My 60 days with the Surface RT

My 60 days with the Surface RT

Summary: After more than two months of day-in and day-out use, the strengths and weaknesses of the Microsoft Surface and Windows RT are easier to see. Here's a long-term update.

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I’ve been using a Microsoft Surface for more than two months, day in and day out. It’s been a frequent traveling companion during that time, getting a steady workout on business and personal trips.

When I wrote my first impressions of this Windows RT-powered device back in October, based on a week’s use, I noted that it is not designed to replace a desktop PC or a full-strength notebook. It is, instead, an ideal companion device for a Windows PC, with great mobility. As I said at the time, “It is powerful enough that it alone can handle most work and play duties, even on an extended business trip or vacation.”

surface-black-touch-cover-side-view

After more than 60 days of steady use, the strengths and weaknesses of the device are much easier to see.

Yes, it does come close to hitting that sweet spot as the perfect work/play combo, especially if your world revolves around Microsoft Office, as mine does. But there are frustrating gaps in the overall experience that make it less than ideal, especially for work scenarios that extend outside of Microsoft’s services.

First the good:

  • The hardware is still gorgeous—thin, light, and precisely engineered. Everyone who sees it is impressed by the VaporMg casing, the kickstand, and especially the Touch Cover. It looks and feels great.
  • It covers a broad range of tasks. I subscribe to both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both of which I can read using native apps. I stream and download tracks from Xbox Music regularly, access RSS subscriptions through the Feed Reader app, and usually have MetroTwit open. I have several magazine subscriptions that I access using Zinio, which works well on the Surface. I use all of the Office apps, naturally, and Internet Explorer 10 is extraordinarily well suited to a touch-based device.
  • It has both an SD card slot and a USB port. These are not just theoretical advantages. I use the Surface regularly as a portable music player, and being able to copy music files onto the SD card without having to mess with music management software is a tremendous timesaver. For work, I can copy files to a BitLocker-protected USB flash drive, throw it in my traveling bag, and not have to worry about whether I’ll have a Wi-Fi or LTE connection while traveling.
  • Battery life is excellent. So good, in fact, that I rarely think about it. In all the scenarios I use the Surface RT for, it lasts for several days of off-and-on usage, and it can recharge 50% in an hour or top off completely in about two hours.
  • It runs cool and quiet. The Surface doesn’t have or need a fan, and it doesn’t generate the kind of heat that Windows laptops (and MacBooks, for that matter) are subject to.

Those last two points bear emphasis. Many of my colleagues are baffled by the entire concept of Windows RT. Why not just get a full-strength Windows laptop? One reason is because of the unfortunate tendency of Windows desktop software to send hardware into battery-gobbling, heat-generating loops. Yes, Windows RT can’t run Windows desktop software. But if you can get your work done using the RT versions of Office and apps from the Windows 8 store, the absence of heat and noise is a feature.

So what’s wrong/frustrating about the Surface?

  • The selection of available apps is still weak. The number of apps is growing slowly, but it’s still a tiny fraction of what the Apple and Android ecosystems have to offer. And many of those apps, even some from Microsoft, have a “we’re still figuring out how to work with this user interface” feeling to them.
  • This device, with its 16:9 display, works best in a horizontal orientation and is awkward (to put it mildly) in a vertical arrangement. There are benefits to this design, including the ability to snap one app (like a Twitter feed) into a pane on the side while you work with another app in the larger space alongside it. It also allows you to watch HD movies the way they were shot. But this design choice makes reading ebooks using Amazon’s Kindle app a two-handed operation. (To make things worse, the RT version of the Kindle app only shows a single page in landscape orientation, while the x86/x64 version can display two pages. Why?)
  • Working in a world where Internet Explorer is your only browser can be frustrating or even infuriating. Some websites, for good reasons or bad, don’t work properly with Internet Explorer 10. For a ZDNet blogger like me, that’s a showstopper, because the ZDNet back end doesn’t allow uploading of images from Internet Explorer 10. The action simply fails. On a Windows 8 PC, I can just flip over to Chrome or Firefox. With Windows RT, the option to use an alternative browser simply doesn’t exist.
  • The Office 2013 apps in Windows RT are almost but not quite the same as their x86 counterparts. For most tasks, that’s no big deal, but occasionally I run across a document  spreadsheet that depends on Word or Excel macros. Oops! Macros aren’t supported on Windows RT.
  • The lack of comprehensive driver support is an issue. A big theoretical advantage of Windows RT is that it allows connections to printers. Except there’s no RT driver for my printer, which means that advantage is still theoretical. Likewise, plugging in any USB device other than a flash drive is likely to be frustrating. I have yet to find a USB-to-Ethernet adapter that Windows RT supports, for example.

