Why I can't recommend the Surface RT for tablet shoppers

Why I can't recommend the Surface RT for tablet shoppers

Summary: The Surface RT is a tablet and PC that is hard to put in either category. I have used it heavily for the week since it arrived and while I am frequently asked if I recommend it to tablet buyers I must respond with a firm negative.

TOPICS: Windows, Microsoft
Surface PC

The Surface RT is indeed a tablet, let's be clear about that. It is in fact a great piece of hardware with an aesthetic design that screams to be taken in hand. The problem arises when you do so, as the size and shape of the tablet is not really comfortable nor easy to use in the hand.

This is strictly a personal observation, I know Surface owners quite happy with using the device as a tablet. It may just be me but I don't know what I am doing wrong or even how to use it differently. I've used tablets of every ilk for years and I just can't comfortably use the Surface RT the same way.

See related:

Comfort issues aside my main problem with recommending the Surface for tablet seekers is usability. No matter how hard I try to use it as a tablet I end up connecting the Touch Cover every single time. There are things I go to do in tablet mode that end up frustrating me due to difficulty or inconsistent behavior. Using the Surface RT as a laptop is easier for me given to the trackpad for cursor control so that's what I end up doing.

Ironically another thing that frustrates me about using the Surface RT is also one of its strengths. That's the fact it is Windows. While most mobile platforms are intuitive and smooth to operate, Windows RT often isn't either.

I have seen online accounts and heard from Surface owners I respect that they never use it with the keyboard. They are happy with the Surface as a tablet. I honestly can't see how that can be given my experience, but that's the nature of mobile devices such as tablets. One user's gotcha is another's best feature.

The Surface works well with the Touch Cover, that's the beauty of Microsoft's unique design. Unfortunately that's not what most tablet users want to do, so my recommendation is withheld.

If I had to sum up my experience with the Surface RT as a tablet it would sadly be "frustrating". I find using it in portrait orientation to be unwieldy and difficult. Using it in landscape feels strange given its wide screen, especially when surfing the web. I like doing that with the long screen dimension going down the web page, and find the narrow dimension too restrictive for the task. That's just me, I have corresponded with owners who like doing this in landscape.

My frustration is not limited to the orientation issue, it extends into the way Windows RT works. I frequently find simple gestures fail to work the first time, often they must be repeated once or twice.

The "throwaway" gesture for tossing apps off the bottom of the screen to close them is a good example of this. Swiping down from the top of the screen takes a bit to shrink the windows, indicating it's ready to be "tossed". Closing the app is done by swiping it down (tossing it) off the bottom of the screen. This only works once the windows has shrunk, and it seems the "tossing" must be done at just the right speed. Toss it too slowly and the window pops back to full screen. Toss it too quickly and get the same results. Toss it just right and off it goes, closing the app. This can take me two, three or even more times to get it to work. It's frustrating when this happens, and it usually does.

Ironically another thing that frustrates me about using the Surface RT is also one of its strengths. That's the fact it is Windows. While most mobile platforms are intuitive and smooth to operate, Windows RT often isn't either.

Case in point, the other day I popped open the Surface to check my email. I tapped the Mail tile on the home screen and in a few seconds the app opened. Then the progress circle thingy rotated round and round for a good while. The message bar indicated it was syncing my mail with the Gmail server. 

After far too long a cryptic message appeared that the Mail app was unable to connect with the Gmail server. No other information, just that it failed. I picked up the Nexus 7 sitting on the desk next to the Surface and it connected to the Gmail server just fine and showed lots of new mail. Jumping back to the Surface I forced a new sync attempt by swiping down from the top of the screen and then tapping Sync at the bottom of the screen (not very fluid). Same result, unable to connect to the server.

After a while the Surface connected to the server and all my new email was there. My quick email check turned into 5 - 10 minutes to get the email, something that tablets normally just don't do. It was reminiscent of Windows, not a mobile platform. Of course, that's because it is.

Another example of Windows interfering with tablet operation for me was when the People app started crashing every time I ran it. The People app is where you access your contacts and their social media updates. It's pretty important for users to have access to this information.

