Thursday, January 3, 2013

Microsoft Surface with Windows RT: Review

   When Microsoft decided to enter the tablet market, they tried to keep it secret, but everyone expected them to announce a tablet. However, what they didn’t expect was Surface, a product with a recycled name, ultra-thin profile, keyboard attachment, and two different flavors (one running Windows RT and one running Windows 8). But how does Microsoft’s first trip into making tablets, Surface with Windows RT (Surface RT), compare to the other options out there?



   When Surface came out, some commented that the display isn’t as high of resolution as the latest products from Apple. However, the display, running at 1366X768 is bright, rich, and beautiful. Using ClearType, text is easy to read. Video looks brilliant. Colors pop when they need to, images are well defined. Video works very well. Given the resolution, it is an HD display and it is a beautiful one. At 10.6”, Surface RT offers plenty of viewing space for a tablet. For those looking for a little extra viewing space, Surface comes with HD video out. With a separately sold adapter, it can be connected to a television, projector, whatever one needs. It would be nice if the port was a bit more universal, but then in order to keep the profile of the device thin (.37”), that would be tough to do.

   Side by side, the display on other tablets such as the latest iPad can appear to be better, but not by much. People who are familiar with both devices would have a hard time identifying the tablet by just seeing a video playing on one device. The Surface display leaves little to nothing to be desired. Any increase to the price to improve the display wouldn’t be worth it.



   Microsoft hit the ball out of the park when it comes to the exterior of the Surface. The VaporMg casing is solid. It’s softer than metal so it doesn’t feel like an industrial machine, but more solid than plastic so it feels like it could last the test of time.

   The kickstand is excellent. It doesn’t have the feel of a luxury car door opening and closing like some have said. However, it is extremely useful. It seems like it should be standard on all tablets. It doesn’t matter where someone is or what they brought. Surface RT can be set up anywhere, allowing you to simply sit back and enjoy. The only drawback to the kickstand is that the notch to open it is only on one side. There have been times when I happen to be holding the tablet in my left hand and try opening it with my right. Doesn’t work too well. If it is to be on one side, I would think the right would be better. I’m not the only right handed person out there and I hold a tablet in my left hand so I can use my right to poke at the touch screen. However, if you’re left handed, you may find Surface to be a bit friendlier to you in that regard.

   While the hinge for the kickstand doesn’t have the same luxury car door thunk as some have said, the click for connecting a TouchCover or TypeCover does. The magnetic bond is great. It does have a very satisfying sound when connecting. And, yes, the connection is strong enough that one can hold on to just the cover and the tablet will hold on. We’ll have more on the covers in another review.

   I’ve mentioned the video port, but there’s another port right next to it. Surface provides a full sized USB port. This allows users to connect just about anything out there. Obviously, one can connect a USB flash drive to increase their storage or to share files, but it goes beyond that. If you find the cost of the TouchCover to be a bit too much, it can be used to connect a keyboard, mouse, etc. Microsoft lists over 1000 printers that will work with Surface (So your printer has a good chance of working with it). There are external hard drives, headsets, cameras, the list goes on. This opens up Surface RT to be more flexible and capable of doing more than just about any other tablet out there. It can even be used to charge your cell phone. Try doing that with other tablets.

   Surface RT also features a microSDXC port hidden behind the kickstand. This gives users the ability to expand their storage for a fairly good price. More on the microSDXC later.

   On the right side, there’s also the charging connector. The charger connects using magnets and has a small light on it to let the user know that the connection has been made. It’s a small, touch, but a nice one.



   Surface RT has two cameras where you would expect them. There’s one on the front and one on the back. Compared to the wide world of cameras, the cameras on Surface leave a lot to be desired. I would never dream of using the cameras on Surface to take snapshots of a vacation. That would be a terrible idea.

   But then I don’t believe that was the main purpose in mind when Microsoft selected these cameras. They do make quality cameras for things such as Skype. So for that video call to a loved one who lives far away or for a video conference, the cameras are great. And besides, anyone who really cares about quality images has a digital camera or a smartphone with a quality camera on it. With the microSDXC slot on the Surface, those who want great pictures on their tablets can take them on their digital point-and-shoot or DSLR and take the card and put them on their Surface using the microSDXC port. From there, they can be uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, or other sites.

