I pre-ordered a 32-GB Microsoft Surface RT with Touch Cover and received it Friday, October 26. I spent the following weekend getting it configured before heading to Seattle for //build/ 2012, where the Surface was my constant companion. What follows are my observations on what I liked and didn’t like about the Surface and Windows RT.
Biases and Expectations
Let me say up front that, from the day Microsoft announced the Surface, I wanted to own one and I hoped that the product would be a great success. I have been a Windows software developer for 18 years, and my home computers have always been Windows (if not DOS) based. I’ve spent time using UNIX-based systems and Macs over the years, but never enough to pull my computing allegiance away from Windows.
That said, there are many Apple products in my life. I own an iPod and use iTunes for music. I own an Apple TV for streaming my music to my home theater. I buy Apple products when Microsoft fails me, and I’ve been happy with every purchase. I bought my wife an iPad last year, and the two are nearly inseparable. She also now carries an iPhone. I have used the iPad mainly for games, but the Remote Control app and an app that lets me control my Onkyo home theater receiver have been fantastic.
When considering what tablet computer I would own, there was never any question of buying an iPad. It would be redundant. Plus, I made a commitment to live the Windows ecosystem, for better or worse. It informs my work. I carry an HTC Trophy Windows Phone, which I love and which gave me reason to believe that Microsoft might finally get its act together in the mobile space.
I also chose the Windows RT version, partly because I could not possibly wait another three months for a Surface that runs Windows 8, but also because I did not want the fallback to desktop applications. I want to be forced to use this thing as a true tablet, not as a small version of my desktop computer. Battery life is very important to me, and the Surface Pro’s battery life will not be as good. This way, if there is an app I need that doesn’t exist, I’ll be motivated to write to the company and ask them to please create it, rather than just trying to make do with the desktop version.
My focus here will be on two themes:
- Do Surface and Windows RT succeed in creating a tablet experience that makes me happy to be living the Windows ecosystem?
- What are the rough edges and frustrations that Microsoft needs to address for me to love this tablet platform?
If I had written this review after 2 days instead of after 7 days, it would have much more negative. When I tried to connect the Surface to my wireless network at home, I had problems. Surface found my network and showed great signal strength, but after connecting, the word Limited was displayed beside the network name. When I launched IE, IE found no Internet connection.
The real frustration came when trying to diagnose the problem. I hit the Start button, typed “wireless”. Search found 13 results for Settings:
That is quite a blizzard of choices, but the very first choice was “Wireless”. That has to be what I need, right? Wrong. That just allows you to turn wireless and Bluetooth completely on and off. Okay, let me get back to those original search results to make another choice. Except you can’t. Try swiping in from the left, nothing. Try Charms > Search, and Search remembers that you were on Settings, but all the results are gone. Every time I wanted to try another one of the 13 choices, I had to do Start, type “wireless” again, and touch Settings again. Annoying.
The other frustration here was that 7 of those 13 choices threw me into desktop mode into dialogs like Network Connections that are not touch-friendly (no pinch-zoom). Experiences like this are what cause people to describe Windows 8/RT as having a split personality, and not in a good way.
The Settings experience in Windows 8/RT desperately needs to be “re-imagined.” Settings need to be streamlined, and a Windows RT tablet should be completely configurable without leaving the Metro side.
Unable to solve my problem, I decided to try a Surface support chat. The first question I was asked was, “Can your other devices connect to your wireless network?” My immediate answer was “Duh, yes,” as my wife had reported no problems with her wireless-only iPad (and I’m always the first to know). So I checked my phone, and lo and behold, it was not connected to wireless. The support person said that some wireless networks limit the number of connected devices, and she was dead right. I found a connected device to disconnect, retried Surface, and it connected. Score 1 for Surface support.
I got another negative first impression when I rotated my Surface 90 degrees. The display hesitates for a second, so you’re not sure it supports rotation, and then it shrinks a little, and then flashes to the other orientation.
