Microsoft Surface investigate

Starting life with the Surface

Tony McSherry goes through his first week of using a Microsoft Surface.

I had two Microsoft 32GB Surfaces delivered last week, and I've been using them for about eight days. One has the Touch cover, and the other the Type cover. I'm deliberately using the Touch cover for this review, and I'm slowly getting used to it. I prefer the Type cover, with its depressible keys, but the Touch cover is serviceable and supports my six-finger typing style quite well. I'm using Word 2013, which came with Office for the Surface, and it's indistinguishable from Word 2013 on my desktop, with all of the usual spelling and grammar corrections. It doesn't have macros, which may disappoint some Office users, but it's perfect for my needs.


Type cover
(Credit:Tony McSherry)

I've plugged in a mouse to support my Word editing, but the track pad works well, although the Touch cover has the mouse buttons outside the track-pad rectangle, while the Type cover includes them as part of the track-pad area.


Touch cover
(Credit:Tony McSherry)

Setting up the Surface was easy, and although I diligently charged the Surfaces fully, there were no instructions to do so, and both came with around 50 percent battery charge. During setup, you get a diagram showing you to swipe inward from the right side to bring up the Charms menu. Once it has started, you are directed through a sign in (preferably using a Microsoft account) and the now-familiar Start screen appears. My People tile was populated with people from my Windows Phone; my Pictures tile was cycling through some of my SkyDrive photos; and I only had to set up my mail account.

Gmail and Windows/Hotmail were easy, but my Outlook Exchange mail from my work MS Small Business Server would not connect. After lots of frustration and hours, I finally worked out that it was a certificate error. Looking at various forums, it was apparent that a few other people have had the same problem. Windows Mail unfortunately seems to lack useful error messages when it comes to Outlook accounts.

I had this problem because my server uses a self-signed certificate rather than a trusted one from a certification authority. Because it's a self-signed certificate, I needed to load a certificate onto the Surface, which I generated on my server. To install the certificate, I went to the desktop (yes, the Surface has a desktop with all the usual Windows apps), right-clicked on the IE button on the Taskbar, right-clicked again on the Internet Explorer entry, and then selected Run as administrator.

Next, I selected Internet Options from the Tools menu, and then the Content tab, and clicked on Certificates. I then selected the trusted Root Certificate Authorities tab, hit Import, and selected the location of the certificate file. After a dialog that asked if I really wanted to do this, the certificate installed. If you have an Exchange server with a trusted certificate, you should have no trouble, as they do not require a certificate on the Mail client.

I returned to the Mail app, and it synched with my Outlook account. The Surface doesn't currently support POP email accounts, but a quick workaround is to get your Hotmail/Outlook.com account to read mail from any POP accounts that you may have and incorporate them. My Outlook Contacts and Calendar are now synched with my People hub and Calendar app.

Apart from that email frustration, I'm loving the Surface. It connected to my business and home Wi-Fi easily, and to my business and home network. I could watch MP4 videos from any PC over my Wi-Fi with no appreciable lag or jerkiness. Having complete access to my networks and a real file system makes the Surface feel like a very light netbook. I visited the Windows Store and installed Skype on both Surfaces, and tried video and audio calls successfully.

My first hint that this wasn't a legacy Windows computer came when I tried to download the Microsoft Solitaire Collection, which I'd downloaded from the Windows Store for my PC. It wasn't available for the Surface, although there were around 30 other free Solitaire programs. I did get Wordament for my partner, who plays it on her Windows Phone, and a substitute Solitaire, though. I also grabbed the Kindle reader, which I found out doesn't seem to read any of my local ePubs, so I downloaded another free reader that works fine, and the portrait mode of the tablet gives me a large reading page.

I realised I haven't bought a newspaper in weeks, as I'm starting to prefer the online versions, and the News app for Windows 8 means that I probably won't be buying one again. It provides localised news that's aggregated from various sources, with large photographs and a clean layout and typography.

I've had the Surface on my lap and it's usable, but for extended periods of typing, you'll prefer to put it on a flat surface. The integrated stand provides a good viewing angle, but it lacks any adjustability. Folding the keyboard underneath or detaching it provides a tablet with a great touch UI. People complain about UIs not being intuitive, but no UI is intuitive; it's simply learned behaviour.


Charms menu in Mail
(Credit:Tony McSherry)

The Surface has the usual touch-to-select and pinch-to-zoom functions, but the swipe in from the right edge provides the powerful Charms menu. You'll use this to search in any application, share content, and, more importantly, change Settings in an application. No more searching through multiple menus in an app to find where the author put settings and whether it's called Preferences or Options; the Settings charm in the same location can be used in all apps.

