David Coveney

Microsoft Surface RT Review

I don’t like to give product reviews. The professionals should do a better job than I would, but rarely seem to, and individuals often fail to see past their glee at getting a shiny thing that will almost inevitably be compared to something outdated which they’ve just replaced.

Surface Box

The good thing about working in web development is that our company has to have the latest big market devices around for testing. We got an iPad2 last year, which one of the guys grabbed pretty much for himself… more about why that happened later. This year it’s the Surface RT that came into the office. I’m nabbing this one, but it’ll get used comprehensively for testing. However, I have to do two things. First, I need to test just how usable a Surface RT is with the WordPress back-end, and second, I just feel like trying to clearly explain the real pros and cons of the system as I believe many have looked past why MS is often more successful than they expect. This isn’t going to be an easy review to write. I’ll structure it along conventional lines at the beginning, but then I’m going to go through its key differentiators over rival tablets.  But first, the rants.

It’s a Tablet, Dummy!

I’ve read some reviews that seem to treat Surface RT as if it were a full desktop machine. They complain they can’t install Photoshop. I mean, really? It’s a tablet, and it’s marketed as one. Perhaps when the Surface Pro comes out people will understand better, but I’d expect technology writers to know better, really. The fundamental thing to know is that RT is built as a lightweight, cut down device that has a long battery life and won’t be too heavy to cart around. Laptops have been ruining backs a while now, and there’s a genuine need to resolve that. Microsoft appear to have decided to create a device that can do other things than an iPad, the primary competitor. So let’s look at what the Surface RT can’t do especially well:

  1. Heavy processing – it’s got plenty of CPU cycles, but it’s no powerhouse. If transcoding videos or 3D design are your thing, then this will never help you.
  2. Limited applications – no doubt about it, the app store is limited. Today. If you really want some apps, then you’re a bit stuck. But if your device is all about surfing the net, reading some books, checking Facebook et al, then you’ll be fine. In time this should improve. Let’s not forget the iPad store was pretty barren on day one, but that didn’t make it a bad device.
  3. There’s a few bugs and optimisations clearly waiting to be applied, but generally things are pretty stable. They might frustrate beginners, however.

That’s about it – it’s a locked down tablet, like those from Apple and various other providers.

The ModernUI/Desktop Split Personality

This *is* a slight oddity, in my view. It seems less of an issue on a Windows 8 touchscreen laptop, for some reason, but it does give a strange feeling on a tablet. The desktop is only really there, I suspect, for compatibility reasons and in advance of the porting of various tools like Task Manager.  But let’s not forget how useful it also is – today I was able to install some fonts essential to our company branding so that my presentations looked right, and I got to map a network drive, meaning I can easily get at all our files on our company server. I couldn’t do everything, of course – I had a go at getting the server connector running so that I have automated backups of my machine, but that’s not compiled for ARM…and I’m not even sure that the system will let me install any desktop apps even if they’re compiled. It’s not a big issue, but you do feel tempted to get all hardcore when you see all the possibilities lying around. I’m probably better suited to a Surface Pro in the long run, but then they’re going to be heavier and hotter. Within the desktop you get a Student & Home Office Preview – the final cut not being ready yet. That’s reassuring, because some parts are clearly still in need of optimising. You lose out on macros and some power features, but you do have some pretty full feature applications there. Something unique to tablets. I suspect in time the modding community may come up with ways to install your own software on the desktop mode – notepad++ with Tortoise SVN could, alone, turn this into the machine that covers 90% of my use cases.

So Can You Work With Surface RT?

Why yes, yes you can! So long as you fulfil certain criteria and don’t want to do anything too high end. Word, OneNote, PowerPoint and Excel are all useful, especially with Skydrive syncing. It’d be nice to know if other desktop style apps will become available for the RT in the future. I have a 20MB Word document open right now, full of images and nearly 100 ages long. It’s not the quickest thing ever, but perfectly usable and I guess it’ll get better with time. Word, for me, is the killer app. I use it a heck of a lot and although I’m no power user I insist on building correctly structured documents so that I don’t waste time renumbering. I’ve spent good amounts of money on pre-prepared documents only to discover that although the content is fine it’s clearly put together by someone with no real knowledge of word processing. The Mail client is a full touch application, and it works fine. I’m a bit of an Outlook power user, so it’s not my favourite, but it’ll do. If your work can be done through a web browser without needing Flash then you’re definitely fine. For example, I spend a lot of time in WordPress back-ends. No problem there, and I’m inputting this document purely on my Surface using a touch cover. Which brings us neatly on to…

What’s The Touch Cover Like?

