The Microsoft Surface RT is not for me

The Microsoft Surface RT is not for me

Summary: There's a lot to like about the new Microsoft Surface RT. It sports gorgeous hardware, it's insanely thin, has support for external accessories, and more. Unfortunately, for a few reasons, this iteration is just not ready.

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When the Surface RT was finally available for pre-order, I probably was one of the first to click BUY. I waited eagerly for it to arrive, and set it up moments after arrival. Below is an account of my experience and impressions of the Surface after having used it since launch day.

Out of the Box

Unlike many other reviews I've read, I had a terrible out-of-box experience. I snapped in the Touch Cover and started going through initial setup. At this point, no matter what I did, I couldn't seem to get the Touch Cover to recognize my typing. After using a combination of swipes and on-screen keyboard input, I finally managed to navigate thru to complete the setup and then found that I had 18 updates waiting for me. I performed the updates, and tada, the Touch Cover started working. I should also mention that I have since performed a number of hard resets, which bring the Surface back to factory setting, and I have not experienced the same issue.

Hardware

Microsoft did a great job with the Surface. It's a gorgeous piece of hardware. It's insanely thin, has HDMI out, a USB port, and more. I especially like the kickstand on the back of the Surface itself, and the Touch Cover is definitely innovative. At first I thought that the Touch Cover was just stealing from concepts previously released by Logitech and others, but closer examination reveals a touch pad and clickable buttons in the cover itself. You can bet that hardware manufacturers for the iPad and Android-based devices will soon be releasing similar peripherals. Also, the Touch Cover is a breeze to type on. Since it's super simple to flip it over the screen and go, it's great for full-blown typing any time. After a bit of trial and error I found that my typing was about three-quarters of the speed that it is with a normal keyboard.

 

surfacehardware
Here's the Surface RT at an office. It blends in beautifully.

 

The Interface

The Surface runs Windows 8. If you're not familiar with it, you can swipe, click and drag, and tap your way through. The interface is fast and smooth, and definitely works great on the Surface RT, with its ARM processor on board. By the way, Matt Miller wrote up a great gesture and keyboard shortcut guide if you're curious how much swiping control you can really have with the device.

 

interface

 

 

 

Unfortunately, there's still older Windows lurking. I say unfortunately because you inevitably end up exposing old Windows boxes that you can barely navigate with a finger. I experienced something similar in the early days of the Microsoft Smartphone where there was a very pretty, touch friendly interface, and then suddenly you were dropped into something not finger friendly. I'm sure over time Microsoft will catch most if not all of those moments, but right now I seem to be able to get to non-finger mode about three levels deep into the interface.

 

oldinterface

Programs

There are a ton of programs already available for the Surface RT for download, in both the free and paid areas. However, since it's a Windows machine, the first thing I did was try to download Chrome, instead of IE. I was immediately met with a message stating that it wasn't compatible. This is a problem that the Surface Pro won't experience, hopefully, given that it's an Intel-based machine, and not an ARM one. If you stick to downloading from the Apps available directly from the Surface interface, though, you should be fine.

Otherwise, the Surface RT offers its own brand of the Office suite, which seemed to be compatible with other versions, including documents originally created on a Mac. In my case, I opened up some pretty extensive Word and Excel docs, and actually enjoyed being able to rotate the screen to portrait mode, to properly view a Word doc.

I also tried to use the Surface RT for daily e-mail, but found that the funkiness of the interface of the built-in mail client left me wanting to return to Gmail's browser-based offering. Unfortunately, I couldn't get used to doing any real work on the Touch Cover for extended periods of time.

Hooking up peripherals

I mentioned above that I was able to type pretty fast on the Touch Cover. Well, I figured that the best use case of the Surface RT would be if you could use it as your regular PC, too. This meant hooking up a true external keyboard and mouse. Thanks to the built-in USB port, I was able to plug-in an external keyboard, hear a familiar Windows noise of a successful plug-in, and then start typing. In this case, I was typing at my normal speed and the Surface RT was keeping up without issue. I then went through trial and error of getting it to recognize my Bluetooth mouse. At first I touched and swiped to expose the Bluetooth icon and then configured that way. I then later realized that swiping to the left on the home screen revealed the Settings screen, which then led me to touch-friendly menus that allowed me to recognize the Bluetooth mouse easily.

