On the 1st January 2013 I purchased a Microsoft Surface RT. I purchased the 64GB version that comes with the touch cover. I didn’t purchase the expensive type cover. For those of you that are familiar with my experience with and comments regarding Windows 8 this should come as something of a surprise.
On the Windows 8 blog, on this blog and on the @softwareverify twitter feed I’ve been very critical of Windows 8, the lack of the start menu and how appalling the Metro user interface is on a desktop machine.
Ok, so given that I think Windows 8 desktop is a huge step backwards and I don’t like Metro on the desktop why would I spend money purchasing a Microsoft Surface RT tablet?
The reason I purchased a Surface RT is because I’d seen an early Microsoft tablet just after the Microsoft developer conference where they announced the Metro direction. I liked the tablet but I doubted they could make it work on the desktop. I was an early adopter of the Asus Transformer (a tablet that has a keyboard dock) and I thought it would be daft to miss the Surface experience. I don’t have an iPad, but I’ve seen plenty. My partner also has an iPad.
This won’t be an exhaustive review because that isn’t what I set out to do. I wanted to see if the Surface works for me. Many things that other people want from a tablet I probably don’t care about and I probably care about things that others don’t.
If you want a more in-depth review, try this another I’ve had a Surface for a month review. All of which I pretty much agree with.
The build quality is superb. I much prefer it to my partner’s iPad (4th generation). The case is tough, light and not flimsy at all. The 22′ tilt provided by the kick stand works well. It’s not going to be perfect for all uses, but works well on a desk, which it was probably intended for.
The USB port is great for plugging peripherals in. I tried a USB powered DVD drive which I normally use with my x86 netbook. The Surface recognised it instantly and allowed me to read the DVD with no problems at all, from both Metro and the Desktop.
The screen is fantastic. Yes, I know it doesn’t have the resolution of the latest iPad. Frankly, if you’re looking at it you can’t tell. The screen construction techniques mean the screen is better than the iPad screen and combine that with Microsoft’s font rendering technology and you’ve got an excellent experience. Couple that with viewing angles to die for and you’ve got a really nice experience. You can watch video from really oblique angles and still see the action with no colour distortion, unlike any other computer (any OS, any vendor) I’ve seen.
The keyboard attaches to the Surface via single magnetic connector. The magnetic keyboard attachment is solid and clunks into place with a firm snap, first time, every time. Fold the keyboard under the Surface and the screen keyboard takes over. The keyboard, although thin and part of the cover works just fine. I prefer it to the keyboard on my Asus Transformer.
When you type, either on the keyboard or the screen keyboard each key has it’s own audio sound played via the speakers. The keys are divided into groups, so letters have one sound, navigation keys another, delete and return another etc. This is very useful and adds to the UX. You very quickly get useful feedback for how your typing is going. The sounds are not unique though so someone can’t audibly eavesdrop on your typing.
The built in mousepad works well enough. Surprisingly good considering the size of it and the form factor.
Battery life is excellent. On standby it seems to last forever, unlike my Asus Transformer. In use I seem to get a day or more out of it between charges. Can’t fault it. Does what it says on the tin.
I don’t like the power adapter. Microsoft have been too clever here. It’s a magnetic power adapter. It can be attached either way around. It would have been good if the manual had said that. The first time I went to charge the Surface I had to search the web to check it was safe to plug in either way around. The last thing you want to do is throw £559 away just because you plugged it in the wrong way around.
Plugging it in can be awkward. Most times it just attaches and starts charging but occasionally it can be finicky and just won’t connect. And no matter how hard you push it won’t connect. You have to disconnect and then try again. Doesn’t happen often but when it does it can be very annoying and waste a bit of time. I’m not fat fingered. I play mandolin and bagpipe. I am dextrous. This isn’t a problem of a clumsy user. It’s a problem of a not quite right power adapter.