The iPad and even Windows Phone smoothly animate this rotation transition, which contributes significantly to the coolness factor of those devices. Windows RT opted for Milquetoast.
There are other problems with rotation. Today I opened my Surface and was greeted with an upside-down lock screen:
It’s not hard to tilt Surface 45 degrees and back to fix it, but, to use Donald Burr’s example from People Express airlines, it’s that coffee stain on the tray table that makes you wonder if the engine maintenance is getting done.
Content Consumption and Creation
Once past these issues, I was able to configure my Microsoft Account and get my two Hotmail and one Exchange (for work) e-mail accounts configured.
Next came app search and installation. Kindle, Wordament, Skype, Skydrive (or was that preinstalled?), check. I was pleasantly surprised to see an official Wall Street Journal app, so I grabbed it. My RSS feed reader of choice, Nextgen Reader, was not yet available (that changed a few days later), so I got Modern Reader, plus I installed the Rowi Twitter client.
My plans for putting the Surface through its paces during the week were as follows:
- Pass the time on my flights to and from Seattle.
- Take copious notes during the sessions at //build/.
- Take notes on my experiences with Surface as I went through the week to provide feedback to Microsoft and possibly write a blog post.
- Skype daily with my wife and son and keep up with work e-mail, personal e-mail, my news feeds, and the few folks I follow on twitter.
- Take some pictures with my Canon camera, upload them to Surface and share them out to e-mail or Facebook.
- Browse the Internet both in the evenings and during sessions if I wanted to look something up.
My list clearly includes both content creation and consumption.
For me, the Surface was a joy to use in-flight. The display is stunning. With kickstand out and keyboard engaged, Surface fits perfectly on a seat-back tray table. There was even a little lip at the back of the tray tables on the Boeing 757’s that the kickstand could rest up against. And the viewing angle was very good for me. I’ve seen a complaint in a review from a tall person that the viewing angle is too severe, and I can understand that. At 5’6”, though, I did not have this problem. Finally, an advantage to being short.
On my flight out to Seattle, I mostly just played around with the Windows 8 UI and played around with OneNote MX to get familiar with it so I’d be ready for note-taking, as well as typing to get used to the Touch Cover keyboard. Let’s talk about that a bit.
The Touch Cover Keyboard
For me, “clicking” the keyboard into the Surface has been easy and convenient, if not quite as easy as the commercials. I seem to need two clicks: The first click gets the keyboard attached and lined up, but it is not fully connected. It seems to need a second push to get seated completely. I did not consider this to be a big deal; it is still very easy and satisfying.
After 3 or 4 days of using the Touch keyboard off and on, I could type pretty consistently with it sitting on a flat surface. I am a touch typist, and I can now type quite quickly, especially the 26 letters and 10 numeric digits. The Shift keys have been a challenge to get used to. I find I often hit Ctrl or Caps on the left or Enter on the right when I mean to hit Shift. Backspace, minus and equals are also keys that I frequently miss.
Typing notes in the conference sessions had an additional challenge: There were no tables, so I had to rest Surface on my lap. That made me glad that the Touch keyboard is solid rather than flexible. In general, Surface worked better than I expected on my lap. Again, I’m short, so the display angle worked for me, and, while I was less efficient on the keyboard (I seemed to miss the space bar a lot), performance was acceptable.
I did find that from time to time, my cursor would jump to a random location and I’d be typing in the wrong place. Or, worse, the location would move while I had the shift key down, causing a block of text to get selected and my typing to wipe it out. This was caused, of course, by my thumb touching the track pad on the keyboard by accident.
No problem, right? Just go disable the track pad. Every laptop I’ve ever used has had the ability to disable the track pad.
Not the Surface. There is no way to disable the track pad. I spoke to an employee at the Bellevue, WA Microsoft Store who said this has been a frequent complaint, so maybe this will get fixed. Update: @chinhdo on Twitter informed me that I disable the track pad by disabling HID-compliant mouse under Mice & other pointing devices in Device Manager. That worked.
