Microsoft Surface / Windows RT initial review

I’m a sucker for gadgets and like having new things to test and develop on, so I preordered myself a Microsoft Surface tablet. It arrived yesterday, and most importantly I’ve confirmed that it runs my Windows 8/RT Wikipedia app correctly. 🙂

First things first

Screen resolution is noticeably lower than the Retina iPad. I’ve run Windows 8 at full res on my Retina MacBook Pro so you can’t fool me, I know how much better it would look. But it’s adequate enough, and I know more devices are coming with 1080p panels, hopefully to be followed by 2560×1440 panels… we’ll forgive this for a first-gen product perhaps.

As a tablet

I’ve already grown accustomed to the swipe and touch gestures on Windows 8; little in Windows RT is a surprise here. Switching and launching apps, tuning settings, the onscreen keyboard, all that’s pretty good.

The current application availability is limited; some players are there like Netflix and Evernote, while apps like Pandora and Gmail remain missing. Expect to use the browser and web apps as stopgaps.

There seem to be enough games to keep me occupied, both new ones for Windows 8 and ports like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds Space.

As a desktop

One of the advantages of Windows 8 over iOS and Android is the classic Windows desktop, available awkwardly on a touchscreen or in its full glory with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor attached.

The Surface has a real USB port and Bluetooth support for keyboards and mice, and a micro-HDMI port that can be hooked up to HDMI, DVI, or VGA monitors with an adaptor (not included, but I already own some). So you might be tempted to use this Windows RT machine the same way as a “real PC” when docked.

Unfortunately this is where Windows RT’s limitations strike. There’s no compatibility with x86 Windows apps, and ARM-based software for the desktop is limited to what Microsoft chose to ship for you:

  • Internet Explorer
  • Explorer
  • Notepad
  • MS Paint
  • Office
  • Task Manager

And that’s about it. You can’t install Chrome or Firefox. You can’t install LibreOffice. You can’t install git. You can’t even install an IRC client that’s not a full-screen Metro app.

Here’s where the Surface RT falls down for me as something I could use for work:

  • No ability to install native programming environments. Maybe web IDEs work for some purposes…
  • IE doesn’t allow plugins except Flash, so can’t be used for Google+ Hangout video chats. We use these extensively in Wikimedia’s mobile team, which is distributed.
  • Gerrit, the code review tool we use at Wikimedia, barfs on IE 10 due to sloppy version checks. I can’t read diffs or make reviews and can’t just switch to another browser.
  • Pandora runs in IE, but to run music in the background you have to open it on the desktop explicitly. Metro IE stops playback when you switch away.

In general, Metro-style apps are nice on the small tablet screen but get more awkward to work with on an external monitor. Evernote is just icky at 1920 pixels wide!

For people whose school or work requirements fit with what Word, Excel, and PowerPoint provide, Windows RT may be an adequate ‘dockable tablet’ to work on. For me it’ll mostly be for web surfing, games, media and testing.

Of course in theory people could create IDE apps for the Metro environment that ship a mini web server, editor, PHP, and goodies, and make it run on ARM… but so far that doesn’t appear to exist.

 

If you expect to do software development on a Surface or other Windows tablet, *do not* get a Windows RT device: you will be disappointed. Wait for the Windows 8 pro version or otherwise get something with an Intel inside.

 

The touch keyboard cover

This was one of the unique selling points of the Surface when it was announced; you can get it with a magnetically attached folding cover which doubles as a keyboard and trackpad. I’m mixed on this; it works but the keyboard is not great, my accuracy is about as bad as with the onscreen keyboard but with worse spelling correction being applied. Possibly getting used to it would improve my typing.

On the other hand it takes up no room on screen which has a certain advantage!

The touch cover only really works when you have the tablet down on a flat surface using the kickstand; sitting on the couch you’ll only be able to use the cover as a cover very well.

I’m curious to see how this ensemble fares on an airplane: will there be room for the cover and kickstand on my little tray table? We shall see.

 

Until next time!

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