I didn’t pre-order a Microsoft Surface, much to the surprise of many who know me. I wanted to know more information than was available at launch. About a week later I’d heard enough to place an order, and I’ve now been carrying it around with me for enough time to give an opinion…
OOBE & Setup
Let’s start at the beginning. The Surface has some nicely designed packaging, although nothing that I wouldn’t expect from a premium product. I especially like it when tape inside packaging has non-stick tabs at end, so you don’t have to start digging away at it with your finger nails.
Assuming you login with a Microsoft Account that you’ve already been using elsewhere, especially if you’ve linked it to services like Facebook, the Surface starts personalising to you straight away. It’s similar to the way Windows Phone works. In addition, if you’ve been using Windows 8 on another device, it’s a doddle to reinstall the same apps from the Windows Store (launch the Store, drag down from the tops of the screen, select Your Apps, choose the ones you want again from the list and hit Install).
One of the first things that I did was install updates as I wanted to get Office up to the final version. As the Office update was an optional update, it isn’t offered when you run Windows Update. You actually have to find “Install optional updates” in Settings; if you go to the metro-style Windows Update or “Check for updates” you aren’t going to see it. I expect that a lot of people are going to miss optional updates because of this. In fact, as I was typing that, I searched for optional updates on my Win8 desktop and found 2 driver updates that I knew nothing about.
On the subject of updates, it seems to take a lot longer to install updates on the Surface than on any other device I can recall. That’s not indicative of the overall performance of the device, which I’m generally happy with.
I read somewhere that it will take you a couple of days to get used to typing on the Surface’s Touch Cover (if you choose that option, like me). It’s going to be a very subjective thing, because it matters a lot how you type. I can touch-type pretty quickly, although down to an arthritic condition I prefer keys that don’t have much travel. The keys on the Touch Cover have no travel at all, and I found that I was able to type at near-full-speed almost straight away. I haven’t had any problems with using the shift or ctrl key combinations at all. The only issue that I occasionally have is missing the space bar.
The fact that the dimensions of the Surface allow for a full-sized keyboard make it much better to use than the competition. The Surface’s keyboard covers, combined with the kick-stand (which does almost work as well on my lap as on a table and is nicely robust) mean that you get some of the advantages that a laptop normally has over a tablet, with the additional flexibility of being able to remove the keyboard or just fold it round the back.
One of the reasons that I didn’t initially pre-order the Surface was because I was thinking that I’d prefer the higher resolution screen on the Surface Pro when it’s released. I needn’t have been concerned about that because the screen on this thing is beautiful. I’m not one of these people who’s going to dig into detail on that, but the colours are good, blacks look pretty black and text looks really nice, with smooth curves.
A funny thing has happened to me with the Windows Start screen over the time that I’ve been using the Surface. Initially I was disappointed at the number of tiles that are on the screen at any one time because of the resolution on the screen. Compared to my desktop with a mammoth widescreen, I was seeing so much less – up to 24 small tiles (although I have a mix of large and small), compared to a potential 78 small tiles! Now I like having live data on my tiles, and I like a reasonable amount of data density (I’m very happy with the new Windows Phone for that reason), but I now feel like there’s too much going on with the Start screen on my desktop and I’ve grown very accustomed to the density on the Surface.
The Surface RT has a micro-HDMI output, so you can connect to an external display (I bought a cheap cable from Amazon, not the expensive one that Microsoft will sell you). Here you have the option to duplicate or extend your screen (or just use the external display). I did initially wonder whether the extend option would be much use on Windows RT since (as with Windows 8) you can only display the modern UI and apps on one display at a time, with the second display just showing the desktop, and there aren’t many things you can use on the desktop on Windows RT. It would really be nicer if you could have a different Windows Store app running on each of the displays. Assuming that the desktop will eventually disappear, and knowing that multi-monitor support is going to be a feature in Windows going forward, I expect that there’s a team in Redmond already working on this.
I should say at this point that I don’t need a whole load of apps. I use Office (although it’s a shame Outlook is missing from the bundle that comes with RT), a decent browser and a Remote Desktop – I’ll come on to those last two later. Incidentally, the lack of Outlook is brought into sharper focus because the Mail app is so bad – I’ll be keeping an eye out for a better alternative but at the moment OWA/Outlook.com are better options!
I’m not going to talk about the availability of apps. There aren’t as many at present as there are for other platforms. The number is going to change daily and it’s only a matter of time before the Store gets fleshed out – this is Windows, after all!
HOWEVER, not every app that’s in the Store on Windows 8 is in the Store on Windows RT. I don’t know if the reverse is also the case, and I don’t know how big the difference is; I only noticed that some things like Microsoft’s Minesweeper and Mahjong games aren’t there when I search on my Surface (since I started writing this Minesweeper has arrived; not so Mahjong). I don’t know whether that fact has been published and I’ve just missed it, but it certainly wasn’t something that I was consciously aware of.
The ability to multi-task, with snapped apps, is one of the things that makes this a legitimate productivity device for me.
I’ve already found several sites that aren’t whitelisted to use IE10’s built in Flash functionality. I expected that would happen, and I’m generally in favour of the approach that Microsoft have taken here, but it can be frustrating if there’s a specific Flash site you want to use that Microsoft hasn’t got whitelisted. Happily there’s currently a workaround, so you can whitelist something yourself – http://thenextweb.com/microsoft/2012/11/05/how-to-use-microsofts-own-whitelisting-feature-to-enable-flash-on-the-metro-version-of-ie10/ – your mileage may vary. I’ve also come up against a site that required Silverlight. There’s some confusion if you search online about this; allow me to clear that up – you can’t install Silverlight on Windows RT. Not on the metro IE 10; not on the desktop IE 10.
