Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Surface RT: Day 1

Screen capture of Windows RT Start Screen
The Windows RT Start screen with the settings open

FedEx brought my Microsoft Surface RT to me about 10:30 Friday morning. My first day with a new gadget is generally one of exploration, installing, re-installing. Following a winding path since I don’t have a plan going in. This recaps my first day with my 64GB Microsoft Surface RT with Touch Cover.

I come to the Surface as an iPad user since the first iPad. The Microsoft Surface RT is the first device I’ve come cross that I thought could replace the iPad for me. Not only do I anticipate an iPad replacement, I expect to use it even more than my iPad. While I’m a long time tablet user, I had less than an hour hands on time with Windows 8 and the Surface is my only Windows 8 computer.

The Hardware

As other reviewers have said, the hardware is first rate and solid. It’s clear that the Surface is designed for “Landscape mode first”. So far it has been the primary orientation I’ve used it in. I like the aspect ratio, despite being more familiar with the iPad’s.

Others have complained that the magnetic power adapter is finicky but mine has been fine. It snaps in solid without me having to look at the port of fiddle with it. It’s not as easy as my Macbook Air MagSafe adapter. But if I hadn’t used the MB Air I’d think it was just fine. Although that may change with time. But the bad part is the wall wart for the electrical outlet. It blocks a second plug. These days a slim one-outlet plug should be standard for a device with this quality (not to mention price).

As I mentioned, I have the 64GB model. Out of the box it had 46.16GB free and once all the waiting updates were applied there was 43.9 GB free. This is less than I expected since I had heard that the 32GB model had about 20GB free. So I expected over 50GB free. I did use an existing Microsoft Account so it may have synced things like Mail and SkyDrive, but those are tiny.

Having a USB port is sweet, despite being USB 2. Besides the obvious USB memory stick I’ve also used a USB keyboard, a Logitech Wireless Mouse w/USB transmitter, a USB to SDHC adapter and several USB drives. Add the microSD port and the 64GB may have been unnecessary. I got it because it matched my 64GB iPad, which is consistently using more than 32GB.

I’ve heard that the speakers are quiet. While I wouldn’t call them loud, they are loud enough for me and louder than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire (original model). My iPhone 4S and iPad 3 do seem a bit louder but I like the Surface a bit better for music. But let’s face it, for music on any of these devices I’ll use headphones or a Bluetooth speaker if at all possible.  But sitting here listening to streaming music through the speakers is pleasing. The speakers have been fine when I watched video.

Microsoft has made a big deal out of the keyboard. And I think it justified, I’m not a touch typist and I’m already prone to typos, but I’m doing OK with it and I’m getting more used to it. This article is the first real writing I’ve done with the Surface, and yup, this is being written in Word on the Surface using the Touch keyboard. The one potential keyboard issue is that it sometimes ignores the first character after I’ve been paused. It also seems to skip some keys even though the “key tapped” sound is made. But that might still be me or something else, it doesn’t happen very often.

I’ve also had occasional issues switching between the screen keyboard and physical touch keyboard. While the switch to the glass keyboard is fine, the switch back often fails to see the Touch keyboard until I remove and re-attach it. Let’s face it, this won’t be a common occurrence and happened mainly because I was moving the Surface around and changing its orientation while getting to know it.

The trackpad on the Touch keyboard has been a roadblock for me. It’s rather small and I’m having more trouble with it than the keyboard. For now I have a Bluetooth Microsoft Wedge Mouse attached or use the touch screen. I find I use the touchscreen more than I expected even when the Surface RT is in a laptop configuration.

The screen is great. I love it. I won’t argue that it’s better than a retina display and I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison. But the text on my Surface is crisp and the video has been great. I’m not a pixel-peeper and the screen width and available USB and microSD ports make any unnoticed deficiency worth it. I will admit I will never do a side by side comparison because if I see that the iPad is better to my own yes it will bug me. For now I’m happy knowing I like the Microsoft Surface RT screen and don’t notice any degradation when coming back from my iPad.

