Microsoft Surface RT First Impressions

[sc:hardware-category ]Having finally received my Surface after a few minor issues in the delivery, I’ve had a chance to play with it for a few days and here are my first thoughts on it.

After taking out of the box the first thing that hit me was how large it really is.  The 16×9 aspect ratio really make it look bigger than it I was expecting.  The next thing I noticed is how well made it is.  There is zero flex in this thing and it feels like a single solid piece of magnesium.

Build quality is far beyond any other table, or even laptop, I’ve ever held.

Startup

Powering on the unit the first thing Microsoft has done is replace the standard “Windows” boot message with “Surface”, which is a nice little touch.  Once up you go through the standard Windows 8 setup steps including connecting to your Microsoft account.

For the rest of my PC’s I have a domain and I use the AD account to login to my systems, but unfortunately Windows 8 RT doesn’t support domain membership so I had to create a local account to start with.

This got me in to Windows but there doesn’t seem to be a way to associate the local Windows account with the Microsoft account like there is with an AD users.  This means you have to use your Microsoft account to login with if you want to get the sync features and access to the Store.

For me this presented a small problem as I don’t use my Microsoft account much and I use KeepPass on my PC’s to manage my passwords so I don’t actually have the Microsoft account password memorized.  Because of this I use a long randomly generated password which of course would be impossible to memorize.  This has forced me to change my Microsoft account password to something easier to remember.

Once I was logged in to the Surface with my Microsoft account, the rest proceeded easily enough and I was presented with the Start screen.

Differences with Windows 8 on a tablet

Windows RT looks exactly the same as the standard Windows and it was a smooth transition.  There were a few things to get use to though.  On the desktop I often go to the Start screen and just start typing the name of the app I want.  This brings up the search feature and I’m good to go.  However on the tablet there is no way to bring up the soft keyboard on the Start screen.  Instead you swipe in from the right to bring up the system charms and from there select search.  Then the software keyboard pops up and your good to go.

Type Cover

Speaking of keyboards, I didn’t get the Touch cover as I just can’t conceive of typing on a hard surface for any length of time.  Instead I ordered the Type cover with the real keys.  The Type cover is a marvel of engineering and actually feels pretty good to type on.

I only have two small items that I don’t like about it.  The first is the touchpad, the left/right buttons are integrated and it doesn’t quite feel natural to use as I often use one hand to move the mouse and the second to click the buttons.  With the Type cover I can’t do this as the second-hand acts as a second touch point and you get things like zoom or random mouse movements.  I’ll probably get use to it, but more likely I’ll just use a bluetooth mouse.

The second item is the function keys.  the top row of keys on the keyboard are shared between various functions (like play, pause, zoom, etc.) and the F1-F12 keys.  Normally I would expect the F keys to be the primary function and the other to be the secondary but on the Type keyboard this is reversed.  So if I want to close a Windows with Alt-F4, I now have to hit Alt-Fn-F4.  Not a major issue, just a little strange.

I suspect I won’t use the Type cover much and instead, like the mouse, pick up a bluetooth keyboard to use with it.

The built-in kickstand on the Surface is a great feature, even without the Type cover being used as a keyboard it’s nice to be able to stand the Surface up without having a separate stand.

Accessories

One of the things we haven’t seen much of yet is accessories for the Surface.  I’m sure there will be cases and stands made for it and I’m wondering about charging it.  As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the wireless charging on my HP TouchPad is a great feature and Microsoft decided to go with a magnetic charger on the Surface.  The charging port is on the right hand side of the unit which makes me wonder if a charging dock is possible or not.  There is the port for the Touch/Type cover at the bottom of the Surface, did Microsoft include charging capabilities in this port as well?

Applications

First off the Surface RT comes with Office built-in, however at this time it is still the preview release.  The final version is complete according to Microsoft but isn’t in the Store yet.

The Office programs look and act just like Office on the PC so I won’t go in to details on them, the only comment I’ll make is about what’s missing.  Outlook and Project.  Both should be there and they aren’t.  I can only assume they will make an appearance at some point in the future.

Beyond the bundled apps I pulled down several from the Store and they all worked flawlessly.  The Store is still pretty small but that will change over the next few months.  The big ones for me that missing are KeepPass, Opera.

The built-in Mail app is kind of limited, but it does work and overall is functional enough to get by.  Microsoft has been busily updating many of the launch apps even before Windows 8 was officially available so I expect to see some major improvements in these apps over the next few months.

Windows 8 Settings Sync

Part of Windows 8 is the ability to sync your settings through your Microsoft Account.  The feature is great but I was in for a surprise about how great when I took the Surface to a Wi-Fi hotspot I visit quite often that requires a WPA2 passphrase.  I turned on the Surface and was showing a friend how it worked and suddenly a mail alert came up saying I had new mail.

At first I didn’t think much of it, but then I realized I hadn’t connected to the WiFi yet.  I have my laptop configured with Windows 8 and the WPA2 passphrase and the Surface tablet simply sync’d these settings over including the auto connect.  So when I turned on Surface within range of the WiFi it simply connected up and starting talking to the net again.

Cool 🙂

Speaking of things missing…

I mentioned earlier that Windows RT can’t join a domain, this also means it can’t receive Group Polices.  Both seem like strange limitations and are effectively showstoppers for businesses to use RT.  I assume they had to limit developement time on these features to get RT out the door on time and so I would expect to see them implemented in future updates.  Either that or for some kind of RT Enterprise Edition to crop up.

Silverlight is also missing from RT, which seems kind of strange as it was their cross-platform play for a long time.

The Display

There has been quite a bit written about the resolution of the display on Surface as it is not a “retina” type of display.  But really it looks gorgeous.  Bright and crisp.

The one thing I don’t like about it is the 16×9 aspect ratio.  I have to admit I prefer the 4×3 aspect ratio better for a tablet, but virtually everyone other than Apple is going to this ratio so I suspect it’s a loosing battle 🙁

Summary

Overall it’s a really nice device, kind of big to be a pure tablet in my opinion, but well made and slick.

I don’t think it will replace my laptop, perhaps the Surface Pro might do that, but even then I don’t think so.

I would like to see a Surface Pro with a 4×3 aspect ratio or perhaps just a smaller display.  Maybe ASUS or Acer will make one that will catch my fancy.

Microsoft has more work to do, but Windows 8 is a great OS and Surface has shown what can be done in term of design.  Now it’s up to Microsoft’s partners to step up to the plate and take it even farther.

The last question to answer is then, would I recommend it to someone?  The answer is… depends:

  • If you want to replace you iPad, no, Surface is too big as a pure tablet.
  • If you want to replace your netbook… absolutely.
  • If you want to replace you notebook… probably not, but if you only do some basic browsing and e-mail it would be a yes.
  • If you want to replace you desktop… definitely not, let’s not get carried away here 😉

 

Greg

Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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Greg

Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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