Microsoft Surface RT Review – Setting new expectations for tablets.

I’ve now spent a little over 1 week with my Microsoft Surface RT. My review can be summarized simply: this device has both simultaneously raised my expectations and disappointed.

Over the week, I’ve used it at work, on an airplane, in a hotel and generally more as a laptop replacement than a tablet. I’ve forced myself to keep the laptop closed and function with only the Surface.  While the experience was a long way from perfect, it made me realize that with just a bit more function and polish – I’d never want just a plain old laptop or plain old tablet again.  Now let me be more specific.

Starting the machine for the first time was very clearly a Microsoft experience versus an Apple one.  Any of my Apple purchases (iPad, MacBook, etc) have just worked out of the box.  I answer a few personalization questions and they just work.  The Surface started with the lengthy Windows sysprep’ed machine experience, but failed to ask obvious questions like time zone.  You’re forced to find that setting on your own later. After a reboot, you’re finally ready to start using your Surface – or so you think.  But like most Microsoft products, it requires updates.  Even if it has only been on the market 72 hours.  My machine required 15 app updates through the app store, 4 updates through the Surface update, and then another 2 updates through the desktop-mode Windows update.  Another couple of reboots later my machine was finally ready.

What you’ve read in other reviews of the Surface is mostly all true.  The experience is a bit sluggish.  Stability isn’t perfect.  There are no killer apps (yet).  Actually, there’s hardly any apps, never mind killer ones.  But here’s the thing, despite all this – the email and calendar functionality works much better than on any iOS or Android device I’ve used.  Especially if you’re an ActiveSync user. Perhaps not as fast, but rendering of HTML inside a calendar item, proper accept/decline functionality and so much more is just superior.  It has Office installed, critical for me.

Now as far as a laptop replacement, I really did put my laptop away for most of the week.  Word, Powerpoint, Excel, all provided all the functionality I needed.  Those made me happy, but when I was pulling out the laptop, it was for Outlook.  What I really needed was a full Outlook client.  As for content generation, I found myself getting frustrated typing on the Touch keyboard.  Using the touch keyboard is best described as typing on a touch screen.  It requires too much visual focus.  I grabbed myself a Type keyboard (with real moving keys) and found my typing efficiency got near to laptop speed.  Clearly this is where Surface really raises the bar.  Sure, I can get a bluetooth keyboard for the iPad but lets be honest the iPad is really a consumption device.  At best, I do note taking with it.

With the Surface, I really enjoyed flipping the keyboard in behind and using the device as a tablet for surfing.  My ipad has such limited uses in my world, and the Surface matched all the same functionality I currently use the iPad for.  Now as a PC replacement, I loved being able to swipe at the screen to switch between apps.  All the usual gesturing of pinch/stretch, etc are just so much more efficient that using a mouse.  The Windows 8 style “metro” interface changes from frustrating (on a non-touch screen device) to perfectly sensible with the touch experience.

Now here’s the thing.  Once you’ve gone touch, you never want to go back. (Microsoft should use this tagline for marketing).  I’ve become like my kids.  I assume a screen is touch until proven otherwise.  Using my laptop frustrates me now, because I want to swipe to get back to the app I was just using.  This leads me to what I believe is actually the proper solution.  A hybrid ultrabook.  After spending some time with a Lenovo Yoga stateside, I’ve pre-ordered mine here in Canada.  I’m fairly convinced this is my long term solution.  A fully featured Intel based laptop and touch-screen tablet all in one.  I know, the Surface Pro will be this – but I don’t have the patience to wait for Microsoft when I can have a Yoga now.

Until Windows RT can become more than just “reduced technology”, unfortunately I can only recommend customers looking for enterprise grade solutions wait for Surface Pro or consider one of the many hybrids coming on the market.  Even if we ignore that big elephant called device management, as a user I immediately expect that I can use my Windows device to logon to the domain, map network drives, and connect to my corporation wherever I happen to be using DirectAccess.  As a security professional, having  users push corporate data up to Skydrive as a method of moving company data makes me shudder.  This is how Office2013 and the Surface expect you to get to your data across security boundaries and devices.

There’s no doubt in my mind that in the near future, all my machines will be touch-enabled.  There is no doubt that I would rather carry one device that does both tablet and laptop replacement functionality.  In this way the Surface has me impressed.  It has raised my expectations, I want a tablet that does more than a few cute apps and surf the web.  Now I want a tablet that does it all.


3 Responses to “Microsoft Surface RT Review – Setting new expectations for tablets.”

  1. Good review and it’s seems consistent with what I’ve heard. I’m installing Win8 this week to see what it’s like on desktop. As for the “hybrid” solution you’re spot on! I’ve been saying the screen side of a Mac Air should be a detachable iPad. Full power when connected, reduce cpu and storage when disconnected. All with a touch screen to swipe between desktops and apps.

  2. Always enjoy your honesty, Brian. I think it’s fair to point out that Surface RT is not intended to be an enterprise class device and thus its many limitations. Surface Pro, due out in January, or a slick new OEM device, like the Lenovo Yoga running Windows 8 Pro is the way to go for professional users that both create and consume content and need enterprise class security.

  3. Nicely written, Brian. I’m almost convinced to buy one right now. I didn’t buy it yet,not that because I’m an Apple freak. I’m not, but I think the idea of being able to run any intel app seems to be very tempting (although I was not doing that with an iPad, but of course, you build your little universe there and it is hard to lose anything). I fear to miss some critical apps for RT version and thinking that mostly any intel app will be compatible (I’d hope…), makes me fill like waiting. Like you said, I’d like to be able to do it all, from consuming content to work. (my back will thank me for not carring the boat size laptops anymore…)

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