   So while the cameras leave something to be desired, it’s not a huge loss. That is unless you don’t own a digital camera or a smartphone with a quality camera.

   A quick and easy fix for those looking for better cameras on their tablet would be for Microsoft to create drivers to allow some of their higher end web cameras to connect with Surface. However, there is currently little to no support. I would almost prefer this fix as opposed to better cameras on the device because it really does make the sky the limit and doesn’t require a price increase on the device for those who would never use the cameras or barely use them.


Operating System

   Surface RT runs Windows RT, a version of Windows designed to run on chips such as the NVIDIA Tegra 3 found in the Surface RT compared to Windows 8 which runs on x86 processors from AMD and Intel. Windows RT is to Windows 8 as iOS is to Mac OS.

   So what does this mean to users? Unlike iOS, Windows RT is almost identical to its x86 brother. This helps limit, if not eliminate, any learning curve for those familiar with Windows 8. It’s an extremely pleasant experience firing up a new device using an operating system you’ve never used, and you know exactly how to run it. The downside is that it has the potential to create some confusion. But the name is different, anyone who does minor research will know the difference. Given the price of a tablet, hopefully consumers do their homework before buying anything. 

   What are those differences? The main thing that consumers will deal with is that all the software designed for Windows 7 won’t run on Windows RT. Surface RT won’t run Photoshop or Counter Strike. It will run apps available in the online store or already on the device. It also comes with a host of programs including simple email, calendar, and messaging apps, Internet Explorer (both a version when in desktop mode and a more “Don’t call it Metro” touch friendly version), SkyDrive for accessing the cloud, and a Bing app. The biggest and most notable addition is Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote). That’s something not included in Windows 8 and brings great value to Surface RT.

   There are a few other additions that surprised me. Microsoft Paint is there and there’s even command prompt and NotePad. Windows Explorer is there for moving files. There is no Windows Media Player (although the device has other programs for listening to music or playing videos). However, that was about the only application that’s really noticeably missing.

   Some have made negative comments regarding the inclusion of the Windows desktop in Windows RT. The main critique is that it’s not very finger friendly. That’s very true. But then this isn’t an iPad. There are other ways to interact with the device. There are the TouchCovers and there is that USB port for connecting other input devices. Is everyone going to have these all the time? No. But then failure to include desktop for that reason would annoy me as much as when my elementary teachers would say “If you didn’t bring enough for everyone, then you can’t have it in class.” This isn’t the Soviet Union. To deny some a bit of functionality because some will never use it is silly. The desktop is not essential to use the device. It’s more of an extra. And it’s a welcomed addition.

   The platform is lacking in a number of big name apps. Which apps are missing that you might find important will vary from user to user. Only start screen friendly apps will work (outside the ones Microsoft includes). The apps that are missing that bother me aren’t really available on any tablet platform. There’s no Visual Studio (it would be nice to write and edit code on the go and then compile it later on my Windows desktop). Steam doesn’t work on it. Adobe Premiere doesn’t work. I can’t put Zune on it (leave me alone. I love the Zune desktop software and I don’t care who knows it).

   There were a few surprises when I fired up Windows RT. A lot of my desktop computer’s settings were brought over. The background image from my desktop was automatically there. The picture I use for my lock screen was automatically brought over. And these aren’t images that came with either OS. Using my LiveID/Windows ID/ whatever Microsoft is calling their account program these days, it automatically brought over a number of settings. It helps the device feel more personal and saved me the time of setting up the device. The biggest cross-over surprise was the fact that Internet Explorer brought over my frequently viewed sites and favorites. This saved me the trouble of rebuilding my favorite list on the tablet.

   Speaking of Internet Explorer, it works pretty well. It’s pretty much what one would expect from the Internet Explorer on their computer (Unless it’s an older version from when Internet Explorer stunk like a skunk). I’ve heard of some websites not running as advertised, but they’re few and far between. YouTube works. Hulu functions pretty well. Flash seem to work well. No promises that you won’t run into any sites that don’t work perfectly, but they’re few and far between.



