I have just read this piece on Slate entitled Why is the Surface so bad? after using the device for most of yesterday, on a train and at a technical event.
Oddly, I like the Surface RT increasingly, though I too am puzzled by some of its shortcomings.
Here are some of the issues I am aware of:
- The apps. This is the biggest issue. Where are the delightful apps? For example, the mail client is barely adequate. The music app is annoying, though there is plenty to stream if you have an Xbox Music Pass. It cannot play FLAC files, which I use for my Squeezebox-based system at home.
How hard is it for a company the size of Microsoft to write a superb mail app and a superb music app for its critical new product? I would guess that a small fraction of the advertising budget would have been enough. Why was there no one at Microsoft with the guts to throw them back at the team that developed them and say, “Not good enough, we do not have a product.”
- Performance is so-so. It is not terrible in my experience, but at times makes you wonder if Windows 8 is too much on a Tegra 3; or whether it needs a whole lot more optimisation. Battery life is also OK but could be better. I got 7 hours or so yesterday, with wi-fi on constantly, and some of the time powering a phone being used as a wi-fi hotspot.
- I got errors updating Microsoft Office. Mostly fixed by exiting the Office Upload Center. There’s no excuse for that. This is the appliance model. Microsoft knows exactly what hardware I have and what software I have, and has locked it down so I can only install sandboxed apps from the Store. Testing various update scenarios is easy.
- For that matter, why is there an Office Upload Center? It is dreadful error-prone software. Dropbox has no Upload Center. Is it so hard to sync documents with SkyDrive or SharePoint – how long has Microsoft been batting at this problem?
- I am concerned by reports of early keyboard disintegration, though mine is still OK
Enough griping though. Here is why I like this device.
First, I have no problem with the weight and I like the solid feel of the unit. The Surface is compact. The Surface with its keyboard is about 350g lighter and 4mm slimmer than my Samsung Slate without a keyboard; I am including the cover because I would never travel with a slate without a cover.
Second, unlike the Slate (magazine) reviewer, I do think the keyboard cover is a breakthrough. The Touch keyboard provides a usable full keyboard and trackpad while not adding any significant bulk; it forms a useful cover when closed, and when folded back it does not get in the way while you use Surface as a slate. I find myself using it in Slate mode frequently. Do not believe those who say you need keyboard and mouse to operate a Surface; there is only an argument for this if you never venture out of the desktop.
I can do more than occasional typing on the Touch keyboard; it is fine for longer documents as well.
Third, I can do real work with the Surface. Yesterday I sat with Surface on my lap, typing notes into Word, with Mail docked to the left, and Twitter open in desktop IE alongside Word. For all its faults, I found that the Surface worked well in this context.
Fourth, if you know Windows, there are things you can do that are difficult with other tablets. VPN to my office and remote desktop to a Windows 7 machine there is built in and works well. SharePoint via WebDAV is a shortcut in the Windows File Explorer.
Of course you could do all this with a laptop. So why not have a laptop, which you can buy for less money than a Surface? It is certainly an option; but as I have adapted first to the Samsung Slate running Windows 8, and now to the Surface, I find laptops bulky and inconvenient. I think of a laptop more as I used to perceive a desktop PC, something which is best suited to permanent siting on a desk rather than being carted around.
Further, the Surface really is a tablet. Imagine you want to show some photos to a friend or colleague. On a laptop that is awkward. The keyboard gets in the way. On a tablet like the Surface it is easy; just open the folder in the full-screen photo app and swipe through the images, with the keyboard cover folded back. Pretty much any tablet will do that equally well – or better if you have a Retina iPad – but it shows that Surface is not just a laptop in disguise.
There are reasons why I get better results from the Surface than some. One is that I know Windows 8 well, having used it intensively for many months. Another is that I am familiar with Windows foibles, so when these appear in the Surface I am likely to know what to do. Of course they should not appear at all; see above.
Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.