Microsoft Surface – My Weekend Experience

FedEx delivered my Microsoft Surface RT right on time this past Friday at 10:30am, and as soon I was able to make it home from work at lunch I unwrapped it and began playing with it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so excited to about a new device… I’m can’t exactly explain why I was so excited about the Surface RT, but I think much of the excitement was the prospect of a really new device. Windows RT is different enough from the glut of Android offerings and the iPad to really get me excited. I pre-ordered the 64GB edition that came with the Touch Cover, but I knew that I would be trying to do more typing on it, so I order the Type Cover… If anything, it’ll give me more to talk about. So, now that I’ve spent some time with it, what are my thoughts?

The Surface came packaged in a relatively plain, but elegant looking black and white box, no product picture on the cover like what you would find from Apple, but it’s functional. The inner box contains a nicely molded panel that holds the Touch Cover, and the Surface box itself then opens like a book to reveal the device. All you get in the box is a small manual, the Surface charger, and the tablet. Once unpacked, the device was easy enough to power on and configure.  

Unboxing the Surface RT

Let’s get this out of the way now; the hardware is incredible. All the big tech blogs out there have already touted how nice the hardware is, and I can confirm that. The Surface RT is really nice, I personally feel the build quality is better than the iPad3, which is quite a statement. The Magnesium case feels solid, and although the whole thing is about an inch longer and shorter than the iPad3 it feels nicely balanced in the hands. It’s interesting how the iPad3’s Aluminum is slippery in the hands and the Surface’s Magnesium isn’t, the Magnesium feels more grip-able.

Both the Touch and Type Covers are incredible. I was surprised by the build material used. The material is a felt like material, which has a bit of fuzziness to it… It’s not bad, it’s just different. The material does feel luxurious to the touch and it actually helps the unit from sliding around your desk. Having tried both the Touch and Type cover, I much prefer the Type Cover. The Touch Cover, having it’s flat keys is interesting, and takes a bit of getting used to, but having real physical keys is more natural; for example, with the Touch Cover, it’s a bit hard to tell if I have the shift key depressed properly. The Type Cover on the other hand has generously sized keys, and even though they are physical keys they only add a tiny bit more height and weight compared to the Touch Cover (7.25 oz vs 7.62 oz). Having the cover tightly integrated into the cover design makes the Surface RT feel so different from my iPad3. It took me a while to come up with a similar configuration for my iPad3, combining it with a Vario ZeroChroma case for the kickstand, and a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover to get the feel of a Surface Type Cover. The combined weight of my iPad3 now is about 2.7 lbs. The Surface with the Type Cover comes in at 1.5lbs! The benefit of the Type or Touch Cover is there is no extra power necessary for the device, it’s powered by the Surface, once again making the device feel beautifully unified. The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover is a great keyboard travel companion for the iPad, but the key size feels cramp, and the Type Cover blows it away, I simply feel more capable typing on the Surface Type Cover than I do the Logitech. The Surface’s built in kickstand is also an outstanding feature; it hides away so well that it’s not in the way and easily available when needed. The only thing the stand doesn’t do is allow for the device to stand in Portrait mode, also because the stand only has one position, some taller folks have complained about it not being at the best angle; I’m 5’6″, so I don’t have an issue with the angle.

The Surface offers the ability to expand your storage needs, which is a welcome consideration. The device has a built in Micro-SD expansion slot tucked below the kickstand, and having a real USB port is a bonus too. The device doesn’t charge from this port, but you can easily plug in an external mouse, or even an extra memory card reader for even more storage. Because the device is technically Windows, the memory cards and Micro-USB card mounts as a extra drive, so if you’re used to Windows, this is second natural. For fun, I tried plugging in my Wacom Bamboo tablet into the USB port, and the touch part of it worked, but the pen did not – bummer. The encouraging thing is if Wacom wanted to, it seems conceivable that Wacom could write drivers to let the Windows RT device use a real digitizer tablet.

The Surface has 2 speakers on both sides, which is better than the single speaker on the iPad2 and iPad3, they aren’t particularly strong, and barely do the job. The front and back cameras are both 720p and take decent video. Skype works very well on the Surface RT. 