The Software

Screenshot of Wireless Networks
I have neighbors

This is the biggest area of criticism, namely the lack of apps and the inability to use legacy Windows Apps. Everything has to be written with Windows RT in mind and has to be distributed through the Windows Store. I knew this going in and I’m not expecting to replace my iPad apps on a one-to-one basis. It’s functionality I’m after. So how functional is it? I go back and forth. I’m having a hard time replicating, old functionality or process in some cases. But if I ignore that and look at achieving the goal things are better.

I suspect I would have the same issues with Windows 8 on Intel if I tried the same apps. But on Intel I’d have more work arounds and available apps.

For example, at a family gathering on Sunday I’d bring my iPad for sharing pictures taken there and for sharing pictures that are back on my NAS at home. That’s not quite possible with the Surface but I can still achieve the goal of sharing the pictures and improve on it. With the iPad I’d use the camera connection kit to get photos to the iPad for viewing and I’d do some posting or email sharing.

The surface will work like this:

  • • I’ll have to copy the photo that I want to share from my NAS to the surface for viewing in the photo app. I haven’t been able to get the photo app to see them even after adding the share to the library. I can also copy them to a USB stick. Not my preferred solution, but OK until I work things out. And the rest makes it all worth it.
  • • A USB to SD card adapter will get the photos from, my camera to the Surface. Also anybody else’s camera that uses an SD card.
  • • But new this time will be a USB to Compact Flash adapter. It didn’t work with the iPad but does work with the Surface. So if anyone still has compact flash they aren’t left out.
  • • I’ve been able to upload files to my Photo Station through the web interface but that is cumbersome. I’ll create the album in advance so I can give people the links and then upload the pictures when I get home. I might get this worked out before the gathering,

I have enough confidence that I’ll be leaving the iPad home.

I did struggle for a while trying to get the Synology Photo Station directories into the Metro Photo app. They are visible in the photo library on the desktop side, but not in the metro app. I’ve given up on that for now so I could move on to other fun. I’m having similar issues with the Metro Music App.

I quickly learned to swipe down from the top and up from the bottom since that’s where the application menus typically are. The settings menu is also context aware when opened with an app active. I also quickly learned to push to select. The UI for the apps are different but logical. So far it’s been easy to find features, unlike some iOS apps which have their own unique UI.

Office is a huge plus for me. There’s no Outlook but that’s OK with me, I’m not a fan. Access would have been nice but too much to ask for. I do use a simple Database on my iPad but didn’t see anything in the app store so it’s still a gap. Excel works for the really simply cases but it’s not enough.

I did download the usual suspects for apps – Kindle, Netflix, Evernote and Remote Desktop but I haven’t explored any of them up yet. Remote Desktop is already on the Surface but as a desktop app, this was a Metro app.

Music – Unfortunately, much of my local music was in unsupported lossless formats. It’s also a bit disorganized as I trying various options to break free of iTunes. Xbox Music had no problem streaming from their service and the Smart DJ did a nice job. But like Photos, the Metro music app had a problem with my Synology NAS based music but the desktop side of things works fines with the NAS files.

Video – So far I’ve only played video from local USB and MicroSD drives. It looked great. They were videos ripped by Handbrake using the “High Profile” defaults. These settings work in all my devices (except the occasional problem on my DVD player). I’m happy to see they play just fine on Surface and I won’t have to re-encode them.

Other Stuff

I was able to set up VPN to my Synology NAS so I’ll be able to use public wi-fi a little more securely. Up until now I’d been using IPSec to VPN into my pfSense router. But I ran into problem with Windows RT. There’s no IPSec client and the other options aren’t support by pfSense. So I enable the PPYP VPN server a=on Synology and I’m able to use that. PPTP isn’t the best choice for security but it should be good enough for me. One drawback of Windows RT is the inability to add 3rd party VPN clients, at least at this time.

I wish there was broadband wireless which I have with my iPad but for now I’ll tether.

Wrapping Up

I was a little depressed when I couldn’t get the Synology photo shares into the photo library. It was especially frustrating that it worked on the desktop side and seemed like it should work on the Metro side. But things looked up when I realized all the additional benefits surface brought to my photo management. I was back to being stoked as I wrapped up my first day with Surface.

I haven’t had any performance issues, but to be honest the most intense thing I did was play video. I did play music and video while editing a document and didn’t have any hiccups. But to be honest I didn’t do that more than a couple minutes as music and video at the same time is very annoying.

What’s your surface experience?