One month with Microsoft's Surface: A mixed verdict

I really wanted to want Microsoft's Surface with Windows RT.

Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, tablets have never been all that attractive to me. When I want to read (and I want to read frequently), I use my Galaxy Nexus (because it's always available). If I want something a bit larger, I have an inexpensive (and very lightweight) ereader. If I want to watch a quick YouTube video, I'm usually in front of my computer; and if I want to watch anything longer, I've got a nice, reasonably-sized TV in my living room.

But I haven't been immune to the lure of the tablet. When I learned that Microsoft was coming out with a snazzy new tablet that would run the upcoming Windows 8 operating system (or the somewhat limited Windows RT), and offer an innovative keyboard cover to boot, I looked forward to it with a great deal of anticipation. This would be a device, I thought, that I could use to browse the Web, play a few games, check my email -- and also do work on. I could hang out with it at home, but also use it at press briefings and at events like CES.


So when I was offered a loaner Surface for the month of November, I grabbed at the opportunity. How did it go?

It went well -- but not as well as I had hoped.

(Note: There are plenty of reviews and articles published that describe both the Surface and Windows RT in detail; Computerworld also has a Windows 8 cheat sheet that details everything you want to know about the new OS. So I won't go into detail here -- these are just my reactions.)

Dealing with the OS

The new Windows 8 operating system (or rather Windows RT, which is Windows 8 without the ability to install applications outside of the Windows Store) is fascinating. It's got a lot of interesting facets to it -- but it takes some getting used to.

For example, it took me a little time to get used to swiping from one app to the other can be a little disconcerting. After a while, I was comfortably swiping from the right side for the Charms bar (which provides settings, search and share options) and to swiping from the top to get the application-level menus. I even got how to swipe from the left so that I could have two apps on the display at once (although that took a bit of practice). But sometimes, when I was using the Touch cover (more on that later), I reverted to the old familiar Alt-Tab trope.

It took me a lot longer to get used to the Mason-Dixon line that is firmly placed between the Start screen (where all the touch-centric applications are) and the Desktop -- where you can access versions of several Office 13 Preview applications including Word and Excel, along with Internet Explorer and File Explorer. For example, if I was working on a document in Word and wanted to share it via email, I couldn't do it -- because there is no email application on the Desktop.

In the end, the only reasonably convenient way I could find to move a Desktop file off the system was to save it to the cloud as a SkyDrive file.

(SkyDrive, incidentally, is the way to go as far as the Surface is concerned; just as it's a lot easier to go with the Google flow when you use a Nexus 7, it's a lot easier to do quick cloud uploads and other tasks using Microsoft's services when you use the Surface. )

And the Windows 8 version of Internet Explorer is the way to surf (especially because Google Chrome is not available for Windows RT). As somebody who relies heavily on visibly tabbed browsers, IE also took me a while to get used to -- you swipe to access open tabs, frequently-used pages and "pinned" pages. While in the end I missed Chrome, I found it quite usable.

Touch and Type covers

I have to say that I was extremely impressed with the covers that you can use with the Surface. The magnetic attachment -- the click on/off process that Microsoft's too-perky commercial touts -- worked beautifully, and I never felt that the cover might come off by accident.  I didn't experience any of the cracks in the covers that others have reported.

I tried both the Touch cover (which has slightly raised but non-traveling keys) and the Type cover (which has more traditional "clicky" keys). And while my typing accuracy was somewhat better using the latter, I was really surprised at how well I was able to do with the Touch cover. I was even able to use it (after a fashion) balanced on my lap, using the (extremely handy) stand that pulls out from the back of the tablet.

It wasn't perfect. I did find the Touch cover a bit difficult to use it in a dark room; due to the relative lack of feedback, it could be difficult to place my fingers properly, especially if I was in a hurry. And because I'm a fairly vigorous typist, I sometime had to consciously lighten my touch or the tips of my fingers would start to hurt from banging against the rubbery but unyielding surface. But on the whole, I found the Touch cover convenient and a fine alternative to a heavier "real" keyboard.

And when I just wanted to use the touch interface, both covers easily folded back around to the back of the tablet (although the Touch cover was a bit more comfortable in that regard). In fact, the only time I found it a problem was when I watched a video or listened to music -- the cover muffled the speakers on the back somewhat.

Dealing with wireless

While I didn't have any problems with the Touch covers, I did experience some of the glitches that have been reported with the Wi-Fi. And that strongly affected my feelings about the Surface.

It first cropped up when I took the Surface to a press event in Manhattan where a new product was being introduced. During these events, I usually carry a netbook that I use to type notes and send (and check) tweets; I will sometimes also send a blog entry from the venue. I thought it would be a good test to see if I could work as well with the Surface.

However, when the Surface connected to the Wi-Fi feed, it told me that the connection was "Limited." This was made even more frustrating by the fact that there was an Ethernet cable available right under my seat; but of course, the tablet had no Ethernet port. I assumed that the bad wireless connection was due to an overloaded network and was finally able to get online by using my smartphone as a hotspot.

However, I got that same "Limited" message at least two more times over the next week -- in places where other wireless devices had no problems. I found that if I let it alone, eventually a full connection would be established. But the fact that I couldn't assume that I was going to be able to get easily online was a real drag on my enthusiasm for taking the Surface along.

Final thoughts

When I first got the loaner Surface, I wondered whether I'd want to purchase one when I had to return it. I'm still not sure of the answer.

I found it very useful for surfing from the couch and not a bad way to do some work when I was away from my computer. While it weighs about as much as my netbook, the larger screen and the really impressive Touch cover let me type and work as easily -- if not more so -- than I could on the rather cramped netbook.

I'm still not completely comfortable with the interface -- especially with the crossover between the Start and the Desktop screens -- but I was getting there. And I assume that, in time, more apps would appear that would make things even easier.

However, with my netbook, I can at least be assured of a good Wi-Fi connection when one is available. That was the showstopper for me; today, when you purchase a mobile device you expect it to be able to get you online when a network is available. If I can't be confident of that, the device loses any real usefulness.

I will be watching to see whether this issue is finally fixed (there is an active thread on Microsoft's Surface forum ) -- and will be curious to see what the upcoming Surface with Windows 8 Pro will be like. And then, perhaps I will reconsider.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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