Swiping down from the top or up from the bottom gives you a menu of functions for the app; swiping from the left will quickly swap you to another app; and a quick left then right swipe will bring up all the active apps. These gestures are also perfectly suited to thumb use, and an alternative onscreen separated keyboard for thumb typing is also provided. Touching the top of the screen and swiping down will close the current app. All of these gestures quickly become "natural and intuitive."

One thing that did stump me was how to select multiple email messages, although the mouse pointer and Ctrl/Shift keys work fine. A quick Bing search, and I found the answer: you tick them. You touch the title of the email and swipe to the right in much the same way as you'd tick something; swiping to the left deselects the item.

I've also installed Windows 8 on my home PC without a touchscreen, and have had to learn to mouse and keyboard my way through the new UI. It now seems normal to place my mouse pointer at the top right to bring up the Charms menu, and I'm preferring the IE10 from the Start screen to the one on the desktop, as the UI stays out of the way and I have a full-screen web page. I did reach out to my display at one point to flick out the Charms menu only to realise that I wasn't on a touchscreen — I suspect non-touchscreens will be in the minority soon.

One small hitch was when I went to shut down the computer and realised I didn't know how. I suspected it was in Settings –> Power, but it was late, so I just hit the power button and Windows shut down normally. The next day, I confirmed that this is exactly where it is — which is not something you need to worry about on the Surface, as it sleeps when you shut it and wakes up when you open it.

I haven't done any real tests on the Surface's battery life, but it seems to last around two to three days with moderate use. I'm sure lots of media consumption would decrease that considerably, though. I charged this one around 24 hours ago, and it's now a little above half on the battery-life indicator.

I've found very little to complain about with the Surface, and using it to write this article has been fairly painless, although I admit I'm using a lot more of Word's auto correction while I'm getting used to the keyboard. The screen is bright and sharp, and the standard USB connection makes life easy. One slight annoyance is the fiddly magnetic charging connector that takes a little getting used to.

However, since I've tripped over countless charging cords launching laptops into space and broken two laptop connectors, a quick-release charger can save me some computer damage and personal injury. Both covers have an external layer made of felt, and the tablet feels protected and easy to carry or slip into a backpack or suitcase.

If your current use of a PC or laptop is Office, mail, and browsing, and you are happy with 1366x768 pixels on a 10.6-inch screen, the Surface will give you a highly portable PC with a good battery life that's also a powerful tablet. If you need legacy applications or desktop gaming, then I'd wait for the Windows 8 Pro version or a similar convertible tablet from other vendors. If you're a current tablet user and need apps from the iPhone or Android platforms, then you'll find some of the major apps, but you may have to choose between various substitutes. This should change rapidly as more developers support Windows 8 and port their legacy applications. As a World of Warcraft player, I encourage Blizzard to reconsider its early opposition to Windows 8, and give me a Windows RT WoW client.

The Surface succeeds in providing a lightweight, portable Windows PC for most of us, and a slick tablet that is much more than just an entertainment or consumption device. Having one standard UI across desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone that can used by mouse, keyboard, touch, voice, and gesture is also an achievement, and while I won't be satisfied until I get a thought-controlled, holographic HUD, it seems like a step in the right direction.

About

Tony is the owner and managing director of Microcraft eLearning and is one of the creators of the AUTHOR eLearning Development System.

37 comments
TechLibUser543
TechLibUser543

Nice to get a careful, thorough accounting of your experience with the tablets. It makes me ready to get a tablet although I'm running 8 on a laptop already. I read to the end to see if you experienced the same shut off frustration I did on the laptop. There must be a better or shorter way.

shsdarwin
shsdarwin

You state: "People complain about UIs not being intuitive, but no UI is intuitive; it’s simply learned behaviour." I beg to differ here. When a 4 year old girl can pick up an iPad and within minutes be happily using it, there has to be a level of intuitiveness in the way the system is designed. In fact, most people that design interfaces, do so with human behaviour (a lot of which is intuitive) in mind. They count on this intuition to allow for fast adaptation. So, yes, there will always be a level of learned behaviour, but intuitiveness is definitely a big factor.

SerrJ215
SerrJ215

Surface RT Base unit 32 gb $499.99 Type Key board 129.99 Apple I pad w/retina display Base unit 32 gb $499.99 wireless keyboard 69.99 Also I can get an I pad anywhere, Surface seems to be a MS store exclusive. This does makes me cringe because I am not a big apple fan, but MS built a tablet that does not beat Apple in price point, with an OS that were still all a bit iffy about, an underdeveloped app store, and because of my location I can't put my hands on one for testing. Yes this is an innovative design, and honestly. With a good RDP client to my home systems I could see this as my primary interface for work. (btw how is the RDP interface? that was left out of the eval.) However I am not going to spend the same amount of money I would drop for a solid laptop that can run any an all windows software for the sake of a few pounds or the coolness factor. Especially since I can't put my fingers on one before hand. I do find it ironic that MS is making the same mistakes with its tablets and Apple made with its Desktops. Overpriced hardware and poor software penetration. Also missing from this evaluation, how did it interact with other hardware, Scanner, printers, (yes some of us still need to handle paper) Connecting to a NAS, to a home group with other windows machines (I know it cant connect to a domain) Basically its not robust enough for work, and its too expensive for a toy.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