And once you have it plugged in how do you tell if it’s charging? Well the obvious place would be a charging led on the Surface itself. This is standard convention on mobile phones, all other tablets, laptops, netbooks, etc. Typically two or three colours (low, medium, full charge). The Surface? Not a chance. No leds on the Surface. The charging led is on the end of the power adapter next to the magnetic attachment. Which means until you notice it you won’t see it, especially if you’ve oriented the power adapter to face down (if you have it on the kickstand when you are charging). In my case, I again resorted to the web to check if there was a charging led, finally found it. Multi-colour? Nope. Just white.
I also don’t like that the charging led is not on the Surface because what if there is a problem with the attachment such that the led illuminates but it doesn’t charge the Surface? If the led was on the Surface you’d know for sure that power was getting through. As it is you just have to trust that the cable is OK and that the Surface is charging.
Summary: Fiddly attachment. Led in wrong place. Led should be bi-colour or tri-colour. Far too clever for their own good.
User Experience, Metro
The Metro user experience is superb. Metro with a touch screen just works. The various slide in from the side operations and left-right-left to reveal the running tasks is so easy to learn. It seems very natural when you do it with touch. I much prefer this to Android or iOS. You can also kill any running Metro application by simply sliding from the top to the bottom of the screen. Simple, easy, efficient.
I also like that when you swipe from the right it displays the charms bar on the right (search, settings, etc) and also the time and battery life on the left. Any running application keeps running. So you can do this in the middle of a live streaming broadcast to get a quick idea of the time then swipe to the right to dismiss it. Two swipes with a minor pause between and you’ve just seen the time. Really simple and easy.
When you drop out of a Metro app it effectively stops running. Go back to it and it’s running. This works brilliantly with applications such as Netflix which instantly restart. Even if you put it into standby then bring it out of standby, it restarts, which in the case of Netflix is a brilliant user experience.
Internet explorer is a great user experience with Metro, the various swipes/slides working together really well. I particularly like the ability to pin a web page to the Start Screen. I’ve pinned BBC iPlayer, The Times, The Guardian, The Economist, various technology blogs, Business of Software video page, etc to the Start Screen and then moved all the pinned tiles into logical groups. Very, very nice touch.
I didn’t even bother using the Desktop version of Internet Explorer. Why would I bother when the Metro experience is so good?
I think putting the “go forward” navigation button on the right handside of the display is a blunder. I always look to the left to locate this. It should be on the left of the navigation bar, to the right of the “go backward” button. Just like in every other browser. The fact it’s a tablet doesn’t change this. I lose more time looking for the button that I would possibly save by having it under my right thumb. Yeah, people navigate by thinking which thumb a button is under? Really?
Flash support is better than for say the iPad but not as good as the Asus Transformer (an Android tablet), in that some websites can display Flash content (for example WordPress and YouTube), but others cannot (Channel Five television – a UK channel). Why not? Who knows. This is just sheer stupidity on Microsoft’s part. There is no value to be gained and much to be lost by banning support Flash from arbitrary websites. So if I want to catch up with something Channel 5 show I have to use my PC or my Android tablet. How daft is that? I’m going to watch it anyway, so let me watch it on my Surface.
Mail, People, Skydrive
I haven’t really had a need for these, so can’t comment on them.
I found the Maps application to be useful. It seems to match Google Maps for the tasks I need.
The app store works. People complain that there are only 25,000 applications in the store. Do you really have time to choose from that many applications? The fact that iOS/Android have more is simply an I’m bigger than you contest. It’s meaningless. What matters is are there apps you can use and are they of good enough quality? So far I’ve been able to find apps to do what I want and yes they’ve been OK, some have been excellent. This can only get better over time.
I downloaded apps from Amazon, Kindle, Ebay, Netflix, TeamViewer, RemoteDesktop, MetroTwit, The Economist, etc. No problem with these.
When downloading an application rather than having an “it’s working” indicator it would be useful and sensible to have a progress bar so you can see how long it is taking to download the software. Both Android and iOS have this. Surface doesn’t.
I also found that the Store would often fail to download an application, or would say it had lost it’s connection to the Internet far too easily (when you checked the ‘net was always there). This marred the store experience on occasion.