A series of updates to Windows RT and Office 2013 over the past 60 days have improved performance and fixed bugs on this device. Initially, for example, an annoying glitch caused audio playback to break up horribly when the screen blanked, ruining the music playback experience. That’s no longer an issue.

Updates to apps have improved performance as well. That’s especially true with MetroTwit, which was nearly unusable initially but has become much faster and more reliable after multiple updates.

My initial review was considerably more sympathetic than most of the reactions from my other reviewers. The biggest reason for that experiential gap, I suspect, is that I was comfortable with the Windows 8 interface after months of use, and I had already connected multiple PCs to my Microsoft account. As a result, just logging in to the Surface gave me a familiar Start screen and access to mail, Wi-Fi settings, and SkyDrive files. For a new user who’s unfamiliar with the Windows 8 gestures and isn’t connected to Microsoft’s services, the experience is more confusing than inviting.

Back in November, I encountered an odd issue where the entire Windows RT installation became corrupted. The only cure was to use the Restore option to start fresh with Windows RT and reinstall apps from the store. (Because all my data files were in SkyDrive or on the SD card, I didn’t lose any files.) It was a tedious process, but relatively simple. The problem hasn’t recurred, and Microsoft says they’re aware of “a limited number of reports where Explorer will cease to properly function” and result in this sort of corruption. They’re investigating the issue.

The absence of a mobile broadband option is pretty much a non-issue for me. I’m able to tether the Surface to the LTE connection on my phone anytime and get the same effect. (Apparently iPad buyers are equally unimpressed with the need for LTE coverage, as 90 percent of them opt for Wi-Fi-only models.)

Initially, I had hoped that the Surface could completely replace my notebook for work-related travel. That turned out to be an unrealistic expectation. The Surface is an excellent traveling companion on short trips where I simply need to stay in touch via email and crank out the occasional document in Word, but for business trips I still need a full-strength notebook. Ironically, that means I’m carrying both a Windows 8 notebook and the Surface in my traveling bag. For my needs, it’s a better fit than an iPad at almost exactly the same price.

Topic: Microsoft Surface

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140 comments
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  • Windows 8 RT's biggest frustration for me

    When I don't have the keyboard cover attached on my Surface it doesn't pop up the on screen keyboard automatically when I tap on a text box except for the login screen, instead I have to tap the keyboard icon on the task bar! Something the iPad does seamlessly and I am hoping an update will fix soon.
    duncan.mcdonald@...
    • Not Alone

      The issue you're talking about does not happen systematically but I did notice it.
      This is a small software issue that can easily be fixed (assuming they know about it).
      TheCyberKnight
      • Assuming that's NOT Ed's problem, Ed what specifically do you find

        you still want your laptop for? Just printing and wired ethernet?
        Johnny Vegas
    • not perfect but

      Surface Rt is not perfect. Let's remind ourselves that it is a first product by Ms and it shows here and there. Nonetheless, it is far more useful than an iPad. There is room for improvement and it's mostly the software that needs fixes. Those patch will come. The major issues where already addressed. I can confirm the sound problem and also the corrupted system issue. I had both. These issues were fixed.

      After 60 days, I would definitely not send mine back. I love it and I very often pick it up instead of using one of my two other Pc's.

      As far as I am concerned, the needed apps are available. More would be fun but I'm in no rush. Try theses metro apps.

