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?

My Kindle Fire Review

Graphic of Kindle Fire

Graphic of Kindle FireI’ve had my Kindle Fire a few weeks now, having received it in he first shipments. I figure the best way to review it is to recap how it’s settled into my routine (and what parts haven’t settled in). I’ve been rather disappointed in the quality of the reviews I’ve seen. Many have been contrary to my own experience. Maybe the early reviews used an early software version. I got an update right after the first power-on. There was also a number of reviews which mainly complained it wasn’t an iPad. I got the impression those same reviewers would have complained it was a cheap knock-off if Amazon tried to clone the iPad. The Kindle Fire and iPad are different devices. I’ll compare them but only because it’s my only other personal experience with a tablet. I don’t consider one better than the other and won’t be declaring a winner.

Pre-conceived Notions

When I pre-ordered the Kindle I was already deep into Amazon, I dislike the term fanboy but I’d have a hard time denying it if applied to me. I’ve put a lot of my music in the Amazon Cloud although I rarely play it directly. I bought most of my music through Amazon since the days it was DRM free and iTunes wasn’t. I’ve also found Amazon cheaper or equal s used it over iTunes. I also have a Kindle and numerous Kindle books.

What I really wanted from the Kindle Fire was a better way to view video. I never really like iTunes for Video and long ago stopped using it. I’ve gone without all but basic cable (real basic – just over the air stuff to avoid needing an antennae) so Amazon video has helped filled in the gaps when I really wanted to see a TV show. But Amazon video was only available on my TV and computers.

So I wanted a better way to access Amazon video and also be able to play my own videos. If the Kindle Fire failed at that I’d be disappointed. If it worked well I’d overlook a lot of other faults.

I was also curious about the 7″ form factor. I seemed just big enough to stay easily portable. It should fit in jacket or cargo pants pockets.

The Hardware

As others have mentioned, it was heavier than expected when I first picked it up. While it turned out being easy to hold and use, it took a little while getting used to it. The power button sticks out on the bottom edge and is easy to hit accidentally. Actually, any edge can be the bottom as the picture will flip around, but the initial power on screen is only oriented one way and in that orientation the power button is at the bottom.

The Fire does have a plastic feel, after all, it is plastic. But it does feel solid.(But I have no plans to intentionally drop test it. Other than the poorly designed power button there aren’t any other switches or buttons, everything is in the software.

The speaker is fine. Not great, not poor. I definitely want to use the headphones when the sound quality matters That said, I rarely use headphones and pretty much stick to just the built in speaker since it’s mainly a video player for me (more on that later), It’s loud enough for personal use in a fairly quiet setting, but if would be a little software for a noisy environment. By comparison, both my iPhone and iPad built-in speakers are louder than the Fire’s.

Video

So let’s get to the video. I’m using it regularly and I’ve bought a few more videos than I normally would and I am using the Prime videos more. So I think it’s safe to say I like it. It’s also safe to say Amazon’s strategy to position the Kindle Fire as a gateway drug is working. The screen is fine for personal use. I generally avoid any high-def video (or video labelled high-def) for anything but Blu-ray on my TV, so my expectations were relative to that. I find the 7″ tablet easier to use than the iPad when lying in bed, a couch or sitting in a chair. If I want video propped up on a desk I might pick the bigger iPad but I don’t watch video that way.

The 8GB of memory (about 6.5 GB available) is limiting, but I’ve been able to copy my own video to the device easily and they play without a problem. Copying the video is as easy as hooking the Fire to my computer via USB and dragging the files to the video folder. What is strange is I have to play my own video files through the Gallery app, not under Videos. It’s not a problem, now that I know where to get the files.

The bottom line is the Kindle Fire is a perfect video player for my needs.

Video streaming over my 802.11N network has been problem free. There has been one recently developed anomaly. The initial load has always ben quick and the video starts playing within seconds. There’s a progress bar during this initial load. Recently the video started playing when the status bar was 1/2 way across. The in a couple seconds the video hesitates and skip a second or so. After that or restarting and it’s fine. Local videos don’t have the problem and Amazon Videos streamed to my TV or computer don’t have the problem either.

The Amazon Video app/widget is not well designed on my TV, The videos aren’t in any order (and they seem to re-arrange qt will) and navigating is a click-fst with the remote. TV series aren’t grouped together and the multiple seasons aren’t in order. The Video section on the Fire is better. The videos are in alphabetic order (and TV series ordered by season). Plus the touch interface is easier to navigate so it’s much easier to use. That alone has me using the Fire instead of the TV.

Books

It’s a Kindle so naturally it can handle books. I find it to be an adequate reader but my use of it is limited. I’d put my e-books into two categories – the first is leisure reading, the second is reference books.

For leisure reading I much prefer an e-ink display over the backlit display. I can read for about 45 minutes to an hour without my eyes getting tired. Between the Fire and the iPad there’s no difference from that perspective. I find the Fire easier to hold and read for that length of time. So my preference is the e-ink Kindle. But if I want the backlit display, say reading in bed before going to sleep (without having to worry about another light source), I reach for the Fire instead of the iPad.

