It's now been roughly 8 months since I got my 64GB Surface RT last October and I thought now would be a good time to provide some perspective after it's had some serious usage. In recent days there's been a lot of poor press on Windows RT and the RT devices including these stories on ZDNet:
- Mary Jo Foley - Microsoft's $900M Surface RT Write-Down: How Did This Happen?
- Matt Baxter-Reynolds - Surface RT Sets the New Gold Standard in Hubris
- Agam Shah - Lenovo Drops Yoga 11 Hybrid with Windows RT from its Online Sales
None of these spell good news for Windows RT. At first I was hopeful… I thought "a long battery life on a Windows based tablet that is optimized for tablet and not for desktop" was a perfect tablet for me. I didn't mind many of the apps I use on my desktop couldn't be used on the tablet. They didn't make sense anyway. Last thing I wanted was to have to pull a mouse or stylus out to touch the tiny menus in Word, Visual Studio or other apps I commonly use. Metro (yes, I still call it Metro) OneNote was and is perfect! Desktop OneNote… I'll leave that on my desktop / laptop. Unfortunately it took almost a half-year for Microsoft to figure out the marketing and start pitching it against the iPad… but still, they need to show people USING it and SHOWING what they can do with it. Not dancing in a park or making fun of Siri.
However over time I have come to fall into a love-hate relationship with my Surface RT and it has me now considering switching back to an iPad (I had the 1st generation iPad before my Surface). Each device has its advantages and disadvantages. Before I get too much into this post, I want to touch on the idea of the Surface Pro and extend this to all Windows tablets running native Windows… the x86 version. For me, native Windows on a tablet does not make sense today for me. A tablet doesn't have a fan or a sub 5 hour battery. I want something I can use all day long, or on a cross country flight or a transatlantic flight. These devices don't have it. The Lenovo Helix comes close, but is not well designed, not like the Surface or iPad, and is damn pricy.
I love the Surface RT
I really do like the Surface RT in general. I love how settings sync between my laptop & tablet. I like how apps I buy on one are available on the other. Even more so I love how the updated Skydrive app in Windows 8.1 does REAL file syncing now… this is WAY overdue (if only someone had at Microsoft had thought of the Dropbox idea… Mesh anyone?).
I love the microSD card which I use to put ripped movies on it to take with me. I also love being able to use a USB stick to copy stuff between my laptop & surface or just to have some extra stuff on the stick… awesome! The kickstand is great when I need to do some work (typing) or watch a movie. At first I tried the touch cover, but it didn't cut it and now I use the type cover all the time… fantastic on a plane. I love how the charger brings my Surface battery back to life incredibly fast.
Having Office on the Surface is also nice… it's come in quite handy. The addition of Outlook on the Windows 8.1 preview is nice, but it confirms what I thought: Outlook on the Surface isn't a good experience. The screen isn't tall enough. Try deleting an email without the keyboard… you have to bring the ribbon up which cuts a good percentage of your screen out. But hey, we've got Outlook which is so much better than the horrible Mail app Windows includes.
Another aspect of the Surface RT I like is that I can easily build apps for it. This came in handy when I did a ton of reclassification of content on my blog during the migration to the new platform using a little utility I wrote.
Last but not least: battery life. This is crazy good on the Surface RT… I can get roughly a full day out of it at conferences or long plane rides. I rarely break out my laptop on a plane now.
The Surface RT is Frustrating
But let's face it, there are negatives to the Surface RT. These come in no particular order. First, I find it hard to believe the speakers were ever fully tested. The way the device is shaped, the speakers are angled AWAY from the user and are way underpowered. When watching movies or recordings, I always break out my Jawbone Jambox that's paired to it via Bluetooth.
The kickstand is a double edged sword. It's great when you are sitting at a table, but it sucks when you try to type with it in your lap. You need something like a book to set the device on your lap to make sure it doesn't wobble all over the place. This is also tricky on a plane as those tray tables are open on the other side and never deep enough. I've had my surface fall off the back of the tray table more than once, destroying two USB keys that were plugged in at different times by bending their connector. Makes for a great scene with my seatmates.
I'll say it… I am not a fan of the Office desktop version on my Surface. Give me something that's designed for touch. I can't believe the slap in the face I got from Microsoft when I saw the OWA app hit the iOS AppStore last week yet I don't have a touchy Outlook version for my Surface. The OWA app for iOS is the best email client … it works great on my iPhone… but iOS gets it before the Surface? Seriously?
I'm also not a fan of the charging cable. It's big and bulky… yet something else to carry with me on a trip. I do wish there was a smaller version that you could opt for even if it lengthened the charge time.
This brings me to the biggest thing that frustrates me about the Surface RT: it's under powered. The performance of the device leaves a lot for me to be desired. The simplest task that I want to perform on a tablet is a struggle for the Surface RT: browsing the web. IE frequently reports issues about scripts timing out on Facebook, one of the most popular sites on the web. Sorry… that's inexcusable and maddening for me. Not to mention the Surface RT has issues when playing back large movies as after 20 minutes there's a noticeable sync issue between the audio and video tracks.
Thinking about the iPad More…
In March of this year I switched back to the iPhone5 from my Windows Phone after 2.5 years on the platform. I simply got tired of compromising and have come to the conclusion that so many vendors just don't care about Windows Phone and there's nothing Microsoft can do about it. It isn't the Instagram's that aren't there, it's everyone else. Little apps like Great Clips, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Jawbone's Up…. Plus the apps in the iOS AppStore are a higher quality than what I generally had on the Windows Phone.
When I made the switch, I made the comment to a few friends "I hope this doesn't turn into the gateway drug for an iPad." Well, I'm starting to eye the iPad a bit more closely. I'm not thrilled about the fact that there's no microSD card, there's no integrated keyboard like the Surface, there's no USB port. But the performance of the device is something I can't reconcile or get past. The lack of a keyboard I can live with… there are options there. Plus, the 128GB iPad is as big as my 64GB Surface RT with a 64GB microSD card so that's a moot argument.
The quality of apps on iOS is second to none. For now, I'm holding off but I'm curious to see what incremental improvements Apple makes at their next overhyped media event about making it a micro millimeter thinner. iPad Mini or regular? Hard call for me now.
So where does this leave me? The Surface RT experiment does not seem to be turning out all that great for Microsoft. The early vendors who jumped on board seem to be defecting and jumping ship except for a few loyal ones. The performance of Windows on ARM just isn't there IMHO… at least not today. And because of that, I'm not sure that Windows on a tablet is a great solution today unless you are ok with sub optimal battery life as in my eyes, a tablet should last at least 7 hours, if not 9 or 10, without a charge.
I'm not rushing out to play with an iPad today, but I'm certainly eyeing it closely. Would I recommend the Surface RT to someone? Not sure… but when someone asks me about it, I usually start out with "I like it, but…". The only reason I'm not rushing out to get a iPad today is because I already have a Surface RT that works fine. But if I didn't have a tablet, I think I'd go with the iPad… and that's a disappointing conclusion to make as I was really hoping the Windows 8/8.1 RT + Surface RT would nail it for me.