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Hands on: Getting real work done with Surface RT

Deb Shinder shares her experience using Surface RT as her working computer at CES 2013. Find out where RT stumbles and where it excels.

My experiment in using the Surface RT as my working computer on the trip to Las Vegas for CES is, I've decided, a qualified success. It worked, although not without plenty of frustrating moments. To be fair, two of my biggest frustrations were the same ones I always experience with every laptop: being confined to one monitor (truly, once you've experienced the freedom of roaming around on three screens, you'll always feel claustrophobic on a single screen, even a big -- for a laptop -- 17-inch one) and the quirkiness of using a touchpad as a pointing device instead of a mouse or trackball.

Yes, I could have plugged in the USB mouse that was in my bag (that’s one of the big advantages of Surface over the iPad), or I could have connected a Bluetooth mouse (don’t know whether you can do that with an iDevice) -- and that’s what I would have done if I'd been working at a proper desk/table. But I did most of my writing on this trip sitting on the hotel bed or on the floor with my Surface resting on my legs. I’ve heard some users complain that the keyboard doesn’t work that way, and that might be true of the Touch version of the keyboard, but this Type version (which I highly recommend) worked okay for me in genuine laptop format.

As for the touchpad, it actually works fine for pointing; it’s the right and left click buttons that I don’t love, especially when trying to hold and drag, resize windows, and such. But I have that problem to some degree with just about every touchpad, so I’m not going to pick on the Surface too much for that, although its buttons are more annoying than some others.

One important thing I did discover is that on the Surface RT, as on my Windows 8 desktop, getting real work done goes a lot more smoothly if I spend most of my time in the desktop mode.

Unfortunately, the RT device’s desktop is pretty limited. You can’t install desktop applications, so you have to work with what you get, which is basically Word (Figure A), Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- plus built-in Windows applications like administrative tools, RDP client, and the desktop version of Internet Explorer (IE). The good news is that if you’re doing what I’m doing (writing articles and blog posts, looking up things on the web, and handling email), you can get a lot done with those things. Figure A

Don’t let anyone tell you RT doesn’t have a desktop.

I started out the week using TIFKAM (The Interface Formerly Known As Metro) apps by default. If I wanted to check Facebook, I’d go to the Start Screen and hit the FB tile, which brings up Facebook on the TIFKAM version of IE. That was quick and easy, but after a while, it started acting quirky. Now, all Facebook users know that the service often acts quirky anyway, but this was something that I suspected had to do with the device or the app; I would get long delays when typing, between the time my fingers hit the keys and the time the text appeared. This lag got really bad, but I found that if I went to the desktop, opened Task Manager and killed the “modern” version of IE (more about the two versions in a minute), then reopened it, typing went back to normal -- for a while.

This led me to wonder if the same thing would happen in the desktop version of IE. In Windows RT, as in Windows 8, there are two separate (and not equal) versions of IE. The version I call TIFKAM (what Microsoft calls “modern” or “Windows 8 style”) is the minimalist iteration you get from the Start Screen. If you open IE from the desktop, you get a more full-fledged version of IE 10 that you can customize with your menu bar, Favorites bar, etc. -- just like old IE. There are other differences; the “modern” version doesn’t support plug-ins, so if you want to use Flash, you have to use the desktop version. There’s also no Favorites folder (you can pin favorite sites to the Start Screen, but there’s no way to organize them into subfolders as you can with IE on the desktop).

You can have both IEs running at the same time, opened to the same site or different sites, and switch back and forth between them. In Task Manager, they are distinguished from one another by different icons (Figure B). The one with the white “e” in the blue square is the “modern” version. By default, if you open a link from a "modern" app, it uses the modern IE, but you can change that to make the desktop version your default browser. Figure B

The two versions of IE 10 -- desktop and “modern” -- show up separately in Task Manager.

Anyway, I tried using Facebook in the desktop version of IE and didn’t experience the slowdown/lag problem. So, I just put Facebook on the Favorites bar and started using it that way, which made me a much happier camper. I did discover another odd quirk, though. If I copied the URL for a web site in the “modern” version of IE, and then I went to Facebook in the desktop version of IE and tried to paste it, the desktop browser would completely freeze until I killed IE in Task Manager and started all over. If I copied the URL from the same web page when it was open in the desktop version of IE and pasted it into Facebook, there was no problem.

