I’ve picked up a Microsoft Surface RT from the “temporary” New York Times Square Microsoft Store. While the purchasing experience was a bit of a mess (untrained sales staff – I ended up having to type my own details into their POS terminal as I’m not quite sure the guy knew how to type), I managed to make off with a properly boxed (I skipped getting the staff to unbox it and walk me through the “Out of Box Experience”) 32GB Surface, Type Cover and VGA adapter.
This is an amazing piece of hardware. I’ve dabbled in and out of portable computing ever since the original Windows Tablets in the form of the HP TC1100. The TC1100 was ahead of its time – a full version of Windows in a tablet with a decent attached keyboard that went together to make a case. However, the hardware was pretty bulky – fans and a display too far away from the glass, making touch, even with the included stylus, inaccurate.
This really looks like something out of a Bond film. The tapered edges and kickstand both apparently go off at 22 degrees (I haven’t measured), looking deliberate – as if designed by actual designers. I would not be surprised if some ex-Apple guys worked on this device. The battery is said to go 10 hours of mp4 video – more than enough for a long haul flight, and I can personally attest to the quick charging of the Surface up to around 50% in about an hour. The camera is at an angle to compensate for the slant when using the kickstand. Portrait mode looks slightly ridiculous, but I can’t imagine using it in portrait when just sitting the device landscape in your lap works so well.
The Type Cover is like nothing you’ve seen before – forget the comedy Bluetooth “keyboard covers” for iPad users desperate to do a bit of actual work on their devices – this is genuinely a pleasure to use. The small multitouch trackpad is great, but strangely defaults to inverted scrolling like OS X Mountain Lion. My only gripe is that they still have the Caps Lock key – I will have to delve into the Registry to switch this to a Control key. Yes, I did say Registry…
Windows RT is installed by default and is the most fascinating part of the device. Many pundits have long called for Microsoft to abandon backwards compatibility and build a new operating system – if they did, it would look something like this. Windows RT is Windows 8, but without the backwards compatibility legacy. The full Windows desktop is here – the Command Line, PowerShell, Windows Explorer, Paint, Notepad, VPN connections, BitLocker – the works. The only difference is that WinRT only allows Microsoft-signed applications to run on the desktop. Visual Studio 2012 can build ARM applications but this is blocked by Microsoft – bypass the block with a registry setting and the compiled binaries are blocked by Windows RT. I suspect this is because the device is subsidized and they hope to recoup revenue from the Windows Store apps, but it might just be a ploy to force developers to build Metro-style applications. The thicker, heavier, noisier Surface Pro is due soon and will run the full x86 Windows 8 Pro, bringing legacy support with it.
If the Surface RT is meant to be used as a main or only machine, this is going to cause problems. In the Microsoft Store, non-technical members of the general public were already asking if they “could use their iPhone with it” – yes, they can, but only to charge and download photos. iTunes will not install. Firefox will not install. Even some Windows Store Metro apps will not work – notably Google’s suite. If you or your company uses Google Apps, steer clear from Windows RT until Microsoft or Google budge and allow Google Drive syncing. There could be serious backlash due to Windows RT – if enough customers kick off a storm, Microsoft might remove the signature check when running ARM binaries, allowing third-parties to treat Windows RT like a first class citizen.
In reality though, a Surface RT is not going to be your only machine. It absolutely shines as a Remote Desktop thin client – you can have Visual Studio running on your 12-core beast machine in the office and just remote in to use it. Flash is built into the browser, allowing stuff like Adobe Connect to work without a problem – the web browser version being much better than the iOS version, which still hasn’t been updated to support retina or iPhone 5 long displays. One thing you can’t do is share your screen with Adobe Connect. Full desktop-class Web Apps such as Google Docs work fine in Metro IE10 and without any browser chrome, could be mistaken for a “native” application.
Games from the Windows Store run quite badly on Surface. Jetpack Joyride has a pretty bad frame rate when lots of sprites are on the screen. Hopefully there is room for improvement in drivers, but don’t expect iPad 4 quality graphics. You cannot see pixels when sitting back and typing thanks to ClearType, but the resolution is nowhere near the iPad Retina display.
You might have a few favorite Windows applications that won’t run on Windows RT. I was worried that I would not be able to live without Windows Live Writer, but it turns out that Word has had a great blogging tool since version 2007, and it is even better with 2013.
Office 2013 RT
The first thing you should do with Surface is run Windows Update. This updates the Preview version of Office RT to the final version. Microsoft plan to deliver incremental functional updates, giving another reason to get a Microsoft Surface and not another Windows RT ARM device. Other manufacturers could cause delays to updates like Windows Phone 7 has been plagued with – carriers and device makers literally stopping you from using the latest version of the software running on your device (if MS do a Windows Phone 8, you should get it instead of any third party offering).
Office 2013 starts up very quickly. Saving to SkyDrive or the local drives just works. This really has full compatibility with Office files. The only glaring omission is Outlook – however, Exchange accounts are fully supported in the Mail application and Gmail works great in IE10.
Why I’m keeping it
I can actually do something productive with this device, unlike the iPad which has been reduced to a wife-pleasing YouTube machine. It has a great built in RDP client for when you need to use software that does not run on WinRT. It has a USB port which works with actual mice, USB drives and even my Kensington PowerPoint remote. If the space runs out, I can just insert a Micro SD card and expand the storage capacity. The Surface fills a useful void between an iPad and a MacBook Air – something that you can just throw in your bag without a laptop bag cover but can still get some work done on. Word, PowerPoint and Excel come free with Surface RT – these separately would be $30 or so on an iPad as iWork but here you get the real deal. I really am sick of lugging around proper laptops when I could just remote into a beefy machine under my desk. With LTE tethering in Japan, this is becoming a reality.
Only buy a Surface RT if you know what you are buying and can live without full legacy application support. As a thin client for real world web applications, it might make some people very happy indeed.