So, my official stance is that I don’t blog. I’ve tried a couple of times in the past and quickly realized in each case that even if I believed that I had something interesting to say, I either a) didn’t have the time to put it down in a coherent and meaningful way or b) I really didn’t have anything interesting to say. But I do have things to say… even if only when asked by friends and family. Whether or not the content is interesting is entirely up to the receiver. So I do get asked questions, similar ones often times, and rather than provide a short, half-ass answer to my friends and family over e-mail, it probably makes more sense for me to put the time and effort to provide a meaningful response. So here I am, putting that response down in blog format.
Today’s question – “Can you give me a review of the Microsoft Surface after you’ve used it for a while?”
First off, I consider myself a fairly unbiased person. I tend to actually try or use things before I formulate an opinion. That said, I make it no secret that I am anti-Apple because of their anti-competitive and now perceived (by me) anti-innovative approach in the business world. Despite this, my household contains many iPods, my son’s iPod touch, mine and my wife’s iPad 2’s, an iMac, and a MacBook Air 13″ (latest generation). This is in addition to a couple of Alienwares (mine and my son’s), a Dell XPS (hand me down used by my wife), and my main work laptop, a Lenovo W520. I also had but no longer use a Motorola Atrix and a Nexus 7. All of this technology is used on a weekly if not daily basis. All of it except for my iPad 2 now that I have my Surface RT 64GB.
Previously, I used my iPad 2 to do two things really – browse the web and watch movies. Yes, there are apps available that allow you to do other things, but the form-factor of the iPad means that you’re only really going to use it to do one main thing – consume content. Whether you’re using Netflix, Plex, YouTube, Spotify, Safari, the MLB app, Facebook, or Twitter apps, you’re doing the same thing – consuming content. So the use case for tablets for me (see: for me) is quite simple – let me browse Internet content and consume media and my needs have been met. Now that we’ve established what my needs are, we know how high/low the bar has been set and wherever you consider my bar to be, know that the Surface RT cleared it with ease. And you know why? It allows me to do so much more. This is why my iPad 2 really, truly has not been used since I got my Surface.
So what is it about the Surface that makes it better? Well, let me go through a “traditional” review of this device and then I’ll try and hit on the main points at the end. I’m not going to create some bogus point scale so this is purely a qualitative review, keep that in mind.
So, the biggest difference one notices right away about the Surface is that it is both longer and narrower than an iPad 2. It is marginally heavier than the iPad 2 and when I take turns holding them both, the difference is negligible, until I put the touch cover on. Then, it definitely feels heavier but not so much that I find myself thinking about it. Ok, I can’t lie. I’ve walked around my office troubleshooting wireless issues while holding my Surface and in walking from end to end (it takes 5+ minutes in my building), I did find myself switching hands but always holding my Surface with one hand as I walked around. If you’ve handled a lighter tablet (Nexus 7 in my case), then you may notice the weight difference in day to day usage but if you’re coming from an iPad 2-3.5, then I’m guessing the transition will not be an issue.
The build quality of the Surface? Absolutely top notch. When it comes to mobile hardware design, my experience has been that there are really two schools of thought when it comes to the casing. The first is the school that believes that “premium” materials should be used regardless of whether or not it makes handling the device easier or not (slipperiness in the case of the iPad) and the second school prioritizes usability over aesthetics by using cheaper materials, more practical materials, or both. The Surface falls into the former with their VaporMG metal casing and while there are more seams, nooks, and crannies on the Surface than the iPad family, the device still feels like it was expertly crafted from a single block of material. In short, the Surface rivals anything else out there in terms of cutting edge design and manufacturing quality.
What does this mean as far as the user experience goes? The form factor of the Surface, in practical use, results in video being much more watchable. The letterboxing I constantly ran into on my iPad 2 is effectively gone. This is not a small detail when you consider that just about all video being produced out there is 16×9 and this results in the Surface delivering that much more watchable video. The weight, while at times noticeable in certain situations, is ultimately not a factor when you consider that a Surface without its touch cover essentially weighs the same as an iPad. I actually found myself liking the elongated portrait orientation more when reading books in Amazon’s Kindle app since you get that much more text before you have to turn pages.
A comment I often make when engaged in discussions or debates over the relative merits of Windows versus OS X is this – there is nothing I can do on a Mac that I can’t do on a PC and in many cases, I can do so much more. I am an IT professional whose background is in network and security engineering, so I recognize the value in dropping to shell to run stuff like Nmap, Nessus, Metasploit, or simply telnet/SSH to devices for admin access. I can do all that on Windows with an app I have used for over a decade (no not Putty) – SecureCRT. I really don’t care that OS X looks and smells like Linux. If I wanted Linux, I would run Linux and for that matter, I dual-boot Linux on my MacBook air and have shell accounts at work.