Another thing that was giving me fits was posting to my WordPress blog. There’s a WordPress app in the Microsoft Store that I was able to download and install after some connection problems (which were apparently due to a problem on the Store’s end or the hotel Internet connection rather than my Surface, because my son, Kris, was having the same problem on his Lenovo Yoga running “real” Windows 8). The app is actually pretty nice, but I started having the same problems with long delays/lag when typing.

Back at home, on my Windows 8 desktop, I always use Windows Live Writer to post blogs. It’s been my blog editor of choice for a very long time. However, you can’t install applications on the desktop in RT, and Microsoft didn’t make a modern Live Writer app. So, I returned to the desktop version of IE and resigned myself to typing my post into the browser interface on the WordPress web site. I’ve never liked that, and I still don’t. While I could type the text of my post fine (without lags), it would hang instead of uploading photos to my blog.

But then I had an idea. I decided to check out Word’s blog-posting ability. Sure enough, all you have to do in Word 2013 is select New | Templates and pick the Blog template. It prompted me to enter the credentials for my blog site. I had all of the features of Word to create my post, and publishing was simple -- I just tapped the Publish button on the Blog Post tab at the top of the Word doc. It also allowed me to insert photos. The day was saved, and I was able to get my work done on the Surface just about as easily as I could on any portable computer.

I did set up the modern Mail app in RT (Figure C) and used it most of the time to check my email. It works okay, once you figure it out. At first glance, I thought there wasn’t a way to attach files to messages (you have to swipe up the options bar from the bottom while composing a message), and I had a heck of a time figuring out how to select multiple messages for deletion (you swipe each message from left to right or right to left). This email client is simple and reminds me of the one on the iPad. I used it when I was in a hurry to read through my messages; however, when I settled down to do serious email handling, I went back to the desktop version of IE and used OWA to access my Exchange account. Figure C

The built-in Mail app is simple and quick, but I wish Outlook had been included with the Office desktop apps.

There's definitely a learning curve with Surface RT, even if you’ve been using Windows 8 on a desktop computer for a very long time, as I have. For example, since I’m writing about RT, I wanted to take some screenshots. However, there's no PRT SCN key on the Surface keyboard. In desktop mode, I can use the snipping tool, but what about pictures of the modern UI? The secret is to hold down the Windows logo button and press the Volume Down button on the left side of the tablet. Simple, but it's definitely not intuitive. I would never have figured that out without doing a web search.

Once you do figure out the quirks and get used to the new way of doing things, it’s really pretty functional. Being able to do things by touch is extremely natural. In fact, I found myself touching the screen in cases where it really made more sense to use the pointing device, so I had to correct that tendency to optimize my experience. Having both input methods (in my opinion) gives the Surface a big advantage over other tablets. For one thing, it makes it very usable for navigating a Remote Desktop session to a Windows 8 or Windows 7 computer (Figure D) . That’s something I always found very frustrating on the iPad and Android tablets because of the lack of a mouse. Figure D

Compared to the iPad or Android tablets, using RDP on the Surface RT is a great experience.

Something else I really like about the Surface is that you can set up multiple user accounts, unlike the iPad and most Android devices. The obvious advantage of the latter model for device makers is that they can sell more devices, because each person in a family has to buy his/her own. A few Android tablets that allow multiple accounts are starting to show up, though, and I hope this is a trend. People are used to being able to share a computer, and I think Microsoft made the right choice by extending that experience to Windows RT tablets.

I took the Galaxy Note 10.1 with me to Las Vegas, as well. I wasn’t confident that I would find the Surface usable on an everyday basis. I ended up leaving the Note in my bag except for one night when I wanted to use its PhotoShop Touch app to edit a picture. I was initially excited to see PhotoShop Elements 11 and PhotoShop CS6 Extended in the Windows Store in Windows 8, but it turns out both say “This desktop app can only be installed from the publisher’s website. After installing this app, you can find it on the Start Screen.”

That works for Windows 8, but in RT, you can only install Store apps, and those apps don’t even show up when you search the Store for “PhotoShop” in RT. The search results display what looks like relevant apps, but they're actually books and tutorials, not PhotoShop itself (Figure E). Figure E

When you search for Store apps in RT, those that have to be sideloaded (which show up on Windows 8 in a Store search) don’t even appear.

