If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been playing with a shiny new Microsoft Surface RT that I’ve had for about a month now. I’ve had a bunch of requests for a post about my experience with it thus far, so here we go…
Since I had a few weeks to write it, this post grew a little bit out of control. Sorry in advance for the wall of text. To hopefully compensate a bit, here’s an index of the major sections:
- Windows 8 RT
- Touch and Type Covers
- ClearType Display
- Battery Life
In an unsurprising twist ending, I wrote the first few drafts of this entire post on my Surface RT. I used the Touch Cover for most of it, and then picked up a Type Cover toward the end and used that for the rest.
I tried to write a post like this soon after receiving my original iPad, but was not successful due to a combination of the pain that comes along with long-form writing on a screen-board and the tedious multi-app workflow in iOS — it’s definitely possible, but it’s a task that requires more determination than I could muster at the time.
By contrast, Windows 8 and the physical keyboard made writing this on the Surface RT nearly indistinguishable from writing on my 13″ laptop. If you want a tl;dr for the next 6,500 words, I think that sums it up pretty well.
Windows 8 RT
At its heart, I think the Surface RT is at least as much about showcasing Windows 8 on quasi-reference hardware as it is about that hardware itself.
Having used iOS and Android tablets almost daily for a couple years, Windows 8 is the best tablet operating system I’ve used yet. There’s really no comparison. Once you learn the new gestures well enough to use them effortlessly, Windows 8 makes those older operating systems feel as dated as they look.
Even the simplest things — like accessing application settings and sharing features in a consistent location in the right-hand charms bar — are welcome improvements over the chaos that has been encroaching further and further into iOS’ UX for the past few years.
Multitasking is a pleasure. Swiping to cycle through open apps is neat, but I prefer the swipe left-right-left gesture that displays a temporary sidebar of open apps (and the “missing” Start Menu) on the left. From there, you can jump directly to the app you want instead of cycling through the ones in between. After an hour or two, using that gesture and sidebar became completely unconscious, even though I almost never use that approach on my Windows 8 desktop machine. By comparison, the iOS and Android approaches to multitasking now feels downright archaic.
It’s difficult to put such a visceral UX difference into words. It’s hard to take my iPad seriously anymore, after using the Surface RT. Even though the iPad does have more apps, they all seem to be constrained inside an overall interface that often makes them feel like a child’s toy. By comparison, using Windows 8 on the Surface feels like I’m using a high quality tool — which is what I want. I have enough toys already.
If you told me a year ago that I’d be using a laptop with a capacitive screen and actually touching the screen on a regular basis, I wouldn’t have believed you. The idea of touching the screen on a regular PC has never made much sense to me no matter how many times I’ve seen staged demos.
After just a few hours of using the Surface, I realized that I was reaching up from the keyboard to tap and scroll without thinking about it on a regular basis. Having a responsive touch screen a few inches from where my fingers naturally rest on the Touch Cover completely changes what feels natural.
So often on web pages, there’s a button or link that you can’t readily activate via keyboard, but tapping it is quick and easy when you’re already looking right at it.
Beyond simple button tapping, the system-wide gestures in Windows 8 are often effort multipliers compared to traditional keyboard and mouse inputs. A quick right-left swipe from the left edge shows thumbnails of open programs and then tapping the one you want to focus is usually faster than flipping through them all with Alt + Tab or hunting and clicking with the mouse.
Similarly, swiping down in Internet Explorer 10 to see thumbnails of open tabs and tapping on one is faster and more useful than cycling through them with Ctrl + Tab. On the Surface’s relatively narrow 16:9 display, it’s great that you don’t have to waste screen real estate on things like the address bar and open tabs while you’re using a particular tab.
A litany of relatively small things — as simple as being able to slide the volume slider up and down via touch after pressing the hardware button — all add up to a level of UI polish that you would normally expect from a more mature product.
The new “Modern UI” (aka Metro) interface in Windows 8 is at its best on a tablet. It’s easy to navigate, live tiles optionally provide useful ambient information, and it truly does feel modern. The grid of icons on my iPad reminds me of Windows 3.11 after using the Surface for a couple weeks. Not to mention how frustrating the arbitrary page breaks become after you’re accustomed to seamlessly scrolling across Windows 8’s landscape of tiles.
