How bad is the Surface RT?

I have just read this piece on Slate entitled Why is the Surface so bad? after using the device for most of yesterday, on a train and at a technical event.

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Oddly, I like the Surface RT increasingly, though I too am puzzled by some of its shortcomings.

Here are some of the issues I am aware of:

  • The apps. This is the biggest issue. Where are the delightful apps? For example, the mail client is barely adequate. The music app is annoying, though there is plenty to stream if you have an Xbox Music Pass. It cannot play FLAC files, which I use for my Squeezebox-based system at home.

    How hard is it for a company the size of Microsoft to write a superb mail app and a superb music app for its critical new product? I would guess that a small fraction of the advertising budget would have been enough. Why was there no one at Microsoft with the guts to throw them back at the team that developed them and say, “Not good enough, we do not have a product.”

  • Performance is so-so. It is not terrible in my experience, but at times makes you wonder if Windows 8 is too much on a Tegra 3; or whether it needs a whole lot more optimisation. Battery life is also OK but could be better. I got 7 hours or so yesterday, with wi-fi on constantly, and some of the time powering a phone being used as a wi-fi hotspot.
  • I got errors updating Microsoft Office. Mostly fixed by exiting the Office Upload Center. There’s no excuse for that. This is the appliance model. Microsoft knows exactly what hardware I have and what software I have, and has locked it down so I can only install sandboxed apps from the Store. Testing various update scenarios is easy.
  • For that matter, why is there an Office Upload Center? It is dreadful error-prone software. Dropbox has no Upload Center. Is it so hard to sync documents with SkyDrive or SharePoint – how long has Microsoft been batting at this problem?
  • I am concerned by reports of early keyboard disintegration, though mine is still OK

Enough griping though. Here is why I like this device.

First, I have no problem with the weight and I like the solid feel of the unit. The Surface is compact. The Surface with its keyboard is about 350g lighter and 4mm slimmer than my Samsung Slate without a keyboard; I am including the cover because I would never travel with a slate without a cover.

Second, unlike the Slate (magazine) reviewer, I do think the keyboard cover is a breakthrough. The Touch keyboard provides a usable full keyboard and trackpad while not adding any significant bulk; it forms a useful cover when closed, and when folded back it does not get in the way while you use Surface as a slate. I find myself using it in Slate mode frequently. Do not believe those who say you need keyboard and mouse to operate a Surface; there is only an argument for this if you never venture out of the desktop.

I can do more than occasional typing on the Touch keyboard; it is fine for longer documents as well.

Third, I can do real work with the Surface. Yesterday I sat with Surface on my lap, typing notes into Word, with Mail docked to the left, and Twitter open in desktop IE alongside Word. For all its faults, I found that the Surface worked well in this context.

Fourth, if you know Windows, there are things you can do that are difficult with other tablets. VPN to my office and remote desktop to a Windows 7 machine there is built in and works well. SharePoint via WebDAV is a shortcut in the Windows File Explorer.

Of course you could do all this with a laptop. So why not have a laptop, which you can buy for less money than a Surface? It is certainly an option; but as I have adapted first to the Samsung Slate running Windows 8, and now to the Surface, I find laptops bulky and inconvenient. I think of a laptop more as I used to perceive a desktop PC, something which is best suited to permanent siting on a desk rather than being carted around.

Further, the Surface really is a tablet. Imagine you want to show some photos to a friend or colleague. On a laptop that is awkward. The keyboard gets in the way. On a tablet like the Surface it is easy; just open the folder in the full-screen photo app and swipe through the images, with the keyboard cover folded back. Pretty much any tablet will do that equally well – or better if you have a Retina iPad – but it shows that Surface is not just a laptop in disguise.

There are reasons why I get better results from the Surface than some. One is that I know Windows 8 well, having used it intensively for many months. Another is that I am familiar with Windows foibles, so when these appear in the Surface I am likely to know what to do. Of course they should not appear at all; see above.

Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.

Related posts:

  1. Microsoft Surface is coming: Windows, but not as you know it
  2. The Surface RT desktop: more here than I had expected
  3. Microsoft Surface has changed the Windows 8 conversation
  4. Tablets, laptops, smartphones: which form factors will win?
  5. The one thing missing from Windows 8 tablets announced so far: simplicity

12 thoughts on “How bad is the Surface RT?