I’m looking forward to trying out the Surface Pro. From the beginning, I’ve said that I wasn’t interested in an RT device, but my week with the Surface made me rethink that. Since then, I've also enjoyed and written about my experience with Surface at home. Of course, I’d prefer to have a Core processor and Windows 8, but I got along surprisingly well without them while doing real work at CES.

With each version of Windows, I’ve installed fewer third-party apps because so many functionalities are now built into Windows. RT has the tools I use often, such as the snipping tool and the RDP client. It can’t join a domain, but it has the local Group Policy editor, so you can do more configuration than the “modern” settings menu and the Control Panel allow. The only application I really missed was a good desktop graphics editor such as PhotoShop or Corel PhotoPaint. For that, I’ll need the Pro version.

Another “extra” you get with Pro is the pen. I’ve gotten used to having the option of pen input with the Note 10.1 and my Note II phone, and I’d love to be able to have both the power of Windows and the convenience of the pen. So, I’ll probably get a Surface Pro when they become available. But deciding which device to take on any given venture outside the house may be a tough call. The lighter weight of the RT device made it really easy to lug around the convention center halls for long hours at a time, but where the ARM-based Surface really shines is its battery life. I could use it off and on all day long without ever worrying about a dead battery; most nights I still had over 50% battery when I got back to the hotel after 8-10 hours of intermittent use.

My main takeaway from the whole experience is that the modern UI -- while it’s great for content consumption tasks like browsing the web, reading an ebook, viewing pictures, or reading Facebook posts -- is still not quite ready for prime time when it comes to serious content creation that goes beyond typing a two-line status update. I’m thankful that Microsoft apparently recognized that and gave us a desktop (albeit a limited one) in Windows RT so that these light, thin, long-battery-life devices can be made to work for those of us who have work to do. I know it’s never going to perform as well as a full-fledged Intel-based Windows 8 portable, but if you need to balance usability and portability, it does that better than anything else I’ve tried.

Have you tried Surface RT? Share your experience (good, bad, and indifferent) in the discussion thread below.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

21 comments
digilante
digilante

If I'm reading this article right, the user is essentially stuck with IE - what if, like most, one is to despise IE and wants to replace it with a far more useful browser (Firefox/Chrome/Opera/etc)?

scoot3r
scoot3r

I've had surface RT for about 3 weeks for research into the product. Having no expectations as I've not found much work related, ie using it on the job "uses" for tablets. Its a mostly windows world and I have to say between this and my android phone, I'm getting the job done so far. I also like the ease of mapping drives on my home network and working with files and occasional rdp to my other workstations when I'm planted on my couch. A big plus for cold weather and a blanket. My only complaint is it still needs to be restarted occasionally when it gets flakey...not connecting to the store or unable to install an update. I'm hoping future updates will work the bugs out...

shr3d5
shr3d5

From what I gather, the app support is non-existent at the moment. If the Surface RT has the apps you need, then it should be a fantastic tablet, but make sure it has what you need, or there's a release date on the missing apps. I believe with the release of the Surface Pro coming up, the app support should get at least somewhat better fairly soon.

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

Your inexperience outside of the MS ecology (it seems to me) shows a bit, Deb ... Bluetooth mice work fine with iPads. Multiple user profiles are part and parcel of Android 4.1 tablet experience, and devices gain the capability as they move to that release. I haven't hear of any OEM removing that capability. And stepping way back - to be honest, your experience doesn't read like a success for the Surface RT (imho) ... the number of workarounds to fundamental problems that you had to find was surprising to me. And you essentially conclude that the new Metro whatever UI is not usable, for your use cases - which I don't think MS would interpret as success, given their aspirations on the "we want our own walled garden" front. Objectively, am I wrong? That's not a surprising number of issues that you encountered? And note that all the TIKFAM/Metro/whatever issues may very well be in the Pro as well (though maybe not, maybe the x86 sandbox/libs will execute more cleanly ... TBD).

