My Friend Joe’s Impressions of the Microsoft Surface RT

My friend Joe also preordered the Microsoft Surface RT and got it on Friday. I asked him to give me his opinions on the device in my site’s first guest blog. So without further adieu. Joe.

Some of my friends were a little surprised when I announced that I had pre-ordered a Microsoft Surface tablet. Some figured it was me just buying the next shiny toy to come down the pike. In an afternoon my shiny toy transformed into the tool I have been waiting for, but I am getting ahead of myself. All of you know Dower, but only some of you know me. Let’s start with who I am and what do I do.

My name is Joe Gerardi and I am the Senior Computer Specialist at Monroe Community College in the Communications and Network Services department that is part of the Educational Technology Services division. That is the big fancy way of saying that I’m a member of the team that “makes computers work” for the teachers, students, faculty, and staff. I do desktop image development and deployment, hardware repair, mobile device support, and systems administration among other things. In essence I am a professional general purpose computer geek. On the hobby side I have been a PC gaming enthusiast for quite a while, and that is what led me to becoming a computer professional in the first place. What I am not is a paid reviewer or tech journalist. I am just a guy who likes to get the job done and expects his tools to do what I need them to do with a minimum of fuss and muss.

This is my view of Microsoft’s new Windows RT platform based on my initial experience with my Microsoft Surface tablet PC. First impressions are critical and so far mine are all positive. Make no mistake, this device is a fully functional PC in a tablet form factor. Microsoft has been chasing the PC experience in the tablet form factor for a long time. I think they finally are headed in the right direction and off to a strong start with Windows RT.

Out of the box the Surface has support for micro SD cards and USB attached storage. It comes with Word, Excel, Power Point, and One Note. It is fully integrated with Microsoft’s full suite of online Live services. I have long since integrated LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter with my Live ID so all of it showed up in the people hub from the get go. No extra apps were needed. I had a micro SDXC card pre-loaded with my music and videos so no sync was required to put my media on the tablet. I just popped in the card and away I went. A quick download of IM+, Netflix, Remote Desktop, Kindle, Lync, and Skype and most of my other day to day computer needs were taken care of. The only things I would like to see in the future are an SSH client, a Dropbox client, and a WinRT version of Cisco Anyconnect. Then EVERYTHING I would need for a light duty work laptop would be there. I’ve found the baked in Internet Explorer 10 browser to be capable enough for my browsing needs. Xbox Smartglass was slick as heck and worked reasonably well. All things considered the day one software selection was pretty darn good.

The mail and calendar apps can connect to Exchange as either a MAPI client or via ActiveSync. Getting my work email and Lync set up was fairly painless. The same with connecting to my Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts. The entire setup process was relatively quick and simple. The only issue I had was getting the Surface to play nice with the PEAP protected wireless network at work. Most of my issues there were because I didn’t know how to get to the settings I needed to adjust. Once I figured out that clicking and holding or right clicking with the track pad on a detected wireless network and clicking view connection properties is how to bring up the fully detailed windows configuration settings I needed to get to. After that getting it working was pretty straight forward. Full Windows configuration options are there if you need to deep dive to get at them.

As I used the Surface over the course of the afternoon and into the evening it occurred to me that the Surface, and all WinRT devices by extension, are truly the first tablet platform I’ve used that could really replace a laptop as a productivity tool and not “get in the way”. Every time I’ve tried to use other tablet platforms as productivity tools there was some limitation that made it “get in my way”. The work-around for those limitations always felt like a kludge. It always felt like I had to fight with it to get it to do what I needed it to do. I can honestly say that wasn’t my experience with Surface at all. When I needed it to do something, it wasn’t a fight to get it to work. One of the really surprising things was how well multitasking works. You don’t really need to close apps. You just leave them running and switch between them with a swipe in from the left side of the screen. If you need to close something, you use a down swipe on the screen top to bottom. If you REALLY need something gone you can bring up the Windows Task Manager from the desktop or with a keyboard control alt delete and kill it. One other thing that surprised me was printing. The Surface was able to detect and use my 4-5 year old Wi-Fi Brother laser printer without any fuss. It just worked once I added it from the control panel.

The touch keyboard deserves special mention. Once I really got rocking with the touch keyboard, which has a track pad, and got used to using it, it surprised me just how well it was implemented. It really is a critical piece to the puzzle. It honestly does turn the tablet into a laptop when that style of device interaction is ideal. Particularly when used with the kickstand. If you get a Surface do not skip the keyboard. Also, it really does make that solid sounding clacking noise from the advertising when you attach it. When used as a full on tablet the virtual keyboard options were all responsive and worked well. I even played around with the handwriting recognition input style and it worked well. Surface really is a tablet that is also a laptop as long as you have the keyboard.

I used the Surface all afternoon and well into the evening before I had to put it on charge. When I started running around with it the charge meter was unscientifically around 66% and it made it about 6 hours before I started to think about putting it on charge. I definitely don’t think I’ll have any issues using it as an all-day computing device.

I have run into some minor issues so far but nothing game breaking besides the initial PEAP network setup which most people will never have to deal with. Music playback peters out from Xbox music when the screen goes to sleep. I don’t know if this is because of the music being on a SDXC card and not on the main system storage. It is something I’ll test later. The tablet full screen version of IE stops playing music from Pandora when you switch away from it. If you launch IE on the desktop it will continue streaming music just fine. Be careful with the Word 2013 preview. If you have to do a lot of text deletion use shift arrow to select all the text or a touch select and use the delete key. Pressing and holding backspace tends to delete more than you bargained for.

All things considered I am really impressed with my new tool. I can easily see this platform as only getting better as more software becomes available and bugs get ironed out. So far it has proven itself to be pretty solid. It is a really interesting and functional fusion of a PC laptop experience and a tablet device experience. I definitely think Microsoft put their best foot forward with Surface and Windows RT. This entire blog entry was created in Word on a Surface. That, I think, says it all. 

Thank you Dower for inviting me to be a guest blogger. It was definitely a pleasure.