The problem occurred when I tapped the People tile on the home screen to run it. It popped open and then a few seconds later just closed and threw me back to the home screen. It did that every single time I ran it. Even though it has worked properly since I started using the Surface, suddenly I no longer had access to my contact list.

I searched online and it was recommended that I uninstall the app and then download it anew from the Microsoft Store. That I did, once I realized that the People app is really the "Mail, Calendar, People, and Messaging" app in the store. One app in the store that appears on the home screen as four separate apps. Note the other three apps weren't having trouble, just the People app.

I uninstalled it and then installed it anew and my problem went away. Once again this is a very desktop-like experience, not a typical tablet one.

These atypical tablet experiences aren't just restricted to the brand new Windows RT software. I've had similar issues with two different hybrids running full Windows 8. Both of those systems are good laptops that also become tablets, so they aren't that unlike the Surface RT.

Surface install error

Just today one of those systems informed me there were 9 app updates available. I fired up the store app and told it to update them. It went through download and install indicators only to give me the following error for every one of these apps: "Something happend and this app couldn't be installed. Please try again. Error code: 0x800700b7". For the record I had this happen once on the Surface RT, too.

That sure looks like Windows, doesn't it? I am confident I will eventually be able to track down what's causing this error for each of the 9 apps. I'll be able to fix it and finally update the apps. But it's another reason why I can't recommend the Surface RT to tablet shoppers. This and the issues I've mentioned are not conducive for most buyers to have a happy experience.

I am not sharing this to bash Windows and the Surface RT. I badly want to see Microsoft succeed with both. I will keep using the Surface RT in the hopes that it improves over time to give me the user experience I want. But until then I cannot in good faith recommend the Surface RT to those looking for a simple tablet. Tech savvy Windows users, power users if you will, should be quite happy with the Surface RT. Those are the only users for whom I can recommend the Surface presently.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft

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  • James, this is too good for popcorn

    Pizza and beer ...

    Unlike Windows 8, Windows RT did not receive extensive developer testing, user testing and associated telemetry. Can we conclude that Windows RT is a beta operating system and Surface RT tablets are beta devices?

    P.S. This is especially interesting from an individual that successfully uses his tablet to create content.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Rabid Howler Monkey .I don't dough you when you said you've created things

      on a tablet .....so you managed to do it .....but given a choice where would you do it ? desktop - Laptop - tablet

      to make it more professional looking, would you use a desktop - Laptop - Tablet

      where would you prefer to work at a desk or on your lap? and

      which item can you get the task done faster on Desktop - Laptop -Tablet

      To me Desktop = production .....Laptop = semi production & fun ....Tablet = Fun + fun

      But thats only me
      Over and Out
  • Windows is Windows is Windows

    Running on ARM does not change much. Anybody who have had a lot of expensive or frustrating Windows experiences are unlikely to want a Surface, especially when it does not bring the advantage of legacy compatibility.

    Even on my W7 desktops and laptops I sometimes shake my head in disbelief at the stupidity of some of the interactions that are required or that often fail. Windows 7 still at times behaves like something bolted on top of DOS, when compared to OSX or Linux.
    • Yup. Sure. Right.

      Anybody who have had a lot of expensive or frustrating Windows experiences are unlikely to want a Surface.

      Same goes for Apple, I imagine. I hear Part of the reason iMacs don't sell as well as Windows machines is that people shake their head in disbelief at the stupidity of some of the interactions that are required or that often fail on Apple's Mac line.
      William Farrel
      • You hear... so you have no direct experience with Mac

        Then your hearsay is as worthless as your opinion.
      • Is that what you hear?

        That's so odd... When you hear that, you must wonder how it is that iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are all increasing their market share? Don't the facts just confound you when you hear that? I mean, when you hear that, it must be shocking that Mac is increasing desktop share as PC is dropping like a rock. Isn't it?
        • market share

          So, gregv2k- why don't you offer some numbers to back up your claim that Apple products are taking the place of Windows PCs? The market share of the three devices you mention are going up- just what difference does that make? There are still more computers running the 12 year old Windows XP than all of your examples combined. Any prediction when they'll actually exceed XP in usage? Or, add ipad sales and perhaps, someday, the umber will actually approach the 700 million + users of Windows 7? Or the billion plus machines running Windows?
          That's okay, though; stick with your beloved Apple devices since it seems to be a cozy little club- little being the operative word...
          • What difference does it make?