      NBC, Netflix, Fotor, YouTube Rt, Wikipedia, Gallery HD, Google, picassaps, Cocktail flow. Most of these apps are using the metro visual language the right way.

      If you are wondering if you should buy a Surface, my opinion is that it is not as simple to use that an iPad but it offers so much more:

      Browse a windows network for movies, documents, music
      Print by Bluetooth easily
      Use Remote desktop
      Plug devices by usb, insert an sd card
      Synch your settings and files over SkyDrive...a gem
      gbouchard99@...
      • YEAH!

        "Nonetheless, it is far more useful than an iPad."
        Yeah, iPad is totally useless for anything.

        "Browse a windows network for movies, documents, music"
        Impossible with iPad, right?

        "Print by Bluetooth easily"

        Erh... how many printers do have bluetooth, so yeah it is impossible with iPad to print trough Bluetooth.

        "Use Remote desktop"
        Yeah, totally impossible with iPad.

        "Plug devices by usb, insert an sd card"
        Yeah, totally impossible with iPad, god thank there are not those adapters.

        "Synch your settings and files over SkyDrive...a gem"
        GOOD THANK there is no iCloud or any private NAS possibilities with iPad.

        GOOD LORD WE HAVE WINDOWS SO WE CAN DO ALL THESE AMAZING THINGS!

        Okay, I go back to see how my friend prints from network printer, browse and watch files from Windows shares, use Windows remote desktop feature and doesn't use SDcards and USB devices like memory sticks, keyboards, printers etc.


        You sir just wrote very nice sarcastic message to get this answer for it!
        Fri13
        • You can do a lot of that stuff with an iPad

          It's a cool device. The surface, however has it's benefits especially for people using Windows environments.

          1. Full file system and network integration with my (non-domain) network.
          2. Don't have to use iTunes to put files on the Surface and manage them.
          3. Native VPN connectivity to supplement the native remote desktop
          4. Split screen applications. This is crucial for me as getting anything done from bills to paperwork to file management is 200% easier using this feature.
          5. Seamless syncing with my Windows 8 computers
          6. While iPad supports some Bluetooth and wireless peripherals, Win RT supports a TON, and in my experience they also sync with Windows 8. The networked wireless printer in my house picked right up on my surface and installed the support s
          oftware on all of my Win 8 devices - including surface without no user input.
          7. Free Office pre-installed
          8. Multi-Window browsing using the desktop
          9. A solid-built in kickstand and keyboard that does not require power and is magnetically affixed to the device - doubling as a cover. This is a really nice feature and does not require extra (Thick) self-powered keyboards to be brought along or bound in bulky cases that emulate this functionality.
          10. 16x8 aspect ratio, perfect for viewing movies in landscape and information in portrait.
          11. Native USB and SD care support - which you belittled by offering custom adaptor cables.

          It is a compelling alternative, and while not perfect, it certainly does not warrant that sort of avarice.
          ethananim
    • onscreen keybaord

      Its because you are on the desktop. That environment is a keyboard/mouse environment so its expecting you to have at least a keyboard when in the desktop. In metro and all metro apps, the onscreen keyboard will always be there unless you have the keyboard cover attatched.

      Under settings you can chage the behavior of the onscreenkeyboard, set it to always come up when clicking a text box.

      Not that you will ever see or read this comment.. lol
      msticlaru
    • Windows 8 RT's biggest frustration for me

      I have to request the keyboard on my ipad quite a bit
      mzahler123
    • Cook Was Right!

      'I supposed you could design a car that flies and floats, but it wouldn't do those things very well.'
      MS tablet is a failure.
      Cun Con
      • Do you own a Smart Phone or a landline, PDA, and pager?

        Do you own a smart phone? It runs apps, you can text, browse the web, and you can call someone, and each of these features work just fine. Maybe you still have a pager, land line, car phone, and PDA.

        Do you have a dvd player, video game system and roku connected to your TV? I own a Xbox 360 and it does all these in one device. I bet most people that own a PS3 don't have a separate blu-ray player connected to the same HDTV.

