What’s using a Surface really like and can it replace your laptop?
It’s the quintessential question being bandied and argued about on the tech blogs and in forums since the launch of the Surface. Simply put, the question is “Can the Surface replace your laptop” The answer to this isn’t so straight forward. Various people use computers in drastically different ways, however, there is little doubt that the way we interact with computers are evolving and therefore the form factors of computers must also change to meet to our needs.
Microsoft proposed their solution in the form of the handsome and meticulously crafted tablet device called the “Surface”. What’s special about the Surface is its promise of a no compromise experience in terms of how we expect to use our computers. There is of course the huge caveat of not being able to run legacy programs on the Surface RT but there’s a “Surface Pro” solution to that problem.
For the last two weeks I used the Surface RT as my primary machine with my Windows Phone as a companion. I rated my experience in three categories Consumption, Gaming and Creation – The three main things I use my laptop for on a daily basis. So how does the Surface RT compare?
Surface for content consumption
Currently there are over 10, 000 Windows Store apps available on the Surface RT (slightly higher count on Windows 8). The good news is that the store is growing at a brisk pace. The Windows App store is still a far cry in numbers and quality from Apple or Android app stores but Developers clearly see this platform as a viable market seeing as over 4 million Windows 8 upgrades were sold in one weekend. All the Windows Store apps are optimized for tablet use taking advantage of the Windows tablet design philosophies such as live tiles, changing the view when snapped to the side, searching and sharing using the charms menu, fast resume when multitasking and using the innovative file picker system to share content across apps. All these works as advertised on my Surface with only the occasional hiccups here and there.
The real question however is has there been any stand out apps on the platform yet? Honestly while many of the apps are gorgeous and work smoothly, they aren’t fully fleshed out enough to completely replace their website or legacy counterparts. There are however some apps that do a great job at design such as the Hulu Plus and Netflix apps. While both offer a similar service of streaming content to users, their design implementation are clearly different and they really shine on the Surface in terms of usability and presenting content. Videos load quickly and look crisp and sharp on the Surface’s 720p screen. Many broadcast networks have released official apps including ABC, FOX, CW, SYFY, FX and CBS. Some of these apps lets your stream full episodes of TV shows after they air which is a nice benefit on my Surface though I am already covered by my Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions.
The16:9 aspect ratio of the Surface works in its favor for watching movies and TV shows. This benefit though, comes at the expense of using the Surface in portrait mode. For reading, its simply not a good experience as the tablet feels heavier when held in portrait mode. Most apps are designed for landscape use anyways so 90% of the time I have orientation lock turned on for landscape use. Reading and buying new eBooks on the Surface has been a simple affair. I primarily use the Amazon Kindle app to purchase eBooks, the OverDrive app to rent eBooks from my local public library and Freda a popular e-book reader app that lets me load my own EPUB files of DRM-free books I already owned. The Surface may not replace your Kindle or Nook though, especially since it’s too unwieldy for one hand use.
The app store do lack many of the official social apps most people will immediately search for such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Flipboard and Pinterest. Windows RT do feature built-in social integration for Twitter and Facebook in the People app. Unfortunately using the people app is frustratingly inefficient for keeping up with my social networks. Unlike its excellent Windows Phone counterpart, there is no timeline of your feeds, you can’t create groups of contacts and only see their feed and you cannot pin a “Me Tile” to the start screen to quickly post a new status update. The People app is also slow as taps take a noticeable second or two to register. Thankfully however, several third party developers has already risen to the task of plugging in the missing gaps with great twitter clients such as Tweetro and Metrotwit. (Twitter has announced they are working on an official Windows Store app). There are also third party apps for Pinterest and many other popular services.
While having an app for every web service is a great benefit, I find mmyself comfortably using Internet Explorer to access those very services via their official website. Internet Explorer 10 is quite possible the best tablet browser in terms of fluidity and speed. On the Surface I find myself reading my favorite blogs and using the share charm to quickly post interesting articles to twitter or saving them for later reading to OneNote. It also works really well when sites are specifically optimized for IE 10 touch like the Pulse Reader website negating the need for an actual app. Pulse did wrap their site in an app package that has a live tile – but it is still based entirely on Internet Explorer 10 – an approach I hope many websites adopt.
