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.

Why the Surface keyboard has me excited

While the liveblogging was going on for Microsoft’s Surface introduction, I was cautiously optimistic about what the devices would really accomplish. The most notable feature is, without a doubt, that keyboard cover. It’s important to people who actually touch type or to anyone who wants to type at any real speed. I keep hearing about people writing thousands of words on iOS devices and I just can’t help but think that that’s going to lead to some really bad RSI. I love Patrick Rhone’s minimalmac but he’s gonna hurt himself writing so much on his iPhone. Continue reading

Resurfacing history

Once upon a time, a company introduced a new product. It was a closely guarded secret and when it was revealed, it took the technology press and public by surprise. It was the result of years of research and development. When this product was announced, the parent company showed it off but gave away little details. The screen resolution and battery life were not announced at the event and neither were any of the exact specs. Details were glossed over even in hands-on sessions. Reporters were given limited time with company goons looking over their shoulder. No one was sent home with review units.

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Surface, fanaticism and Steve Jobs

In the wake of Microsoft’s Surface announcement, some have lauded the company for a commitment to truly turning themselves around; others naysay Microsoft’s effort to enter the tablet marketplace.

I, for one, think this is great. Microsoft is making their strategy clear without the help of their OEM army. They’re blazing the trail for their licensees to create similar devices using their model. RT and ARM for the low end, 8 for traditional devices and x86 tablets. Microsoft’s own Surface has chosen a unique tablet form factor and demonstrates clearly that there’s still innovation to be had within the space without being a total Apple copycat.

It shows Microsoft’s commitment to their vision doesn’t go only as far as to instruct others. They are putting their own reputation on the line in order to communicate the story they want to tell with Windows 8. They’re leveraging years of research and development to make a splash with their very first true computer devices.

But, to borrow a phrase from the internet, haters are going to hate.

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Okay, okay. Post PC. But which model will prevail?

I’ve written at length about the things I really like about Windows 8. That’s not the whole story unfortunately. There’s this in-between area that clashes and doesn’t quite work for me. Microsoft hedged their bets by providing two distinct computing environments in one OS. There’s a problem there because it might be confusing for users. There’s a desktop like everyone’s used to but there’s also the Metro environment. Ideally, this will enable users to have a choice. Convertible tablets or ultra books could provide a desktop environment when docked and a touch-based experience when mobile. Pretty neat, right?

Windows 8 and Windows RT are based around the same software but Windows RT is compiled for ARM processors and comes pre-loaded on ARM-based tablet devices. It can’t run normal Windows software. Yet it retains the desktop part of the experience for some reason. Is it that familiarity factor? Metro does its best to be friendly, fast, colorful, legible and accessible to users. Will the desktop be hidden by default and only accessible if the app is pinned to the Start screen? Microsoft has gotten into some trouble with Mozilla over this decision to not allow third-party apps to run in the desktop side of things on RT. It’s obviously a move to keep the confusion to a minimum when Joe Schmo tries to hook up a USB DVD drive to his cheap WinRT tablet and install Photoshop and it *surprise* doesn’t run on the ARM hardware.

So, this plan obviously has flaws. But it also has advantages. If a user knows how to run something on a Win 8 PC, they’ll naturally know how to makes stuff work on their RT tablet. There’s no difference as long as you’re in the Metro environment. Apple’s approach is what makes me reconsider my years of Mac fanboyism and rabid loyalty.

Instead of trying to really push the envelope of UI/UX, Apple is essentially reskinning OS X to look and react more like iOS. With deep synching provided by iCloud, they’re betting the millions of iOS users will flock in even greater numbers to their desktops and laptops for the familiar experience provided by their iPad or Phone. The issue is that these shoehorned-in elements were designed to make touch less intimidating and they don’t really apply themselves well to the desktop (IMHO). Apple’s made it clear that the two worlds of touch and traditional PCs will remain separate.

Microsoft has been more strict with requirements but is typically laissez-faire about the whole thing. There will be x86 tablets both convertible and dockable. There will be touchscreen laptops. There will be stuff like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, a laptop with a hinge that goes all the way back to fold the back of the screen onto the bottom of the keyboard.

I like that approach but I am also excited for the ARM-based Windows RT tablets. Given Microsoft’s propensity for pen-driven tablets in the past, I’m banking on a reasonably-priced, proper stylus compatible tablet. Since Windows RT devices come with Microsoft Office preinstalled, OneNote would be a great boon to those of us really wanting a productive tablet experience. It won’t be the Courier but it could come close. I miss digital handwriting recognition and Microsoft’s been perfecting theirs over the last 10 years. This could be a killer feature for Win RT devices. The only weirdness is that the Office suite will run on the desktop in RT which, again, is strange but only time will tell if this will cause confusion.

Apple’s solution seems to lack the flexibility that Microsoft’s does but that’s the way it’s always been. Microsoft wants users to do whatever they want however they want to do it while Apple famously dictates what they think is the superior method. But who will win? Apple’s walled garden or a less open, more flexible Windows? Will users understand that the Microsoft way is more flexible than Apple’s? Or will they flock to a familiar if inferior system that Apple has planned? I really hope that Microsoft back their approach to the fullest and hangs in there. Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8/RT feel like the future of computing. Big, friendly typography, well laid-out information and a chrome-free experience might be the way for the once-great company to return to prominence.

In praise of Windows 8

I’ve been vocal about my approval of Windows 8 for a while now. I thought it was about time I solidify my thoughts into a manifesto on the importance of reinvention and risk taking in the technology business. There’s a handful of important points to be made on why Windows 8 is a bold move for Microsoft that they need to pay off.

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