Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again
Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.
Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps. The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones.
Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.
But the keyboard did not always work as expected. On softish surfaces it missed keystrokes. It was positively unusable when typing in a Google Document. Latency and hiccups under those conditions is always an issue, but I’ve had better luck with after-market bluetooth keyboards whose idiosyncrasies were consistent enough for me to adapt to quickly. This felt like a software, not mechanical failure.
The kickstand, a sleek and cleverly unobtrusive part of the rear panel, is an absolute must for a machine with laptop aspirations. But it only tilts the screen at a single angle. Unlike a laptop, the orientation can’t be optimized to suit your ad hoc needs. For about $20 you can pick up an infinitely-adjustable tablet stand; it’s hard to understand why, on a device whose skin was so carefully designed, Microsoft didn’t allow for a range of lockable movement.
I did appreciate the ability to use the keyboard lying flat with the screen — remarkably comfortable sitting up in bed. Surface fit perfectly on my lap in the center seat on a commuter train, allowing me to type without tucking in my elbows too much, so it would work in any situation when your lap is your desk. And, fortunately, the keyboard is disabled when it is folded completely back, so you aren’t ghost typing with your hidden hand when using it as a tablet.
But why you’d want to use it as a tablet at all is the question. Surface RT is heavy and thicker than traditional 10″ tablets just as the lighter, smaller 7″ models are getting popular. It feels like something from that first generation of doomed iPad competitors, particularly the Motorola Xoom.
Sometimes the smallest annoyances are the most frustrating. Take the Windows key: On the Surface RT it instantaneously transports you to the tile home menu but it is situated right in the middle of the shift/alt/ctrl keys which are frequently used for navigating and editing documents. The Windows key and its location is a core part of the Windows branding set, but the potential for mis-fire is so great on Surface that it should really be in a less accident-prone location. (I went on many detours while trying to edit text.) Or, perhaps its function should require a combination keystroke. Or, maybe it shouldn’t be there at all, since its less evil twin is on the bottom bezel of the touch screen, doing the same thing well out of harm’s way.
In the few weeks I used the Surface RT I found myself constantly putting it aside — to write this review, check mail, web browse — in lieu of Apple ultralights, Android tablets, my smartphone and even other Windows machines. As a productivity device it has little to offer apart from compactness. (On that score it is hard to beat; I carried it along with a MacBook Air, a tablet and the rest of my Go Bag essentials and never noticed the extra lug.)
Some of the shortcomings of the Surface will be addressed in the upcoming Surface Pro, including the ability to install software as you would on any other Windows machine. In previews timed to this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the considerably more expensive Surface Pro is being called a “game changer” by the New York Times’ David Pogue, and Tom Warren of The Verge describes it as a “super tablet.”
I hope so. Surface Pro dispenses with the tablet pretense may be a better entrant in the road warrior’s hunt for the perfect hybrid: one thing which does the work of both a tablet and a PC with no compromise to either. But it needs to be judged by different criteria since it will cost almost twice the RT — up to $1,130 for 128GB of storage with the touch keyboard you can’t do without. We’ll check on the Pro when we get our own test unit.
But back to the RT: at $630 the RT + touch keyboard combination is a very tough sell. You can get two much better tablets for that money, or a credible netbook.
What you can’t get — still — is something that does the work of both.
Surface RT is an interesting foray into hybrid computing, but it seems like little more than a proof of concept for better implementations of an idea which is only beginning to mature. This iteration wouldn’t make it into my go bag. But as for future variations on this theme? I am all eyes and ears — and fingertips.