Surface First Impressions

So I went and queued for 3 hours at the Microsoft Store in Orlando, Florida and paid $700 for a 64GB Surface with a Touch Cover. I’m going to spend at least a week using it instead of my iPad for as much stuff as possible; I’ll drop back to that for watching iTunes videos, but I’m going to forgo the games since part of this whole deal has to be sticking to the Windows Store for apps and such.

I’ll post more as my experience unfolds, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down after a couple of days with the device.

Hardware: The tablet

The Surface is a very, very nice piece of hardware. Whatever this metal is that it’s made from, it’s good stuff. This thing is more rigid than any other tablet I own, including the iPad 2, but the weight is about the same. The screen is good, with decent viewing angles and contrast. When I first found out it only had a 1366×768 resolution, I was disappointed, but in actual use it is absolutely fine. The only area where the rendering of text is noticeably “jaggy” is in the browser.

There is a single capacitive button on the front, just the Windows logo, which takes you to the Start screen. It also wakes the Surface from sleep, which is nice. It’s at the “bottom” of the screen in landscape orientation, and highlights the fact that you’re expected to use this device primarily in landscape mode. Above the screen is the front-facing camera, which I haven’t tried yet.

The top side has just a power button and two small speaker grilles. The sound from them is not bad, I’ve happily watched a Channel 9 video without headphones and had no problems hearing it. There are additional speaker grilles at the top of each side too, possibly to improve stereo reproduction. More on that in a later post when I’ve tried watching a movie.

On the left side there is also a 3.5mm headphone jack and the volume rocker. On the right, there’s a micro-HDMI port (not micro-USB, thank you Erno for pointing that out), a full-size USB port, and the power connector port, which is magnetic; I wonder if Microsoft have come to some kind of patent arrangement with Apple.

The USB port is a killer feature. It’s ridiculous to say that, because it’s such an easy thing to add to a device, but this is the first thing I’ve owned other than a full-blown PC that has one. Currently I’ve got my Arc Touch Mouse plugged into it, just for the hell of it.

The bottom has just the connector port for the keyboard covers (and possibly other accessories in future, like docks?). The clunk-click you get when attaching the keyboard is very satisfying.

On the back, there is just the rear-facing camera, a very subtle Windows logo, and the kickstand. This has just the one angle, and I’d have preferred a couple more to be honest. Right now I’m sat typing this with the Surface resting on the very wide arm of a hotel sofa, and it’s OK, but when working at the table, it’s a bit too vertical.

Hardware: The Touch Cover

I’m surprised by how good this is. I’m typing this post on it in MarkPad, and while it’s not as good as an actual keyboard, it’s pretty close. I don’t quite hit the keys every time, but it’s getting better as I get used to it. You still get the same sound feedback as from the on-screen keyboard, which is useful: the absence of a key sound is a good indicator that you missed it.

The thing that’s most surprising about the keyboard is how many keys it has. It’s missing the right control key, but pretty much everything else seems to be here. The top row has volume, play/pause, Charms, and Home/End/PgUp/PgDn, which are also F1-F12 if you use the Fn modifier key, although they don’t say that on them.

I’ve seen a couple of posts or articles suggesting that a physical keyboard on a tablet is redundant, but I have to disagree. However good an onscreen keyboard is, it’s taking up screen, which means less space to see what you’re working on. That makes my iPad, for example, pretty much unusable for writing anything of any length without the Bluetooth keyboard.

Software

I’m not going to cover the software in depth in this post, because it could go on for ever, but I’d like to address a couple of points that have been raised elsewhere.

First up, Windows 8 itself boots up very quickly, certainly under half a minute, and the wake-from-sleep is instant. Everything about the OS seems to work much as it has on my Samsung Series 7 from last year’s BUILD since I installed the RTM release on that.

I haven’t experienced any real problems with the Mail app, other than that it doesn’t automatically turn URLs into links, which is annoying. I’ve added a Google Apps Gmail account and an Office 365 Exchange account to it with no problems at all.