  1. Chris Nahr

    The impression I’m getting from all those reviews is that the hardware is fine but much of the software wasn’t ready for launch. The released version is the one that should have been sent out to developers, six months or so in advance of the launch, and Microsoft should have spent the extra time polishing the user experience.

  2. johnny

    I do not feel so bad about the apps. I find both mail and music very nice, for a first version really not bad. I never heard of FLAC files and yeah, this app won’t play every format, but, I feel there will be something like a metro VLC player pretty soon, like so many apps that will come. Performance is an issue on ARM right now, but it’s not a fundamental flaw, just look at Windows Phone 8, same core, and it runs buttersmooth, so it’s probably driver issues 0r s0 that should be adressed pretty soon. Of course right now, it’s a compromised experience, but really, what else would you expect? The hardware is nice and the software will be fixed(don’t know about the Office upload center though, hope they let loose of desktop office better sooner than too late.)

  3. JimmyFal

    Tom was right, you do pretty much nail it here. I love the device but it is not quite ready for Mom time. Unless you teach Mom that when something goes wrong, which it occasionally does, then you have to close the app and open it back up, or turn off the device and turn it back on. (beats 5 minute boot times I guess.)

    I honestly thought that this RT version would be solid like the phone. I have to believe that squeezing the desktop experience in there is the cause of the “foibles”? Some have said to leave the desktop out. I think it is pretty obvious that they would have, had touch versions of everything been ready.

    They had to get it out the door, there was simply no time left to perfect it any longer. Lack of wrap around on mail text when I pinch to zoom is blowing my mind for some reason, but it’s here, it’s imperfect, and I’m glad they left the desktop in. Stability seems to have improved since system update last Friday. I actually get excited when I see system updates, and app updates now.

  4. joe mcc

    Seriously? A compliant about 7 hours of battery running WiFi constantly and powering your phone? That seems to be a stretch. 7 hours on wifi is great and rivals my iPad.

    1. Tim Post author

      Yes, I want a device I can use all day without thinking about battery life. 7 hours is not too bad, but not there yet.

  5. Bill Wardino

    My Surface was delivered the day it was releases to marketing. To say that I was excited, is to understate my enthusiasm. However, after just a few hours in my hands, I felt robbed. The software froze, my printer was incompatible, and even apps that were available for my Windows Phone 7.5 were inabsentia. I tweeted my dissatisfaction everywhere. I was hell-bent on returning the tablet, my frustration piqued by my recent experience with Windows 8 on my desktop. But since I put aside time to learn a few things about the new OS, I’ve come to love Windows 8 and the RT version on the Surface. Moreover, today I discovered that my printer is no longer incompatible! In short, the new desktop OS and the Surface require a short learning curve. Patience pays off!

  6. Mark

    One question:
    You State” The music app is annoying (Don’t agree , very nice IMO) , though there is plenty to stream if you have an Xbox Music Pass, ”

    I do not have any kind of subscription and I am able to stream all day or pick any artist and play albums without any issue, yes there is a short commercial every once in awhile . Just wondering. Maybe on its different.

  7. Scott

    I agree 100% with this response to the extremely poor attempt at a review on Slate. The guy obviously didn’t use the tablet.

    Software is the Surface’s biggest issue. I can get over the app store shortage, as that will repair in time. But, the built in apps? There is no excuse there. E-Mail should have been a trend setter, like the tablet itself. Instead it’s not even up to par with e-mail apps from 20 years ago! The build in core apps all are very short on must have features and simplicity. Microsoft obviously didn’t fully bake them before releasing. You’d think they’d have enough folks around to hash out some truely killer core apps along with the Surface. Speaking of killer apps, I really don’t feel there are any yet. Office is nice, but not full and not “metro” yet. And Angry Birds, that’s a joke right?

    Microsoft bit off quite a lot. They nailed it with hardware, and I can’t wait to see and use the Pro version of this tablet. But on the software side they tanked. And, this company’s core business is software. Go figure!

  8. idealphoto

    The problem is Metro. Get rid of that and put the tried and true desktop apps back in play. That just means adding Outlook and Media Player. Simple.
    Then allow developers to develop and deploy desktop apps instead of struggling with the reduced Metro (er Store) SDKs and we are all set.
    Oh. Wait. That is the Pro version.

    The junk on the Store must have the guys in Cupertino spitting up in their lattes.

    The incredibly incompetent email app makes you think it is intentional.
    Honestly, how long did they spend on that? Could not have been a week…
    When I am using the Desktop I love my Surface. When I have to go to Metro I just cringe.

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