No Surface for me

Contrary to what my co-author, Matt Miller, recently wrote about the Surface RT, for me the Surface RT failed because it can't be a work PC. For my daily work machine, I use a MacBook Air. I used to build Windows machines, so I'm no stranger to the OS. In fact, I do sometimes miss the level of customization that I could perform with Windows. That said, when I plugged the external keyboard into the Surface it definitely illustrated how powerful the concept of the Surface is. Imagine using the same machine for desktop use and then on the go. At home, the Surface sits with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then you take it on the go with you, with just the Touch Cover. This is definitely a possibility with the Surface. Although, I have to wonder if you're better off waiting for the Surface Pro, since the RT isn't 100 percent compatible with all Windows Apps, and the Surface Pro will more than likely be an improvement to the offering.

In summary, even though I did find many pros to the Surface RT, I just can't justify keeping it around. I think if I wasn't already a MacBook Air user, and wasn't already invested in both Android and Apple tablets, including the story I recently wrote about how I prefer the iPad mini, it might be a different story. However, there are plenty of other laptops / touch screens with Windows 8 coming to market, so the use case and justification for the Surface hardware is still not a slam dunk for me.

Did you pick up a Surface RT or are you waiting for the Surface Pro? Or is the Surface not for you? Share your thoughts below.

UPDATE: I am already being asked to add a bit more about why the Surface RT is not for me. To that end, I tried to use it as a daily replacement for my MacBook Air and it didn't work out. The browser wasn't as snappy as I'm used to, and since I'm in a mostly cloud-based world, with the exception of the Office Suite, that was problem number one. I then tried to use the built-in Mail client. It seemed like it had some nice features, but for the power e-mailing that I do (upwards of 200 emails a day), it just wasn't as streamlined as I'm used to.

To get full use out of the Surface RT, I'd have to hook up an external keyboard and mouse to it. This then turns it into more of a desktop, in which case I should either get a different Windows 8 machine, or possibly try out the Type Cover, which is designed to be more of a real keyboard. This then ups the price of the Surface RT by another $130.

As for consumer use, I could use it to browse the web and even download some apps, but both Android and iPad have very extensive App stores already, and even though Microsoft has a fully loaded Windows Phone store, you can't download and use those. I did download some games and Apps, including USA Today. I found the interface to be fun and engaging, but again, I already invested in the other ecosystems, and have even purchased some Microsoft Windows Phone apps, which I can't leverage.

So, to restate, the Surface RT is not for ME. I'm not saying that it isn't for YOU, just that it's not for ME. If you are looking for a new Windows machine, think about your usage scenarios and then see how they stack up against what I've experimented with and detailed above.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Tablets

Joel Evans

About Joel Evans

With more than 15 years of mobile, Internet and wireless experience, Joel specializes in taking existing brands and technologies into the mobile and wireless space. Joel is currently the VP of Strategy Integration for Mobiquity, an enterprise-class mobile solutions provider.

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102 comments
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  • Are you seriously a tech writer?

    3.0

    My wife setup the Surface I bought on the 26th, and she is no techie, since that day between her and the kids I barely get to use it, but the few hours spent on it I like it very much, the iPad is now painful to use, it lays in the corner no one wants it, the Samsung Tab still get some use, got some real low ball offers for the iPad on Craigslist.
    TD_2003
    • Right

      Lost credibility at "the iPad is a pain to use, but the Galaxy Tab gets used."
      Marzell
      • why?

        why? iPad has just icons for many year without a significant improvement....
        anywherehome
        • android fan here

          So what? Widgets and live wallpapers are functionally useless. Android is great and all but a lack of tablet apps and feeling like the software was developed at arms length from the hardware compared to iOS puts them on about the same level, user experience wise.
          seraph82
          • what else? :)

            and what about another features like better integrated google maps, voice typing in many languages? useless too? :)
            anywherehome
          • and photo sphere?

            and photo sphere feature is useless too because Apple doesn't have it too? :)
            anywherehome
        • In the end sales will determine if its useful.

          I am on the market for two laptop, and after trying both Win 8 and Win RT I've decided to purchase the equivalent of a private MSDN account (you get all MS software you need including Win 7, office VS, etc.) And two laptops with no hard drives. Bought the hard drives separately. In the I'll end up spending less than 400 per laptop. Change the hard drive and you can have the next iteration of Win 8. But win RT, not in your wildest dreams.

          Now, why is MS pushing Win 8 on laptops and computers? Ballmer, in his infinite wisdom thinks he can take over the tablet and smartphone market by forcing Win on your desktop. He just doesn't get it. Customers want better products than what MS offers, and now there are alternatives, and they are based on non Win OS.

          Apple has the most to win out if this if they smartly lower their prices to 700 dollars, Snd it would basically while MS of the market.
          Uralbas
          • yes and no

            Apple is on decline, still lower and lower market share, so Google has the most to win ;)
            anywherehome
          • no

            no, Google has already won :)
            anywherehome
          • The already won the tablet market?

