I should start this review with an additional update following my experience with the Microsoft Store cancelling my Surface RT order due to a mix up that involved them trying to take a 2nd payment. I’d like to thank both Garry Whittaker (blog|twitter) and Matt Baxter-Reynolds (blog|twitter) for stepping in to turn this around and on November 5th my Surface finally arrived. I was critical and angry about the experience and they certainly deserved the criticism but I also feel that how a company handles things when mistakes happen is just as important and the escalation support team at the Microsoft Store were amazing in turning things around to the point I probably only had to wait a few days longer than I would have done.
So I suppose the question is; was it worth the wait? I can say with absolute certainty that it is and while Ian has already posted his Surface review I thought I’d add my own thoughts and mini-review. The simple packaging gives an indication of the quality and I am a big fan of having the device sitting right on top when you first open it up. This is something that is common with mobile phones and with a device like the Surface gives it that “wow” moment when you see the screen looking up at you. The build quality of the Surface is first class and I’ve not found any hardware niggles; it just feels really solid and between the Corning Gorilla glass and the VaporMg case it is very robust.
The first task for me, after running through the first boot experience, was to get Office RT updated to the final release because I knew the preview had some bugs and because I wanted avoid any unnecessary negative impressions. This should have been easier but because Microsoft wants to slowly roll out the Office RT update (a 500mb download) it is not ticked by default in Windows Update. This meant I had to go into the traditional Desktop based version of Windows Update but this is where the Surface comes into it’s own. I “clicked in” the Touch Cover (then immediately detached and clicked again and repeated a few times just because the experience makes you) flipped out the kick stand (then immediately closed it and re-opened it and repeated just because the experience makes you) and used the Surface in “laptop” mode.
This was the second “wow” moment for me because in an instant the Surface transformed and matched my expectations perfectly. I was able to use the trackpad built into the Touch Cover and that works perfectly although of course the sensation of typing on keys with no movement takes some getting used to. It was this experience that made me want the Surface because until it was needed the keyboard is invisible and adds very little weight to the device unlike a traditional transforming laptop. Since the early days with the device there have been times while I’m using it as a “tablet” and I get an IM request and then I convert into laptop mode and type quickly and easily. I almost ordered the Type Cover at the same time but I’m pleased I didn’t as for my use I really have no need for it.
No Microsoft Surface review would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room and that is the inclusion of the Desktop along with the contradiction of not being able to install legacy x86 applications (Office RT is the only such suite of applications that Microsoft have ported to ARM and this come pre-installed on the device) since this is Windows RT and not the more capable Windows 8 which runs on Intel or AMD chipsets. I went into my purchase of the Surface RT with my eyes wide open knowing all about these limitations and in fact it was the very reason why I purchased this instead of waiting for the Surface Pro device due later this year. I have been building, maintaining, and providing PC support to friends and family for longer than I care to mention and I’m fed up of it; searching for drivers, removing software that has “broken” the experience, or trying to figure out why a Core i7 PC is running like an Atom powered netbook. I want a device that just works and more importantly lets me get the things I want done and that is where an “appliance” device like the Surface RT fits into my digital life.
Until the Surface RT came along I have been recommending people to get an iPad because until now it has, along with Android tablets, been the only “appliance” like device but all that has changed. I was lucky enough to get to play with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 and I commented on how it didn’t really fit into my needs. This was my concern with the Surface that it would just be a whim that faded leaving the device unused but my experience has been the exact opposite. It has replaced my Windows Phone as the device I carry around the house for music and thanks to the way the ARM processor remains always on and always connected I find myself reaching for it even when it was the phone notifications I heard first. The exception here is that I would have liked Microsoft to have included the Desktop version of SkyDrive so that all my files were synced to the file system for times when I’m not able to connect via Wi-Fi. Apart from that there hasn’t been an x86 application that I’ve wanted or needed to install and instead am using Windows Store apps almost exclusively. As with my Windows Phone requirements I don’t have need for an endless list of apps in the Store but what I need has been catered for including Twitter, RSS, and Skype along with the bundled Microsoft apps (Mail, Calendar, People and Messages).
I absolutely love how I might start by picking up the Surface for a quick response to a tweet or email and finding myself needing to type a longer response at which point I flip round the Touch Cover, put out the kickstand, and complete the task effortlessly. These tasks could be completed using just the on-screen keyboard and touch but this way the experience is so much better. A classic example for me is that I subscribe to an online survey service that rewards you for completing them. When I was using the Iconia W500, which I don’t have a keyboard for or if I did it could be detached and sitting in another room to avoid the extra weight, I’d come across some surveys that needed items dragging into boxes but that weren’t optimised for a touch screen. Previously I’d have missed out but with the Surface I just use the Touch Cover with the inbuilt trackpad to get the job done.
Performance wise I’ve not had any major issues with the ARM processor when using the “core” Windows RT experience, or even Office RT for that matter, but I will say that 3rd party apps (and this includes those built by Microsoft since there aren’t native code apps like they have on Windows Phone) experience has been mixed with some performing and behaving terribly. I think this is a consequence of the fact this is version one of the Windows RT platform and also that Microsoft were so secretive about allowing hardware into the hands of developers. That said the app updates are coming thick and fast and even at this early stage things seem to be improving with that quite quickly. Phew I managed to cover that section without using the term “fast and fluid”… D’oh!
I am really pleased with how the Surface has fitted into my computing environment and has worked seamlessly with our wireless HP Deskjet printer and I have been able to access the media shares from our Windows Home Server via the HomeGroup feature. I initially included the Music share from the WHS but as I’ve been getting to grips with the Xbox Music Cloud features I have reverted to matching songs in our library to the Xbox Music service and this makes them available for streaming or download on the Surface RT. I’m digressing into features that aren’t necessarily specific to the Surface RT, or Windows RT/8 in general, but I have also been very impressed with the Xbox SmartGlass and Play-To features that so far have also just worked. I’ll be covering my new Nokia Lumia 920 and Windows Phone 8 separately but I wanted to mention that I had no issues connecting my new phone up to the Surface RT and using the Windows Store app to transfer pictures onto it.
Just realised I haven’t discussed battery life but that is a little tough to be subjective on since a new phenomena has taken grip of our household… Angry Birds Star Wars! This has meant the device is getting very heavily used but even then it is managing to last “all day” so getting charged once a day. Prior to this though I was needing to charge every other day but again I’d estimate that, as with all new gadgets, I was using it more than “normal” so I can see it lasting 2-3 days on average. An interesting thing to note is that Microsoft have removed any indication of battery remaining other than percentage charge even when using the Desktop battery icon in the system tray.
So I really am in love with the Surface and with the inclusion of Office RT and the Touch Cover it is the perfect appliance device for me. I know others have had a less than ideal experience but I put this down to people that have need of a corporate device that fits a consumer need where as I wanted a consumer device that offered some corporate functionality and in that way this device meets those needs. I do not feel that the Surface RT could be my only device if I was travelling for business but for all my personal requirements I really can’t imagine me needing anything other than my phone.
Do you have any questions regarding topics I haven’t covered or perhaps you have your own Surface RT device and disagree with me? Then please do leave comments below and I’ll respond.