For reference books the e-ink falls short since it can’t handle pictures, tables or anything beyond basic formatting very well. And the larger iPad screen is usually better. So since it’s usually propped up on my desk the iPad gets the nod for this use. the nod.

So as a reader – I use it but I could live without it and use the e-Ink Kindle and the iPad. But if I could only pick one device I’d pick the Fire. Seems strange, but it’s a compromise that’s adequate for the two ways I use it.

Magazines

The Kindle Fire is a terrible magazine reader, at least until they start formatting them for a 7″ tablet. The magazines I sampled weren’t much more than scanned PDFs. They looked good enough, great even, but scrolling, zooming and moving around is a nightmare. If the magazine could be formatted for the screen it would be fine. But on any 7″ screen it’s going to suck.

Comic Book Reader

Because the Comixology Comic Book App includes a guided view to move panel by panel it’s not as bad as regular magazines but the iPad’s larger screen has its benefits. The Fire is serviceable thanks to guided view, but the iPad is a better experience. Like book reading, the Fire is usable for a quick read before going to sleep, but the iPad is the preferred choice.

Music

I already had much of my music in the Amazon Cloud Player and streaming it with the the Fire was fine. I did stream music for a couple hours without any skips, gaps or hesitations. I like iTunes as a music manager and my iPhone is the preferred player. I’m pretty set in my ways for music so I’m not likely to use the Fire for it a lot. I might use it during the few times I need to preserve the iPhone battery. But those cases are probably ones where I’m traveling and won’t have the Fire.

Docs

I haven’t used any docs on the device.

Web/E-Mail

It’s an acceptable browser but since I typically have other choices I rarely use it.

I haven’t even set up e-mail. The Kindle Fire isn’t something I’ve yet found comfortable creating content on. The 7″ size makes it hard to position comfortably in a way to type on. It is small enough to thumb type on when in portrait mode, but I can’t do that for vary long and it’s not something I can do beyond a quick note.

Apps

Apps I use include Evernote, Audible, IMDB and Plants vs. Zombies (my game of choice over Angry Birds) and they are fine. Amazon doesn’t promote the Fire as an Android tablet and not all Android apps will work on it. The Android Market isn’t available and everything will come from the Amazon App Store (unless I want to side-load). I don’t use the Fire as a full fledged tablet so I don’t have any specific app requirements, so when I say it’s not missing apps I want it’s true, but not a really much of an endorsement.

The Experience

I like the Kindle Fire an use it daily. If I wasn’t into the Amazon eco-system I wouldn’t be such a fan since I mainly use it to tap into that. The $200 price is certainly a big attraction. But the Fire doesn’t come off as cheap. Yes, it doesn’t have every feature of other more expensive tablets, but what it does have works well and is solid. As others have said, Amazon sells the Kindle about the cost of building it in order to get us to big more. For me it’s actually worked. I’ve found the video experience good enough to get me to buy some videos I probably wouldn’t have otherwise purchased.

The Fire itself isn’t a speed demon but I find the operation smooth for the most part. It is a little rough around the edges, I haven’t figured out if the Kindle Fire is ignoring some of my taps or I’m not tapping in exact the right spot although it really doesn’t matter. There are times when I have to re-tap. It’s not enough to be frustrating, just mildly annoying at times. Since it’s all touch it takes a little care to shift around the smaller tablet without accidental taps. Such as accidental page turns then reading or stopping a video. But I’ve gotten used to it and it’s not a problem anymore.

For books and video I’m already in the Amazon ecosystem so the Kindle Fire is a good fit. With the exception of reference material it’s replaced the iPad completely for Video and reading. For music I use Amazon over iTunes if I’m buying but most of my new music comes from neither place these days and I still prefer local songs for playing so the Fire’s not used much for music.

For Magazines and Comic Books the iPad still rules due to it’s larger screen. The Fire is unusable for Magazines but acceptable for Comic Books (at least with Comixology)

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at Apps for the Kindle Fire because I just don’t see it as app platform. Maybe games, but I’m not a big gamer and am happy with the one I have, I have Evernote for reference and quick note taking and a few apps for reference. For Apps and Web the Fire is something I might use for a quick check or note, but that’s it.

So in the great iPad vs. Fire debate the choice is it’s an invalid comparison. If you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem the iPad is probably worth the extra cost. If your invested in Amazon content then the Fire is a good choice. If you want something with abilities closer to a traditional computer then the iPad is the choice.

Summing It Up

During the day the iPad is on my desk and in use whether it’s for work or a little leisure activity during a break. After work the Kindle comes out for entertainment. It wasn’t a conscience decision, just how it evolved. I’d have to say I need the iPad more than the Kindle Fire, but considering the price difference that’s what I’d expect. For entertainment the Kindle fire is a fine device.

Any other Kindle Fire experiences – agree/disagree?