            You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out do you? Nobody said that OSX was going to take over leadership of the PC market this year or anytime soon did they? Fact are facts, Windows has a huge market share lead and will for at least the foreseeable future but if the trend continues of OSX gaining while Windows is slipping that lead will shrink. No need to get your panties in a wad over it.
      • Oh, Willie

        Did you know by any chance that there are die-hard Windows users who purchase iMacs and MacBooks and run Windows on these? Just because Windows runs better on better hardware.

        You guys are very funny. You can't compare a company that makes personal computers, like Apple with a company that makes software that runs on hardware kits made by someone else.

        So, let's try one more time:

        1. Windows is software.
        2. iMac, MacBook is hardware.

        What was your point?
    • WOw you're onto something

      So Apple and Linux are 100% perfect? No issues? None at all? OMG why is it some people hold MS to the strictest of standards but the others get a free pass. There are plenty of blunders with OSX and Linux because software is not PERFECT! It's written by humans which is why there are problems from time to time.
      • No, none of them are perfect

        but it's pretty hypocritical for you to complain like you are when I have seen you bash Apple products for things you have given Windows based products a pass on.
    • The why do you still use Windows 7?

      I'll tell you why ... because, like it or not, more people have adopted the Windows paradigm than have adopted the MacOSX or Linux paradigm, or the iOS paradigm, or the Android paradigm.

      As long as your chosen device meets your needs, go with it, but if you have to share data or files with others, or move data back and forth between different systems, you need to consider the compatibility issues - then make your choice. Others will make their own choice.
      M Wagner
      • share data and files

        Did you sleep during all these years? The years when the Internet became accessible to everyone and so widespread, nobody is ever trying to stop it anymore.

        The Internet does what you claim only Windows does: provides interoperability protocols to permit sharing of data and documents between very different systems. For one system to share data with another over Internet, it does not have to even know what the other system is. All this makes it irrelevant what your system is.

        Years ago, Microsoft desperately tried to kill the Internet. Perhaps at the time they understood that this is going to end their business. Or change it in a way they don't quite understand.
  • Sounds like

    you never updated the Surface to begin with, those 6 or so updates were released couple of dates after the Surface launched. Those updates fix a number of issues with those apps. I would suggest that you do a PC refresh, and then make sure everything is updated, including windows updates and also the optional windows updates for Office 2013
    • James, shame on you. You updated it wrong.

      Can't Windows RT handle dependencies?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Windows shows on login screen that there is an update waiting a reboot

        and lets you choose that. Yes, it is a bit annoying, but not a major issue not showing the system update needed on store apps update screen. They should display that it needs an update to system instead of some Error Code. Probably Windows team would fix that, it is not Antennagate type, it is more of Messagegate type.
        Ram U
        • Oh, the joy of rebooting

          Weird as it is, this "Windows reimaged" still requires reboots after installing software. Can't those people ever learn?

          New brothel, same old whores.
    • Of course I did

      No updates are missing
  • Kendrick got his packet from Google and Apple

    Hence this article, need to start ignoring such biased articles.

    I know you are "so" called tablet expert, but here are few tips that will help a biased user like you.

    1) Ensure your Surface is updated with latest, just type "Update" in search and select settings
    2) Hold the tablet in landscape mode, when you want to use it as tablet
    3) All the controls are now accessible with your thumbs, is that too difficult for you?

    e.g. Swipe left to switch task, or Swipe left and hold to split view. Swipe right for Charms, where you can go main screen, search, access settings and devices and share on email or social network. What you are putting as disadvantage is actually Surface greatest strength over all the tablets. It provides the right option for the right task, a no compromise experience.

    Folks, if you still read reviews to make buying decisions then god help you. These people are paid to write one way or another. Best way is try one yourself and make your own opinion.
    • No we're not

      Paid to write any way, just what we experience.