Occasionally you’ll find an application is misbehaving. This is easy to solve. Simply swipe from top of screen to bottom. The app is killed. Simply restart from the start screen.
On two occasions, once after configuring the WiFi and once after some software updates I found the networking would not work. Simply rebooting (or powering down then back on) resolved the problem. Interestingly you find the power button is under settings. In Windows 8 on a desktop this seems (and is) nonsensical. However for a tablet this works nicely – keeping a dangerous action like this hidden away from accidental triggering.
User Experience, Desktop
The desktop experience, as with Windows 8, is still appalling. It doesn’t work well with touch. And without a Start Menu you are lost as you can’t find anything with a mouse. So then you are stuck with the Start Screen, which for working with the desktop is a waste of space. You lose your context when you switch to the start screen from the desktop. Search results are gone when you go back to it from the desktop. It’s broken.
And worse than that because you can’t load your own ARM compiled applications you are stuck to doing whatever you can do with the version of Microsoft Office that comes pre-installed. I don’t have a use for office. For me I’d like to install a couple of my own applications compiled for ARM and possibly a non-Metro email client (Thunderbird, again compiled for ARM).
Frankly without a start menu to get quick and easy access to the programs I want it’s too hard to use. The Start Screen is just a hopeless way to work with the desktop:
- Go to search, then find Apps, then scroll right, then hunt around until you find the icon, if you are lucky enough to have that program listed.
- Type the name of the program, assuming you know the proper name of the program.
The first method is painfully slow. The second method requires me to remember the names of lots of programs I don’t know the names of. I just know the human readable name and the desktop icon. Trivially easy from the desktop and start menu. Slow, tedious, error prone or impossible using Metro.
The good folks over at XDA-Developers have worked out a hack that will allow you to load and run ARM compiled binaries on the Surface RT.
The main problem is I don’t want (or need) to learn a new desktop working behaviour when I already have one that is very efficient. The Windows 8 method is really slow, labourious and actively gets in my way. This will never work. Microsoft would do better to realise that the Desktop and Metro are two separate ways of working and they should modify things to allow Desktop users to work in ways that are effective for the desktop without imposing Metro on them. And vice-versa for Metro users.
Do I like the Surface RT?
Yes. Very much. Despite my criticisms this is an excellent tablet. Microsoft have made some stupid decisions, mainly for ill advised market segmentation reasons, to do with the desktop. But I didn’t buy it for the desktop. I expected the desktop to be unusable without the start menu and I was right. I bought it for the tablet experience, which is excellent.
I’ve had my Asus Transformer since it was launched. I use it occasionally, but the not so good standby time and the dreadfully short charging cable meant that I pretty much left it in one place in the house. My Surface RT however gets carried all over the place, it’s thinner, lighter, better screen, better UX.
Should I have purchased an iPad 4th gen? No, I don’t think so. My partner has one of those and she is happy with it. But I prefer the UX on the Surface RT (if we put the desktop abomination to one side, seeing as the iPad doesn’t have that anyway).
So there you have it. I still hate the Windows 8 Desktop experience that forces me fight Metro. But when using the Surface as tablet I love Metro. Metro just does not and never will work well with a mouse. Just don’t even waste your time trying.
This is a wasted opportunity for Microsoft. Great hardware marred by stupid software decisions.
People want a full day battery life tablet. The Surface RT is that.
Microsoft should stop with the stupid marketing tricks and allow side loading of ARM compiled Desktop applications on the Surface RT. Then business customers could have a full day tablet that can do their work. The Surface Pro doesn’t provide this.
Microsoft need to sort out their marketing. So far it’s been so bad it’s been invisible.
If my experience with the Surface RT is anything to go by the Surface Pro will be a hit. Shame about the battery life.
Things to fix:
- Start menu on the desktop.
- Allow ARM compiled applications on the desktop.
- Flash support for all websites.
- Power led.
- Power adapter.
- Stop trying to shoehorn desktop users into the same paradigm as Metro (for any version of Windows 8, Surface or PC). It doesn’t work.