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!

Top Ten Good Things About Taking Off Your Glasses

  1. helps avoid visual distractions: you can’t worry about what you can’t see
  2. make your games run faster by cranking the resolution down
  3. gives excuse to play with browser’s zoom feature
  4. final step of all ’80s movie makeovers
  5. get to bellyache about them whippersnappers with their tiny displays that are so hard to read
  6. dovetails with nostalgia for ’80s PC and video game graphics
  7. blurry icons in your mobile app no longer concern you
  8. looks sweet if you do it all dramatic
  9. avoid that annoying line where the edge of your glasses cuts off the bottom inch of your monitor in one eye when you’re parked on the couch with your laptop
  10. leave secret identity behind to become Superman

SyncMaster P

Yo I’m SyncMaster P and I’m here to say
  your colors are all washed out but mine are bright as day!
My contrast is dynamic, 50,000:1
  but your monitor’s all washed out kid, just face it you’re done.
I got the wide screen, yeah it’s 1080p
  and you’re still impressed by that old DVD?
Just don’t be tempted by that darn technolust;
  will a 27-incher come leave me in the dust?
I ain’t got USB or DisplayPort hacks,
  but I’m still compatible with things that aren’t Macs!

Book review: Feed

Disclaimer: I know the author personally, which may mean I’m biased in favor of awesomeness.

Just finished up Feed, the first volume of Mira Grant’s epic zombie trilogy Newsflesh. If the words “epic zombie trilogy” put you off, you would do well to take a second look — this isn’t a horror hack-n-slash as much as it is a science-fiction political thriller, set in a near-future world transformed by 25 years of dealing with an infection that kills in minutes, then keeps the bodies moving to attack the living…

I grew up reading the science fiction classics: Asimov, Heinlein, Farmer, Niven, McAffrey… What always kept me reading late at night, eyes wide open, was their ability to craft a detailed world, working out the consequences of the big What If, and then tell a great story in it. Grant doesn’t disappoint; her post-Rising world is rich, weaving a gripping story from the societal consequences of a planet that has become quite legitimately paranoid.

Everything from home life to politics to the news and social interaction has been affected… after all, how wouldn’t a world where the dead attack the living be different? Where school safety is about keeping the children from gnawing each others’ faces off? Where it’s illegal to go outside the city without a weapon, or to come back in without uploading your blood test results to the CDC?

Most people stray from their homes as little as possible; online social networks have replaced most “in the flesh” socialization. Blogging, journalism, and reality television have merged as thrill-seekers risk their lives going outside to get the stories… or if they’re unlucky, to become them.

We dive into this world through the eyes of sibling internet journalists Georgia and Shaun Mason. Embedded with Senator Peter Ryman’s 2040 presidential campaign team on a dangerously old-fashioned nationwide tour, what could the Masons possibly uncover that’s more horrifying than the world they already live in?

Pick up a copy of Feed and you’ll find out… if you dare!

You may also enjoy…

If urban fantasy detective mysteries are more your speed, give the October Daye series a try, penned under Grant’s mundane name of Seanan McGuire.

Born to a Fey mother and human father, changeling Toby Daye always seems to end up getting the short end of both sticks. A former private detective trying to lay low after a particularly unpleasant magical transformation, she finds herself drawn back into the tricky — and deadly — games of Fairie politics in San Francisco, where murder spans two worlds…


Man, I’ve been neglecting my regular blog lately. :)

Coming soon: MOBILE MADNESS!

  • Heads-up on StatusNet’s upcoming desktop and mobile clients
  • iPad review
  • Nexus One / Android 2.1 review
  • Where’s that damn roaming plan, anyway?

Putting the media in Wikimedia!

I’m here in the city of lights for Wikimedia’s big Multimedia Usability meeting. We’ve got a fair chunk of our MediaWiki devs and folks with more of the media & communications organization end in one place to hash out some of the key issues and see what we can really accomplish in the short and medium term, including long-needed reworking of the upload interface and the workflow of manually tidying up metadata for newly uploaded files — sometimes coming in batches of many thousands!

Since my free time’s pretty low these next couple months I’m trying to keep my own commitments to where I can pack the most punch…

Things to do proof of concept coding to confirm our implementation theory:

  • Metadata!
    • Proof of concept for template/field/subtemplate extraction and mapping to RDF
    • Try to organize w/ Robert about how to store and search the attached RDF fields in Lucene
    • [Note I’ve been pulling existing exif data to get some stats about what can be pre-extracted; only about 7% of Commons files with EXIF data have a ‘Copyright’ field.]

Things to ponder specs on:

Other things to peek at and give some directional advice on:

  • Check out what it’d take to integrate Geohack tools better (via Magnus)
  • Take a peek at Unicode encoding & keyboard input problems for some languages requiring funky script support such as Malayalam (via Gerard)

Update: Also want to poke XMPP RC test setup per Duesentrieb. :D