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

I'm noticing something interesting with my kids (18 and 20) ... they don't naturally like the desktop. They PREFER to find a phone or tablet type app to accomplish something. I've heard all the "you can't be productive creating things on an iPad" comments - and I in fact understand, since I'm totally a desktop kind of guy - but I really do wonder if it's not just an "old fogies" thing that the desktop matters. Even when I hear people say "my kids love it", there always seems to be a "they're used to a desktop environment" in there ... It will be interesting to see what happens with the generation that grows up using tablets/phones, some of whom will never have even used a desktop analogy, likely.

Nathan.L.Brenner
Nathan.L.Brenner

So the Surface RT doesn't come with MSPaint ? That's kinda disapointing if true. MSPaint has gained a ton of functionality since Windows 7 and more since Windows 8. I am not a Photoshop guru nor have I ever realy used it, but I like to call MSPaint since Windows 7 PSLite.

chucksjc
chucksjc

Just a thanks for the well written article. I learned a lot of good info that can be used on my decision making of what tablet PC to buy.

weeks_simon
weeks_simon

I've had a Surface RT since it became available in the UK. I've experienced a lot of the same frustrations as Debra, particularly with the mail client which I find slow and limiting, BUT I can forgive that until it gets improved because the combination of the weight and the FANTASTIC battery life and the fact that you have Office on such a device makes it really handy. I also think that its use of Skydrive is great. I've now put all of my documents and slideshows into SkyDrive and have rarely found the necessity to go back to my desktop since I've had the RT. The only time I've had to do that is when I was producing a large commercial proposal in word that was several hundred pages long containing lots of tables and graphics, but that was more to do with screen size and computing horsepower. In short, I think its great. The Pro will remove the need for desktop pc for the vast majority of users I suspect.

primartcloud
primartcloud

I also have the Surface RT and will also move to the Pro version but only with a 4th gen processor. That should make it lighter and increase the battery life. My experience has been very similar except that I use the virtual on screen keyboard rather than the touch. I've found that the more I use it the more comfortable it becomes to use and the more intuitive.

Skruis
Skruis

And I've tried and tried and tried but I just don't like the Touch Cover. I love the device but not the cover so when I go to buy the Surface Pro, I'll grab the Type Cover and have both...leaving the 'touch' cover on the device I plan to use the least which will actually probably turn out to be the Pro. Besides that, I love it. I bring along a little D-Link Wifi AP when I go to a client so I always have Wifi or the ability to connect to a wired only network (think configuring routers, switches, etc.) and I have my Lumia 920 with LTE Internet Sharing. It's really been surprising what I 'can' do with the device compared to what I can't. One of my co-workers called me asked me "is there mstsc in Windows RT?" and I was like "I'm not sure" but it turns out that yea, there is and there's the "Remote Desktop" app in the Store. I knew I was buying something less capable than Windows 8 but I didn't realize how little that amount would be. The only thing that's irked me a bit is sites that don't display properly in IE10. I don't mean to start a whole 'Microsoft doesn't use standards!' debate but it does suck that if IE10 doesn't render a site properly for whatever reason, that I have to RDP to another workstation in order to access the site I'm trying to reach. I run into this on a lot of network devices. Yes, there's the CLI interfaces but some things are just easier via the GUI's (usually). Despite that (Touch Cover and IE10), it's really a high quality and certainly very capable device. It convinced me to buy the Pro version as well because well, I like pen input and I'll keep the Surface RT around as my 2ndary (or perhaps back to primary if another browser is released for RT...for the battery life).

Den2010
Den2010

I've got two Surface RT tablets in my household, one for myself and one for my wife. She's a published author, and she's been using the Surface since last week when she got it. I've shown her how to use it with SkyDrive and have access to the work she did using her desktop PC, something that she thinks is pretty cool. For myself, I just wanted to have a Windows RT device so I could really talk to the similarities and differences between RT and Windows 8 when someone asked about them. My experience has shown that the similarities are much more the story than the differences - the functionality is very much the same between the two classes of devices, allowing for the differences in focus. We use our two Surfaces with the Type Cover, which is superior to the Touch Cover for most touch typists. Beyond that accessory, we've gotten sleeves and I'm using a 64 GB SDXC microSD card I got from Amazon. Having Office applications on the tablet by default is a huge advantage as far as I'm concerned. The Surface RT is not without some quibbles. For instance, out of the box there's no desktop client for SkyDrive, so you don't have offline storage as you would on a full Windows 8 PC. That can be worked around by mapping your SkyDrive folder to a Network Drive and then copying files from that to a local folder, if you need that sort of access. It's not a huge challenge, but it is inconvenient. Beyond that, there are some types of apps that are in short supply in the Windows Store, but that's changing day by day. And finally, if you need LTE 4G service, a MiFi type unit is probably the best choice. In short, the Surface RT is a worthwhile device if you understand the limitations of the ARM platform. I would recommend the Surface RT tablet to anyone looking for a companion device to their main Windows computer. Ours have proved their usefulness, and I think other users would find the same thing themselves.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Then you bought the wrong device. I doubt you are going to find those other browsers in the MS store, assuming someone develops Metro versions of them.