Well… it’s Okaaaay… but if you’re going to do a lot of typing you should probably buy a Wedge Keyboard and Mouse or consider the Type Cover. You do get a lot of miss-hits. I’m sure I’ll get better, but because you need to type away quite hard on it you’ll absolute hate somebody using one on the back of your plane seat. Seriously, don’t be that person rattling away there because somebody willkill you eventually.  At home or office the Touch Cover is quite usable. For a while. The trackpad and keyboard on the Touch Cover converts your Surface RT into something more of a mini laptop because you can do some things so much more quickly – selecting text, clicking on small targets on websites… all so simple. Not everything is touch optimised, and this machine does seem to accept that and gives you a comfortable workaround for the time being. The fact I can use the WP back end comfortably is very nice for me. The touch cover is better than you might think in other ways, however…for example, I’m sitting here on the flo0r right now while my baby Kolya plays with blocks. The touch cover and tablet are lying flat on my lap and I can rattle away at a decent rate of words. It’s almost better than using it at a desk, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The last thing to like is that it snap into position just beautifully, and because it makes a physical connection to the tablet, it connects immediately and suffers non of the lag or lack of awareness you get sometimes with wireless keyboards.

So What Can’t You Do?

Well, one of the things I wanted to do last night was to grab a movie off my phone, edit it, and upload it. I tried to see if I could do it on here, but no joy. I could grab the movie from my Skydrive and it’ll upload to Youtube, but if I want to edit it… there’s nothing pre-installed or available for free like Movie Maker. There is ArcSoft Showbiz which looks slick enough, but I’m trying to see what I can do without spending actual money… So in the end I fired up my laptop and used that. I also seem to have a problem that Windows Phone connector and my phone don’t talk to each other. Not sure if my phone needs the 7.8 update before that works or if it’s Windows Phone 8 only. Whichever it is, something’s amiss.

iPads are Lovely to Touch!

And so is the Surface RT. It’s clearly a quality item that’s had a huge amount of attention to detail. Whichever way you hold it (and no, portrait mode doesn’t feel weird at all for reading) it’s nice. The cover is carefully detailed and thought out, everything is well placed. It’s a premium item at a relatively low price. Not netbook price, but sits well alongside Apple’s tablets.

So Where is it Worse Than an iPad?

Apps. No doubt about it, there are a lot of simply superb apps for iPads that aren’t yet available for Windows 8′s modern UI or RT variants. Then there’s accessories – you can probably get some already, and a lot of things work that can look quite funny. I plugged in my headset I use for Skype calls, and it just worked. However, there’s no fancy docks, alternative cases and so on. I also think the software isn’t quite finished. For example, from the new UI you can add users, but removing them means firing up the classic Control Panel. I like the old Control Panel, but it’s something that’ll be confusing to non-geeks.

Where’s the Big Advantages

This is where it gets interesting, because the Surface RT has some key points ahead of an iPad which I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere else – at least, not properly.

Take a look at this screenshot:

Two things at the same time.

Two things at the same time.

What you see on the right is the end of the Abu Dhabi GP. On the left is my twitter stream. This is such a nice way of watching the GP that it’s almost favourable compared to normal TV+tablet, with the advantage that the TV stream can follow me around the house. As someone prone to itchy feet, this is a win.

But it brings up the key advantage of the Surface RT, in my view, compared to other tablets. And that is that it’s a more productive device. I can do stuff. It multi-tasks well – just like Windows 8 does, in fact, albeit with four relatively weedy cores as opposed to the two meaty HT cores on my laptop. But this thing weighs very little and has a battery that’ll last all day.