I cut my teeth on Windows so there is the win32 legacy that I have a long history with. At the age of 38, what would prompt you to switch from driving an automatic to a manual? Sure, a car like a Ferrari, Porsche 911, BMW M3, Audi S4 Avant… I could go on. OS X is none of these cars. But the reality of this review is this – Surface runs Windows 8 (RT) and while this is an ARM version of the OS, it would be unfair to compare the OS to that of the iPad (iOS). Why? Jesus… if I really have to sit here and compare the two operating systems, then most of what I write in this review is lost on you. So compare it to OS X I have and you know what? RT, by virtue of lacking the library of x86/x64 applications that come with Windows 8 Pro (or home/enterprise/whatever), severely and monstrously limits what it is that you can do on the Surface. But the Surface isn’t about replicating the usage scenarios of a full blown Windows 8 workstation, portable or otherwise. So here I go first comparing it to the full blown OS of a MacBook to saying that it isn’t intended to give you the functionality of that or even a traditional Windows machine… because it isn’t.
My experience has been, without paying much attention to the marketing message from Microsoft (a message which doesn’t even exist anyway), is that the Surface RT is a tweener device that (spoiler alert) succeeds at delivering the iPad experience as well as a watered down laptop experience. And this is precisely why I have stopped using my iPad 2… because there’s nothing I can do on my iPad that I can’t do on the Surface. And I can do many things on the Surface that I can’t do on the iPad. I actually go to my laptop a lot less frequently now that I have the Surface. This is no BS and this speaks a lot to the value that the Surface has delivered.
So what is the OS really? You know… I have said this and demonstrated this to my co-workers on multiple occasions and they have been entirely too dismissive of this feedback – Windows 8 RT is NOT iOS or any other tablet OS out there. It is very much the Windows 8 experience you’ve come to know on any other device that you’ve installed Windows 8 x86/x64 on to this point, minus a shitload of x86/x64 apps. So while you will not (as of this writing) install any Adobe apps, you will be able to open any Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote content that you’ve created on any other machine. This may not be a big deal to many of you that live and breathe other apps, but it is to me. I can plug in my WD Passport, Logitech G930 headset, and so many other USB devices and have it working. Right away. I can drop to desktop mode and move files around between network drives or USB drives and fire this content up on my Surface. Try doing that on an iPad.
The long and short of it is this – the Surface and Windows 8 RT deliver 80% (yes, I arbitrarily picked this number but its proximity to 100% drives the point home) of the Windows 8 portable experience that traditional hardware platforms deliver… today. And this is more than what one can expect of an iPad. But what about the apps you say? Well, the apps are definitely a subject deserving its own scrutiny.
Look. Right there in the screenshot of my iPad 2. This is what I have distilled the “start” page of my iPad 2 down to. I check e-mail, browse the web, watch movies, read books, use OneNote prolifically, and check in with people via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Yes, I miss my Instagram app both on my Lumia 920 and Surface, but everything else… everything is available on Surface. There’s no Facebook or MLB app you say? Here’s the kicker. Windows 8 RT has Flash and a “real” OS, so I don’t need dedicated apps for so many things that are traditionally available via the browser on a workstation. I just access those sites via IE10 on my Surface. I borrow this phrase all too often from my boss… “This is not a small detail”. Yes, this is a big detail and a big reason why Surface shits all over iPad for me. There are other reasons, but this is one of the biggest ones.
The Other Reasons
I’ve mentioned it once already and I’ll mention it again. I primarily used the iPad 2 for consuming content. Many other bloggers and reviewers have emphasized this use case when reviewing all manners of mobile devices because it’s quite clear that something small and portable isn’t intended to deliver a full workstation experience. The Surface most definitely delivers on this front but the inclusion of the Touch cover is also a very, very nice touch. Shit, unintentional stupid pun. The fact that you have the “full” Office 2013 suite (I say “full” because there is no Outlook and the default Mail client is pretty rough) and a keyboard means that you can legitimately be productive on this device. I would hardly ever bang out long e-mails or OneNote posts on my iPad. Ever. But on the Surface? I can and do.
Wait, is that a file system I see there on that device? Why yes it is. And this is such a welcome part of Surface RT that I’ve missed on the iPad. Between the full USB port and the micro-SD slot on the back, you can move files between your Surface and other peripherals in the exact same way you had been doing so on your workstation. This is another big reason why I can claim that Surface RT delivers a big portion of the traditional notebook experience. Now if I can only get Lightroom RT and RAW support on this tablet I’ll be able to cross off one other major item off my list of shortcomings.
So, people have criticized the performance of the Surface, claiming that it has demonstrated slowness in certain situations. I don’t know if this because I look at a tablet and expect less in terms of performance, but I have almost never found myself using my Surface and thinking “gee, what the heck is it doing right now?” when waiting for something to open or run. I am actually very pleasantly surprised that something running the Windows 8 kernel (or an ARM approximation of it) does as well as it does with a Tegra chip and 2GB of RAM. This is no small feat in my eyes. Despite this, I find that my Surface actually performs well under all the conditions that I’ve found myself using it. Multi-tasking and switching between apps, firing up mp4 videos encoded at 4k+ bitrates (not that high, but good enough for tablet viewing), running Office apps – these are all activities that I’ve found my Surface to be more than suitably responsive for my use.
