A weekend with Surface RT

en-INTL_L_Surface_WinRT_32GB_Bundle_9HR-00001_RM3_mncoThis weekend I’ve finally had the opportunity to try out a Surface RT and along with the Windows 8.1 Beta was able to get a better idea of how well it could work out in the wild. Here’s my review…

Hardware & first impressions

The device itself definitely lives up to the quality image Microsoft were trying to give out, everything feels solid and I like the fairly simple, unfussy design.

It’s a bit heavier than I was expecting but not uncomfortably so, that said I wouldn’t fancy lugging a Surface Pro around and feel at this size the RT’s chassis is about as far as I’d be happy to go to weight-wise.

We also got the “Type” keyboard cover which is usable for short periods (typing this post on it now) but wouldn’t fancy typing an essay on it due to the understandably limited key travel leading to missed keystrokes. The touchpad is probably the weakest part, feels a bit too small and the buttons are stiff and awkward to click. The cover gives a nice satisfying noise as the magnetic connection clips into place, research time well spent there to continue the overall quality feel. That said I did find it annoying trying to hold the device with the keyboard folded back and as a result had to keep unclipping it when not in use. The Lenovo Yoga flip design looks a better bet if they could make the keyboard fold back inside so keys aren’t exposed, over to you hardware designers!

The screen is clear and bright, have been happy to use it for extended periods of time and actually makes the Start screen look pretty good now it has a proper background behind it (more on that in a minute). On downside is the kickstand angle feels like it’s a few degrees too shallow and I’m getting a bit of a stiff neck using it on a desk… make it adjustable next time please Microsoft.

The rear facing camera is poor, very grainy and seems like something from a previous generation of device – definitely something that needs upgrading on the next version as I can’t see it being a great lot of use in its current form.

surface_x100eAfter installing the touch version of OneNote I often felt the desire to use a pen on the screen, shame the RT doesn’t come with one integrated in the chassis as it only needs to be a basic bit of plastic to use with the capacitative screen and would’ve been a nice touch to have it included like the Lenovo Tablet2.

For comparison here’s the Surface next to my x100e, the difference in screen format and type is quite noticeable

Performance

Flicking around the Start screen and some elements of the OS feel slick enough, however there often seems to be a lag opening apps that leads to the user staring at the loading screen for 5-10 seconds. That might not sound a lot but it’s enough to make the device seem sluggish. Once the apps are loaded they seem to run fine so not sure what it is about Metro apps that cause this as it’s been an annoyance that goes right the way back to the Win8 Developer Previews which never seems to have been fully resolved.

Unfortunately the same also goes for the first time boot, spent far too much waiting around for the OS to configure itself that you don’t really see on iOS or Android that just undoes some of the good work elsewhere. More time spent optimising this process would give a much better first impression to users in my opinion.

OS – Windows 8.1 update

The first thing I did with the RT was to update to the 8.1 Beta, the process wasn’t exactly slick, requiring an update just to see the option in the Store, an error message requiring more updates to be installed before running the 8.1 update (!) then an hour and a bit upgrade time. Just a bit clunky again where it doesn’t need to be, some might say typical Microsoft?

Having finally got it installed the changes are worth the effort, unified search is long overdue and the ability to set a graphical wallpaper for Metro and Desktop reduces that jarring feeling I used to get with 8.0. The additional apps and makeover for some of the existing ones also help make 8.1 feel how it should have been in the first place – Win8 suffered from some shockingly poor design decisions and it’s good to see MS have reversed a lot of them now.

Some of the touch gestures are less than obvious at first and initially you still get that feeling of the OS being out of control at times, however once you figure them out (e.g. slide out and back in again to show running apps on the left hand side) it starts to feel more in control. Despite not being an Apple fan in any way shape or form I did find myself wondering why press and hold didn’t work for the touch version of right-click on Win8 (ahh it’s press, hold and release, gotcha!)

This isn’t limited to Microsoft, a lot of these touch based HUI apps on Android, and iOS are exactly the same, seems like we’re going back to the bad old days of every app doing its own thing… a case of Back to the Future?

Desktop mode still feels a bit lost on an RT as all it does is launch the RT versions of Office and Windows Explorer (which should have the ribbon enabled by default on touch platforms imo). In an ideal world the Office apps would be more optimised for touch and the RT would never show Desktop mode at all.

Apps and practicality

I quite like some of the updated Win8.1 standard apps, the news and sport ones work well on the widescreen format and felt pleasant to use and read articles from, a win for Metro there. They also show live tiles working well, something other software hasn’t really made the most of thus far. Initially was quite disappointed with OneNote as it wasn’t touch friendly at all, until I realised there’s another version of it in the Store (instead of the RT’s Office 2013 converted Desktop app). This is the kind of thing MS needs to put a bit more thought into and make simpler for the end-user.

Update: just been using the OneNote Metro app this morning instead of the usual pen and paper method, becoming a bigger fan of this app the more I use it 🙂

Heading over to the Store to see what else I could install still highlights where Win8 has problems. Although it looks better than it did at first release the selection there still doesn’t feel wide or mature enough and so many common apps are missing that the platform does feel a bit of a second-class citizen compared to competitors. Also noticed far too many scam apps such as fake Google Chrome rip-offs that Microsoft need to be taking down asap. I tried to report them but seems like that feature isn’t working on the 8.1 Beta and just got stuck in a loading loop.

This is where RT as a platform doesn’t quite cut the mustard, already I’ve found I can’t remote connect to work as our VPN isn’t available as a Metro app, Chrome is still Win32 only and so on. Realistically WIn8’s strong point is the mix of classic and new app support and in the long run Win8 Pro devices are the way to go I feel. I do wonder if RT will survive as far as getting a second chance when Surface 2 comes out or if MS will quietly put it to bed and concentrate solely on x86 with the newer Intel CPU ranges.

That said it will be interesting to see if other users are happier with the limited feature set as admittedly I put heavy demands on any device I use, maybe they’ll be perfectly happy with it as is?

Final thoughts

3-stars-out-of-5

The Surface range in its current form is a funny old beast, on one hand it’s a nice design, well built and something I could definitely use as a new travel companion as an upgrade to my x100e. On the other hand the RT is too limited in functionality and the Pro too heavy and expensive. Personally I don’t need an i5 CPU in a portable device, sure it could run Photoshop and other heavyweight apps but in the real world who wants to do that on an 11″ screen?

Someone please make me a tablet with Win 8.1 Pro, an i3 CPU in the RT form factor for somewhere between £400-£600 and I’ll be first in line 🙂

I think Lenovo or Microsoft will be the ones to do it if any as the other manufacturers haven’t really produced something that’s been on the money so far. Hopefully the next generation of devices will heed the lessons that have (hopefully) been learnt from the less-than-successful sales figures of Win8 tablets thus far as there’s plenty of potential there, we just need the right device at the right price to unlock it.

Interesting point of use of tablets as well (or maybe just me) – although I wrote the bulk of the text on the Surface I still went back to my desktop with 23″ screen and proper keyboard to add formatting, images and re-read the blog post… the desktop isn’t dead yet 😉

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One Response to A weekend with Surface RT

  1. Pingback: Office 365 on mobile devices… consistently inconsistent | gshaw0

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