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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.