For the past several years, I chased after an Android future that never really materialized. I went through a number of Android convertible tablets (like the Transformer TF101 and TF300), and I tried Webtop on my Motorola phones as a full PC in a Lapdock. Android came very close, but I kept feeling like the devices were coming up just a bit short. When Microsoft's Surface RT came out, I watched closely but was turned off by the steep price. A year later, when prices finally started to come down, I bought one from Craigslist.
Android devices never gave me the confidence to travel without a laptop. They were inherently limited by the fact that they had evolved from a mobile OS that wasn't designed to do heavy word processing or render web-based apps and sites in full desktop mode.
Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, famously said, "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user." However, Surface RT was a different story. In fact, I've increasingly been using Surface RT more than any of my Android devices. Here are five reasons why.
1. Microsoft reimagined the OS
Windows 8 wasn't a mature mobile OS, but the interface leverages mobile touch devices in a form that follows function. iOS and Android both took a classic icon-based desktop design, shrunk it down to smartphones, and then expanded it to run on larger tablets. Microsoft reimagined the OS to work around the device. Gestures take some practice to master, but they make navigation more intuitive. Windows 8 on a touch device gets out of your way. The actions become natural to interact with apps, to navigate through the OS, and to organize and customize the platform.
I recently talked to someone who said that when they go back to their non-touch Windows desktop, they find themselves reaching out to perform touch actions. I found the same thing when returning to Android tabs after using Surface RT. When you miss features that are absent, something is done right.
2. Surface RT has a native interface for productivity
The Classic desktop is powerful. You can't run traditional x86 code, but that may not be such a disadvantage. With Office and a full desktop version of IE, plus all of the traditional apps, accessories, logs, control panels, and services as Windows, Surface RT becomes an ideal traveling companion for productivity. The ability to drop into a native interface that is keyboard- and mouse-oriented gives Surface RT a huge advantage over Android and iOS for basic, traditional productivity tasks. You don't have to find touch-oriented workaround solutions to cut and paste, drag and drop, manipulate the file system, input text, mouseover, and point, because it's all natively supported.
3. The Modern experience is improved in Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 has improved the Modern experience tremendously. Apple and Microsoft both played with gadgets and widgets that are designed to bring a mobile-like experience to the desktop. The reason smartphones and tablets are popular with business users is because of the excellent digital assistant utility of those devices. Notifications and alerts (for calendars and tasks), instant access to contacts, and the ability to call up maps and navigation utilities -- these and other features are a traditional strength of tablets and smartphones and a liability for PCs. Business users would love to have those features consolidated in one device, but to gain one, the sacrifices on the other have remained too great. Surface RT goes a long way to address that. With Windows 8, I complained that the Classic desktop was used as a crutch too often. However, Windows 8.1 starts to bring Modern into the foreground of the experience, with more time spent in full-featured mobile apps.
4. Refresh and restore with greater ease
Surface RT refresh and restore are like a reset on Android or iOS. Windows on Intel is still vulnerable to all classic Windows issues, meaning that you may find yourself far away from home with a crippled OS and no reinstall media, no keys, and unable to recover. If something goes wrong, recovering the exact state may be difficult or impossible on a traditional PC, but it's far easier on ARM-based devices, including Surface RT. On the other hand, with a full desktop browser, things that have to wait until you're back at a regular PC on other ARM devices can be done immediately in the Surface RT Classic desktop. Google Drive, Dropbox, social media sites, blogs, and many online apps work on Surface RT just like a regular Windows PC rather than as a crippled mobile site or by the unreliable method of rendering a "mouse and pointer"-oriented site in desktop mode on a mobile browser.
5. The general freedom of an NT OS is baked into Surface RT
Surface RT offers the basic open freedoms of Windows. While you can't install Classic apps, use alternate markets, or sideload apps, much of the general freedom of an NT OS is baked into Surface RT. You can browse networks and copy and manipulate files as much as you'd like. You can launch files or apps multiple ways and directed to multiple destinations. Peripheral support on Surface RT is also unmatched by Android or iOS, including keyboards, mice, joysticks, external drives, and (most significantly for me) printers. I've tried countless cloud printing solutions on iOS and Android, and they've all been unreliable and difficult to configure. Surface RT doesn't support every Windows printer, but when it works, it's just like setting up one in Windows -- comfortable, familiar, and reliable. If you can't print, you'll probably find that your hotel's business center or a Kinkos will take your SD card, load your document onto their PC, and print it out for you with very little hassle. Furthermore, the built-in USB will take a thumb drive or any size external hard drive. I've even hooked up an external USB DVD drive.
It isn't that Android can't do some of these things, it's that it can't deliver all of these things as consistently or as well. Android still has a tremendous advantage as a leisure content consumption platform, which is why it's so popular on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. If that's what you're looking for in a mobile device, Surface RT may disappoint you. But if you want a hybrid device that places an emphasis on productivity in a corporate environment, neither iOS or Android come close to the solution that Surface RT offers.
Do you agree or disagree? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.