Being able to pin apps to the side was a lifesaver as I wrote this post. Often, I pinned Evernote to the left 1/4 while using the right 3/4 for WordPress’ full screen editor. Using Evernote as a scratch area to temporarily hold sections of the post or serve as reference for rewriting a paragraph was something I noticed sorely lacking from iOS’ simplistic take on multitasking when I attempted the same task with my iPad.
Within a week of using the Surface on a daily basis, I even began unconsciously trying to use its top-to-bottom swipe gesture to close apps on my iPhone. The entire interface is surprisingly natural once you get acclimated to it. Not necessarily discoverable for novices, but powerful, efficient, and intuitive if you put some effort into learning how to use it effectively.
Though the new interface is fantastic overall, I did have a couple minor issues using it even after learning all of its new tricks.
The most persistent annoyance is that, to my knowledge, you can’t see the percentage of battery charge remaining unless you flip over to the desktop and tap the battery icon in the system tray. That’s not terribly hard, but it buries the information a few steps away. I much prefer an ambient indicator of exactly what charge is remaining. The simple icon without a numeric percentage is not granular enough to instill confidence (imagine if the fuel gauge on your car dropped directly from 1/4 tank to empty without warning!).
Another thing I found myself missing is iOS’ scroll-to-top feature. In iOS, on both the phone and tablet, you can tap the status bar at the top of the screen to scroll to the top of wherever you happen to be. On web pages and long lists (e.g. my email inbox every morning), that shortcut back to the top is a very useful time saver.
Those are my only serious complaints about the Windows 8 interface after a month of daily use though. That’s impressive for a first generation device and first iteration of something as fundamentally new as Windows 8.
Until very recently, one of the PC industry’s greatest failings has been a lack of solidly-constructed, aesthetically pleasing hardware. This year’s latest wave of UltraBooks has finally begun turning that around, but the MacBook Pro and Air still have advantages in some aspects. Similarly, there really hasn’t been a PC (or Android) tablet that compares with the iPad’s industrial design.
The Surface RT has finally made an impressive dent in that status quo. I’ve found it to be every bit as nice in reality as it looks in Microsoft’s advertisements.
The VaporMg case
The Surface’s construction and VaporMg case truly do seem to live up to the marketing hype thus far: It’s as solid as any electronic device you’re likely to ever hold. During one of the launch events, Panos Panay dropped a Surface on the floor from shoulder-height, picked it up, and continued his demo. Steven Sinofsky rode a make-shift Surface RT skateboard. It continued working after CNET froze it for over two hours and cooked an egg on it for another hour after that. I’ve even seen a few stories about Surfaces that have been run over by automobiles and survived with only superficial damage to the case but not the display or innards.
I have not been treating my Surface gently during the past month and haven’t had the slightest worry that it would break. I feel no trepidation tossing it around on semi-soft surfaces without a case, and generally treating it like a tool instead of something pretty and fragile.
Notably, I haven’t seen a single story yet about an accidental drop shattering the front glass like is so common with iDevices.
It’s interesting how much attention Microsoft’s marketing has given to the kickstand. It seems almost odd until you use it regularly, but the kickstand ends up being as integral to the overall experience as its Touch and Type Cover counterparts.
The kickstand’s hinge offers just enough resistance that it never flops open accidentally when you’re moving it around on soft surfaces, but easily opens into place with satisfying tactile feedback when you intentionally give a tug via the recessed groove on the side. Similarly, flipping it closed requires just enough force that you’ll never slip it shut while touching the screen when it’s upright, but shutting it with a squeeze of one hand requires only a comfortable effort.
It would be nice if the kickstand’s angle were more adjustable. Its 22-degree angle is usually pretty good for content creation and I’ve actually made use of its symbiosis with the rear-facing camera’s opposing 22-degree angle a couple times. On the other hand, it props the Surface up a bit steeper than I’d prefer when I’m sitting at a table and reading. However, if I had to choose between how secure and steady the kickstand is currently or a couple more angles, I’d happily take it as is.
