Six months of Surface

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Consider this a long-term review. I bought a Surface RT last year, not too long after they were originally introduced through Microsoft’s retail stores. As I was working at a Microsoft Store, I had a pretty good idea of when it was safe to buy, since there were some teething issues to be sure. I’m still experiencing one of them, but more on that later.

Six months in, it’s been mostly a good ride. Mostly. First things first, this is a first-gen product running brand-new software. It’s that second point that the iPad didn’t suffer from, since iOS was fairly mature once enlarged to tablet size. I’ve written before how refreshing the new Windows is, and how forward-thinking Microsoft’s strategy is. Even though their execution leaves a little to be desired, Windows 8 and RT are the future of this platform and they’re not standing still. Frequent updates have been issued to keep them in good form performance- and security-wise.

 

Design

Surface RT is a beautiful device. There’s no way around it. Its rigid magnesium casing and kickstand are unique. It’s the only device that balances tablet and laptop in an unobtrusive way, without necessitating the need for a clunky dock. Touch and Type Cover are there when you need them, and they get out of the way quickly and without drama. I’m still experiencing an issue with my Surface where the logo is dissolving away from the back of the tablet, and it’s the second unit I’ve had to do so. The kickstand deploys with great confidence and has never accidentally snagged on something or endangered the device.

I, for one, am hoping that Panos Panay and his team stick with this screen size in future tablet devices. It’s a perfect balance between screen and keyboard size, making neither one too small or too big. They clearly did their homework when striking this compromise.

A lot of people don’t like Touch Cover. I would know, I helped introduce many people to it during the Surface launch. Working one-on-one with customers to set up their new Surface devices was occasionally frustrating (due to the stupid amount of updates and the slow store wifi) but mostly rewarding as they learned the new touch interface and how to get around. Many people opted for the “real” keyboard that Type cover offers, simply out of fear. Touch Cover is a huge step up from an on-screen keyboard and it’s a testament to its usefulness that I typed this entire review on it. No fooling. It’s a solution that Apple could have dreamed up had they thought more about how the entire device was going to be used. Instead, Apple’s official solution involves a not-so-smart cover and an external keyboard which (from my own experience) isn’t bag-friendly and often loses key covers in transit. Not to mention the shortcomings of iOS, but more on that later.

Support

Surface started off with some irritating bugs. One involved wifi, where it would simply lose its connection and require some fiddling to get back on a network. Another rendered its stereo speakers too quiet, and a fix was only offered up a few weeks ago. OS updates are frequent and usually do improve the experience.

App Store

It’s getting better, really. The store has only been open since late October and the selection is surprisingly decent. The core apps have improved dramatically from their original, occasionally frustrating versions. RT would be really useless if it weren’t for the Office apps and I’ve been impressed by the functionality. After using Office on Mac for so many years, I can understand why the Windows versions are still relevant. Office on Mac sucks and it’s a great experience on Windows.

OS

I like the new Windows. Coming from almost 10 years of Mac usage, it finally offers a pretty polished experience. The whole enchilada still isn’t where it will be, with its bifurcated desktop/start screen worlds touching too infrequently, offering up redundant options in some places. I like the gesture-heavy nature of the touch stuff, I like the unified Charms bar and super fast app switching and multitasking. The drivers available are pretty comprehensive and printer setup is a snap. Windows RT is exactly what I hoped the iPad was when it was introduced– a tablet computer. There’s a file structure (GASP!), a USB port, an SD card slot and they all work like you expect them to. There’s no awkward siloing of files from app to app. There’s no bending over backwards to save stuff locally. It just works like we’re used to things working on computers. It has handwriting recognition built in, too, for chrissakes. Even though the digitizer is basically fingers-only on this device, it opens the door for future RT devices to feature something that Apple seems to think is stupid and not worth their time. That’s a mistake, seeing how they keep touting finger-only screens as the way to go. Capacitive stylus sales prove that “if you see a stylus, they blew it” mentality is bunk.

From what we’ve seen of Windows 8.1, the operating system is getting better at a rapid clip. Exactly what needed to happen.

 

I like RT

I said it. I think it’s pretty neat that I have the NT kernel running on ARM hardware. Hopefully 8.1 makes it even better and I’m looking forward to checking out the 8.1 beta. I feel like this is Windows in its purest form, without the risk of viruses or other stuff gumming up the works. Apps have to be approved by Microsoft and it comes with Office built-in. Sweet. As a Mac person, all this stuff makes the platform highly approachable and completes the experience. I like that the hardware and software are made by the same company, meaning they can optimize the experience.

What I want from the next-generation Surface RT: Active stylus, better performance and more storage for the same price. A higher-res screen would be nice, but only if properly implemented. If RT doesn’t offer this stuff, I’ll consider just getting an Intel-based Surface instead. With the next-generation of processors around the corner, the convergence of desktop, laptop and tablet is about to really get fired-up.

And, then there’s Apple. Apple still doesn’t have a strategy for their newly-created “post-PC” world. iOS hasn’t matured in the ways it needs to in order to replace Mac OS. I sincerely hoped a few years back that iOS devices could be good enough to replace a computer, but that hasn’t happened.

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