Random Musings of Kenny Lowe Technologically Inclined Ramblathon

5Nov/121

Surface RT Thoughts

My job is Head of Emerging Technologies at an MSP - day to day I define ways to leverage new tech to improve our working practices and customer experiences. I maintain a long term view of technology, in order to ensure our company not only remains relevant in an industry that changes minute by minute, but helps to define how the technology world around us is shaped for future generations.

I've been running a 64GB Surface RT with black touch cover for a few days now, and by far the most common thing people have asked me since receiving it is 'How is it? How does it compare with the iPad?' Every time I'm asked, my brain becomes so filled with gushing praise for the device that I fail to adequately communicate my thoughts, so here I'll try to lay them out more eloquently. It's not all praise, there are negatives, however if there's one takeaway from this random spiel, it's that this in my opinion is the way forward for compute devices for the next 5 years or so.

It's hard to approach the topic of the Surface without directly comparing to the iPad, doubly so for me as it's the device I used as my primary tablet before switching to the Surface. While some Surface proponents would argue that it's an unfair comparison, I think it's one worth making right from the start.

Apple have laid out their vision in no uncertain terms - there are creation devices (laptops/desktops) and consumption devices (tablets/phones) and the two should remain separate with clear delineation, playing to their strengths without weakening them by trying to make a jack of all trades device.

Microsoft's vision is very different, with a blurring of the lines through all devices so radical, that all devices running Win8 (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone) share a common kernel and user experience. The latest range of Windows 8 devices, including the Surface range, deliver devices which can be used as both content creation and consumption devices, allowing people to have just one device to fit all their needs.

There's a definite linear scale of use cases upon which all computer users can be placed, from the casual surfers to the hardcore gamers and power users. It's down at the lower end of this scale that the Surface RT really targets - those people who use their laptop for web browsing, document editing, email and the like. It gives them a device which can replace that laptop while simultaneously delivering a fantastic tablet experience.

This device is NOT for the people at the other end of the scale - the power users and gamers - it's a great device to augment an existing setup, but it cannot replace a full desktop or laptop for people who use a wealth of x86 applications.

That being said, and considering myself a definite power user, using the Surface RT to augment an existing setup is a very worthwhile endeavour. I haven't needed to take my work laptop home once since getting it, the SkyDrive experience cross device is fantastic, I do find myself missing a native Visio app for the RT though.

Bearing in mind that I came to the RT from the iOS ecosystem, the Microsoft app store seems pretty sparse and barren by comparison. Surprisingly though, after going through my iPad and writing down all the apps I actually use, I found pretty much everything I use on a daily basis already available, which is awesome.

A notable exception is Cisco AnyConnect, with Cisco claiming RT lacks certain APIs it needs to function, so until this is resolved I can't VPN into work which is hugely frustrating. Luckily thank to the 'cloud syncing' features of Win8, I never need to VPN in to get docs or the like, only to RDP to servers for remote management. Which I can't do. Which some would argue is a benefit for the company;)

On to features, I'm writing this blog post on the touch cover, and it's been a remarkably pleasant experience - I'm making a few more mistakes than on a regular keyboard, but I'm typing happily at almost full speed (around 110wpm) and everything's where I expect it. I've tried a number of different keyboards with my iPad 2 over the years, and none of them were what could be considered a joy to use. Syncing over Bluetooth, the battery drain on the iPad, charging the keyboard or replacing batteries - all a pain in the arse. The touch keyboard isn't an afterthought or an addon, it's an integral part of the device, and it works beautifully. In fact, I have it sitting on my lap right now, kickstand out, typing along merrily just as I would on a laptop - albeit without the heat of a thousand suns burning through my trousers and murdering my future children.

A number of reviews talk about performance issues and lag with the Surface RT, and sadly they're right. Cut the Rope lags sometimes, as does the app store - often times I'll have to hit a button a few times to see any effect, as the machine struggles to keep up with me. Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it a dealbreaker? For me, no. Most of the issues are software-side, and so can be rectified. It's not across all apps either, most work great all the time, but when it does happen it's pretty jarring, and breaks you out of the otherwise fluid UX of Windows RT.

The Office team didn't know about the Surface's existence when developing Office for Arm, so the preview version that shipped with the device was slow as all hell and horribly unoptimised. Once they were able to optimise it though, the difference has been markedly improved. Is it perfect? No. Is it good enough for a user at the low end of our use case scale to use effectively and productively? Absolutely.

I own both a VGA and HDMI adapter for my iPad2, and have used both (as well as airplay) for delivering presentations to various screens. One thing that's always bugged me is that the only option available using these is to screen mirror at the iPad's native resolution. Being able to extend the Surface to an external monitor over HDMI at that monitor's max resolution is a godsend.

At my desk at work I have a USB hub with keyboard, mouse, USB to Ethernet, and a wireless USB headset/mic adapter connected, with an HDMI trailing to a 22" widescreen monitor. Plugging in two cables transforms the Surface into a device I can do most of my work on, while a Windows 8 VM on a server in our datacentre gives me everything else I need over RDP.

I'm actively trying to use the Surface as my only device, so for now I've had to give up my multiple monitors, which is sad, but I'm hopeful that manufacturers like Plugable will bring out ARM drivers for their USB to DVI adapters, enabling multi monitor again.

Surface multitasks. Well, it does and it doesn't. You can have two modern-ui^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H fuck it, I'm going to call it Metro. You can have two Metro apps running concurrently, with one taking up around 80% of the screen real estate, and the other 20%. It may sound a bit gimmicky, but in reality it's amazing. Having a messaging window snapped to the 20% while watching a movie on Netflix or writing a blog post - like I am now - genius. Using the camera app to record video while typing into OneNote - fantastic for recording presentations. This is one thing that Surface does really, really well. Trying my iPad just now just felt old and clunky - that's a personal opinion - I just know I couldn't go back now.

Is this a laptop replacement? Yes and no. It's a laptop AND tablet replacement for people at the low end of our use case scale, it's a tablet replacement for people at the high end of it.

It's not a device for people who need specific apps only available on Android or iOS, so before you get one, make sure it does everything you need. It's perfect for students, it's perfect for my parents, I can make it work for me at work, but that's probably only because I was a sysadmin for the better part of a decade so I know a bunch of workaround tricks.

The fact that I can use those tricks is awesome. The fact that if I want, in desktop mode, I can fire up a command prompt and tracert is awesome. The fact that I can regedit it or fiddle with config files is fantastic. I can use this device like a laptop, or like a tablet, and it works really, really well. With occasional lag and slowdown.

And no AnyConnect.

And no x86 applications.

But I'm ok with all of those, because the pros far outweigh the cons. For me.

The perfect device for me would be a Surface Pro in the same form factor as the Surface RT - the pro's added thickness and weight might stop me getting one. We'll see.

Ask me specific questions, and I will answer as best I can!

 

 

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  1. I think we’ll see some updates from Microsoft that will tweak performance to make it even better. I’m going to hold out to see the Thinkpad tablet and Surface Pro but I think the RT is a nice tablet.


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