The front- and rear-facing cameras are about what you would expect from a tablet. They’re just passable for video conferencing and recording low-end HD video, but forget about using them for still photos of any kind. Neither camera in the Surface RT begins to compare to the camera in any smartphone you’re likely to own in 2012.
I’ve never really cared about the iPad’s lack of a standard I/O port, but the combination of a USB port and Windows’ broad hardware support is more useful than I had expected. Ironically, I even used it to transfer photos from my iPhone without any configuration hassle.
The built-in speakers are underwhelming. I can live with tinny sound from such tiny speakers, and that’s the case with every tablet I’ve used, but the maximum volume is far too quiet. In a noisy environment like a coffee shop or a Microsoft Store, you can barely hear the sound at all. One consolation is that the internal sound hardware does drive headphones with fine volume and quality. I plugged my Bose headphones into it and the sound was loud, clear, and rich. The built-in speakers desperately need an upgrade in the next revision though.
Touch and Type Covers: Surprisingly good
I opted for the bundle that included a 32gb Surface RT and a Touch Cover. I was tempted to also get a Type Cover in case the Touch Cover didn’t work as well as advertised, but decided to make myself to give the lighter, thinner keyboard a fighting chance first. As it turns out, almost no acclimation was necessary. Typing on the Touch Cover is nothing like typing on a real keyboard, but it feels surprisingly natural to me (and I’m picky about my keyboards).
You may have read that laying your fingers on the touch cover’s home row results in unwanted “asdfjkl;” gibberish, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I can replicate that by forcefully slamming my fingers down onto the home row and wiggling them around a bit, but you’d have to be incredibly ham-fisted to have that problem during normal usage. If anything, I think the “pinky finger” keys take slightly more pressure to activate than I’d prefer for my typing technique, but it’s definitely better to err the side of extra pressure than accidental gibberish.
Probably for the same reason that I felt like significant pressure was necessary, I haven’t had much luck typing on soft surfaces. Using the Touch Cover in my lap or on an ottoman, I couldn’t find a good rhythm.
An unsung benefit of the Surface’s Touch and Type Covers, as compared to Bluetooth keyboards that work with other tablets, is that the Surface’s keyboards draw their power from the Surface itself through the magnetic connector. The tablet-friendly keyboards that companies like Logitech and Zapp sell are nice enough in theory, Bluetooth pairing and 2.4ghz interference aside, but no one talks very much about the extra hassle that comes with keeping the keyboard’s battery charged in addition to the tablet itself. You never have to think about that with the Surface.
Can you hear the words that I’m… typing?
I think that one of the keys to learning to use the Touch Cover is making sure the Surface’s sound isn’t muted. Similar to Windows Phone, the Windows 8 RT on-screen keyboard gives helpful audible feedback as you type — not just monotone clicks that are the same for every key, but varying beeps and bloops for different keys. It’s a surprisingly satisfying feedback mechanism. Over time, you can almost recognize the sound of distinct sequences of letters being entered.
The biggest drawback of a keyboard like the Touch Cover’s is that you don’t get much tactile feedback as key presses are registered. However, if you have the Surface’s sound unmuted, typing on the Touch Cover produces exactly the same audible feedback that the on-screen keyboard does. I was surprised how quickly that audible feedback trained my fingers to calibrate for pressure and rhythm while I typed.
So, do be sure that the device’s sound is audible if you’re trying one in a Microsoft Store or using your own Touch Cover for the first time.
A cover that actually works as a cover
Compared to my iPad’s Smart Cover, which I rarely use as a cover, folding either the Touch or Type Cover over the Surface and carrying it is a great experience. Where the iPad’s cover feels awkward as a stand and flimsy as a cover, the Touch and Type Covers’ single panel makes a great cover and the built-in kickstand is perfect for propping the Surface up at good reading and typing angle on flat surfaces.
A tiny trackpad is better than no trackpad
One nice thing about both the Touch and Type Cover is that they include a tiny, but serviceable, trackpad. You might be skeptical about the usefulness of a trackpad barely bigger than the spacebar when you have an 10.6″ capacitive touch display just a few inches away, but I disagree for one reason: hover.
