MS Surface: tablet or a bitter pill?

One line version

Forced changes mixed with a flawed inheritance left my MS Surface abandoned in the office.

Review perspective

We’re testing the MS Surface, Google Nexus 10 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7. I hope that I’ll get a chance to write up my thoughts on them as well.

Bias: Pc User, who’s switched to Mac and IOS but wants to keep options open.

In a tablet I’m looking for a tool, not a hobby or project. I’ll look for solutions but I’m not going hack around, it’s got to be straightforward.

32Gb model with the keyboard cover.

Picture of our test Ms Surface

Picture of our test Ms Surface

Surface Design

  • More elongated footprint made it feel bigger.
  • Nice finish and angular style.
  • The kickstand the folds out from the back is great to use this as a laptop on a desk but I didn’t find the stand useful in other contexts (i.e. on lap).
  • Hurray for a USB port but I’ve little reason to use it yet.
  • It feels slightly heavy.
  • Power connector – magnetized clip connection. Very nicely done.
  • Keyboard cover attaches and detaches smoothly with a clear connecting point and mechanism. It’s very nice, with one obvious way it works.
  • As keyboard sitting on desk, the keyboard cover is good, if a little squigdy
  • As a cover, the keyboard cover is frustrating; when it folds back and you’re holding the tablet as a tablet it is bulky enough that you naturally fold it under but then constantly feels like you’re going to accidentally type with the keyboard.
  • I spent a while being frustrated every time I had the Surface on a desk and was closing it as the keyboard and the stand both fold towards the tablet body. It may be obvious to the rest of you but to make it close smoothly you close the screen to the keyboard then fold the stand – just like you close a laptop, but not how I close a tablet. Folding the heavy screen down to a table feels wrong. As a foretaste of the rest of my experience this tablet forcing me to act as if it’s a laptop is indicative of other aspects of this product.

Windows RT

Too many changes at once. Some of my irritations with RT are things I put up with in IOS or are things happening independently of this tablet. However, the OS forced me to confront obstacles I’d otherwise worked around.

On screen keyboard.

  • There multiple on screen keyboard layouts available and some of them really good – I don’t know if they’re standard layouts but they worked really well.
  • The keyboard seemed to work as an overlay, certainly on some sites it would sit on top of the screen rather than the screen easily resizing or scrolling, so if you wanted to type into another box  you had to minimize the keyboard and tap into the other text fields. This may have just been with particular login pages and I know I could tab between them but as a UI experience it was frustrating and disempowering.
  • Let’s not talk about the hyper sensitivity of the rotate and resize screen

Accounts

Although you can log in with a local account, everything in Windows RT ties to the Microsoft account infrastructure and locally at least some types of account info collapse. This has some side effects [I’ll note that this may be Windows 8 more generally].

So I logged in with a new Outlook account but linked it to my existing personal Hotmail account,  to Twitter, and (I think) to Facebook and my work Gmail and Hey Presto! I had one address book. Not ‘I chose one address book’ but I *had* one address book. Combining Twitter,  my nascent address book here, and my Facebook contacts made a substantive list, not the best for browsing and given the relative care and effort with which I separate my use of Facebook, Twitter, and email a staggeringly arrogant decision for an OS to make without asking.

I didn’t connect Skype because when I tried to it wanted to migrate my user account to my Outlook.com account – this is a wider Microsoft acquisition of Skype thing but not being able to use a tool without migrating was a bit irritating and I didn’t want to tie my Skype account to a test email account. It was a pity because the one time I had occasion to turn the built-in screen camera on it was quite good.

Word processing functionality was also tied to the account with a push to sign up for/ or login into online versions of  Office. That’s ok but it increasing forces you towards buying into a single online identity and ecosystem and given that we’re institutionally using Google Apps I felt that I was fighting the OS to get basic functionality.

Did I mention that it tries to log you in every time ? There may be an opt out, but there’s a distinct ‘Hey look we can everyone to join our ecosystem feel to this’. I’ve been in MS’s ecosystem for a long time now and love some of it but that doesn’t mean I want to use all of it all the time or use it exclusively. This is particularly true of the integration with Xbox Live. I’ll admit that Games for Windows Live is one of the few things that can instantly annoy me and although my understanding is that it’s evolved I’ve no desire to go near it again. So when I tried a handful of games from the Windows App Store – some of which are lovely, highly polished, and with the responsiveness of the touch screen are a joy to play – I got a tad frustrated by the ongoing attempt to log you in to Xbox live.

The Windows store is a bit of a wasteland. I was prepared for this and happy enough to wait and see how it developed but it seems to be pitching for the worst of both market types, it’s a controlled app store and probably does a lot of testing to make sure apps run well but it doesn’t seem to enforce identity issues (which you kind of expected from a locked down store), for example: they had a top free app ‘wired’ for sci tech news, but it’s actually not an app by WIRED but rather an rss aggregator for multiple tech news sites including WIRED. Useful enough but it nearly had access to my machine because it was an app called wired  [again, not a big deal per se but not what I expected from a controlled store].

Note the for the RT, the Windows Store is the main  legitimate way to install programs. So, for example, No Chrome for you. I could run my Google Apps in IE but only after I let the tablet enforce changes in tablet security and sign-on settings from my organization. Now I accepted these but the warning is that it seems to be sufficiently laptop like that my organization can suggest and enforce access policies for example – you need to have a certain type of password to log onto this machine if you want to use it with our Calendars/ Gmail. I’ve never had this happen with any other tablet device or phone (good or bad – well that’s debatable; however, as a user experience let’s go with ‘aargh, no’). After this was set up using it to work with Google docs and presentations was a relatively pleasant experience.

I’ll quickly mention that RT is a strange hybrid of an OS, the metro interface has charms (which being on screen and software based I found to be both a pain to use and a pain in the neck to remember about when you want to do something simple like search the web. Taking basic functionality out of the browser or other software and putting it into the OS and  then hiding it in a touch slide out panel, well let’s say that I spent lots of time staring at a screen and trying to figure out how to do x,y, or z and then swiping the screen rather than the charms after I did remember. On top of that settings and set up a offers a strange blend of simple interface with sporadic forays into a more traditional looking windows desktop settings screen (but without a clear way on screen to navigate from there or back to there). I can see how charms would work but i can’t help feeling it would be a smoother transition with them as a  permanent hardware or software sidebar.

Wifi

This was the main reason that I simply stopped using my MS Surface. The first week between my work network and my home network it simply didn’t want to play nicely. Eventually I got a few updates and restarts done and it seemed to work mostly. However, my experience of wifi on this is that is was as flaky as laptop wifi can be. Logging with a password every connection and the like. No other tablet or phone that I’ve used works that way [and after a quick straw poll of windows laptop users in the office next door, their connections don’t do this]. It may be down to campus network settings picking the Surface up as a weird pc, but it was just rubbish.

On top of this, you remember I mentioned it kept trying to log me in to Xbox live and other MS online services? It kept trying to do this without a network connection. So it would dump me out of what I was trying to do to go to one page, fail at connecting , send me to another page to tell me it couldn’t connect, and then let me try to get back to what I was trying to do. I’ve perhaps been spoilt by GameCenter and IOS’ general approach to helping apps realize that the device is offline (you still have issues sometimes but it’s pretty good). This should not need to happen.

Overall

If I want to use a computer I’ll use a computer, I use a tablet for portability and productivity and it’s meant to just work. The Surface is too much of a laptop that doesn’t quite work despite having so much potential it feels like it is stuck in its legacy.

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