The key point to remember is that Surface RT is a mini-PC with all the advantages that brings. Some of the disadvantages too, to be fair, but there’s a real joy in having a device that has its eye set on productivity, which is what MS have always been about. A Surface Pro will have a heavier productivity angle, and a full blown convertible laptop will be the device of choice of someone needing to get a bit more hardcore with their work.

But on top of that you find all sorts of neat little things. For example, so long as my other Win8 machines are switched on I can view the photo libraries on them. I would love it if everything worked like that – being able to open documents remotely could be a life saver. It’s not intractable, of course – the machine does all the things you’d expect of a PC, including handling network shares, VPNs (but not mad proprietary ones yet) with aplomb – so you may well be able to hook into your office network just like on any other PC.

Try that with an iPad! Usable, but you can tell 1900x1200 is a big ask in MS Word. Excel just fine. Mouse, keyboard, hub and monitor support all perfect.

Try that with an iPad! Usable, but you can tell 1900×1200 is a big ask in MS Word. Excel just fine. Mouse, keyboard, hub and monitor support all perfect.

On top of that, you can also run your Surface in a proper multi-screen way. Connect to a projector (using an adapter lead, unless a mini-HDMI cable is handy) and use it for displaying PowerPoint slides in a proper presenter mode – so the travelling businessman has a useful tool there. Not only that,  but for fun I set up this machine as a full desktop device in the office, just to see what it was like. Word has been slated for poor performance, but that’s largely fixed – albeit not yet if you run it on a 1900×1200 24″ monitor! It really was a bit sluggish. Excel, however, was just fine, so the graphics copes well and it suggests that it’s just waiting for the Word developers to find the right optimisations for running on four small cores. Word is fine, incidentally, on the built-in screen – not sure where all the complaints came from.

Why Did Microsoft Do It?

I think I know why. Most OEMs, especially at the consumer level, sold devices so poorly set up, so full of crudware, that the Windows experience for many was quite poor. Corporates and pro users didn’t see this so much – I always bought machines with Pro versions of Windows and which generally cost more but would last longer too.  ThinkPads and high-spec Dells, mostly. They were generally easy to tidy up, but even some of those would come with awful anti-virus that ground your machine to a halt once a day.

MS faced a serious problem – especially in the tablet space – they needed to set a marker. They no doubt saw Google’s success with the Nexus lines which laid down standards for the OEMs to beat. In fact, for me, if I were to buy an Android device I would only consider Nexus, having felt burned by Motorola for their awful support of the Milestone I had.  My next phone soon after that was a Windows Phone 7 device and I’m delighted to find it still receives security and feature updates, two years later.

So MS simply had to show the OEMs the lead. They should innovate and make money through novel hardware – not through trying to write ropey software that barely works. They also need to write stable and secure drivers – most Windows crashes and freezes tended to be down to driver issues.

Would You Recommend It?

Yes, I would. It’s not perfect – I’ve noticed some bugs, including one that drained the battery and left me with a shiny place mat as a device. I’ve also suffered the sound bug where if you’re playing music and the device is asleep it seems to give just a bit too little power somewhere to play music smoothly. I’m hoping these things are sorted soon.

But on balance, the device works very well, is simple to use for most normal people, and is geeky enough for nerds like me. There are simple things for me that most will never need, like the ability to edit a hosts file for easy website testing – that’s really annoying on an iPad and requires the use of third party services that just aren’t as good. You can’t edit the hosts file for certain whitelisted sites, apparently, but I can live with that in return for fewer hacked PCs out there.

It’s a secure, but flexible platform that does stuff like support external hard drives (and have the ability to format them, etc), networks and real work which, at the same time is simple enough to give as a low-support machine to non-savvy relatives which will probably still be useful and secure in five years time when our old iPad will probably have been relegated to electronic picture frame status.

But you know what’s great? You can now go out and buy a Nexus, iPad or Surface and have a great machine capable of doing a heck of a lot. The Surface can probably do the most, and is undoubtedly the best for MS Office users, but you’ll need to wait a little for the rest of the software market to catch up. None of the devices will disappoint, and that’s truly wonderful.