Years into this supposed post-PC era, a depressing number of websites still depend on the mouseover event for crucial aspects of their functionality. Sometimes you can double-tap those elements, but if hovering reveals an element that isn’t in exactly the same location (e.g. many popup menus), you’re probably out of luck if all you have is touch input.
With the Touch Cover’s trackpad, temporarily fiddling with the mouse pointer allows you to circumnavigate those situations that would otherwise be dead-ends on other tablets.
Type Cover: Perfect
A couple weeks into this experiment, after I thought I’d forced myself to test the Touch Cover thoroughly enough, I also purchased a Type Cover. I’m not going to say very much about the Type Cover other than it’s perfect. I probably wouldn’t change one thing about it.
I use a Logitech diNovo Edge on my desktop PC, which is probably my favorite keyboard of all time. Even coming from that high level of expectation, I found a rhythm on the Type Cover almost immediately and can type at full speed.
If you don’t mind the slight extra thickness and feeling keys move under your fingers when you flip the cover behind the Surface, the Type Cover is good enough to directly replace almost any laptop keyboard and even some desktop keyboards.
Display: ClearType saves the day?
Most of the criticism I’ve seen targeted at the Surface RT has been directed at Microsoft’s decision to use a relatively low resolution display. Compared to the current iPad’s 2,048 x 1,536 resolution, the Surface RT’s 1,366 x 768 sounds pretty disappointing.
Microsoft has responded by saying that several aspects of the Surface RT’s display, ranging from lower reflectivity to ClearType subpixel rendering, negate the resolution difference:
First prong, Microsoft has the best pixel rendering technology in the industry (cleartype 1.0 and 2.0) .. these are exclusive and unique to Windows, it smooths text regardless of pixel count.
Second, we designed a custom 10.6” high-contrast wide-angle screen LCD screen.
Lastly we optically bonded the screen with the thinnest optical stack anywhere on the market.. something which is more commonly done on phones we are doing on Surface. While this is not official, our current Cleartype measurements on the amount of light reflected off the screen is around 5.5%-6.2%, the new IPad has a measurement of 9.9% mirror reflections. Doing a side by side with the new iPad in a consistently lit room, we have had many people see more detail on Surface RT than on the Ipad with more resolution.
It’s easy to interpret that response as misdirection away from the core issue of display resolution, but it doesn’t seem to be wrong in my limited experience. Most of the time, the display looks fantastic. It’s clear, sharp, and images look like they’re closer to the surface of the device’s glass than other tablets that I’ve used.
When viewing photos, video, the start screen, and most native Windows 8 apps, the display looks perfect. Beyond my own experience, no one that I’ve shown my Surface to has had anything but positive comments about the display.
They weren’t joking about the viewing angle
The range of usable viewing angles on the Surface RT is unbelievable. I exclusively use LCD displays with IPS panels, and the Surface RT still has the best off-center viewing quality I’ve ever seen.
I didn’t notice just how well the display looks nearly on-edge until I accidentally left laying face up on a tall kitchen counter one day and walked across the room to do something. Walking back toward the Surface, I realized that even at my ~10-15 degree viewing angle, there was almost no color distortion at all. In fact, it looked almost as bright and legible as if I were holding it at arm’s length directly in front of me.
That may not sound incredibly important, but keep in mind that you’ll be using a tablet in a wide range of positions. Being able to hold it at any comfortable angle and still see the screen clearly is an important feature.
Ambient light sensor
The biggest display-related complaint that I have after a month is that the ambient light sensor is too sensitive.
As with most devices, when you adjust the Surface RT’s display brightness, the device attempts to maintain that relative brightness as ambient lighting conditions change. So, if the lighting where you’re using the Surface at gets brighter, the display also gets brighter to compensate, and vice versa when the ambient lighting dims.
An ambient light sensor is a nice feature for a device that you’re likely to use in a variety of settings, but the Surface’s light sensor has a hair trigger. When I’m using it in a dark room, even the light from bright app or page reflecting back from my face is enough that display reacts as if lighting in the room changed.
At first, the effect is very disconcerting. Seeing the adjustment happen right as you’ve tapped to open an app makes it seem almost like there’s an intermittent problem with the backlight. Over time, I realized what was actually happening and it’s less alarming, but still annoying.