Look. This is a $499 (32GB no cover), $599 (32GB w/ cover), or $699 (64GB w/ cover) device and while these prices aren’t ones that the average person can simply shrug off, the sales figures around the iPad family suggest that people don’t have a problem dropping this kind of money for a tablet. I think it’s fair, in this case, to compare the Surface to the iPad from a financial point of view. And because I have already declared that the Surface delivers more than an iPad, I think it’s fair to declare that the value to a consumer is much higher. Don’t compare the price of this device to a laptop, netbook, or ultrabook that costs the same or less. None of the aforementioned devices fall in the category of a tablet and no one compares them to an iPad either. The Surface, for my money? A freaking steal. Ok, this is my company’s money we’re talking about but if I were standing there in front of the Surface at a Microsoft store while thumbing 5-7 bills? I wouldn’t suffer from buyer’s remorse for one second with this device.
If you’re going to force people to use off the shelf Windows 8 apps, you have to make them good. I could sit here and go on and on… and on about the Mail, Photo, Music, and Video apps. And these are very, very important apps. Even more important when you consider that this is a touch device whose main interface puts these apps front and center. The only alternative is to use better apps by 3rd parties. I can’t wait for VLC to become available or Spotify. But until then? I do have to struggle with the puzzling interfaces of Xbox music and the Photo app. But to be fair, this isn’t a Surface RT issue. This is a Windows 8 issue and Windows 8 was rushed out to market. No one will dispute this but I don’t know that anyone can fault Microsoft either given that they had to get something out to the masses ahead of the holiday season. The good news is that you can work around these shortcomings somewhat because Windows 8 RT does have desktop mode for you to go straight to files like you might have in the traditional Windows world.
Much has been made about the App situation on Windows 8 and consequently the Surface. Go to reviews by Engadget, The Verge, Gizmodo, etc and the refrain is a universal one. Microsoft just needs to mobilize developers and give them meaningful incentives to write for this platform. The user base from the traditional Windows desktop world is big enough that it isn’t a question of scope or volume, but one of urgency. Why wouldn’t you want to beat other developers to market with your apps at this point? I don’t know but I guess time will tell.
This tablet isn’t perfect. Far from it. I have no problem being an early adopter and going through the teething pains of a nascent product such as the Surface. I also think I’m realistic enough with my expectations. Couple that with my high level of tolerance as a 38 year old father of two and I’m telling you just how much I’ve lowered the bar. The Surface clears it comfortably. I’ve already declared that. But if I were to set a bar at the height that most people would, the Surface would clear it sometimes and clip it or flat out run into it at other times.
Let’s be clear though. This is a first generation product with a brand-new operating system. Made by a company that doesn’t normally make hardware of this type. I love my Surface and there are a couple of other reasons why, in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned above. Consider this. iOS and OS X have been out for some 5 to 11 years (respectively) now. In that time, Microsoft has released Windows XP, Vista, 7, and now 8. Windows 8 is the first of those operating systems to break away from the traditional operating system paradigm and justifiably so. Microsoft is a software company first and foremost and their business model compels them to develop an OS that will work on whatever their OEMs dream up. In 2012, that means selling an OS that supports touch and tablets. Microsoft just happened to also develop the Surface for release ahead of anything else that their OEM partners could conjure up for the release of Windows 8. My point is that this is new shit people.
iOS and OS X are both long in the tooth at this point. The UI for both remain largely unchanged since their inception and this speaks to the fact that Apple is a hardware company that took a Linux kernel and dressed it up enough to slather it onto their (beautifully designed) hardware. I have used both extensively and there are things that kill, freaking KILL me about OS X (maximize a window anyone?). iOS? Grid of icons? Legitimate criticisms. So before anyone rushes to the defense of the aforementioned, know that Jony Ive has been tasked with bringing Apple OS’s into the modern era and rumors have been floating around regarding Apple potentially spinning their own chips for their MacBook products. This points to the (full or partial) convergence of Apple’s two hardware lines. If you are a believer of this coming strategy by Apple, then you should also be a believer that the user experience on the iPad only needs to get better in order for Apple to deliver more value out of this product. I believe that this is a realization that Microsoft has reached and the fruits of their efforts are being born through products like Windows 8 and the Surface tablet.
This is a product whose goal was to be better than the iPad and it is. It sits quite comfortably between the world of tablets and notebooks and weeks after its release, my experience with it has been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t help but feel as though subsequent iterations of this or other similar products are going to accelerate the rate at which this mobile computing category evolves, which means good things for gadget nerds like myself and consumers at large.
TLDR version? This is an awesome product that early adopters should love and normal users should hold off from buying. Surface Pro is my genuine recommendation for all, but know that the Pro version will be thicker and who knows what performance will be like with the new Atom chips. My long term tablet is likely going to be the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2.
Feel free to ask me any questions or leave comments.