions of any of its Office Apps except OneNote.

The Two Faces of Windows 8.1

In the case of Internet Explorer there are two distinctly different browsers for the Metro side and the Desktop side. There is a segregation here that just makes no sense. The same is true with OneNote. There is a Metro version and a Desktop version and in these dual implementations the two-faced nature of the RT platform really shows up.

Windows 8.1 RT has two faces: The Desktop and Metro

Windows 8.1 RT has two faces: The Desktop and Metro

Both IE and OneNote have different UI’s depending on which environment you’re in. Quite frankly, the Metro UI for both is more appealing to me. If Tablets are supposed to be touch based, and they are, the Desktop version of OneNote joins the other Office 2013 Apps at missing that boat.

The Desktop version of OneNote

The Desktop version of OneNote

The Metro version is touch friendly and instead of presenting a Ribbon-like context pop-up menu, offers a radial dial menu that works better for Touch or pen. (The Surface Pro 2 comes with a stylus and has very good Inking capability. The Surface 2 does not.)

The Metro version of OneNote

The Metro version of OneNote

The Desktop version of IE is not touch nor user friendly at all. The controls you’re presented with are grouped so tightly at the top of the window that it is impossible to touch one target without touching the other.

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In fact the Desktop IE UI seems to even be antagonistic towards the inner workings of Windows 8.1. On the Metro side if I highlight text on a web page I can use the built in Share functionality to share that copied text to any number of targets.

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On the Desktop side, I can only share a screenshot of the webpage and only what is visible on the screen using the same Share mechanism.  A reconciliation between the versions is essential. Or just lose the Desktop version.

Desktop IE only allows screenshots to be shared

Desktop IE only allows screenshots to be shared

Metro Office Apps

As mentioned earlier, one of the obstacles that led to the two-faced environment for Windows 8.1 RT devices is the lack of touch based Office Apps. Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even seems frustrated and stymied by inexcusable delay when he said about Office Apps on the iPad, “iPad will be picked up when… there’s a touch first user interface.” That implies that there isn’t one even ready for Microsoft’s own devices. And that’s shame. It’s a self-inflicted wound.  Make it a priority, fix it, and get on with it. If you need a clue, ask the OneNote team. They seemed to have figured it out.

Notifications

Microsoft’s Live Tiles are supposed to work as Notifications and they do to a certain extent. However, you can still have Apps notify you individually in little bars that slide out from the upper right corner of the screen. The problem here is that there is no central way to view all of these notifications if you let them slide in and slide out while busy. Some sort of Notification Center beyond what appears in the People App would be helpful.

Turn off that Narrator function

Microsoft includes a range of Ease of Access capabilities for those who have physical impairments.  One of those is simply called Narrator. This is a screen reader that reads all of the elements on the screen making it easier for those who have visual impairments to navigate through menus and control screens. It works well. I know because I keep accessing it by accident.

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Unfortunately if you find it turned on, it takes several swipes and button clicks to get to a place where you can turn it off again. I’m not sure what key combination I use to turn Narrator on, but it happens too frequently. A simple switch that would allow users who don’t need this function to have it never turn on would be more than useful.

Syncing with Other Platforms

Microsoft, like Apple and Google, wants us to spend all of our time with with its core Apps and in its Cloud. That’s not how the real world works. Consumers would prefer and do use Apps from various platforms when they have the choice. Look at Google’s Apps. Many of them actually work better on iOS than they do on Android devices. At present there is no way, unless you use a browser to sync Google’s calendar or contacts with a Surface 2 running Windows 8.1. That’s a shame. Microsoft isn’t the only party guilty of this and they aren’t entirely at fault, but the RT platform is the most closed off and restricts user choice. That said, you can add Gmail to the Mail.App and there are ways to use Outlook, which makes and appearance for the first time to workaround these kind of limitations. It is doable, but less than desirable.

Inconsistency and crashes

This is the second Surface 2 I’ve owned in the first month of the platform’s life. The first one suffered from random catastrophic crashes that kept getting less random and I took it back and had it exchanged.

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The second unit, so far, performs much better. That said, there are still some random crashes and hiccups that aren’t as catastrophic as the ones that led me to exchange units. We can say that all computers and Tablets crash, but the Surface 2 exhibits more of this behavior than I see on other platforms. Some of that I’m sure is bad coding in Apps. Again, Microsoft needs to police the wares it is selling. Some of that feels like the system just can’t handle the load I’m throwing at it at certain times. That’s not a scientific observation, just anecdotal. Regardless, there is still work to be done to make the Surface 2 a cleaner user experience.

What Works

Firmware Updates

I mentioned earlier that Microsoft has been releasing timely firmware updates for the Surface 2. This shows that there is an effort to improve the experience. I hope this continues. The latest round of updates came with a notice that it would improve battery life. It has in my usage.

Office Integration

Microsoft’s attempts at camouflaging the Desktop has led to a much cleaner integration with the Office 2013 Apps. In fact, if the Desktop screen did not appear momentarily when you launch an Office 2013 App from the Start Screen, most would not even known it existed. Users who purchase a Surface RT because it contains Office Apps will be able to do the work they need to do easily enough. The integration is very good at present but see above for what Microsoft needs to do going forward with Office.

Skydrive Integration

Microsoft has integrated Skydrive into the OS seamlessly. Once a user has a Skydrive account, documents and data are saved and retrieved without a second thought. If you buy a Surface RT currently you can receive a coupon that gives you 200GB of Skydrive storage for two years. This is a good value and one that I think will win many users over to Microsoft’s Cloud. Quit honestly, Skydrive performs better than iOS or Google’s Cloud solutions do at present.