Hopefully, this is something Microsoft can address in a software update.
Running Windows 8 on an ARM device means that you can’t install existing x86 software (e.g. Visual Studio, QuickBooks, Comet Cursor…), so Windows 8’s new “apps” are going to be a crucial ingredient in the Surface RT’s success or failure.
Built-in apps: Not bad
When you see the start screen for the first time, you’ll already have a handful of Windows RT apps installed. Those built-in apps include a wide range of Metro-style apps for email, calendaring, photos, news, weather, finance, music, video, and the camera. There are also a few quasi-desktop apps, the desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 and the pre-installed Office 2013 preview.
Most of these built-in apps are passable.
- The People app is sluggish at times and difficult to navigate when you’re viewing dozens of status updates, but it does a pretty good job of what it’s intended to. I’d prefer a dedicated Facebook app to this aggregation though.
- The Calendar app works well enough for my simple needs and its integration with the lock screen is nice. It has kept in sync with my Google Apps account and setup was hassle-free.
- Messaging works well enough for Facebook and MSN (and/or Skype now?) instant messaging. I was disappointed that it doesn’t support Google Chat though — especially since the Mail app does support Google’s services. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to leave such a popular service unsupported.
- The ancillary apps like Travel, Finance, and Sports work well enough and have led me to discover some interesting content that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.
- Contrary to some reviews I’ve read, the Store app has worked well for me. It did give me trouble a couple times, but closing it with a downward swipe and reopening it fixed that (something I’ve experienced quite often in iOS 6’s app store as well, to be fair).
- The SkyDrive app is nice to have right out of the box. Since I used my existing Microsoft account when I set the Surface up initially, I had immediate access to my SkyDrive files.
With most of the built-in apps out of the way, let’s talk about the Mail app. The phrase “unmitigated disaster” comes to mind.
It’s slow. Often, it blanks out the entire message list and reading pane for several seconds after I delete or move a few emails and then redraws the whole thing. The editor’s performance when composing some messages — particularly when replying to a message with a large body of preexisting content — is unbelievably slow. It has trouble with inline images in messages on one of my accounts, prompting me to individually download each inline image and then failing every time. Dealing with multiple emails, whether moving or deleting, is cumbersome. I could go on, but you probably get the idea…
The Mail app is the worst email client I can remember using since Lotus Notes. This app needs to be overhauled and an update pushed out via the Store with absolutely the utmost urgency.
Considering that email is one of the most important tasks I used to use my iPad for, the current state of the Mail app is absolutely unacceptable to me. If anything about the Surface RT drives me back to the iPad, it will most likely be this.
Store: Reminds me of the original iPad
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest drawbacks of running Windows 8 on an ARM device is that you can’t install existing x86 apps. With the Windows Store is still in the process of ramping up its inventory of Windows RT apps, that’s an important limitation to understand. Some notable apps like Netflix and Hulu+ are already available, but others like Dropbox and Facebook are conspicuously absent (though the built-in People and Messaging apps attempt to replace the latter).
It’s often suggested that Windows Phone 7.x has struggled to gain traction due in no small part to its lack of corresponding native apps that iOS and Android users enjoy. Following from that, some pundits claim that Windows 8 on ARM will suffer a similar chicken-or-egg problem while bootstrapping its new app store and hardware ecosystem.
I think the app store situation is interesting because it reminds me almost exactly of the iOS app store when the iPad was first released. It’s hard to remember now, but apps targeting the iPad’s screen size were scarce during the months after the iPad’s initial launch. As we all know now, iPads sold like hotcakes and developers responded by filling the iOS app store with compelling apps that took advantage of the iPad’s form factor, but that took time.
I expect that Microsoft’s massive distribution will result in such a proliferation of Windows 8 desktops and laptops that its app store will also become an irresistible development target. As a side effect, even if Windows 8 tablets don’t sell at the same pace that the iPad has immediately, they will still benefit from much of the development that targets Windows 8 as a whole.
Only time will tell, but I think the Windows 8 store is a promising platform.
Internet Explorer 10
While the Store is still ramping up its inventory, Internet Explorer 10 is probably the most important app that ships with the Surface RT.
