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Another Look at the Surface RT: It’s About the Future

by Michael Fisher on

Around here, we’re no stranger to the Surface RT, Microsoft’s first home-sourced tablet and perhaps Windows 8′s most visible public embodiment. Our own Brandon Miniman gave it the full review treatment a few weeks back and found it a “problematic product,” noting that it tries to deliver both a casual touch experience and a desktop-like environment for “real work,” but ultimately fails at both.

Despite the controversial nature of that assertion (at least here in our comments section), it’s been reinforced by fair-to-middling reviews from other outlets, confusing statements from Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, and sources -admittedly unnamed- stating that Microsoft may only sell 60% of projected Surface RT volume by the end of the year.

Still, the Surface is a very special product. It offers a welcome respite from the avalanche of me-too tablets with rounded corners, lightweight bodies, and blown-up mobile OSes. An unapologetically angular, metallic tablet with built-in accessories and futuristic peripherals, powered by a full-bodied OS? I decided this was something I needed to see. I traded Brandon a Droid DNA review unit so he could film some more comparisons, I waited patiently by the door, and soon enough, the Surface RT showed up with its Touch Cover keyboard in tow. I threw it on the charger, logged into my Microsoft account, and took it for a quick jaunt to see what all the fuss was about.

A few days later, I’ve got some impressions of my own.

The Bad

My “honeymoon phase,” the new-device euphoria familiar to tech geeks, wasn’t exactly short-lived on the Surface RT (see The Good below), but it was frequently marred by the inconsistent experience Windows 8 delivered.

That’s not because the OS felt undercooked, necessarily -something I complained of after my first extended experience using Windows Phone 8- and it wasn’t due to stability problems; bugs like the one pictured above were thankfully infrequent. Rather, the “inconsistent experience” derived almost entirely from the lack of application support currently plaguing Windows 8.

Even now, more than two years after the first iPad “consumerized” the tablet market, that’s an annoying thing to write. My entire point back in 2010, as I stood outside an Apple store mentally heckling the new “giant iPod Touch” (before ultimately buying one), was that you shouldn’t need apps on a tablet. A tablet should have enough computing power and screen real-estate to run desktop-class software with enough alacrity to obviate the need for apps entirely. I found the decision to run mobile software on a tablet screen foolish, and like some others, I didn’t think the iPad had what it took to revolutionize the tablet industry.

We all know how that turned out.

You can’t win them all.

While I still don’t fully agree with the direction the market has taken, that doesn’t change the reality that today’s tablets, just like smartphones, are app-centric devices. And Windows 8 utterly fails to deliver in that sense. There’s some support here from big-name titles like eBay, Shazam, Netflix, and Kindle, which makes me hopeful for the eventual inclusion of others, but when your platform launches without native Twitter or Facebook apps, that’s a huge warning sign. Granted, there are third-party apps to serve those needs, and some do it very well — but they can’t plug all the holes in the platform’s lackluster native functionality.

A good example is in the instant messaging space, where inconsistent Facebook integration on the core “Messaging” app, paired with a lack of support for Google Chat and no reliable third-party alternative, means I can’t use the Surface RT as an IM platform unless I spend all day in the browser. That’s something I actually tried doing one afternoon, as the lack of a Pandora app forced me to keep a tab open specifically to keep Pinback playing … but the feed stopped whenever I left the browser. App-centric shortcomings like these significantly impair the experience of using the Surface RT, and that’s not even taking into account the apps that dump you into the faux-desktop of “full” Windows.

When this is what it takes to compose a Word document, composing a Word document no longer seems worth it.

The long and short of it is that apps matter, and Windows 8 doesn’t have enough of them. That’s a familiar story to any Windows Phone devotee, and as a former webOS user, I sympathize with Microsoft enthusiasts forced to wait until “the coming months” for their favorite apps to make the leap to Windows.

But there’s heartening news in this regard: Microsoft’s OneNote, my prime example of a program that shouldn’t require a user to switch to the Windows 8 desktop to use, has just recently been ported to a Windows RT app. When you’re looking for any sign of progress on a nascent tablet platform, even homegrown apps from the tablet’s own manufacturer making that jump are a good thing.

