Sunday, March 17, 2013

Surface RT Review

Note: As I prepped @thepatr1ck's MS Surface RT tablet for my week of use, I found that I had actually written a review on it already (whoops!). My impressions below were after a few days of use; since then I have bought and used a "proper" Windows 8 laptop with touchscreen (F202E, which I think I kept calling the X202E...), and my feelings haven't changed for the most part. If you're expecting a Surface trashing, then you've come to the wrong place; despite my criticisms, I actually enjoy using the Surface RT and want it to succeed - in fact, I'm finishing off and posting this blog post on it right now :)

Surface RT Review

Thanks to @thepatr1ck’s gadget lust, I was able to play around with a Surface RT tablet for a few days. I was able to play with a Surface tablet briefly at one of Microsoft’s Experience booths at Sydney Westfield last week, and the experience was so good that I was convinced that I’d wanted one.

What I liked:
  • Tiled Interface (the interface formerly known as Metro) – The active tiles are what caught my attention off the bat. Navigating through the colourful tiles was a very snappy experience, and I like how they would be updating by themselves. It was bordering on being too “busy” but as someone who likes to stare at a large mass of information at once, this suited me well.
  • Hardware. Hands down the best constructed, non-iPad tablet I’ve ever had the chance to use. It had a premium feel and nice clean lines – this tablet wouldn’t look out of place at a high-power corporate meeting, and certainly looks way more than the asking price. The built-in kick-stand was also very solid, and well integrated into the rest of the device.
  • Peripheral support – so I can’t really say much about the depth of peripheral support that the Surface provides, since I’ve only ever tried it with a wireless keyboard (via proprietary dongle attached to the USB port), but nice to see that it’s there.
  • Useful multi-tasking – I’ve added the qualifier because multi-tasking is already something that Android tablets/devices have been able to do since day one. However, unlike Android, multi-tasking on the Surface RT allows you to have both applications running side by side. I think this was the feature that tipped me over the edge. I am aware that Samsung now has a similar feature with their devices, but I must say that I really like how Microsoft has implemented it.
  • Onscreen keyboard – Very good. You tap on a key, and the letter appears on the screen – no lag or other issues. The experience is also far superior than the optional touchcover, since you can use a very light touch to type.

What I didn’t like:
  • Desktop mode – I think that Microsoft has done so well with the Tile Interface, that it is disappointing that some functions (viewing folders, adjusting certain settings, using MS Office) involves being shunted back to the familiar but slightly outdated view that is Desktop mode. You can argue that the benefit of Desktop mode is that the Surface can be both your Tablet AND your desktop/laptop…except when it isn’t. At least for the Surface RT (running ARM), you cannot install any 3rd party apps on the desktop that you can on a regular windows machine, and at least at this stage, the only apps that are installed on your “Desktop” are IE and MS Office. One could argue that the power of desktop mode is that you can multi-task, but you can already do that on the Tiled Interface (as I’ve mentioned before).
  • Low resolution cameras – Ok, so I may look like a doofus taking pictures with a tablet (and I try not to outside of my house) – but it’s a shame that the rear camera is only 1MP. I would have thought that if MS had been positioning the Surface RT as a iPad and Android tablet competitor, that they should at least be able to match them in specs. I don’t really use the front-facing cameras much on my existing tablets, but the front wasn’t anything to get excited about on either of them.
  • Meagre app selection – ok, so the operating system has just come out, so I won’t hammer this point too much. But the app store will need to be improved before I can give up my iPad or Asus Transformer. Having said that, since Android Tablets themselves aren’t exactly bursting with Tablet apps either, maybe in a few months MS can gain and surpass android in that respect…that would be enough to make me switch from Android.
  • Total Storage vs Available Storage – I’m not that upset by finding out that half of the Surface RT’s 32GB of storage is actually taken up by the OS and built in apps, meaning that the “bargain” of getting a 32Gb Tablet for around the same price of a 16Gb iPad, wasn’t. I guessing if Microsoft had been much more transparent about this fact, then I wouldn’t feel like I had been misled. Update: 17th March 2013 – I’ve made my peace with this fact, because in all honesty I don’t actually store that much on my devices. I guess this might eventually be an issue when/if I run out of space for installing apps.

What I’m indifferent about:
  • Microsoft Office – I’m not upset that it’s there, and I am glad there is a word processing app built in, but it’s not enough of a draw for me since I don’t use MS Office much outside of work. It will be a value-add for some people, and I think this was good move overall on Microsoft’s part.
  • IE (Desktop and Tile versions) – While I am still not getting why they can’t just be the one app, I’m not that fussed. Since I like to “live” in the Tile Interface (because that’s where all my apps are), I am content with the version of IE that lives there.
  • Touchcovers – My experience with the touchcover has that it was ok, but I would rather have the Typecover, with real keys. But I think the Surface RT’s onscreen keyboard is actually pretty good already, so I don’t see either of those accessories are necessary for getting a good experience on the tablet. The only complaint I have is that the on-screen keyboard doesn’t automatically appear when you click on an input field in desktop mode IE, nor does it move the input field so that the on-screen keyboard doesn’t block it. Works great on the tile interface (and on the MS Office apps on desktop mode), but even a setting to tell desktop mode that I want the on-screen keyboard to pop up would be nice.

So overall, I do like the Surface RT Tablet – it’s well built, has nice features that are unique to it (useful multi-tasking, innovative Tile Interface), but as a person who already owns an iPad (3rd Gen) and an Android Tablet(Asus Transformer TF300) – the Surface doesn’t quite have what it takes to make me give up one or both of these devices. I honestly believe that if Microsoft had come in earlier in the game, it would have been a different story, but as it is, it’s trying to compete for space in a category against two mature platforms, and it’s not quite to their level just yet. If it were to topple one of the big two, I’d bet that Android would be more likely to be superceded.

All in all, for people who are just about to get a tablet for the first time I think the Surface puts up a compelling and attractive product against existing Android tablets, and possibly even iPads – you just have to be a little patient for the apps to trickle in.

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