For example, while there’s no native Facebook app for Windows 8 yet, Facebook’s full desktop website works perfectly well even in the “Metro” version of IE10. The web interfaces to my email accounts have even blunted the agony of using the built-in Mail app somewhat.
Internet Explorer 10 is a surprisingly good browser. It lacks some features that I wish it didn’t, like WebGL, but it’s far and away better than its reputation from years past might suggest. It even supports WebSockets, which you probably wouldn’t expect if you haven’t kept up with IE10’s development.
Even with the recent improvements, IE10 scores an underwhelming 320 at HTML5Test.com. For comparison, Mobile Safari on iOS 6 scores a 386 and Chrome 24 on my Windows desktop comes in at 453. So, IE10 will keep up with almost every mainstream website, but don’t expect it to handle the latest tech demos or sites using advanced HTML5 features.
One thing I’ve noticed is that IE10 seems to prioritize ongoing page rendering more than it does re-rendering the current viewport when you change zoom levels. On many pages I visit, one of the first things I do is zoom and pan to just the text I’m interested in reading. IE10 often leaves that newly-zoomed text heavily pixelated for several seconds before refining it to match the new zoom level. Not a good experience at all. By contrast, Mobile Safari on my iPad always stops everything to immediately re-render fonts when I zoom in on a page.
Hopefully, that’s an IE10 issue that can be solved with a software fix though, and not a long-term problem. I do think it’s a common enough scenario and jarring enough issue that it does need to be addressed long before IE11 though.
An nVidia Tegra 3 ARM CPU and 2GB of RAM are at the heart of the Surface RT. My experience with native apps, streaming HD video, viewing web pages, and playing games has been mostly smooth and impressive.
Particularly, scrolling across the constantly updating live tiles on the start screen always feels satisfyingly “fast and fluid”. Where I’ve noticed that Android tablets struggle to smoothly juggle animating its widgets and moving them around at the same time, the Windows 8 on the Surface RT never feels slow or sluggish.
Even typing this 6,000+ word post in WordPress’ “visual” editor, all of the text and several images crammed into an HTML textarea, has never appeared to be a challenge for my Surface RT.
There have been some high-visibility complaints about performance in the preview version of Office 2013 that comes pre-installed on this first wave of Surface RT devices. Mine suffered the same problems initially, to the point that even rendering newly typed characters in Word 2013 would often lag seconds behind my keystrokes.
However, installing the RTM version of Office 2013 via Windows Update completely solved the Office performance problems on my device. I even tried creating documents based on some of the more complex templates and typing gibberish as fast as possible at the top of the document (so the rendering engine also had to move the entire document down as a result, which previously exacerbated the performance issue previously), with no visible lag at all.
So, it may be true that the Surface RT’s Tegra 3 processor doesn’t have quite enough horsepower to make up for unoptimized preview code targeted at powerful desktop machines. That’s not something I’m going to hold against it though. Running a fully functional instance of the latest version of Office on an ARM-based processor is quite a feat in any case, and updating to the optimized release version eliminates all of the performance issues that I could reproduce.
One of the first things I tried on day one was installing Cut the Rope and Jetpack Joyride, both of which I’ve played on other platforms. I was disappointed to find intermittently choppy graphics performance in both games — no where near as smooth as the same games on my second generation iPad.
A few days later, I decided to give gaming on the Surface RT a second chance and purchased Angry Birds Space. Since purchases on the Surface transfer over to my other Windows 8 PCs anyway, that $5 investment would at least be worthwhile on my desktop.
I was pleased to find that graphics performance in Angry Birds Space on the Surface RT was nearly flawless — almost indistinguishable from playing the same game on my iPad 2 or Core i7 desktop. Compared to the other two games I had tried, the difference was night and day. The disparity was so great that it even prompted me to spend a few minutes killing processes and trying the other two games again to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently played them during some background task I was unaware of previously (nope; performance was the same).
A few weeks later, I had the same kind of positive experience with Angry Birds Star Wars (which is surprisingly fun, not a cheesy sellout).