Fortunately, as I quickly found out, that’s not the only bright side the Surface RT has to offer.

The Good

This. hardware. is. stunning.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the best-designed ten-inch tablet I’ve ever gotten my hands on.

Yes, it’s heavy, and yes, it’s awkward in portrait orientation. But, for me, neither of those shortcomings pollutes the overall experience. The VaporMg casing is cool to the touch, the sharp lines of the device are aggressive without being tough on the hands, and as we’ve said before, every tablet should come with a built-in kickstand – especially one as robust and satisfying as the Surface’s. Propping it up on a desk and plugging in its magnetic charging cable, watching Windows 8′s live tiles flicker and scroll before your eyes, is probably the most futuristic tablet computing experience available.

That only grows with the addition of the Touch Cover keyboard attachment. Make no mistake: it’s not a great experience. In his review, Brandon mentioned he wasn’t able to type very efficiently on the Touch Cover, and I had the same luck. Spurious inputs and mis-types were common at first, and it was certainly more frustrating than typing on a real keyboard. Practically speaking, it’s certainly not the best keyboard there is; some will undoubtedly prefer a physical Bluetooth peripheral, or just make do with the excellent Windows 8 software keyboard.

But the Touch Cover, with its satisfying magnetic lock-in connector, novel felt coating, and impossibly thin construction, brings something to the Surface experience that overcomes its practical shortfalls, at least for me. That something is an attribute I’ve already mentioned: an almost-ineffable futuristic flair. The Touch Cover complements the Surface’s bold design, looking a bit like a computing accessory from an early-1990s sci-fi movie. When it’s closed, its soft skin makes the Surface comfortable to hold while also giving it an appearance unlike any other tablet. When it’s docked to a Surface with its kickstand deployed, it’s easy to believe you’re sending urgent commands to the International Space Station, rather than just trading links to internet memes with your coworkers.

That futuristic feel translates to the Windows 8 software as well. It may be lacking in apps, but it’s also incorporated gesture-based inputs at a level not seen since webOS debuted in 2009. Whether you’re flicking from the right to open the charm bar, down-swiping to close apps, up-swiping for context menus, or sliding cards from the multitasking bar on the left, two truths hold steady. First: the learning curve is steep and will cause you many bouts of confusion and frustration. Second: once you get to know the OS, you’ll wonder why more platforms aren’t designed the same way. Our own Adam Lein recently penned a great piece on why the Windows 8 UI makes sense, which I encourage you to read for a far-more elaborate explanation than you’ll find here. In short: my view is that robust gestures are the future of UI design, and only Microsoft seems to realize it.

In the end, my brief time with the Surface RT has shown me that the device lives up to its reputation as a “compromise device.” It is indeed a product trying to be two different things at once, and not doing either terribly well. It’s not a good device for road-warrior levels of productivity due to its non-lap-friendly form factor and stripped desktop functionality, and it’s not a very good consumer tablet because of its anemic app support.

But what also strikes me, maybe as a side effect of having my expectations so thoroughly lowered before getting my hands on it, is that the Surface product line is absolutely capable of maturing into the thing it wants to be, given enough time. As mentioned before, tech-sector enthusiasts are sick of hearing manufacturer pleas for “more time,” and we’re also tired of products launching in a half-baked state. Furthermore, it’s not often that an unfinished product is worth the wait.

The Surface line might be the exception that proves the rule. It probably won’t be the Surface RT, which will almost certainly be eclipsed by the Surface Pro and other follow-on products. But if those sequels follow the same philosophy, as seems likely, it’s good news for Microsoft. The hardware cuts the perfect balance between beauty and practicality. The software is an ambitious amalgamation of futuristic design and real-world utility that Microsoft has literally bet the company’s future on. The branding and advertising are some of the most aggressive I’ve seen, at least here in America. This is a product that, whether it succeeds or fails, won’t do it quietly. And I don’t think Microsoft is ready to see it fail.

The Surface RT may not be a brilliant product for today, but it lays a solid foundation for the future of Windows. And more than ever before, the future is what Microsoft seems to be all about.

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