version with the pre-loaded cutback version of MS Office that the EULA says is unlawful to be used by a charitable organisation or in ANY commercial or corporate situation or environment, with dire threats if you do. Also, did you know the EULA says in using the Surface you agree to it collecting certain information and sending it all back to Microsoft Headquarters each month and you can NOT turn that function off? This might be a good toy for checking mail or what's on at the theatres while out at dinner, but no good for doing any real productive work on. Personally I'd rather spend time talking to my date while out at dinner with someone, or reading a book if I'm eating alone.

gak
gak

How can it be a Windows PC if it does not run Windows programs? The Pro version will be a Windows PC, but calling current Surfaces "Windows PCs" is bad Microsoft marketing (or a blatant lie, if you prefer). If people understand better that Surface is Android from 24 months ago that can run Office that you are prohibited to run in all the most likely settings, it would be better for everyone including Microsoft. I guess any tablet will die of obsolescence in 2 years. If you believe that in a year Surface will get enough apps to be on par with Android, or you are one of those who is determined to make that happen, or you just badly need a cut down mobile office for personal use - buy Surface. If not, either buy iPad or Android or wait for the real thing - Surface Pro. Any other advice is a disservice for the readers. P.S. I refuse to call any device a computer if it is impossible to develop for it on it. Thus, Android tablets and Surface Pros are computers, Surfaces and iPads are merely gadgets.

ahanse
ahanse

*and you are happy with 1366×768 pixels on a 10.6-inch screen* did you find this an issue?

mbkavka
mbkavka

The issues with Certificates and the Surface, has been around for a while. Even Phone 7 had major issues with SBS servers using self signed Certs. I ran into this not only with SBS2003 but SBS2011, and is a major issue with Microsoft basically not supporting itself.

Slayer_
Slayer_

They barely understand what the keys on their keyboard do. So not intuitive? Ask around, how many of your users know what widow and orphan control is, and why you would turn this on or off. This is something I always ask people that claim they "know word".

Tony_McS
Tony_McS

Retail shopping - it's jsut like the Internet without the convenience ;-) Ordered my two online and they arrived 2 days before the specified date for delivery.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I'm disappointed. At least there is none in Quebec.

Tony_McS
Tony_McS

and you may change your mind and remote desktop works fine. Don't know where you got your pricing from but Apple and MS Australia give you $679 for 32GB with Touch cover $640 for 32GB WiFi iPAd without keyboard Seems like MS undercuts Apple even with a real cheap WiFi keyboard that won't have a touch pad. Once you add in Office, a real file system and Windows, the Apple is looking like the expensive toy I'm afraid. Tried printers, USB sticks, mouse etc and all worked fine as RT has basic drivers for most devices. However, I'm pretty sure there may be some older pronters it may not support. What didn't work was my Telstra 4G modem as it doesn't seem to follow the WIndows RT 4G modem guidelines. Not really a problem as I'm upgrading my Windows Phone to 8 and will use the 4G phone as my wifi router (supports up to 5) for cellular conneciton. It also works fine with my existing Windows 7 phone, but is a little slower. And yes it wll connect to a Homegroup.

tonymcs
tonymcs

I also pointed out it's not a "cutback" or cutdown version of Office except for the macros and a few arcane functions which you may find indispensable, but most of us won't. You can use your commercial office licencing or Office 365 to use your Office commercially, but family students and anyone using it for non-commercial purposes is fine, so I don't really understand your objections. There are plenty of toys that allow you to check your email and browse and some of them can even use external keyboards and adapters to allow for some awkward productivity, but at the moment, there is only one truly productive tablet and that's the Surface. Can I also point out that with Surface you can video Skype to your loved one on the other side of the world and read a book at the same time with two apps on the screen ;-)

tonymcs
tonymcs

Yes this is a modern Windows PC using the WinRT runtime on ARM. It does not run legacy apps, but it provides Office, mail, people, IE10 and a variety of other applications. It even has the desktop with the usual Windows applications such as Paint, accessibility and Mary Jo Foley even got her beloved notepad. More importantly, it has a real file system that integrates with my home and business networks and lets me summon files from my network or the cloud. For most people, it is a Windows PC. As for development, I'm thinking of porting my authoring system to WinRT, the only thing slowing me down is deciding how I convert my UI to the new one, as the development environment is the same old Visual Studio and when I compile it, I can compile it for the Intel Pro version as well. That will then allow me to develop HTML.Javascript applications on the Surface - will that make it a "computer" in your rather strange definition? This is not a cut down Windows, it's the new Windows and as developers port their legacy applications to the new environment you'll see they perform even faster. Oh and when my Surface updates (which it did without any problems, it tells me not shut down my PC, not my consumption device ;-)