I also got a chance to play with the Type Cover keyboard at the Microsoft Store, and it was very nice. I suspect I will switch from Touch Cover to Type Cover. Plus, Type Cover has a ridge below the space bar that may help keep my thumb away from the track pad.
Power and Battery Life
Battery life was outstanding all week. I left in the morning with a full charge, took notes in 5 or 6 hour-long sessions plus used Surface in between, and still had battery life left when I got back to my hotel. I worked on this article for 5 hours on flights home and still had 50% battery life left when I got home.
When I saw that the Surface was going to have a magnetic power connector, I was excited. After using it for a week, my excitement has been tempered. Even though it is magnetic, it still has to fit into a little slot, and it takes some fiddling most times to get it seated in there. Needs some tweaking for Surface 2.
I used the Metro Skype application every day to Skype with my family back home over the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel wireless. It worked flawlessly. I love the simplicity of the interface. There is not much more to say.
I’m not going to lie: After using the Metro version of Internet Explorer in the pre-release builds of Windows 8 (on non-touch systems), I swore I was going to stick with desktop IE. This mostly had to do with Favorites, which Metro IE had no support for early on, and Microsoft was not saying “we’re working on it”. By RTM, Favorites support was there, sort of. Favorites are shared with desktop IE, but Favorites in Metro IE are just a flat list. The hierarchical organization is lost.
Also, it troubled me that the Back and Forward buttons were down in the App Bar, so I had to right-click to bring that up before hitting Back (I was not using a touch device).
After using Surface for a couple days, though, I found that I had no interest in using desktop IE. The controls in desktop IE are too small for touch, and quite frankly I had gotten used to swiping in from the right to do Search in other apps, which desktop IE does not support of course. Having the tabs hidden in the App Bar did not bother me as much as I thought it would.
Then, mid-week, someone showed me that swiping across to the right in Metro IE does Back and swiping across to the left does Forward. So the issue of the Back and Forward buttons being in the App Bar went away.
I also really like the ability to pin web sites to the Start screen. I like the Twitter web site better than the available third-party Twitter clients, so I just pinned www.twitter.com to Start. This means I start Twitter the same way I would if it was an app (and apparently it soon will be).
For the tablet form factor, Metro IE works for me. At some point it will annoy me that the hierarchical structure of my Favorites is not available to me, and I would like to see Microsoft address this. But it is nowhere close to being a deal breaker.
Hold That Pose
I’m not satisfied with cell phone camera pictures, so I bring along a Canon Powershot G12 camera when I travel. I took it with me to Seattle and snapped some pictures during the day. When I got back to the hotel, I plugged the camera into the USB port on the Surface. The Surface found my camera, opened the Photos app and offered to download the pictures. As the suggested folder for the import, I was offered that day’s date in the form “2012-10-31”. I prefer to import to a month folder within a year folder, which would have been “2012\10” in this case, but the Photos app would not let me do that.
It was nice to have the option of a USB port to plug my camera into and download the photos, but the experience was muted somewhat by the extremely minimalistic nature of the Photos app. Maybe Microsoft is leaving this space to the camera vendors?
After downloading, I found a picture I wanted to share and opened the Share charm. Facebook was not in the list of apps I can share with, which was not surprising since there is no Facebook app for Windows 8 yet. I hope that’s coming soon, as this is incredibly easy and convenient from my Windows Phone. But sharing via e-mail worked as expected.
What Time Is It?
Another opinion I had formed using prerelease builds of Windows 8, again on non-touch devices, was that Microsoft should have put a clock on the Start screen, rather than making me invoke the Charms to get to it. Bringing up Charms on a non-touch device is not trivial: mouse to the upper right corner or use the Windows+C hot key.
After using Surface for a while, though, I see that having the time (and battery state) display with the Charms was the right choice. When I’m reading e-mail or typing notes in OneNote MX and need to check the time, I just swipe in from the right and there it is. If I had to go to Start to see it, I would have to switch away from the app I was using and switch back, which would be very disruptive. I stand corrected.
