Surface RT, evolution of a laptop

Preface

Daily use devices: Galaxy Nexus Jelly Bean, HP Touchpad CM9, iMac Mid 2011 Mountain Lion, Macbook 2008, and Kindle keyboard 3rd Gen. 

In a previous post I was debating what tablet to get for my lady. We both went to a Microsoft Store. She sat down and used Surface for about five minutes. She turned to me and said, "this is what i have been looking for..."

Surface has been with us for over four days.

Tablet thoughts

I want to deviate a little bit and voice a "wish" of mine. Lets go back to early 2010. When we were all assured that Apple would launch a tablet, I knew I wanted it, before, I knew anything about it. I wanted it to have a stylus, nice screen, and run OSX. I remember reading the live keynote, and seeing Steve unveil a large iPhone. It ran iOS and was nothing like my dream tablet. It has been over two years, and now the iPad is in its fourth generation. The iPad blossomed into a multi featured tablet. The device never became part of my personal arsenal. Today, iPad has cemented what a modern tablet is in our society; app centric, great browser, portable, screen dominant, and responsive. 

These are my thoughts on the Surface RT thus far.

What is Surface, tablet or laptop? I asked myself several times while using it. Then I realized that I was asking the wrong question. What can Surface do better than either a tablet or a laptop? I do not have a short answer. I wish I could summarize it in a sentence. I will do my best to get to answer by the end this post.

What did Microsoft do while the iPad took the tablet scene/culture? Kept running in my head while my hands first touched Surface. Well, I remember seeing the Courier videos. I remember Windows 7 had decent touch capabilities. And of course, the Original Surface, the big table. None of those things are anything like Surface RT.

On the hardware

The new Surface feels great. It is like holding a well machined mutli-tool or touching a new carbon fiber bicycle. When I hold it, I feel confident in the device and it reassures me it can withstand a drop. Surface has a variety of ports; USB 2.0, microSDXC card slot, headset jack, HD video out port, and the cover port  I never thought twice about needing a USB port on my HP Touchpad. But, It definitely comes in handy. I have used it to watch a movie of a thumb drive and to connect my Galaxy Nexus. I transferred files from my phone to Surface. The microSD slot is hidden behind the kickstand. I had an extra 4gb card and used it on Surface. Im glad it has expandable storage, I was able to put some music albums and pictures on the card. 

The hardware stands out as the best part of Surface. It is a great first step in hardware design for Microsoft. It makes the iPad feel and look childlike in my eyes. I would compare it more to a ThinkPad device, than any Apple device. It has that rugged feel to it. (my lady likes the aesthetics of the iPad, a bit more) It actually reminds me of this tool.

With that being said, the screen dimensions are unlike anything else, it is 10.6" with a 16:9 ratio. The screen makes movies look great. Pictures do look good as well. Microsoft claims this is a "ClearType HD Display." Well, text does not look that clear. The screen reminds me of my iMac's screen. Perhaps, a little sharper, and with good color representation, but it lacks resolution. This apparent with small text. It is not a deal breaker, but a high ppi display would make this tablet more compelling.

When, using the device I found it feels heavier than 1.5 pounds. The slab feels somewhat unbalanced held in landscape with one hand, but feels fine with two hands. I had not problems with two hands on the device. The device does prefer to be on a table or with the kickstand open and the cover underneath it.

Rendering of a The Verge on Surface. Screen of the Verge from iMac at the bottom

While holding the tablet in portrait it suddenly feels alien. It renders long webpages in almost one screen. The weight feels fine in hand, but I could not shake the alien feeling. It is foreign to for me to use a screen with this aspect ratio. (EDIT) As, I use Surface more, I have gotten use to the dimensions of the screen (EDIT). 

Microsoft has stated repeatedly how its team focused on the design of the tablet. It shows in some aspects. Specifically, the finish and how the covers fit the device. The actual dimensions of the product, the screen, give it a strange feel. The size feels unnatural compared to other tablets with a more "square" ratio. I like using the tablet on a table with the keyboard the best. That is my favorite scenario. The tablet seems to excel in this state. The angle of the screen is good and the keyboard feels solid. In that sense, this tablet, aspires to be more a laptop. It wishes it had permanent keyboard, and a bigger trackpad. This would have been a great response to the Macbook Air with a few tweaks.

Onscreen keyboard was fairly responsive with every use. It came as a surprise that the onscreen keyboard was this good. I figured that Microsoft would have spent all their time worrying about the touch and type covers. 

We purchased the Type Cover. I would not mind picking up the touch as well. The Type Cover has won me over. I like the spacing of the keys. My hands fit nicely over the keyboard. I do not mind using the Type Cover at all. The top row has some dedicated Windows Surface keys. It is nice to hit settings or the share button without leaving the keyboard. I found that my typing was almost as fast as a full size keyboard. The trackpad is not the best, but works fine. The only problem I had was with two finger scrolling.