“But I don’t have an Xbox” was the response I got when I mentioned Microsoft’s new music service to a friend. I had to explain that the Xbox brand was no longer just about gaming but rather a brand that unifies Microsoft’s entertainment services which includes music, movies, TV shows and yes games. Xbox Music doesn’t just involve the Xbox but rather brings Microsoft’s 3 screens and the cloud dream to a reality. Replacing Zune as the music brand on the Xbox, Windows and Windows Phone, Xbox Music serves to compete directly with iTunes and Spotify by offering a la carte song purchases, an unlimited music subscription plan and a music locker system. It really offers the best of all music services in one neat Modern looking package. Microsoft went even further buy offering free music streaming to all Windows 8 devices and the Surface tablet – another huge feature advantage the competition. However despite the promising allure of the Xbox music service, the music app on the Surface has been a huge disappointment for me.
At first launch the music app looks gorgeous. Its initial layout follows the design principles of Windows 8 applications neatly presenting music albums both user and store content in boxes with sideways scrolling to access different categories. Once you dig deeper into the app it becomes quite clear that this is a work in progress. Tapping my music takes you to a gray screen where the beauty of the initial screen is replaced by a spreadsheet type layout of your music collection. If you have a large music library like I do, expect to do a lot of scrolling without the help of a jump-list to get to a specific artist. The lack of a jump-list or even a pinch to jump to a letter as done in the People app would have nicely augmented searching for a specific artist.
Unlike the desktop Zune software you are unable to change the view of how your music is presented. Instead there is a lot of wasted dark gray space where the music art is tiny without being able to adjust the size. Editing playlist is a chore. I tested this both using the mouse and the touchscreen. You can’t drag a song up and down a list. Imagine adding a song to a 50 song list and having to click 49 times to get it to the top. I gave up trying to curare my playlists entirely.
Xbox music cloud features are both a blessing and a curse. I am currently subscribed to the 12 month Music Pass so I can enjoy the full feature set which include unlimited music streaming, downloads and the music matching service across all my Microsoft devices. On the Surface this works rather well but with some mystifying side effects. All my playlists showed up automatically in the music app once I logged in. However many of the songs were mismatched. That is, when I tapped a song expecting to play Joss Stone, I heard K’naan instead. I had to manually delete and re-download quite a few tracks with this issue.
The music app also blurs the line between local and cloud songs. There are some icons next to each songs but I’m mostly not quite sure which is which until I am out of a Wi-Fi area. In airplane mode when I tap the play all music box, error messages randomly pop up depending on which song isn’t available. Sometimes this happened even though I have the album in local storage. Also even if you’re online some songs in your collections will only play 30 second clips. I wish once offline the app would simply only play local music. In settings you can set the music app to automatically download songs to your surface that you add on your other Xbox music device. I found that the music app downloaded the same song up to 3 times. The music app also has this mystifying bug when you shuffle your collection. If you close the app and later come back to it, the shuffle mode will play the same songs in the same order as the previous shuffle. I chalk all this up as kinks that needs to be ironed out though they certainly do dampen my music experience on the Surface.
Then there’s the app performance on the Surface RT. The music app isn’t very stable on my Surface. The app randomly crashed on many occasions. Songs begin to skip and stutter during play. Once the screen turns off, music stops or starts skipping erratically. A recent system update resolved this issue for the most part though occasionally when one song ends the next doesn’t play until I light up the screen. The app clearly needs some optimizations to run better on ARM as its works a whole lot better on my x86 machine. Music is a very important experience on a tablet device and really this app should have been a stellar hit out the box.
Thankfully Developer Johnny Westlake who created the stellar “Artist Info” music app on Windows Phone has ported his app in a tablet friendly interface called “Music Info” now available in the Windows Store.
His app is a clear example of the direction Xbox Music should be headed in when it comes to user interface, speed and stability. Jump-lists are included to quickly navigate to a specific artist. Album art are displayed in a beautiful grid with fast sideways scrolling. Artist biographies, photos and a related section are all nicely laid out without making the app a chore to use. I use Music Info primarily when I am offline and Xbox Music when I have an internet connection.
Surface for Gaming
The Surface and Windows 8/RT in general much like its Windows Phone sibling features Xbox Live gaming. That is, games released by Microsoft Gaming studios and is partners with the ability to gain achievements and compare leaderboards with your Xbox friends. The Windows 8 games app serves as a hub for your Xbox content such as editing your avatar, viewing your achievements, browsing your Windows Store Xbox branded games as well as using Xbox Smartglass to launch games directly on the Xbox. The lure of Xbox games didn’t prove successful for Windows Phone and its leverage in Windows 8 may or may not be a game changer but it is great nonetheless to see this level of integration amongst Microsoft devices and have your Gamerscore follow you from the living room to the morning commute on the trains.
