The Hiltmon

On walkabout in life and technology

Surface RT Is Not a Duck

What is a duck? Well, if it looks like a duck, floats like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. The just-released Microsoft Surface RT fails the duck test, it looks like a tablet, but it is not a tablet. Windows 8 RT also fails the duck test, it looks like Windows 8, but it is not Windows 8.

For the record, I have used the real proper Windows 8 on a Samsung tablet before, so my impressions of the Surface and Windows RT are based on that experience.

I spent some time today hands on at the Microsoft popup store in Time Warner Center. I had not planned to, but as I was there, and the popup store was there, and I had the time, and so did the folks there, so I was all over it.

The device itself looks wonderful, its bright screen and large colorful Metro tiles look good, and attracted a sizable crowd. The thickness and weight was as expected, it felt lighter than the iPad or Samsung tablet but not as solid as either. And it does look good with the kickstand out and a playful keyboard cover in front of it.

The first thing I did was pick it up and yank off the keyboard. It came off easily, and the solid click it makes when reconnecting reminds me of the VW door experience. Whereas all the other people at the popup store were using the Surface as a laptop, I wanted to try it as a tablet.

Scrolling performance on the Metro tile-page was great, and app launch times (excluding Office) were excellent. But when I rotated it into portrait mode, nothing happened. I rotated it some more, nothing. Odd, this worked on the Samsung. I asked for help and a staffer told me that there was a setting for that. Ok, not sure why it was set this way, but hands on in landscape only today.

Having used Windows 8 before and learned the gestures, navigation for me was easy. But not for anyone else there. It seems Microsoft knows this too as the ratio of staff to devices was 1:1 at the popup store. The general public who where there to try out the product were unable to do much without a staffer holding their hands and showing them what to do. Compare that to the Samsung store upstairs in the same building where I have yet to see a staffer and everyone seems quite comfortable picking up an Android tablet and just using it.

The metro apps themselves on RT seem to be the same ones as real Windows 8. Which means that they are just as simplistic, feature stunted and incomprehensibly hard to use because they have no navigation, buttons or menus visible. I still find myself wildly gesturing in several directions hoping what I want will appear. I noticed that the staff at the popup store focussed mainly on the charms bar and had to explain gestures over and over again to the same people. The feeling of the audience was one of wonder at the new look and angry frustration at how to use it once you got past the tiles.

Oh, and these apps, they have advertisements in them. Yup, adverts in an operating system that you, the customer, paid for. For example, launch the weather app and keep swiping right until you hit the end. The app itself is great, easy to read and light on detail to start with, and gets progressively more detailed as you drill right. Excellent! And it ends with a half-screen advertisement, in my case, for an anti-virus product. What? No-no-no-no-no!

But the major selling point of the Surface is its ability to run Office, so I tried that out. Excel took a while to launch as the internet connection to SkyDrive was slow, but it did load the spreadsheet I asked for eventually. I had used regular Excel on regular Windows 8 on the Samsung tablet and my biggest gripe was that the desktop application’s menu and ribbon icon touch targets were too small to make it usable. On RT, they made them bigger. The bigger menus work better, but the ribbon icons are still way too small. No only that, but touch accuracy was awful. I found myself having to tap above where I thought the icon was to hit it. And more often than not, missed below.

This touch accuracy bothered me, so I tested it in Internet Explorer too, same problem. I tried to load this site in Bing, but, as usual, the search engine autocorrected Hiltmon to some random hotel chain name. No matter where I tapped on the “Do you want results only for” line, it never recognized my taps, I had to tap above it. I asked for help. It took three Staffers to try to load this web site, and all failed. Somehow the tablet kept on going to the Microsoft Store instead, even though I tested it on my phone in front of them and it worked fine. I’m hoping this is a popup store issue and not a platform issue.

Back to Excel. With the keyboard up, and the ribbon visible, there’s no space for the spreadsheet in landscape orientation. Here’s what happened. I tried to edit some cells. First, the keyboard did not come up when I tapped and tapped on a cell, I had to tap the keyboard button to bring it up (Staff says there is a setting for that, too). Secondly, when the keyboard did come up, the cell with the cursor in it was hidden behind it, so I had to scroll it into the tiny space between ribbon and keyboard to see it. It should have just appeared. I know that there was a second cursor in the edit bar, but in regular Excel I am used to in-cell editing.

And thirdly, the keyboard is just mad. A split keyboard for thumb typing I get (and like), but instead of showing me spreadsheet between each half of the keyboard, they have this huge black space with a big fat number pad in the middle, chewing up most of the screen. I had to stop, Excel on a Surface without the attached keyboard is still unusable. And with the keyboard, you still need to use the trackpad mouse to navigate the toolbar as touch is awful.

I then launched Powerpoint in tablet mode. Worked OK for showing the slide deck, but editing was just as impossible as in Excel. It did seem to ensure the text box was visible when the keyboard came up. Same ribbon problems though.

Finally, Word. Only in laptop mode, kickstanded with the touch keyboard attached. I was hoping the typing experience would be better than other products. I love that the keys on the touch cover have ever-so-slightly raised caps to I could feel where to tap. But the amount of pressure needed to activate a key varied across the keyboard and across keyboards. It felt natural to type on, but keystrokes kept on getting missed. I’m sure with practice, this will improve, just as my typing on a touchscreen did. I did not try the cover with real keys, but watched others and it seemed the obvious one to buy.

But, while typing in Word, that is when I realized it. The Surface was operating at this point in time as intended. Standing up, in landscape, with a keyboard and touchpad, where the user occasionally reaches forward to swipe on the screen. In this mode, it does look good and work well. And when the software becomes more useable, this Surface will too.

My take is that the Microsoft Surface looks like a tablet, but it’s really just a very nice ARM based ultrabook that is only usable when connected to its keyboard and standing on its kickstand. And Windows 8 RT is feaux Windows, it looks and handles like the real Windows 8, it fools consumers into thinking it is Windows 8, yet does not run Windows 8 software. It’s not a duck. It’s not a tablet and not a real Windows 8 PC. And the version of Office on it is a compromised version of the real thing too, and is certainly not ready for tablet or touch use.

I will not buy this Surface. I’ll reserve judgment until the full pro version comes out that runs real Windows 8 to see if that works better. If I wanted a really good Windows 8 ultrabook today, I’d buy the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. It’s a tad heavier, can flip into a tablet to show stuff off, or stand up for whatever reason, but it runs real Windows 8 as intended, and does so without trying to be something its not.