Now that I have spent a month with my latest gadget, a Microsoft Surface RT, I want to share some thoughts on the device, as well as on Windows 8. I have been a happy iPad user for the previous 2 years, but have sorely missed MS Office on this excellent device. As much as I like -if not love- the iPad, there was this key moment on a flight to Boston that made me wonder if there’s not a better tablet out there for doing my work. The casualty was a 28 page research report, with plenty of charts and tables. I used QuickOffice, a highly rated productivity suite for iPad, to complete a final edit of my document. To make it short, after 3 hours of editing, the document was damaged beyond repair, even by the EMA production team, and I ended up with the infuriating manual task of having to open up a previous version of my doc on one and the entirely garbled version on another screen and manually restore my edits. Not fun.
This unfortunate event made me curious to take a look at alternatives that may allow running MS Office natively. XenDesktop was an option, however, the excellent Citrix mobile workplace solution would also not have helped me on the plane, as there are no offline capabilities for iPad. That’s when I thought about getting a Microsoft SURFACE. However, spending $699, only to be able to work on the plane a few times a month for a few hours seemed overkill, even for me. So instead, I ended up using my 8 pound brick, also known as HP Elite Book. It wasn’t cool or friendly for my back, but it was productive.
Then came TechEd and the economics behind the SURFACE changed. In return for 1.5 hours of standing in line and $99, I obtained the 64GB SURFACE RT, including the touch keyboard. It feels wrong to criticize a device that cost me $99, but here’s my review aimed at an audience considering to splurge the full $699.
- MS Office: The SURFACE has MS OFFICE loaded by default, offering Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (Outlook is coming soon) in an incredibly small form factor. It works great and doesn’t seem to cause any incompatibility issues with my documents that were created in Office 2010 on the desktop. As I run my entire professional life through MS OneNote, this is a huge advantage for me.
- Keyboard: The touch keyboard is incredibly thin and the keys do not offer any haptic feedback. However, with very little exercise, I can write at about 80% of the speed of a real keyboard. There is also a “real” keyboard available for the SURFACE, however, this takes away a lot of the device's super compact charm.
- Battery life: While I did not conduct any true benchmarks, I seem to be getting at least 8 hours out of the SURFACE battery, before it has to be connected the “apple-esque” magnetic charger. Note that battery life is the key reason why I would not even consider a SURFACE PRO. The Pro has a true battery life of about 3-4 hours, which is not acceptable for anyone who travels as part of the job.
- Screen: The SURFACE RT features a screen resolution of 1366 x 768, while the PRO offers full 1080p, at 1920 x 1080. iPad 3 and 4 both offer 2048 x 1536 displays, which look a little better to me. However, for working with MS Office, the SURFACE screen’s super wide form factor is excellent, as it allows users to look at two full pages in MS Word simultaneously.
- Management: I am well aware that from a management perspective, the SURFACE is much more suited for enterprise use than the iPad. The device can be synched with the user’s corporate profile and receive all the appropriate applications and data. In other words, the SURFACE is the IT department's dream device.
- Touch experience: The touch experience of simple apps, such as Internet Explorer, is frustrating, bordering on suicide inducing. Following simple links or entering text in the address bar or simple airline booking forms is clugy, to a degree where I’m wondering how the Modern UI/Metro usability testers and focus groups allowed the UI to go into production. Try booking a flight with the same airline on your iPad and on the SURFACE, not using the SURFACE keyboard, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Even simple web browsing is not fun, as I keep catching myself hammering my index finger on a link or other navigation item and it still won’t open. Thank goodness for the excellent Gorilla glass that will neither scratch nor break easily.
- Apps: Popular apps that I depend on every day are either not available or unspeakably awful. Take Dropbox for example. I use this app to synch my PCs, iPad and iPhone. The Windows 8 Dropbox app cuts off document names, so that you have no idea, for example, which version of a document you are opening. It also does not allow you to make documents available offline, e.g. for working on them on a plane. When you are offline, you simply cannot access any of your documents. This means, the app is nearly useless to me and most other Windows 8 users. Then there are all the apps that are simply unavailable, such as Flipboard, the app for my house alarm, the viewer for my babycam, Yelp, Amazon, the controller for my Squeezebox music system, Tivo, TweetCaster, Pocket and the list goes on and on.
- Entertainment factor: Our two year old loves iPad and iPhone. He made incredible progress with even more advanced puzzles and other clever little games. Most impressively, he needs no help from our end to find and use his games. The SURFACE is entirely unusable to him and I have yet to find any good quality toddler games. There are also very few adult games that deserve a closer look. While I’m not a gamer, I enjoy playing causal games, such as Tiny Wings, Tiny Troopers or even a game of Fifa Soccer. None of these titles are available on the SURFACE RT.
- General usability: Simple things like adjusting the default city for the weather icon can be a beast to figure out. Scrolling down on certain web pages can also be infuriatingly tricky when using the touch screen. The mail client is a fiddly pain to use. The Messenger displays all messages twice when I use it with Skype. The overall touch experience is everything but smooth. The “charms” and I know that’s a Windows 8 issue, are unintuitive. When I save my doc in Word, I sometimes get a strange screen with no real content on it. The browser address bar sometimes disappears.
At $99 purchasing a Microsoft SURFACE RT was a no-brainer. I will use it for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on the go. For some trips, I will even leave my Elite Book at home. To me and my company for that matter, this is not worth $699, as I will absolutely not give up my iPad for this clunky and sometimes awkwardly behaving device. This is specifically disappointing as the actual SURFACE hardware is very nice, but suffers from the infuriatingly imprecise touch interface and the deeply disappointing app store.
I’m not sure exactly what it would take to make Windows 8 as easy to use as iOS, but Microsoft needs to start working on this task now, as otherwise, Apple and Samsung will have nothing to be concerned about when happily dividing up the tablet and phone market. It boggles the mind how Microsoft put so much funds and efforts into the development of this device, but then obviously must have cut out vast parts of the standard usability testing process. The fact that Windows 8 includes superior management capabilities may make enterprise IT try and force users to give up their iPads in favor of a SURFACE, however, when business units and enterprise IT collide, we all know who ultimately prevails.