Gaming on the Surface thus has two major advantages over the competition. The Xbox live integration and the ability to use your Xbox controller. Just plug in the controller and your gaming experience is kicked up a notch. You’ll get the same vibration feedback during game play as you do on the Xbox and all the buttons work provided game supports it. I tested Hydro Thunder and found the experience highly enjoyable. In fact I got a few envious stares in Starbucks when I whipped out my gamepad and started firing rockets in Rocket Riot. To find games in the Windows Store with controller support I simply searched for “controller” and it matched several games including the Disney’s “Agent P Strikes Back” and “Reckless Racing Ultimate”. I expect more games will take advantage of this especially the more complex ones where touch controls aren’t as finesse as a controller.
Currently there are about 20 Xbox Live games in the Windows Store including popular titles such as Angry Birds Space and Star Wars, Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride, Toy Soldiers and Wordament. I have tested all of these games on the Surface and found gameplay to be smooth and generally lag free. Fruit Ninja presents some stutters and crashed during intense gameplay on a few occasions. Hydro Thunder on the other hand has great graphics and never dropped frame rate playing either with touch or the controller. Besides Xbox braded games there’s also a healthy growing collection of cool 3rd party games and the store game’s section is also its fastest growing section. However at this point there are no games a hardcore gamer would likely want. Most of the games are quick pick me ups. I hope to see some incredible games especially since Windows RT supports the powerful Unreal Game Engine.
Xbox Smartglass and DLNA
Another important way we can interact with our tablets is as a companion screen in our living room. Microsoft created an application called “Xbox Smartglass” that builds upon the previous Xbox companion app that allows users to use their tablet or mobile phones as a remote control for the Xbox. For gaming you can use it to create your own plays or play content tailored for the smaller screen. The Smartglass app goes even further by presenting information on your tablet about what you’re watching on the Xbox. You can use Smartglass for instance to launch Ne-Yo’s latest album. You are then presented with a screen of top Ne-Yo songs, related artists and biography. For movies Smartglass is even better. While the movie is playing, information about the actors appearing on screen show up on the Surface as well as other movie related options like maps, trivia and so on. While the Smartglass app worked for the most part on my Surface, I haven’t been able to test a Smartglass capable movie. I usually get a black screen. I suppose a lot of content aren’t supported yet and I expect this to change in the near future. Smartglass isn’t exclusive to the Surface and Windows Phones though as it has cross platform support for both iOS and Android.
DLNA support is included using the devices option in the Charms menu. If you have an Xbox make sure to enable “Play To” in its settings and then connect the Xbox to your WIFI network. Once you are playing say a movie in the video app, you can send the video to your Xbox using the Charms. This is similar to how Apple’s Airplay works but less robust. Also I found “Play To” works less consistently if I am streaming a playlist from the Xbox Music app – it disconnected too many times to be worth the trouble.
Surface for Content Creation
MULTITASKING AND PRODUCTIVITY
The Surface RT includes the familiar Windows desktops though completely locked down to Microsoft sanctioned software. That is, you can’t install anything in the desktop the way you can on an x86 machine. As a result of this, the Surface RT has not been able to completely replace my laptop since I am unable to install any development tools like Eclipse or Visual Studio. I imagine for others the situation might be the same without the ability to install Photoshop, Auto CAD etc. In this case, the Surface Pro may be a better fit for its x86 compatibility.
On the other hand, the Surface RT comes with a full version of Microsoft Office on the desktop. This is a great benefit especially when I connect the Surface to my 19 inch monitor using a regular micro HDMI cable, as well as a wireless keyboard and mouse. The end result is a fairly robust productivity setup that allowed me to type this entire review up with ease. On the main monitor I can have Word open while on the tablet screen I can have music playing with twitter snapped to the side. I have really come to appreciate Microsoft’s insistence upon on using Windows rather than the more mobile friendly Windows Phone as its tablet core. The freedom of plugging in nearly any peripheral and having it just work shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.
I do wish however the SkyDrive desktop sync app was included in the desktop as a way to keep offline documents and photos in sync across my computers. However the SkyDrive metro app is fantastic for quickly downloading a document or sharing photos. Also many apps have SkyDrive built into it, for instance, when I open Word I get a list of recently used documents even if I accessed those documents from a different machine. I can then easily save changes back to the cloud right from within Word on the Surface.