Now to the bad parts, because you know there must be some… My greatest sadness with the Surface RT is the device does not support an Active Digitizer, unlike my Asus EP121 Slate. Indeed, I was hoping that this would have that option, but alas, it does not. I had such high hopes, because having this feature would have really set itself apart from the competition. So, you’re stuck using those nubby capacitive styluses that work on the iPad and Android devices. This single missing element may be enough to push me to return the Surface RT and wait for the Surface Pro.

The single greatest problem with the Surface RT is not the hardware, but the software. Many aspects of the software don’t match the majesty of the Surface RT’s hardware. I’ve been able to crash it once on a black screen, forcing me to hold the power button down to shut it down. The software doesn’t seem to speak well to the battery either, in my case,  I was working while the I knew the device was getting a little low, but instead of getting a warning, my device suddenly went into Shutdown mode and simple shut down… Not very friendly… On the bright side, the device did fully charge in a little over 2 hours. But it would have been nice to get a warning… Maybe even go into hibernation or standby mode. Powering the device is also left up to the task of a proprietary connector instead of a common connector like micro-usb… The Microsoft connector is similar to the magnetic connectors found on Apple devices, but it doesn’t work quite as nice… It doesn’t latch on as easily, so you end up playing with it to position it in place. It’s not as awesome, but I prefer it to a standard pointy plug you find on your usual laptops.

The Reader program is also problematic. I’ve been able to consistently crash it when pulling up PDF’s that are about 60MB. Some magazines for example, like ImagineFX or 3D World offer PDF’s which are about this size. I can open them up in the Reader in Landscape mode, but as soon as I rotate my device to portrait or attempt to open the PDF in portrait mode, BOOM, I’m back on the start screen.

Many of the apps also feel a bit raw, the Video player is not very obvious… So, If I open a movie from the Desktop, I’m taken to the Video app, which works ok, but the navigation is a bit of a mess. If you leave the app and come back into it, you’re taken to a shopping mode where you can browser and buy videos… No real obvious way of just getting back to a previously watched movie. The playback of MP4 and WMV files were fine, but my attempts to play a Divx file didn’t work well… I did find a semi-decent video player called Multimedia 8, which was free, but this app even felt a little less than ready for primetime. Hopefully in time, better players like VLC will make its way to the ecosystem.

To be fair, Windows RT and Surface is very much like Apple’s first Foray into the tablet world, so one would assume there might be a few rough spots, and Windows RT, can’t be a simple OS to build, since they’ve tried putting in as many Windows 8 Pro features into the mix… But I guess that’s where the problem comes from… It tries to be Windows, and offers those tasty tidbits of it’s elder sibling, but teases you with the possibility and then holds back. I’d love to have the VLC Media Player or even just Adobe Acrobat Reader in Windows RT, but they aren’t there… Yet. Heck, there isn’t even Dropbox support right now… But you at least have Skydrive (Microsoft’s Cloud storage, like Apple’s iCloud) and Box has provided a Windows RT app. The last point on the software I’d like to make is Internet Explorer 10 works very well. Flash is built into Windows RT, and my son was able to get to his educational sites with no issues; something that he can’t do on the iPad. I’m actually writing this entire post on the Surface RT, while walking on my treadmill. Using WordPress through Internet Explorer 10 with the Type Cover. It is an incredibly smooth experience. The only thing I couldn’t do though, was plug my iPhone into the Surface and pull pictures off of it… It mounts like a usb drive, and I see the DCIM folder, but Windows RT doesn’t see anything in there… Once again, something I can do on my Asus Slate… The Surface RT is an incredible a tease!

My friend Joe, who also pre-ordered a Surface RT tablet has graciously agreed to guest write his opinion for me too, so I’ll post that shortly. 

To sum up, Microsoft has made an incredible tablet, that hits most of the marks, but falters a bit… It’s a fantastic first attempt and can only improve from here. The lack of an Active Digitizer pains me greatly, and being a bit spoiled by the capabilities of Windows 8 on my Asus EP121 Slate, I might need to hand this back in and wait a little longer for the Surface Pro to arrive. Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming days as I discover more about this device.