Office RT and Windows Update

There have been a few mentions made of the typing lag problem in Microsoft Word RT, and the first time I tried it, I had these problems too. It was fixed by installing the update to the final version, which was available at launch, but here’s the thing: I knew the update was available, but it still took me a while to find it, and I’ve been using Windows 8 for over a year now. I can’t imagine that many regular users are going to track it down without help.

You see, Windows 8 RT has three places it can download updates. There’s the Modern UI Windows Update which you access through settings, but the Office update wasn’t there. Then there’s the Store updates procedure, but the Office update wasn’t there, either. Finally, and very well hidden unless you know to look for it, there’s the Classic UI Control-Panel-based “Install Optional Updates”, and that’s where the Office update is hiding.

This is close to being a PR disaster. One of the major selling points of the Surface RT is that it comes with Microsoft Office. The version of Office that is pre-installed has this massive issue that makes the whole device look slow (which it isn’t). And getting from that version to the final version (which makes the device look great) is an enormous pain, involving a part of Windows which frankly shouldn’t even be there on the RT, and just makes Microsoft look like they haven’t really done the whole job.

In my opinion, it would have been better if Microsoft had sold me the device without Office pre-installed, with an installer app that would notify users when the final version was available and install it for them. It would also be better if they had found some way to make the Office apps look and act the same as all the other apps, even if they had to fake it. You know, run them maximized, hide the window chrome, hide the taskbar, just pretend that they’re Store apps. It’s great being able to switch to the desktop on Windows Pro, but it just flat-out shouldn’t be there at all on this RT tablet.

Anyway, that horse has bolted, and I can only hope that the devices that are shipping to the non-enthusiasts this holiday season have the final version of Office pre-installed, and that Microsoft fix the update process for it. Since there are obviously blockers that prevent it from being updated through either the Store or the main Windows Update, I’d suggest building it into Office itself.

//TODO

I’ll do another post in a couple of days to talk about the default apps and some that I’ve downloaded. The other thing I intend to try soon is using Cloud9 with the Touch cover and a mouse, because if that works, that’ll be awesome.

I’m not going to give you a “buy/don’t buy” recommendation just yet. Suffice to say, I will not be returning my Surface RT.

Comments

  1. Couple of things, I think you mean micro-HDMI not micro USB for the video output, Microsoft and Apple have had a patent agreement since Bill and Paul gave them some cash after Steve and the Pepsi dude almost ran Apple into the ground in the 1990s and there’s a fourth way in Windows 8 that I saw you get notified of an update and that’s when you go to the Charm bar and click on setting to log off, it will say “Restart to install updates” (at least on my laptop, still waiting for my Surface 64GB to be delivered but I didn’t pre-order so I should still be waiting).

    You are right though, it isn’t well thought out and I can see that I’m still going to have to do monthly remote sessions to ensure my mom updated her laptopn 😛

    • Thanks for the notes, fixed the USB/HDMI mixup. I know MS and Apple have an existing agreement, I just wasn’t sure whether it covered more recent stuff.

      I think the restart to install updates is an extension of the Modern UI Windows Update, so I didn’t count it as an individual method. The situation is damning enough, no need to exaggerate it. I shouldn’t have to be updating my father-in-law’s Office for him now, never had to before and Windows 8 is supposed to be the easiest, friendliest Windows ever.

  2. would be interested to hear what the web browsing experience is like vs an ipad. Also how well it plays back hi res h264s if you get chance to take a look. Sorely tempted, it’s really only missing a VPN by cisco or sonicwall for us to adopt.

  3. I’m also enjoying the Surface and now itching to start coding for it.
    I particularly like that my wired Apple keyboard (no keypad) is fully powered from the USB.

    One Note is also a killer app (but you knew that) – I really like pinching to get the Baumgartner view.

    The update thing needs an app – or a pinned homescreen icon…

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