Getting used to the Windows Surface RT

August 22, 2013

I’ve never been a direct fan of tablets, mostly because I haven’t really figured out in what way it fits into my workflow. I generally do everything on my computer. My phone is mostly a notification device, and when I need to respond I break out my laptop.

A tablet is a device that is too big for a phone and too restrictive to be used as a computer. Sure enough, you can connect a keyboard and a mouse to a tablet to get more functionality out of it, but at that point it just feels like it would be easier to bring an ultrabook instead of carrying multiple devices that need to be connected.

But since I haven’t owned a tablet, it felt like I should give it a try, see if I can use it in my day-to-day business. I got the Surface RT, and I’m guessing most of you think I’m crazy because I got the RT instead of the Pro. And there’s actually two reasons for this, the first, and most obvious is price, I’m not going to spend $800 on a device that essentially has the same hardware as my HP Spectre XT ultrabook, the second reason is that if I would’ve gotten the Pro, I’m pretty sure I’d use it as a my laptop and not as a tablet. In order to ensure that I wouldn’t start using the tablet as a computer, I opted to get the version without the touchtype cover, the only way I want to navigate the device is through touch gestures.

Those reasons aside, why didn’t I spring for an iPad or one of the numerous Android devices? I’ve got a logical answer for this; because almost all of the consumer devices that I use are Windows/Microsoft-based, my HTC 8x (Windows Phone 8), my laptop (Windows 8) and my Xbox. And I’m really interested in how, or if, Microsoft will be able to create a seamless experience across these devices.

I’ve used Windows 8 since it went gold last fall, bought it on the release day, but I haven’t really used any of the modern ui apps (from here on I’ll refer to them as metro apps). I haven’t been against using them, it’s just that I haven’t really seen any specific use-case where I’d get more out of the Metro app than it’s desktop or web equivalent. After I had booted up the surface and connected my user account, I was a bit dumb founded, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. As earlier stated, I didn’t have any idea if I could get any use out of a tablet, let alone what I would do with one once I owned one.

So after installing the most crucial app, the twitter client, I spent a few minutes scrolling through the feed, I then closed the app, and found myself back at square one. So I started to think, maybe I’m dealing with this in the wrong way. Instead of trying to figure out what I want to use the device for, I’d instead just use the device like I use my computer. I promptly fired up Internet Explorer and started randomly browsing the web, as you do.

I’m now on my second week with the tablet, and I’ve actually used it quite a lot. But almost exclusively for consuming stuff, when it comes to creating something, I’m always back at my trusty notebook (like writing this post).

The first couple of days I used the Windows 8 version that shipped with the device. But the biggest problem with the surface is the desktop, they shouldn’t have included the desktop at all in the Windows RT build. Lets face it, the desktop environment that comes with Windows 8 (or any windows version at all) is worthless for touch input. Sure, they’ve improved the on-screen keyboard from the last version (windows 7) but the interface in it self needs an accuracy that a fat finger can’t delivery. I read a few reviews on the Windows 8.1 Preview build, and most of them concluded that most of the things that you earlier had to do in the legacy environment had now been moved to the metro UI. Thinking that it could only get better, I upgraded to the preview.

Boy was I wrong.

Sure, a lot of the settings had been moved to the Metro UI, but one of the things that I really liked with Windows 8, or actually, a feature that existed within the music and movie app in the older version had been removed in the new build. In the earlier version of the apps, they picked up all media that was linked to your music or video library, and that included networked drives. Since many years back, I’ve centralized all my data to an internal home server, the reason for this could fill a blog post all on it’s own, so I won’t delve in the details. But in the new version they’ve refactored the way libraries work in windows, and I haven’t been able to link a share to those libraries.

This means that I can’t use one of the function that I really, really liked with the tablet, and that was the ability to send media from the tablet to the Xbox for streaming. You can browse for media files through the app, but you can’t add them to the media library, and the difference in this is about 5 or 10 extra clicks (plus lots of loading time). I’m usually not the guy who likes to downgrade, I rather live with the newest version than going back, but in this case, I’d almost want to go back to the stable version. (Though an upgrade would be inevitable, so I guess it would only work for a brief period of time).

On the subject of interoperability, how do the different devices work together? They still don’t. The tablet is like any other Windows 8 computer, so nothing new there, and seeing as Windows 8.1 broke one of the things that actually gave some sort of cross-communication, it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel has only gotten a little more dim. Truth be told, it’s still only a preview, but when a feature is specifically removed, chances are grim that it’s coming back.

After reading through this post, I feel like I’m a bit too negative. The Surface is a great device in itself, the build quality is top notch, and leaves me wishing that Microsoft would release more of their own hardware. I do not regret the purchase at all, and I’m pretty sure I’ll keep using it for what it is, a consumption device. In all honesty, I doubt I would have gotten any more use out of a competing product with another OS.

For my line of work, tablets have a long way before they can surpass the usefulness of a “normal” computer.