Slayer_
Slayer_

It's just a whitelist system of which win32 applications can run or not. The ARM version still has the desktop mode, still has office and IE, you are just not allowed to install anything else.

tonymcs
tonymcs

The resolution is similar to netbooks and the screen is bright and clear. My only problem is my aging eyes ;-)

tonymcs
tonymcs

If you run an Exchange server you can avoid this by using trusted certificates. If you are cheap like me and use self-signed certificates then you have to accept that you'll need to do extra work and install a certificate generated by your server on your mobile device. While I do find it occasionally annoying, I only have to do it once and if I use Exchange, then those are the rules for self-signed certificates and I don't have to pay for a trusted one.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

you may be willing to spend that amount of money without ever seeing or testing the device. I'm not, especially a form factor that's completely new to me.

JamesRL
JamesRL

You can buy older model Kindles in Canada, but not the fire. Why? My only theory is that they can't fulfill the demand in the US, so they reserve the production for them. I used to drive by an Amazon Canada warehouse daily.

T_Mac
T_Mac

Yes, admittedly slim distribution channels at the moment if one wants to get "hands on" before buying.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

if you want to use the version of MSO on the Surface RT you have to purchase a separate commercial MSO licence for it and only it. As to running two apps at once, I do a heck of a lot of story writing and editing and the office package I use is set for a book size of 6 x 9 inches and to display that only on the screen properly needs a screen with an 18 inch diagonal, so I don't see how you can get two apps properly displayed on the Surface screen unless they're very small.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't give MS credit for much, but they aren't that stupid. Yes, they'll make a smaller profit per unit by going through other retailers, but they'll more than make it up on the volume.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

or watch the price go too high for them due to the others adding a profit margin.

SerrJ215
SerrJ215

I have bought computers online before but there brands that I have used before and for years. Even if its not the exact model. This is new and I haven't seen a piece of MS hardware that isn't a keyboard or mouse in years. So here is the question, this new and innovative technology that has been heavy advertised why isn't in every major electronics chain, and computer store in the United States in time for the holiday buying frenzy?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Agreed, especially going into the Christmas shopping season.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Not surprising as people can't even find the product.

Trentski
Trentski

I was half expecting to be let down, but wasn't It really is a great device and after using my mouse and keyboard with windows 8 for so long, it feels really natural and fast Loved it

Tony_McS
Tony_McS

and the pricing I stated is correct here. Perhaps we're paying too much for the iPad ;-)

Slayer_
Slayer_

MS forgot you are suppose to distribute your product, not just build it and put it in a warehouse somewhere. Too bad too, cause the Surface would do well here if it was in stores. Lots of traveling people here cause everything is very spread out. Online shopping isn't popular here, shipping costs are excessively high. It's so bad, people actually put their packages on buses and have someone pick them up at the station afterwards.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

they even let you choose the colour of the glass as well as the frame, and style of moulding.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I Googled 'microsoft surface', clicked the 'Shopping' option, and got plenty of on-line results. I then checked the 'In stock nearby' option and Google returned 30 results, all mice and keyboards; no tablets. This was based on my 'location' of Pittsburgh, PA, which is where the company proxy server is installed. Hardly a small town, but I fed it 'Atlanta, GA' and 'San Francisco, CA' and still only mice and keyboards. Maybe you have to use Bing to find them? :D If I were in the market for one of these devices, I wouldn't spend that kind of money sight unseen.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I've never seen a Windows store before.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

times it doesn't seem big enough while doing story research. My point in starting this sub-thread was to make people aware that Microsoft have made a very clear statement that the version of MSO they put on the Surface RT is NOT for commercial use or use by a charitable organisation, that they have the system send information back to them each month (regardless of if you want it to or not) and they make sure you know they intend to sue the hell out of you if you misuse the software by not complying with the above. The whole aim of the reduced capability of the MSO on the Surface RT is to get you to pay Microsoft more money for an Office 365 licence AFTER having told you they gave you an MSO licence with the system. Now one point for the students to know is that writing a resume is classed as a commercial activity as it has an intended commercial outcome, getting a job. I can see the Surface RT and Surface Pro have some uses for many people, for checking mail or the Internet on the move. I can even see the Pro being useful in a logistics organisation for delivery records - but any tablet can do that job and lots can do it better and cheaper. But the Surface RT and Pro are a very, very long way of being beneficial or useful in an enterprise environment due to the great limitations on their productivity capability.

Tony_McS
Tony_McS

The 2 apps at once gives 2/3 of the screen to the main app and 1/3 to the other. Whether this is appropriate for you is your decision ;-)