You’ve Got Mail
I’m going to cut to the chase here: The Mail app in Windows 8/RT is extremely disappointing.
The Mail app started out bad in the Developer Preview release of Windows 8. I could never get my non-Hotmail Windows Live account to even work with it. Things barely improved with Consumer Preview or even the RTM build. I caught myself thinking, “I’ll bet they’ve got a really slick e-mail client but they are holding it close to the vest until the official Windows 8 release!” Boy, was I naïve. When the Mail app was updated after Windows 8 RTM, my account problem was fixed, but otherwise the app was still weak. Partly, my feelings about the Mail app come from the fact that I use the Mail app on Windows Phone, and I love that app. Most of what I don’t like about the Windows 8 version are things that work differently on Windows Phone. Here are the specifics:
- Mail is just plain slow. The app is slow to load, and when you delete an item, it takes a long time for the Mail app to delete that item and then show the next item in the Preview pane. So, if you want to delete a whole series of items quickly, it takes forever. Deleting items on the iPad 2 is significantly faster.
- The color choices are poor, and there are no options to make it better. Specifically, there is not enough contrast between read and unread items in the list of messages. The text just looks gray and washed out. The font is also too small, especially for someone of my advanced age. I like the look of the iPad Mail client much better.
There is no multiple selection support whatsoever in the list of messages. Want to quickly select 5 items to delete? Good luck with that. Neither Ctrl+Click nor Shift+Click work. I can find no mode that puts check boxes next to the items for multiple selection, like Windows Phone has. Update: Commenter points out that you can swipe sideways individual messages to select more than one. That’s a big help. With the mouse, right-click does the same thing. So it’s the same selection mechanism as Start screen tiles, just sideways instead of down.
- One morning, I hit Reply All to respond to an e-mail, and the Mail app crashed. Brought it back up, did it again, crashed again. Restarted Surface, and after that, Reply All worked.
- I have 3 e-mail accounts, one work and two personal. I did figure out today how to give each account its own Live Tile, so that at least on the Start screen I can see the number of unread e-mails for each account. But on the Lock Screen, there is still on a single aggregate number. On my Windows Phone, each account gets its own number on the lock screen.
- In a received e-mail, there is no way I can find to add the sender as a contact. For both iPad and Windows Phone, the sender’s name is a link you can press and get the option to add as a contact.
- On Windows Phone, when I am typing a recipient’s name for an e-mail from my work account (Exchange), the Mail app gives me the option of searching my work account’s directory. Really handy. I do not see this option in the Windows RT Mail app.
- Pinch-zoom does not work when composing a message. It doesn’t work on the iPad either, but text size is larger on the iPad, so it’s not as big a deal.
Everyone knew that when Windows 8 shipped, the number and quality of apps in the Windows Store was going to be limited for a while. One way Microsoft could have mitigated this would have been to at least make their built-in apps solid, full-featured and high-quality from day one. Microsoft’s apps could be examples for other apps to follow just like the Surface itself is a model tablet for other OEMs. That did not happen.
The other thing that bothered me the first few days was that there was no touch way (that I knew of) to close Metro apps. I thought I had to bring up Task Manager. Then, the same guy who showed me the swipe gesture for Back/Forward in IE showed me that swiping from above the screen all the way to the bottom closes the active app. This revelation was big for me.
The Bottom Line
I’ve had a lot of negative things to say, so you might think I’m going to return my Surface, but I’m not (though I might exchange it for a 64GB Surface with Type Cover). Despite the rough edges, I am quite pleased with the overall Surface experience. The hardware is awesome, Windows RT is stable, and the Metro user interface creates a great tablet user experience. There is work to do to polish the experience, and the platform needs apps, but the Surface works well today as both a content creation and content consumption device. I’m looking forward to watching the platform develop over the next few years.