Another great productivity tool included is the OneNote application. You have access both to the touch friendly Windows Store app version as well as the desktop Microsoft Office OneNote version. Both will be updated with your notes when you sign in. I’ve always been a dedicated OneNote user in college and as a part time writer. Any ideas that popped into my head is quickly documented into OneNote either using the Surface, my Windows Phone or my desktop – whichever is the most convenient at the time. If I am browsing the web and I see a great article I want to refer to later, using the devices option in the Charms menu I can quickly print the page into OneNote. I also use this method to print receipts and confirmations for all online purchases to a Receipts folder in OneNote.
The Surface RT does not support pen input which means inking in OneNote is not supported at least if you’re hoping to use pressure sensitive pens. You can use a capacitive pen in the desktop OneNote but the results are far from satisfactory since there is no palm rejection or the ability to write as legibly as possible. If you are artistic there are a few great sketching apps in the Store including Autodesk Sketchbook Express and Microsoft’s in house built “Fresh Paint” app. Finger painting using the Fresh Paint app is fairly intuitive and fun to use. I’ve seen some impressive paintings done using paint brushes during the Windows 8 Times Square launch party so there’s a lot of promise there. I am by no means good at drawing but I had a lot of fun dabbling with this app on my Surface.
I should also point out that Surface does not require you use a keyboard and mouse in the classic desktop. Microsoft Office has some touch improvements that makes the ribbon items easier to touch. There’s a reading mode available in Word that makes navigating lengthy documents easy. Also you have the option as available in regular Windows to magnify the screen to 125%. This makes using the classic Windows with touch a whole lot easier when tapping tiny icon or trying to minimize or close window shells.
Windows RT has several other advantages that make it a much more attractive choice for the general user looking for a machine that gets work done. There’s built in support for thousands of printers. The control panel from Windows 8 is mostly the same here allowing you to connect to other machines on the network and copy files. The Surface however can only join a home group but not create one natively. You can browse your local files using the desktop File Explorer and cut, copy and do edits if the software allows. You can increase the Storage of the Surface using the Micro SD slot. I added a 64 GB card and put all my music and photos on there. However getting the apps to see the SD card require you do a workaround something Microsoft should have thought to implement.
Overall performance as a laptop replacement isn’t very encouraging. The Surface RT works brilliantly for editing documents with the touch cover or an attached keyboard/mice combo. However things can start to slow down especially if you have several apps running in the background. If you are diligent enough to manage your open apps with the desktop Task Manager then you can probably be satisfied with the speed of things. I do find that if I forget what’s running and try to swipe a previously used app I’ll find myself waiting a tad bit longer for an app to respond. Music might start skipping at this point and dragging an app to the side introduces that dreadful lag. I must admit though that since the last system update to the Surface RT, things seem a bit snappier. Some apps load faster and Internet Explorer do seem smoother. However performance in the music app is still woefully inadequate and the people app is still klutzy in use.
Luckily where performance is lacking, the Surface makes its stars in battery life. I have been pleased with both its standby and usage time. I don’t usually charge the Surface every day unless I am using it constantly. Most times I am confident enough to grab it and head to the city without the charger in tow. I even use the Surface to charge my Nokia Lumia 920 while I am using it as a mobile hotspot. General use is around 8 hours with easily 2 days of light use. My calculations are by no means scientific but perhaps the trade off in performance is to achieve longer battery life and a thin fan-less design. The Surface Pro uses a far more powerful processor so I am curious to see how it fares in battery life.
Charging isn’t the only thing you can connect a Windows Phone to the Surface to do. You can manage your files on the phone directly on your Surface tablet using either the Windows Phone app or desktop Explorer. In this regard the Surface can very well replace your laptop.
To wrap up my experience with the Surface I can unequivocally say it is a great tablet. There are tons of great Windows Store apps, the ability to snap apps side by side is very useful and using the charms menu as a way to quickly share content is a joy to use. The Surface itself boast great quality in terms of its design and premium construction. Using the touch cover to type up this document wasn’t as grueling as I feared and I quickly found myself typing as fast as I usually do on my laptop’s spacious keyboard. I also had the option to simply connect my wireless keyboard and mice for a more productive experience. There are lots of room for improvement though especially in terms of beefier hardware and software optimizations for a smoother experience. As a laptop replacement it still has ways to go. I think most of my complaints are met with the Surface Pro in terms of x86 compatibility, pen input and faster internal specs. However for folks who simply edit documents, send emails and do simple computer tasks, the Surface RT is a decent cheaper alternative to a laptop that makes for a great tablet and occasional productivity machine. Skip the netbooks and iPads for a Surface RT if you are in that group.