I don’t like the Music app. It seems to focused on the Xbox Music content and not the music that you have on the device. The Video app has a similar problem, but it’s not as much of a problem because I typically launch it to watch one video and I don’t need to worry about playlists or anything like that. I expect that I’ll be using a different media player app going forward. I’ve started using Multimedia8, which I consider a better alternative to Music and Video, but not perfect. At least it supports subtitle tracks for foreign movies.
Having the grown-up Microsoft RDP clients is what makes the Surface RT a viable device for work for people like Sys Admins (and PowerShell, of course). On Windows RT you get both mstsc.exe and the modern Remote Desktop app from the Store. The new app is actually fairly nice, letting you manage multiple RDP sessions the same way as you work with multiple tabs in IE 10. One area that I expected to have a better experience was that of Remote Apps. The new Remote Desktop client appears to be the same as the app in the store on Windows 8, but either it isn’t, or it doesn’t behave in the same way. If I try to connect the same way as I do from my Win8 desktop, it just doesn’t work.
And just so it could call me a liar, when I tried one last time to get Remote Apps to work just before I posted this, it worked fine. I don’t think that there was an update to the Remote Desktop app in the meantime, and I’m sure there wasn’t a change on the back-end server. I know I didn’t have any typos in the path. Now it just works. Which is nice, because I know that the recently released Citrix Receiver app doesn’t work with the version of XenApp that we’re running!
Printing via Devices charm feels unintuitive to me, but once you get your head around the idea, it makes sense – it’s only because I’m used to years of selecting Print from the File menu. The functionality of the Share and Search charms is good and it’s only going to improve as more apps add contracts. That said, you do have to be a bit careful when you’re using the Share charm – if you accidentally take focus away from the pane that it pops up, you’re going to have to start over again, so there’s no option to compile a tweet and quickly switch to IE to check the spelling of a name or hashtag before you send it. I would personally prefer to have the sharing app pop up in the snapped position properly, rather than just as an overlay, so that it multitasks properly.
Not relating to Charms, something else that I find a bit confused about the Windows RT experience is doing multiple selections by touch. On the Start screen, you drag tiles down a bit; in Mail you drag messages to the right a bit; in the Your Apps list in the Store, you just tap each item. There’s no consistency, although I can see why the different methods are necessary because of the context. It just means that each time you find a new place you want to do multiple selections, you’re going to have to work out how to do it in that instance. I found the different methods relatively easily, but I expect others may struggle more.
Having a normal USB port, and a load of device class drivers is a massive win for this device. I can plug in a USB hard drive or a thumb drive to transfer content to and from the device very easily (the presence of the full File Explorer, giving you control of the storage is important too). I can connect my camera without the use of an additional adapter. I can connect to a printer, via USB or wirelessly without any additional software. Heck, if I wasn’t perfectly happy with the Touch Cover for either mouse or keyboard, I’d just plug one in and use that – no need to waste battery on Bluetooth. Here’s an exciting prospect for gamers too – you can use an Xbox 360 controller with the Surface – Boom! Headshot!
I only went for the 32GB version of the Surface, because I was able to add a 64GB micro SD card to store all my files for not a lot of money. It’s worth noting that the metro-style apps usually expect files to be in your Libraries. If you’re going to store them on SD, you need to use this trick to include the removable content in the Libraries: http://winsupersite.com/article/windows8/surface-tip-microsd-content-libraries-metro-apps-144658
While the Surface comes with the internal drive encrypted with BitLocker, it doesn’t offer the option to BitLocker your SD card. That’s a bit annoying, but not too much of a problem if you can pop that SD card into a Windows 7/8 computer and do it there. There are some instructions to do that here: http://garfoot.com/blog/2012/11/securely-extending-surface-rt-with-an-sd-card-and-bitlocker/
Microsoft have published a site listing hardware compatibility with Windows RT: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/winrt/CompatCenter/Home. Sadly it doesn’t support a WD 1TB USB3 HDD that I use at work, although I’ve tried other USB3 devices and they work fine, so that’s just unfortunate for me. Hopefully there’ll be a driver update that will fix that before long (I’ve already upgraded the firmware on the drive to the latest version).
People need to be aware that Windows RT is not Windows 8, and that the Tegra3 chipset, as good as it is, is not as powerful as modern x64 chips. I can comfortably get by with what Windows RT offers for a portable device, but I couldn’t get away with it if I didn’t also have a powerful desktop running Windows 8. Incidentally, this stuff isn’t in Windows RT: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-CA/windows/rt-disclaimer
Overall, I think this is an excellent personal device (for me). The fact that you can have multiple user accounts on the device makes it suitable for sharing too; with family members, for example. I still wouldn’t buy dozens of them to hand out in an organization (I’d prefer to look at the Surface Pro for that, so that it can be domain-joined and managed with Group Policy), but I personally won’t be using a laptop anytime soon. I also won’t be using an iPad or Android tablet either. I actually think that the iPad is a great device for a lot of people, especially the people who I wouldn’t trust to use a computer without regularly needing help. Obviously the other tablet OS’s have more apps available, but the thing about those numbers is that after the apps that you want are there, it doesn’t matter how much other crap is available. To my mind, Apple need to start really innovating with iOS or their dominant position in the market is going to get eroded before long.
Incidentally, I drafted most of this post in OneNote on the Surface.