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Hands on Surface RT: Initial Thoughts

Yes, I broke down and got a Surface RT today. I wasn’t sure I wanted one – my Dell Latitude ST has been serving me well as a Windows 8 tablet device. But it is a bit bulky, and the call of a tablet with a convenient keyboard was just too great. Also I want to evaluate if I think it will be a successful platform for application development. (Please forgive my blurry cell phone pictures – photography is definitely not one of my skills!)

Purchase experience

Before I discuss the device, I want to first describe the buying experience at the store, because that was not very much fun. I decided not to buy on online because I wanted to actually experience both the touch and type keyboards before selecting one. When I first arrived at the store, there was a line around the corner so I immediately got in line. Then I learned the line was for purchasing the Surface only so I went into the store to look at the device and try out the keyboards. That’s when I learned that purchasing the device could take a while. Not only did I have to wait for everyone in front of me, but they were walking each user through setting up a Microsoft account and setting up their device! I asked ‘isn’t there a special line for people who can do that themselves and just want to swipe their credit card?” “No.”

When I got back in line, I realized it wasn’t really moving at all. The line sat in the same place for more than 30 minutes. Only when people started complaining did it start moving. My personal view is that this whole approach was setup to generate hype. Wow – people are standing in a huge line, it must be for something good. Even if it wasn’t for nefarious purposes, it was shameful how long it took before it was moving. Perhaps it was a training issue for Microsoft staff. Once I got to the front of the line the person who actually took my card seemed fairly slow at walking through the purchasing software.

I don’t mind waiting in line for my turn. But when your line isn’t moving in a normal timeframe, you need to assume that something is broken. Employees at the store ranged from sympathetic (“I’m very sorry – I think this is lame too but corporate is making us do it this way”) to complete useless (“this is the process we have selected and I’m sorry it upsets you.”) Nice non-apology there, lady. You should go into politics.

They plied me with Microsoft store gift cards during at the end of the purchasing process to soften the experience, but since it appears they can only be used in a Microsoft retail store I can’t imagine taking advantage of them. Why would I ever want to go back?

In my opinion, Microsoft doesn’t understand how to properly run a retail store. That’s okay if their stores are just about promoting Windows and Office with third party hardware. But if they actually want to sell their own devices, they need to get their act together.

Packaging

The packaging for the device is attractive. I got the 32gb touch keyboard bundle, so it was all in one box. There was what appeared to be scotch tape in a few places that looked a bit odd, but overall it was pretty.

Surface box

Setup

Setup was pretty straightforward, especially having been through the Windows 8 installation experience before. Harder to say how it will be for others. I already had a Microsoft account, so I knew which email account I wanted to connect it to.

Surface Getting Ready

Scary moment

At one point shortly after set-up I got the blue frowny-face of doom – the Windows 8 version of the “blue screen of death”. Yikes!

Surface Blue Frownie Face

I’m not sure what happened there, but I will say that during setup I wasn’t in a spot that had the best connectivity. Still, I wouldn’t have expected this type of fatal error for something like that. I haven’t seen one since, but it was a bit disconcerting!

Touch keyboard

Honestly: the keyboard feels *weird*. All the keys are in the right place, but it will definitely take some getting used to. In the store I had very little trouble typing with minimal errors. In regular use I’m finding that more challenging but it is getting better. I tried using it in the dark this morning – that was pretty much a fail. Perhaps as I get better that will be possible. I’m a touch typist so if I can get my fingers in the right stop I’m usually okay. I seem to be having the most problems with the space bar, but that seems to be improving slowly. Online reports suggest it takes 4-5 days to get comfortable. We’ll see. In the store it was clear that the “type” keyboard had a superior typing experience, but since it added weight I decided to go with the touch keyboard.

The keyboard has a built-in track pad so you don’t have to touch the display for navigation if you don’t want to. That was a pleasant surprise to me – there are times (especially when using something like Microsoft Word) that navigating via touch works less well.

The keyboard has buttons on it for the Search, Share, Devices and Settings charms, but not for the charms bar itself. Frankly I don’t see a lot of point to the Devices and Share buttons – I never use them.

Lap use

One of the questions in my mind was “can I use this device with the keyboard but without a tabletop?” the answer is: possibly. I’m tying this from bed, with the kickstand out and leaning on my legs. I also had it working in my lap last night while watching TV, but the kickstand gave out on me once and the device fell over. Oops.

Built-in apps

In addition to the standard Windows 8 apps available on install, the device comes with preview versions of Office 2013. To be honest, this was one of the biggest disappointments to me. The version of OneNote that is installed doesn’t include voice recording. I use OneNote all the time. On my desktop I use my keyboard but when in meetings I typically use a pen and record the audio. The Surface RT doesn’t come with a pen (the display does not include an active digitizer) and the OneNote 2013 Preview doesn’t have the ability to record audio. This makes it less than ideal for one of the primary use scenarios for me for a mobile device.

I thought the lack of an ability to record audio within OneNote was simply a limitation of the preview (to be fixed later) or perhaps that it was a limitation of the student/home version. However, it appears to me that this isn’t something that can be changed. It says this in the online information about OneNote 2013 RT:

1. Audio and video recording

Recording audio/video notes from inside OneNote 2013 RT is not supported. Instead, you can record audio or video with other software, then insert it through Insert → File to add onto the OneNote page.

One of the lovely features of OneNote 2010 is that if you are recording audio AND taking notes simultaneously, when you playback you can see what notes you were writing for each section of the playback. Recording the audio separately and then inserting it into OneNote won’t give you that capability. Very disappointing.

App store

A lot has been made in the press about a lack of Surface RT apps. Certainly I haven’t found every type of app that I’m looking for. For example: I haven’t yet found a good tool for blogging. I expect that will improve over time. It is an opportunity for developers if the platform takes off. Will it? My guess is that it will be successful enough, but only time will tell.

Comparison

Is it better than the iPad? Well, it is a different device, best used in different usage scenarios. The iPad is great for consuming content – reading your email, surfing the internet, watching video. It does less well at creating content. Firing off a short email is okay, but otherwise the on screen keyboard is painful. Surface RT is better for people trying to create content, especially text-based content like documents and emails. I even prefer it for reading blog posts – I use Google Reader for reading blog posts and I prefer navigation via the keyboard shortcuts. It makes me crazy to use a device without a keyboard for that. But YMMV on that one. It is also lovely to be able to pop in a USB stick.

Still it is too early to say if I will want to use it for all my mobile computing. If I was spending a few hours in a coffee shop doing some read/writing, then the Surface RT would be great. But for taking notes during meetings, I may still carry my Dell Latitude ST running Windows 8. It is a bit bulky, but I can use a full version of OneNote that allows me to record audio and take notes via pen input. 

Bottom line

If you are looking for a mobile device that allows you to do more than just consume content, then the Surface might be a good choice for you. Before you buy, however, spend some time thinking about your typical mobile usage scenarios.

Posted by Avonelle on Saturday, October 27, 2012.

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