I suspect that Microsoft has been lax about enforcing performance criteria when approving apps that are already popular on other platforms, putting a premium on filling the Store out with apps that iOS and Android have as quickly as possible. Over time, I doubt this will be a serious issue as developers have more time to tune their submissions, and in the shorter term the bad apples are avoidable by using the Store’s trial feature before you buy.
To the cloud!
Speaking of how my Angry Birds Space purchase applied to all of my Windows 8 PCs, so did my progress in the game itself. I happened to install the app on my desktop to see how well it worked with mouse (pretty well) and was surprised to see that I was already credited with the stars and achievements for the levels that I had played earlier on my Surface.
It’s a small thing, but I was impressed. There have been several times that I installed the same iOS game on both my iPad and iPhone, only to be faced with replaying already-defeated levels and losing interest in that proposition almost immediately.
Seamlessly syncing an arbitrary application’s settings and data across multiple devices is going to be a huge differentiating factor for Windows 8 tablets, PCs, Laptops, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox when compared to the competition’s fragmentation. Microsoft has struggled to find a coherent synchronization story for years, but seems to have finally brought its entire ecosystem into firm alignment this year.
The ARM architecture’s key selling point is that it offers adequate performance at low power consumption (and produces less heat as a byproduct). So, one big question about the Surface RT is whether or not the extended battery life is worth the performance loss and significant compromise of not being able to run “legacy” x86 software.
Compared to any other PC running Windows that you’ve used in the past, you will be impressed with Surface RT’s battery life. I haven’t yet managed to deplete a full charge in a single day of moderate use, ranging from light tablet reading, heavy-duty content creation with the keyboard, to playing a few levels of Angry Birds Star Wars, to using Xbox SmartGlass in the living room. You’re basically looking at the same charging cycle as a good smartphone, where you can expect more than a full day of moderate usage, but probably wouldn’t want to try for two full days.
My initial opinion about the Surface RT’s battery life, compared to my iPad 2, wasn’t very favorable. On further reflection, I realized that the Surface’s battery was actually great. The difference is that the Surface is far more useful than the iPad and I’ve been using it more intensively than I have ever used my iPad. I think that says a lot about both the Surface RT and Windows 8.
Talking about battery life and the ARM architecture’s benefits wouldn’t be complete without talking about heat. The short answer is that there isn’t any.
I was able to make the back panel warm up ever so slightly at one point after I’d played Angry Birds for about fifteen minutes, but it was negligible. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t specifically been trying to stress test.
On the flip side of that same coin, I have no idea if the Surface RT even has a fan. I’ve never heard one spin up and heat has never been an issue anyway.
Speaking of charging the battery, the charging connection needs some work.
When I read that the Surface had a magnetic charging connector, I had visions of Apple’s excellent MagSafe connector. Unfortunately, the Surface RT’s connector, while magnetic, is awkward to connect to the side of the device.
Worse, I always feel like I’m probably scratching the area around the connector when I maneuver it into place (though I haven’t seen any visible wear in the area yet). This really should be improved in the next device — hopefully as soon as the Surface Pro.
I’ve always considered WiFi to be a fungible feature. Either it works or not, based primarily on whether or not my device supports the same frequency and standard that the available hotspots do, right?
Not so much, apparently. The dual-antenna WiFi hardware in the Surface RT changed my mind about the varying quality of WiFi hardware after two specific experiences.
No more holding it wrong
As a long-time iPad user, one thing that can be incredibly annoying, at least with my iPad 2, is that holding it “wrong” significantly hampers its WiFi performance. Unfortunately for me, the way I preferred to hold my iPad happens to be exactly the “wrong” way. I try to avoid holding it that way, but my hand usually slips back into that position every few minutes and websites stop loading. If I move my left hand, everything starts working great again.
At first, I didn’t believe that could possibly be the case. I always assume coincidence with these things until I can prove otherwise. However, running SpeedTest and varying my hand position confirmed my suspicions.
On the contrary, I can’t find a way to hold the Surface RT that impacts WiFi performance in the least. It’s a small thing, but a nicety that compounds over time.
Can you hear me now?
Since the Surface RT doesn’t support a cellular data connection, being able to reliably connect to WiFi is important. Almost immediately, I ran into a perfect example of how exceptional the Surface’s WiFi support is.
