Scratching the Surface

It’s now a little over two weeks since Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system and the Surface tablet running Windows RT were released and I’ve been following the many reactions to the products that have been published in blogs, articles, and forums around the web.

I’ll write about Windows 8 in another post; here I want to consider some of the reactions to the Surface with Windows RT (I’m just going to refer to it as the “Surface RT” from now on…). I should say at the outset that I don’t own one, and for reasons that I hope will become clear, I doubt whether I would want to.

It seems as though most reviewers give high marks to the hardware design, fit and finish of the Surface RT. There are some niggles, e.g. the magnetic power connector doesn’t always make proper contact for charging, and as time goes on, other issues may start arising, which will require some corrective action by Microsoft in the design. For example, reports are emerging that may point to a weakness in the keyboard/cover design – however, it appears that only two people have experienced this issue so far. In general, the Surface RT and its keyboard/cover get high marks.

The hardware, of course, is only half the story. It’s the combination of the hardware and the Windows RT operating system that form the experience that the user has with the device. And it’s there that my doubts start to creep in. My starting point is that I have no interest in getting an Apple iPad – it’s too limited a device for me. Microsoft’s marketing positions the Surface RT as a device that can do more (“See more, share more, and do more with Surface”). For some people, that is undoubtedly true, but that is not the case for everyone. For example, Peter Bright, whose reviews of Microsoft products I trust, has discovered, I think to his dismay, that the Surface RT falls far short of what he is looking for in a tablet device. Mind you, he sets the bar pretty high, and it’s clear that an iPad also wouldn’t meet it. The deal breaker, for him, was that he relies on Outlook. While the Surface comes with some stripped-down components of Microsoft’s Office suite, it does not include Outlook. He summarised his opinion of the Surface thus:

Surface is meant to be something more than a plain iPad-like tablet. For me, it failed to be enough more, leaving it in limbo; it’s not good enough to take on laptops, and it’s not good enough to take on iPad. It falls short of both goals.

It seems to me that the Achilles heel of the Surface RT is the Windows RT operating system. It may look like Windows 8, but under the covers, it runs on completely different hardware. Simply put, that means that it can’t run the millions of Windows applications that are available. At this point, it can only run the 10,000+ applications that have been written for the Modern UI environment of Windows 8.

Here’s a few practical examples of why I won’t be buying a Surface RT:

  • It doesn’t have GPS built-in. Now, I can add GPS capability to any Windows Notebook or a Tablet that has Bluetooth using my Qstarz GPS logger. However, even though the Surface has Bluetooth, I won’t be able to add the software driver for the GPS logger to the Surface, so no GPS for me.
  • It doesn’t have an active stylus (unlike the Surface Pro), only a capacitive stylus. I write, as I always have done, by resting my wrist, or lower arm, on the writing surface. With an active stylus, the tablet is able to distinguish between the tip of the stylus, and my wrist that is resting on the tablet’s screen. I don’t think the Surface RT can do this very effectively, so I would have to write in what to me is an unnatural fashion (or wear a glove!). Handwriting recognition is built-into Windows RT as it is in Windows 8, but I suspect that it won’t be as fast on the RT platform as it is on the Surface Pro.
  • There may be 10,000+ applications available for the Surface RT, but the quality of the majority is abysmal. I am still finding that I am working in the Desktop mode of Windows 8, with desktop applications, for most of the time. This blog post itself is being written using Microsoft’s own Windows Live Writer, which doesn’t run on Surface RT.

When Microsoft releases the second model in their Surface range, the Surface Pro, the situation may change. The Surface Pro will run all my Windows applications, and it uses Intel hardware. However, as I’ve written before, it uses an older generation of Intel hardware, which means that the Surface Pro requires a cooling fan. I suspect I’ll end up waiting for the new generation of Intel processors to start appearing – then fanless tablets will be available.

Update: Here’s another review of the Surface RT, this one being very positive. I can fully understand why, the Surface RT delivers on the requirements of this particular user. Unfortunately, it seems to me that my requirements exceed the current capabilities of the Surface RT.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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9 Responses to Scratching the Surface

  1. Mark says:

    it will be interesting to see if there is enough critical mass of win8 tablets in the future that productivity developers start developing for it. Currently it seems to be aimed squarely at the most frivolous of uses (cut the rope and kid-paint are the only things shown in the ads)

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      I suspect they will come, but rather slowly. With a Surface Pro, one can get the best of both worlds. With a Surface RT, the convoy moves at the speed of the slowest ship.

      At the moment, the only Modern UI apps I use are Weather apps and games…

  2. Peter Ferguson says:

    I have more or less come to the same conclusion. Maybe we just read (listen to) the same commentators. I need a device that will run X86 software. Anything less is a compromise I am not prepared to undertake. I have a Spec list for my next Ultrabook or whatever it will be called. The Atom Z2760 chip may be the answer but we will have to wait and see what devices emerge with this processor. I also need a new phone. Mine is 3 years old running WM 6.5. I did not move to 7.0 simple because it would not sync with Outlook (can’t live without it). I am running the preview edition of new Office and will probably go with the 365 home package when it is released. I think MS have forced me into the total package of Win8,WP8,SkyDrive and Office 365. They appear to integrate extremely well at this early stage. I think it’s called the “Thurrott Solution”!


    • Mark says:

      So you are pretty happy with Office 365? I’m struggling to adapt to a blinding white screen beaming at me all the time

      • Peter Ferguson says:

        I know exactly what you mean but the preview does not have any themes and I am sure the final version will have a bunch of choices with a variety of colours and contrasts.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Yes, they may well integrate very well, but I don’t care for Microsoft’s switching over to the subscription model. If I were to adopt it for Office 2013, it would raise the cost of ownership for me substantially, from €125 over a six year period to €600 for the same period.

      • Peter Ferguson says:

        I know you’re upset about the sub model. it’s $100 USD a year for the 5 computers which in euro is about 460 for 6 years. I have always been a Technet subscriber forever and now we can’t get this package. You also get 25G on SkyDrive with the 365 which must be worth something. My next problem is what to do with Homeserver. I am just as hooked on it as I am on Outlook. I want to move to WS 2012E (no domain) for the simple reason that I think it will enable a bare metal restore of W8 which I think WHS2011 will not but I think you know more about this than I do!

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