   Surface RT comes with a 31.5 W-h battery. In my experience, this is enough to power the device for three days of moderate use and stand by time. How much the device is used and what it’s used for will impact the battery life, but I’ve found the battery life to be better than the average laptop. For those looking to replace their laptop with a tablet, that’s a big plus.



   Surface RT leaves a bit to be desired at first glance when it comes to storage. It comes in 32GB and 64GB flavors, but a portion of that is taken up by the operating system itself and the applications, including Office. The 32GB model has about 16GB of free space. It may leave a bit too little for some. However, unlike many other tablets, there’s other ways to get more storage than to buy the larger model. First, we have SkyDrive. I keep most of my Office documents on SkyDrive so they don’t take up space on the Surface and also so I can access them on my desktop and Windows Phone.

   There’s also the USB port. One can load up movies, pictures, and music on a flash drive, plug it in, and go.

   We also have the microSDXC card slot. For about $70, one could add a 64GB microSDXC card and instantly expand the amount of storage on the device. It costs $100 to go from a 32GB iPad to a 64GB iPad. For $30 less, a Surface can increase its storage size by twice as much and it can be done at any time, not just the point of purchase. That’s extra nice if you’re new to tablets and not exactly sure how much storage space you’ll need.

   I’ve also found a fourth way to increase the storage space of the Surface: Networked drives. I can set my larger hard drive on my desktop computer that I use for media as a network drive and easily get to it from my Surface. That added 1 TB of storage to my Surface, at least when I’m at home. It does make it nice when I want to share a video or something of that sort with someone in the household as I don’t have to drag them to my computer. If you’re going to do this, make sure you’ve secured your wireless network. The last thing anyone needs is their neighbor snooping around their files.


Who would benefit from Surface?

   Surface is great for a wide audience. I could see this being THE device for a college student. With Office preloaded, the ability to use flash drives, printers, and the cloud to share and print documents, a compact form factor, the ability to connect a keyboard, and an almost fully functional web browser, it’s a great device for students. The fact that the operating system is familiar means those that aren’t tech savvy will feel comfortable. Movie lovers will benefit from the fact that the display is great and can be connected to a larger screen. Those just looking for a computer to do some basic work will enjoy Surface.

   The only crowd that should possibly consider another tablet is the crowd that’s heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem. There’s no support for iCloud, it loses that level of familiarity if you’re used to Mac OS and iOS, and it might require the repurchase of some apps that you regularly use.



   The thing that amazed me most about Surface RT is how complete it happens to be. It looks and feels like Windows 8 to the point where it’s hard to tell it’s not Windows 8. Microsoft didn’t limit the OS based on the fact that not everyone would be using it with a TouchCover/TypeCover or mouse and keyboard all the time. That means it has functionality that other tablets who limit themselves will never have. The same goes for the fact that they included so many ports. There aren’t many tablets out there that I could also use to charge my cell phone or install a microSDXC card.

   Sure, Microsoft ruffled some feathers when they decided to release Surface. Acer CEO JT Wang said it would hurt the ecosystem and said that it’s something that Microsoft has never been good at (but then Acer’s never been great at building computers either). But this is a beautiful device. It’s a solid device. The other companies out there that make Windows computers should take a few pages out of the Surface playbook. Microsoft didn’t use cheap materials or cut a bunch of corners. If all desktop computers were built with the care and attention to detail that was applied to Surface RT, I wouldn't feel the need to build my own.

   If nothing else, Microsoft has changed the game when it comes to Windows computers. Many say that Apple products have better quality. Surface RT makes most Apple products look like children’s toys. I’ve been waiting for a Windows tablet of this quality. Previous tablets running Windows left plenty to be desired. Windows RT brings the operating system to the point where it feels like it’s in the right environment on a tablet. The build of the tablet is the perfect mate for the OS. Wang said Microsoft has never been good at this sort of thing. Well, if they weren’t before, they are now.

No comments:

Post a Comment