Content Player

The Surface RT may have Microsoft Office integration going for it as a sales incentive. But as a consumption device the device measures up to its competition nicely. The high res screen displays video and photos very nicely. Xbox integration is nicely done from what I can tell. (I don’t use an Xbox.) Major content providers (Netflix, Hulu for video, Amazon and Nook for books) are there. The Surface 2 has become my favorite Tablet for watching Netflix.

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Flipboard just released its Windows 8.1 App, and it is one that makes portrait mode on the widescreen Surface 2 actually make some sense. Even though it is still somewhat awkward to hold the device that way. Microsoft’s own Bing Apps (News, Travel, Finance, Sports, etc…) offer a wonderful interface with well curated and edited content to explore.

The Surface 2 is missing some content consumption Apps that other platforms have but in sum, a user could have a very nice device for relaxing with a video, music, or some reading with the Surface 2.

Conclusions

It may be just as easy these days to think of an iPad or an Android Tablet as a combo work and play device. But Microsoft recognized that for many consumers it was important to show them those work possibilities right up front. The Touch and Type Covers, though an extra cost, told consumers straight up front that they could do real typing on the Surface Tablets. For those still hesitant to buy a Tablet where a 3rd party keyboard may be an option, this was one of Microsoft’s most important strategic moves when debuting the Surface 2. Unfortunately, other aspects of the original Surface launch weren’t so well implemented. If Microsoft were to include a Touch or Type Cover free with every Surface bought, or at least at a nominal cost, I believe these second generation Surface Tablets would begin selling at acceptable levels.

I bought the Surface 2 with the intent to review it and return it or sell it. I’ve decided to keep it and keep using it in rotation with other Tablets to see how the platform matures. But I’m not a real consumer. That said, it is very easy for me to see consumers choosing a Surface 2 or Surface Pro 2 as their Tablet choice. With this second Surface generation, they will have better luck integrating it into their work and play flow than the those that ventured in the first time. If Microsoft continues to address issues as quickly as it has since the Surface 2 launch a month ago, it has a shot of building some momentum around the platform. And I hope it can do so.

 

Other Posts about the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface RT

 

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Comments

  1. georg brown says

    Thank you for the unbiased opinion piece. I am sold on the surface now. I on need decide which generation to acquire, and I thank you for confirming my choice of the RT, more than enough for what I need; I can do work, save it in the cloud and pick up on my desktop or laptop in bed. Again, thanks for the unbiased (mostly) opinion piece.

  2. David Alastair Hayden says

    This is a fantastic review. Thank you for doing the follow up. So many reviews are from an experience of a week or a few days, and that’s rarely enough with a device like this. Sure, the newest iteration of an iPad can be judged in a day or two, but the Surface 2 is just now at iPad 1/2 stage. I’m very interested in one, but it is a tricky choice still.

  3. Nate Fonz says

    I would like to point out that the new app releases in the windows store that cycle to quickly, you can swipe up and down to view them and once you do that it stops the apps from cycling. I found out with the same complaint and tried it, and it worked. =)

  4. lan says

    Thanks for a fair review… Microsoft Surface 2 is both for production tool and play, everyday important apps that you need is already there.

  5. Shane says

    Good piece but I personally hope they don’t do away with the desktop in future RT releases. People think it’s a confused OS hybrid. I think it’s smart. When I want to kick back with a tablet, the metro world is nice, when I get home from class and need to write papers and research, the desktop world is more precise and is great especially when I plug in an external monitor and mouse. I thought the whole idea was that this flexibility provides an edge that other tablets don’t have…

  6. thedesertvoice says

    Nice and fair review.

    I agree with all your observations, just some tips.

    I don’t understand your issue in the store, yes the menu is accessed via a small (from the bezel to 1″ down) swipe from the top but is easy, unless you go all way to the bottom there a re no issue here.

    The size of buttons in desktop, although desktop is better enjoyed in laptop mode (with a mouse) still in touch mode is usable for quick uses. May be adjusting the size, here an article explaining that:

    http://www.groovypost.com/howto/make-microsoft-surface-desktop-easier-use/#comment-763421319

    That really improve the desktop experience with touch.

  7. Ronnie says

    My first surface2 was a disaster. Double tap, crash etc think it was a coders work model. Replaced without question. Just love it. Incredible screen. Gets jammed if I have to many old pages left open. Learned to swipe down to get ride of them. And regular house keeping has it running like a dream. But will not open my roster when the boss emails it. 25/11/2013

  8. Bruce F. Donnelly says

    Warner,

    It’s all over but the face-saving. The Windows 8 Start Screen is essentially a launcher and the desktop is essentially a place to park windows for multitasking. The problem is that there’s no way to do that properly even with a desktop, and to be fair that is a problem on the Mac too.

    The vertical column of open windows you can pull in from the left, the black bar splitting two windows in the Modern UI, snapping windows to the sides of the screen, and Alt-tab (with or without the row of shots of open windows) are all trying to do the same thing, which is to multitask and help you to shift your attention smoothly. They each do part right, but mostly flub it. (And the Mac is confused too, with multiple desktops and a shared menu bar.)

    If we think about it as all being different UI solutions to the same problem, we might be able to imagine a way to add features to the Modern UI or to the desktop to pull the mess together.

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