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.”
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.