Hazydave
Hazydave

For example, Android devices work just dandy with Bluetooth mice. And keyboards. And USB mice and keyboards. Have for years. Some, like my Asus Transformer here, offer decent clip-on keyboards, for those who prefer them. I can plug in a full sized SD card from a camera or camcorder, plug a USB stick or HDD in, and backup my media.. one of my main reasons for dragging a laptop everywhere in the past. I can also develop Android apps on Android.. try that on iOS or Windows RT. That's kind of a fundamental.. Android has always seemed designed to enable a stand-alone device for general purpose computing. IOS devices were originally PC accessories, and while they have slowly evolved, the cord doesn't seem cut. Similarly, a Windows RT device seems only something you'd want as an extension of your Windows desktop. Like iOS, there seem to be artificial blocks set up to prevent these from being full fledged personal computers.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"And stepping way back - to be honest, your experience doesn't read like a success for the Surface RT (imho)..." Why did you think it would be?

Trentski
Trentski

Whatever works with ipad, people trying to tell us they can get real work done on an ipad is really just a bad joke. I found the ipad nearly useless in comparison to my surface rt, your brainwashed if you think otherwise. I ended up giving my ipad away. It was a birthday present, but the GUI was too boring, it can't browse webpages properly and its really isn't designed for power users. These fundamental problems you talk about, wouldn't be mentioned in regards to the ipad, because its just not capable of these issues even being raised

Trentski
Trentski

Just not a full blow editor

dcolbert
dcolbert

I'm actually fired up about the Surface - but I just picked up an i3 touch screen Windows 8 ultrabook by ASUS for $450. At $599 with the Touch Cover, more with the Type Cover, the Surface is a difficult decision as an accessory device that compliments a traditional PC. I understand the tablet format expands the possibilities of the Surface - but as you point out, you need a SDXC memory card in addition to the tablet and keyboard to really be able to do anything meaningful unless you plan to leverage Skydrive for the majority of your storage. There is no doubt in my mind that for "content production" RT devices give the most desktop-OS like experience of any ARM based tablets currently available. The build quality is incredible, and other than the inability to run native x86 code the OS is faithful to the features and abilities of Win 8 Pro. While I can see the value, I think the challenge is getting skeptics to discover what makes these devices worth the premium. The convenience of a consistent interface, tight integration across platforms and an innovative and intelligent approach to making a touch interface designed for touch devices is a solid combination. I think we'll see it catch on, but it might take awhile.

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

She's depicting it as a success ... her Galaxy Note stayed in the luggage, "getting real work done", "thank goodness MS is taking care of us by providing Office in RT". Someone else experiencing the same exact events could, quite properly, focus on the browser not working, Metro apps freezing and being unuseful, etc. etc. I'm saying the actual experience isn't entirely consistent with the tone. Plus, in various G+ postings with Deb (and Donovan), it's clear that she does want it to succeed. Nothing wrong with that if you're blogging, as opposed to being a journalist. But my awareness of that may be coloring how I read it, too. You don't read the article as trying to convey that the Surface RT was a success in this case, and for her use cases?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"My experiment in using the Surface RT as my working computer on the trip to Las Vegas for CES is, I’ve decided, a qualified success." Note the use of the word 'qualified'. 'Success' is a relative term; her definition may not match yours or mine. Me, I'd have called it complete failure from the beginning, based on carrying a second device. Even if I never pulled the Galaxy out, feeling I needed to carry it just in case would have demonstrated my distrust in the RT.