The ASUS TF101 Transformer Android tablet should be recognized as a trailblazer, because it delivered a vision of a lightweight ARM-based mobile device that bridged the tablet experience and promised on-the-go productivity. Unfortunately, the TF101 and its successors didn't ever really catch on with mainstream consumers. It wasn't until the 7" Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 that Android tablets became a viable iOS competitor, and they're largely not suitable as productivity platforms.
After trying to make a 10" Android tablet work in this hybrid capacity for over two years, I finally gave in and bought a Microsoft Surface RT. I suspected that it wasn't ARM devices that were the problem, it was OS limitations. Android is a great mobile OS for smartphones and consumption tablets, but it has serious design limitations for productivity use. My guess was that while Windows 8 and RT aren't the greatest platforms for mobile consumption, they would both be better at delivering mobile productivity. So far, I don't think I was wrong.
But there are challenges in adopting RT for a long-time and invested Android and Google services user like myself. Some of those issues may have solutions that actually work better, once you change how you approach the problem. Other issues can be worked around, but the solution isn't ideal. Still other issues are potential deal breakers. In this post, I'm going to discuss a few of my experiences and observations about the RT device.
Crippled Windows 8?
A claim I frequently hear is that Windows RT is confusing and limited. I think this is the wrong perspective. It isn't fair to compare RT to Windows on IA. Instead, RT should be compared to Android and iOS. Especially for professionals working in a Windows environment, RT offers the most seamless integration of any mobile OS.
With few exceptions, every shortcut or feature -- even my favorite Windows keyboard shortcuts, plus Windows Snapping and Resizing -- work the same in RT. While there isn't a keyboard shortcut to take a screenshot on Surface RT, holding down the tablet's Windows button and Volume down easily performs the same task.
Once you have a screenshot, you can open and edit it in Microsoft Paint, just like you would on a traditional PC. You can even copy and paste the image right into Word or PowerPoint. Honestly, the ability to open a file or image in the Classic desktop, left-click to highlight, right-click to copy, and then paste it into any other app, including a Modern UI app, is something that you have to experience to appreciate.
Windows RT can be easily joined to a Windows Workgroup, gaining access to all shared resource. With some simple and familiar administrative modifications to the services control panel, the RT device can share its resources on your Windows network as well. Android offers SMB support for sharing through 3rd-party file managers, but these are not an OS-level integrated solution.
Printing support for both Android and iOS has been consistently frustrating and complex. RT isn't perfect, but the printer support is still miles ahead of the competition. In my case, I have an OfficeJet 7310 All-in-One network printer. This printer isn't currently supported by HP, but I gave the included Windows "HP OfficeJet 7000 E809 series" driver a shot, and it seems to work fine. If you're familiar with a Windows environment, you'll find RT to be a more powerful and smoother process than any other mobile platform.
Inevitably, when I encounter shortcomings with RT, it's more about getting my mind around the issue than RT being inferior. For example, I took screenshots on my TF300 and my RT device to illustrate that the desktop IE browser on RT gave a full desktop experience when writing a blog in Google Docs and publishing it to my site on blogger.com.
On the Android TF300, I went into the Gallery, pressed on the images, tapped the Share icon, and selected Dropbox from the pull-down menu. On the native RT Modern UI Dropbox app, I couldn't find the method to upload a local file to Dropbox. A quick web search indicated that it isn't possible with the Modern UI app -- and of course, the Windows Classic Dropbox app is Intel-only. Then I realized I was missing the example I was trying to illustrate in the first place. I went to dropbox.com from the Classic IE, logged in, and uploaded the image from the web interface.
Surface RT is the only ARM-based platform that delivers a true desktop browser on a mobile device, and -- in many cases -- this opens a whole new world for ARM tablets. Not only is Microsoft Office included with RT, but RT also currently delivers a better experience in Google Docs than any Android tablet.Figure A
Google Docs File and Folder view on my ASUS TF300 in Chrome for Android (Mobile view).Figure B
Google Docs File and Folder view on my Surface RT in IE10 for Windows 8 (desktop mode).Figure C
Google Docs in View mode on my ASUS TF300 in Chrome for Android.Figure D
Google Docs in View/Edit mode on Surface RT in IE10 for Windows 8.
The FUDder becomes the FUDdee
For years, Microsoft has been accused of spreading fear, uncertainty, and denial (FUD) about competitive products. With the arrival of RT, Microsoft is now the victim of FUD. While some people may consider this "just desserts" for Redmond, many users could be missing out on a fantastic platform because they're listening to half-truths and outright lies.
The Modern UI portion of Windows 8 is not as mature of a mobile OS as Android or iOS. For achieving the goals of hybrid mobile devices though, RT is more like a real desktop than a mobile device trying to stretch and reach that goal.
When I try to use Surface RT as a classic mobile device, I'm less thrilled. For consumer consumption and non-business driven social media, RT lags behind iOS and Android. The app ecosystem is struggling, the Modern UI social media integration is not consistent or robust, and the media content is not as rich. I've asked before, "What good are tablets in the enterprise?" and I still wonder that when it comes to Android and iOS. To me, it seems like a way to justify consumer content consumption devices in the workplace. Surface RT, however, may be the first tablet that's actually ready for the enterprise.
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.