        A Car that flies and floats would sell very well if it were reasonably priced and it was legal to drive on roads.
        chrisakatrace
        • You forget the form factor

          The reason those devices you mention can be built to perform multiple tasks is because those tasks just so happen to all be appropriate for those devices, with no major compromises needed. You couldn't for instance use the same line of reasoning to defend a smartphone that played DVDs, because that would make for an incredibly awkward smartphone. The Surface just about manages to overlap a tablet with a laptop, but it can't be said that the needs of each mode don't affect the other.

          As a laptop, the needs of the Surface as a tablet make the display small, the hinge floppy, the viewing angle unadjustable, the keyboard either completely non-mechanical or with very short key travel, the trackpad very small, and the OS restricted to running only a few preset applications with a cut down feature set.

          As a tablet, the needs of a Surface as a laptop make the cover thicker and more expensive, the user experience more complicated and finicky under certain circumstances, the availability of local free storage far less than it could be, the battery life potentially much shorter, and the display large enough to properly support a desktop environment even though the Modern UI could live quite happily on a 7-8 inch device.

          The mere fact that the Surface, it's keyboard cover accessory and even it's user interface all come in two distinct flavours, one optimised for tablets and one for laptops, should ring enough alarm bells. The fact that even Ed Bott has admitted that he takes a full-featured laptop with him to accompany the Surface RT on trips ought to be the nail in that coffin. It makes me wonder, when he's used the Surface Pro for 60 days, will he admit to taking a 7-8 inch tablet along on those trips?
          votshtoy
          • votshtoy the Apple fanboi blows smoke

            "The fact that even Ed Bott has admitted that he takes a full-featured laptop with him to accompany the Surface RT on trips ought to be the nail in that coffin."

            From this comment I assume that you also think that the iPad should also be in the same coffin. Ed would not be able to take only an iPad on the same type of trip. He would also need to take along his laptop.
            BobMI
      • Cook mispoke.

        He should have said "You cant design a car that flies and floats and does it all well, but if you call it an iCar and say its like magic, people will still buy it by the millions".

        In that case truer words would never have been spoken.

        Its a long road yet. We will see if the MS tablet is a failure.
        Cayble
    • No auto keyboard screen on Desktop

      The weird experience I have is, if I'm on the tile side, the keyboard slides up as expected when I have an input screen. Unfortunately, when I'm on a desktop app I have the same experience you mention. I have to request touch keyboard & even choose which keyboard type.
      BillPStudios
  • Something I have done

    I signed up for a Azure account and stood up a Win2012 server with terminal services, installed all my x86/x64 apps like dev studio on it (also Outlook, I hate the Windows Mail on RT) As long as I have connectivity (which I do since I have a USB/4G adapter) I can do anything my laptop or desktop can do from my Surface RT
    CriticalSection
    • Something I have done

      I have been holding out for the Pro, but this thought definitely makes me think about this option. I am not sure I would need to have 2012 server for this. Could you not also just remote desktop to a Windows 7 Pro\Ultimate and accomplish the same thing?
      John J. Jordan
      • Something I have done

        John J. Jordan - Yes, the RDP app is great! I use it at work to RDP to my desktop when in meetings and working in another office. Also, when at home, I rdp into my desktop to utilize Cisco AnyConnect VPN.Overall, the surface RT is great, but it does lack a few items that would make it a better tool in the office. For a first generation device I am very happy with it. I do think the Pro will be better suited for the office, but the RT has a superior battery life.

        I really wish Cisco could get an AnyConnect client built for RT.
        apetti
        • Remote Desktop

          You can use Splashtop on your home computer accessible from outside, so cloud subscription is not the only option
          AG_z
      • Cloud

        I did this in Azure, so I don't have an option of Win7, I could have done this on 2008R2 server but I just decided to use the latest to see what it was like.

        If you can put a win7 machine so it's accessible via the internet I don't see why remote desktop wouldn't just work as well.
        CriticalSection
      • Yes. I do this and I also use ...

        ... Citrix to gain access to work applications.
        M Wagner