I have heard some people complain about the angle of the kickstand. I have not found many cases in which this was an issue. Overall, I enjoy having the built-in kickstand. 

As a tablet, it is fine, but, I did not feel the "tabletness" of it. Even with lower end tablets, they feel like slabs for content consumption. Surface aims to please both parties. With all that said, I am not disappointed thus far. I actually am really excited to use it more. This might be a new genre for tech gadgets. Like music, sometimes genres separate, and sometimes they merge to form new genres. This machine is heading towards a new direction. It wants to grow up and be more than a "tablet". I do not want disregard the iPad as a consumption device, but this feels different. It feels more like a traditional operating system. In many ways it still is. 

On Software

Surface wants to be a great tablet and a good laptop. The hardware is a few steps away from being both. The software feels the same. It feels like its at a bridge. It is leaving the desktop mainland and getting closer to the tablet island. It just has not crossed completely over. Windows 8 RT feels like Windows of yesteryear with a shiny new coat. This coat is new and fashionable. The new "metro" UI feels fresh and acts unlike the rest of the tablet competitors. Instead of a grid of icons, Windows RT uses tiles that are alive. They show information, many cycle through images or text. They can be rearranged in any order, its is like playing Tetris with one's homescreen. 

A capture of the homescreen

The tiles functionality is questionable. I tested how much information I could gather without entering any app. I turned the device on and glanced at my homescreen for a few seconds and saw my some mail subject lines, weather updates, and app updates. The lack of a toolbar was noticeable. I wanted to glance at the time/date or battery life, and it required a swipe in the from the right to see those settings. It is not a glaring flaw, but I am used to having more information.

Overall, the tablet OS runs well. I really enjoyed multi-tasking with the device. I played several movies on the side, while I worked on my projects. I frequently turn on Netflix while I am working for background noise. With Surface I was able to this while sharing some of the screen real estate with Netflix and the web browser, IE. I really enjoy how if you sideload an app it is responsive. It loads according to the space given.

Watching Netflix and viewing the web.

I did not notice any lag while multi tasking. I at one point opened a film from the microSD card and played a Netflix movie. It handled both videos fine. I plan on buying a micro HDMI to HDMI cable to see how it handles more than one monitor. 

Closing an app can be a tad awkward. One has to swipe in from the top outer edge and drag the whole window down until it discards the app. The most apparent problem is while using the browser. One has to swipe down to open the "tabs" bar, the gesture is too similar. At the same time, some of the gestures, Windows RT introduces are cool. I really enjoyed swiping in from the right to access the settings of each app. I like swiping from the left to change apps rapidly. While using the browser, one perform a long swipe either right or left to go back to the previous page.

The standout app goes to the Xbox Music application. I want to mention that, I use Google Play to listen to all my music. It is stored in the cloud while synced with my hardrive. Xbox music does not do this yet. But, streaming music from the Music app felt great. I typed in "Shigeto" under artists and it cycled through most of his discography. I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoy listening to some internet radio stations, and they curate a mix of music that relates to the artist or song of choice. But, I really enjoyed just listening to the artist I wanted to listen to and not his/hers contemporaries. Microsoft has something they can expand onto all their product lines. I would like to have this service on all my devices.

The Windows app store lacks the number of apps compared to Apple's App store and Google's Play Store. As a the end consumer, I do miss having some of my normal apps accesible; Instagram, turntable.fm, Squarespace, and Youtube. I can not give a solid judgement on this store yet. I would like to give it a month or two to let it populate. I really do enjoy how the "Windows 8 UI (metro)" apps looks and work. I find myself going through Netflix and Hulu Plus to just see the image and text heavy tiles scroll across the screen.

Final thoughts

Surface RT opens up a new world of minimal UI and gesture heavy applications. Surface uses swipes from the top, bottom, left, and right of the screen. I have to say, that I love the simple geometric design of the operating system. I left behind all the gradients and lifelike app icons behind for a few days. It was refreshing. The device is not perfect. In some ways it shines brightly with hope of a new era of devices. At other times, it feels like it is too undecided on what it wants to be. I anthropomorphize Surface, because it reminds me of me. Maybe, that is why I like the little guy. Sometimes, I just want to focus on artistic endeavors and other times I want to focus on business strategies. 

So what is Surface? It is a tablet that descended from a laptop. It changes the perspective of what a computing slab is. I think this device works best with a keyboard attached. Maybe, it feels that way because with the keyboard attached, I want to type. I want to do heavy typing tasks. On other tablets, I do not get that same urge. It is not just a tablet with an attachable keyboard. It is like a laptop with a detachable keyboard. 

I will let my girlfriend have her Surface back, I had been hogging it for some days.