There’s a local restaurant a few miles from me that has a great patio where I can take the dog for a late lunch, relax, and catch up on email for a bit. The only problem is that the WiFi there is terrible. With my MacBook Air, I can only connect to it about half the time (and only if I sit in a particular seat) and it’s painfully slow even then. My iPhone and iPad won’t connect to it at all. Usually, they don’t even detect that the network is available.
With the Surface, I can sit anywhere on the patio and connect right up with 2-3 bars of signal strength. I had hoped for at least a reliably minimal connection with the Surface’s dual-antenna setup, but that result surpassed my expectations to be sure.
Sure, the root problem here is that the restaurant has their WiFi hotspot buried in the back of the building somewhere, but that’s hardly the exception. Not many businesses prioritize WiFi coverage, so the Surface’s ability to lock onto a weak signal and make the best of a bad scenario is welcome.
It’s been a few years since Ballmer first unveiled Microsoft’s “three screens and the cloud” strategy, but I’ve never really been very convinced by that vision very fully until these past few weeks. In a household with a litany of iDevices and a MacBook Air, like mine, an unproven device like the Surface RT is not an easy sell. Though I develop primarily on the Microsoft web platform, I’ve never been one to buy Microsoft products in other segments just for the sake of brand loyalty.
Yet, I recently realized that not only have I completely stopped using my iPad, I haven’t even turned on my MacBook Air since the Surface arrived. For my needs, the Surface RT really is that good. In fact, the integration between my Windows 8 desktop PC, Surface RT, and Xbox has actually made me want to try going “all in” and replacing my iPhone 5 with a Windows Phone 8.
Windows 8 on quality tablet hardware, like the Surface, is simply delightful to use. Even though I miss a few iOS apps, I don’t think I could go back to using iOS itself now. Everything else feels clumsy and tedious once you’ve used and mastered Windows 8 on the Surface.
As you might infer from all of the direct iPad comparisons in the preceding sections, I almost made the mistake of judging the Surface RT directly against the iPad. Most of the mainstream reviews I’ve seen have done exactly that, and I think that’s natural, but also a mistake. The Surface RT does fall short in some very specific niches where the iPad excels, but that’s because they aren’t really the same kind of device. I believe the combination of Windows 8 and the Surface is a subtly different type of thing than the current crop of consumer tablets, focused on a more optimal balance between content consumption and creation without sacrificing sleek, beautiful construction.
Nothing else I’ve seen or used has struck that chord so perfectly.
Should you buy a Surface RT?
Maybe. I personally like my Surface RT so much that it’s hard not to recommend it to everyone, but I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for every user (yet).
If you’re thinking about buying one for a non-technical friend or family member, wait. The Store needs to fill out a bit more with popular apps and a few rough edges, like the built-in Mail app, need to be smoothed out before it’s an ideal device for a non-technical user. There’s a good chance this will be an ideal device for consumer users after a few software updates and a couple months worth of Store submissions, but it’s not quite there today.
If you’re considering a purchase for yourself or someone else technically savvy, understand the limitations of Windows 8 RT on an ARM device, and still want to give it a try then you absolutely should. The Surface RT has met or exceeded almost all of my expectations, and completely superseded my iPad from day one.
Don’t forget the Surface Pro
The inability to develop software on the Surface RT might be a non-starter for some of you. There is a remote desktop client that you could use to develop on a remote machine, but that’s not a great experience (I’ve tried). Over time, I expect tools like Cloud9 to support IE10 and good Windows 8 code editors to start showing up in the store. However, I doubt it will ever be possible to develop for ASP.NET or Windows 8 itself on the Surface RT.
If screen resolution, app selection, performance, and/or development are too important for to you to compromise on, you can always wait a few months for the Surface Pro. It’s rumored to pack a 1920 x 1080 resolution into the same 10.6″ package, have a full-power Intel processor, a stylus/digitizer, and other PC-class hardware. As well as my lowly Surface RT has replaced my MacBook Air, I think the Surface Pro will be a game changer for users with more demanding needs.
To be clear, there is no disclaimer. I purchased my Surface RT, Touch Cover, and Type Cover online at the Microsoft Store with my own funds and received no promotional consideration for writing this post.