Microsoft Surface

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.

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