Hands-on with Microsoft's Surface tablet, part 2

Patrick Gray is impressed with Microsoft's Surface tablet hardware, but find out why he thinks it's lacking on the software front.

I'm beginning the second part of my review of Microsoft's new Surface tablet from 36,000 feet above the moonlit clouds between Charlotte and Chicago, my Surface tablet propped open with its kickstand, fitting (barely) within the confines of a regional jet tray table. Like most other tablets, Surface adds little in terms of size or weight to my usual travel arsenal, and it's streamlined my in-flight experience a bit. While flying, I usually put my iPad and ultralight laptop in the seat pocket, the former allowing me to catch up on reading and to play the occasional game, and the latter allowing some real work to be done. On this flight, Surface is handling both duties.

As I mentioned in my previous post, with the kickstand and surprisingly capable keyboard deployed, it's easy to forget you're working on a tablet. Even Microsoft Word looks similar enough to past versions, such that it's almost like two devices in one, which brings us to Surface's simultaneous killer feature and Achilles' heel: software.

Microsoft forgets the "soft"

For skeptics, the big question about Surface was whether Microsoft could pull off a compelling and capable hardware platform, especially as the company seemed hesitant to allow journalists to touch and use the device before its release. As I concluded in the first part of this review, the hardware is excellent and easily on par with the best of the tablet bunch. However, Surface struggles a bit on the software front.

Many people have questioned Microsoft's new interface paradigm — formerly known as Metro — and its live-tiles concept, but I approached Surface as a tablet first and foremost, rather than a Windows' device. From this viewpoint, the new interface is quite good and fairly intuitive. There's far more "glanceable" information available than on Android or iOS, and for the most part, the visuals get out of the way while keeping things pleasant.

The first stumbles on the software front are some seemingly unfinished aspects of the new style interface. I naturally use a tablet in portrait mode when navigating with my fingers, and while this is fine for the UI and many of the applications, core components like the app store don't support portrait usage and inexplicably force the user to rotate the tablet. Furthermore, some applications (the app store among them) require long load times. Users accustomed to the near-instant start of most apps on Android and iOS will find themselves staring at the spinning circle that's replaced the infamous hourglass of years past, wondering what's happening.

Multiple personality disorder

Like the regular Windows 8, Surface and its Windows RT variant have a desktop mode that harkens back to the familiar days of Windows 7 and XP. Microsoft has been lambasted for this split personality interface, but it works in some ways. While it's disconcerting to tap on one of the Office applications with a finger and be dropped into an old-style desktop, the word processing, spreadsheets, and other mouse-heavy tasks that work best with the keyboard lend themselves to this more traditional computing experience. Personally, I prefer the desktop interface and standard menus when working in a document, and I find the quick swipe from the left side of the screen that transforms the device back into tablet mode a great trick.

What's frustrating about these two environments is that they're not fully integrated. As an example, I prefer my system clock to display 24-hour time. There's no setting in the Metro interface for this, but after hunting for a dozen minutes, I discovered there's an old-style control panel in the desktop environment that contains the setting. Similarly, the included Office applications update using the familiar desktop-based Windows Update application, while others use the app store.

I actually don't mind that Microsoft has tried to provide two different environments, designed for different usage scenarios, but I find it incredibly frustrating that core functionality is scattered between the two with no discernible rhyme or reason. On the Surface tablet, in particular, where the only applications available on the desktop are Office, the desktop serves primarily to confuse rather than engender increased productivity.

The 80% Office

A huge differentiator, and one of the major selling points of Surface, is that it has Microsoft's standard Office suite included with the tablet. There's some limited functionality missing from the "normal" versions (things like macros), but it includes the majority of functionality from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Even the more complex formatting tools and templates are available, as is the full document reviewing and collaboration functionality, an item missing from all the other tablet-based productivity apps that I'm aware of. It's incredibly refreshing to experience full-blown productivity applications that have the instant startup capabilities of a tablet and not have to leave key features behind.

Microsoft's cloud storage solution, SkyDrive, is also included, and it works reasonably well with the tablet. I generally use Dropbox, but as there's not yet a Windows RT client, I've tried SkyDrive for my documents, and it's been flawless on Surface, Windows 7, and my Mac. I've also done limited testing with my Office 365 account, and documents can easily be opened and saved right from my SharePoint workspace.

While the included Office applications provide real desktop productivity, the gaping hole in the equation is Outlook, which is not included with Windows RT. There's a built-in email client and calendar application, but they lack in functionality compared to Outlook or even competing mobile email clients. For reasons unknown to me, Microsoft included a desktop version of Internet Explorer as well as a touch-based version. They should have included "real" Outlook on the desktop, in addition to the more finger-friendly mail client.

I'd be stating the obvious if I lamented the lack of applications for Windows RT, as it's relatively new as of this writing, but that's a situation that will hopefully change. I'd especially like to see Google Chrome make it to Windows RT, as many of my cloud-based applications demand a non-IE browser. With the in-built Office apps and access to the majority of cloud-based tools, this could be a great productivity machine.

Version 1.0

Windows has been around since the dawn of desktop computing for many of us, yet Windows RT still feels like a version 1.0 effort. Oddly enough, the software company has aced the hardware part of the equation and struggled with what should be its competency. There are some ambitious concepts and applications that are beautiful and well-executed. Unlike some reviewers, I frankly like that keyboard and mouse-heavy productivity apps "live" in a traditional desktop environment. However, I don't like the clunky integration between the desktop and the rest of the OS, and times when Surface and Windows RT can't seem to make up their mind whether they're in a futuristic "metro"-driven world or old school Windows.

For IT leaders and knowledge workers who live primarily in the Office applications, if you can function without full-scale Outlook, Surface makes a lot of sense as a travel or secondary computer. It's attractive, light, and functional as a tablet and a more traditional computer all in one package. Based on the money behind Surface and Windows RT, one hopes the software kinks will be worked out quickly.

At this point, I can't see Surface RT replacing your standard-issue corporate computer except in limited circumstances. Legacy applications won't run in RT without being recompiled at a minimum, and with email still the lifeblood of business communications, the watered-down email client might not do.

For highly mobile roles where portability is key, Surface RT isn't a bad bet if Microsoft can refine the distinction between the desktop and live-tiles interface. I'm left with mixed feelings after my time with Surface. Clearly, there are forward-thinking concepts at play and areas where Surface would make my life easier, particularly as it almost pulls off the trick of putting a tablet and laptop into a single device. Here's to hoping we'll see a Version 2.0, at least on the software front!


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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