            Based on what might I ask?
            non-biased
          • Actually the market it growing

            and while the last quarter sales had a big dip in Apple market share there were a couple of factors in play in Androids favor that won't be in play this quarter so expect to see them just back up again on a quarterly basis.
            non-biased
          • Apple lower prices?!!

            LOL obviously you havn't been around Apple for the past 30yrs. The reason PC won in the first place was because Apple is too expensive and a closed system. That hasn't changed and never will. Ipad has caught on because non technical folks find they can use the Apple without knowing how to set things up. Features that have been around for decades sound like new cool stuff that only Apple thought off to the uninformed. Don't get me wrong I like apple products and wish the other companies would get off their butts and innovate but don't be fooled into thinking Apple is going to operate like traditional PC companies and lower prices once demand eases. Have you looked at the cost of a used iPad 1st gen on ebay? The damn thing are still $250-300 and no one wants them because they dont hve face time etc.
            mterry@...
          • Non-Techies?

            " Ipad has caught on because non technical folks find they can use the Apple without knowing how to set things up."

            Most folks ARE non-technical.
            They buy a device and use it. Period.
            Even most of my SOHO (so '80s) users are non-technical.
            radu.m
          • Sales don't mean much anymore.

            Not with hipsters and other sheep who buy Apple products just to fit in.
            coppersloane
          • "Sales don't mean much anymore."

            "Not with hipsters and other sheep who buy Apple products just to fit in."

            1) A "hipster" would not touch an iPad with a stick.

            They'd have a PC built for the Chinese Army if it weren't so inconvenient, so instead they buy some fugly Android device. (Check the meaning of "hipster" in Wikipedia, because you clearly don't know what the word means. And not all Android devices are fugly, but a hipster would want the ugliest.)

            If you want to single out a group of people that you hate, why not write - I dunno - "people I hate"?

            2) As for the inevitable comment about "sheep" and "fitting in," what do you call the nine out of ten desktop users running MS Windows?

            Rugged individualists?

            3) If the Surface is a roaring success (and I'd predict the x86 Pro version will be, even if it has a ten minute battery life) are you still going to maintain that "sales don't mean much anymore"?

            Or will the teeming millions with x86 Surfaces suddenly become "technologically savvy, intelligent, prudent" consumers?

            Microsoft zealots are (almost) always so drearily pathetic: they all sing from the same hymnal; they can't even be bothered thinking of novel metaphors ("sheep") and they hate Apple so irrationally that they write drivel like "sales don't mean much any more."
            StandardPerson
          • If failed talking points help you sleep at night

            then by all means keep repeating them and show your ignorance.
            non-biased
      • screen capture

        Hey Mr Evens, Windows log +volume down will generate screnn capture. There is no need to canon your device to show us what is on the screnn
        gbouchard99@...
        • LOL. Credibility Lost

          Writer never even attempted to learn how to use the device, no wonder he doesn't want to keep it. He wants to keep his ipad, which can't do any of the things he ripped the surface for.
          chrisakatrace
          • Lost credibility for not learning everything about a device?

            What credibility do you have? You make comments about the iPad so based on your other comments we should assume you are an expert on everything iPad to even be making statements? No, most like you are like most Apple haters that spew comments when they obviously have no clue what they are talking about. BTW, he uses a Macbook Air as his daily device.

            Regardless, you need to get over yourself. Simple fact is he doesn't prefer the Surface but that is his choice and to claim he doesn't have credibility because he doesn't agree with you only shows your narrow minded view.
            non-biased
          • Well...

            I think that the writer got confused about the purpose of a tablet. I don't want to be the typical consumer (although I guess I am), but I wouldn't want a tablet for daily use or heavy typing. I mean, this thing is a tablet.

            Tablets (at least according to apple, who I think really entered the market as a true seller) are supposedly designed for you to quickly access the internet, watch a video, use facebook; and all that "daily non-work related use".

            However, look at the surface. Let's say that you are working in a .docx, you save your work (which now, with iCloud or SkyDrive, automatically saves in your cloud), turn off your macbook, windows PC or whatever. Suddenly, you realize that you forgot to send an e-mail or edit a document that you need for tomorrow. Nonetheless, you are a sleazy lazy person who has a great tablet. What do you do? Oh well, for the same price as an iPad (without including the cover), you can edit your work, or send the email faster. You will save around 1-2 minutes, I know. However, I think that expanding the functionality of a tablet, for almost the same price as a iOS 6 device, should be considered a great addition to the market. (Besides, it has a USB port, how awesome is that?)
            firenze334