Microsoft Surface Review

Microsoft Surface Review

Introduction

I’ve been watching Microsoft Windows 8 since the start of the year.  The idea of combining the desktop experience with a touch environment has been something compelling and I have been hopeful that it would give a way to integrate the tablet as a technology piece into the corporate environment. I have never been a real fan of Apples products and while I am using an iPhone and an iPad I’ve never been quite comfortable with the concessions that it required.
The Surface looked like a great idea when it was first announced.  A Microsoft tablet  running  on Microsoft’s own hardware without any vendor interpretations or customization.  It was a bold move that had potential to alienate Microsoft with its hardware vendors and some of the early comments from manufacturers have shown the careful line Microsoft has needed to walk.     I should open by saying my impressions are based entirely on comparison to the iPad.  I have not been working with Android devices but know that the Surface borrows ideas from a number of them.  I have however been using Microsoft Windows 8 Enterprise for the last 6 weeks and had the opportunity to get comfortable with the basic interface using a mouse before getting my hands on the Surface.  I found that it took roughly 6 hours to get used to Windows 8 after windows 7 but it was probably a week before I figured out all of the little specifics of the O/S.

Purchasing

The first area of the review that bares mentioning is the process of getting a Surface. Having not pre-ordered I was limited to purchasing a device with a “Touch ” style keyboard attached.  I opted for the 32Gb model in case the device was non workable.  I also purchased a VGA adapter.

It was obvious at the launch of Windows 8 that Microsoft were hampered by having to support so many hardware manufacturers.  The laptops/tablets at launch were not representative of some of the previews we’ve been seeing the only real tablet was the SONY which reminded me of my old ‘Slider’ mobile.  No option to remove the keyboard to save weight. There are better looking units on the horizon, but the current products do not do Windows 8 Justice.

I was surprised when I went on line that the Microsoft store would not accept my credit card, nor would it accept Paypal giving a generic error that indicated its payment gateway had failed.  This persisted for over 24 hours and even a call to the Microsoft Phone sales hotline did not help.  The person I got on the other end (apparently pretending to be in an American call center) did not want to take my money.

I know Microsoft do not have the fixed stores infrastructure of Apple and are perhaps lacking in experience in deploying a new hardware device to market, but this is an area they could seriously improve in.  Interestingly Steve Ballmer has admitted to this in an interview, lets hope its something that improves if they are serious in their plans to launch their own phone.

The following Monday, the site seemed to have been fixed and took my money through Paypal and I was on a pre-order list.  Having only read about people receiving the first batch the week before I was surprised when my surface turned up on the Thursday less than 3 business days later.  The shipping was completely nondescript and I didn’t even realize the order had been shipped. The packaging however was slick and polished.  If the whole order process had been that painless I would have been very happy.

Set up

Out of the box set up was painless and about what you would expect from any Windows device.  Within 30 minutes I was on the WiFi and running.  The device does force you to move one of your user accounts into a Microsoft ‘Live’ enabled account.  This acts as a point of authentication for some apps and while the conversation at TechEd was that it was possible to synch your Microsoft account password with active directory it does present a challenge (to be honest I’m not overly comfortable with extending the Network perimeter into Microsoft in this way.) The Surface did find 15 updates once it was online which I assume were most of the updates that my laptop had been applying over the previous month.  This is fair enough given the short time-frame between release of the Operating System and Release of the device and wasn’t as substantial as an IOS image.

The Surface boasts a USB port, Mini HDMI output, and additional Micro SD expansion slot.  The USB port ran all of the devices I plugged into it including Bluetooth Keyboard and Mouse and a number of USB flash drives. This provides an easy way of getting files on and off without needing to run iTunes, active Synch or use e-mail.

Running

It’s worth noting the Surface does not currently have a 3G option.  While that’s not an issue in many parts of the world, the lack of 3G in Australia will present a challenge for many executives converting from their iPad. I have been testing the Surface in Hong Kong and found myself almost seamlessly jumping between free Hotspots.  This is a far cry from Australia and the limited offerings out there.

Unfortunately given the battery draw on the current generation iPhone’s wireless hotspot is not a useful solution for travel during the day.  This is something of an issue at present.  while it would likely be possible to install a wireless modem into the device it would consume the  USB port.

The Surface did quite happily hook up to our corporate Aruba network using certificate based authentication.   This was a big plus as it meant that I was able to access all my file shares and all my documents.  While I can’t join it to the domain, I can jump onto my home drive by entering my network credentials and save the folder as a network favorite   One of the device updates also included a copy of Windows Defender which made me a lot more comfortable with letting the Surface into my network perimeter.  I was also able to add it straight into my Home Group at home and access my files there.

This brings me to the initial selling point for the Surface which was the availability of Office.  I know Apple has the likes of Number, Pages and Keynote, but anyone that has ever tried to do any serious work with them will tell you that they are not corporate tools.  The availability of Excel and Word on a tablet straight away changes the game and turns the device into something that 90% of execs could use as a single device.

Extending on that theme we were able to use the USB port to connect a Microsoft wireless Keyboard and mouse and the VGA adapter to connect my 27″ screen.  While running a little slower than my HP 8470P Laptop the Surface did present a very usable work space and the presence of a full qwerty keyboard and mouse was something that would allow for a full day’s work to be done.

Not that there is very much wrong with the “Touch” cover.  I have tried the very heavy Logitech Blue tooth Keyboard and can say this is far better.  For no meaningful weight gain a fully featured keyboard and mouse gives all sorts of additional functionality.  When I first had my iPad I used to use it primarily for emails on aircraft when travelling between sites.  The Touch pad I figure gives about 50% faster speed while adding all shortcuts and a mouse.  Windows RT behaves identically from the touch pad on the keyboard to the experience on the laptop.

Apps

The biggest concern I had about the RT based Surface was the inability to load executable files from my network.  We don’t have a large software base, but it is something of a concern to be limited to what’s in the app store.  This isn’t a geek thing about wanting Firefox but the lack of access to the ERP for example does present an argument for the heavier and more expensive Surface PRO.

Part of my implementation strategy for Windows 8 was to try and drop laptops and move to a “cheap tablets & desktop” scenario.  If we discount the ERP we can almost achieve this, but the other big problem with this idea is the app store. The app store is still quite underdeveloped for Windows and while there are a number of nice apps coming out that show off the ‘Metro’ Interface the lack of apps to allow for tools like linked In or Facebook to be used presents a number of challenges to drive adoption.  Like it or not Australia is somewhat obsessed with Apple.  If I tell a user that starts at work that I am giving them a Blackberry or a Samsung they complain bitterly.  If I tell them they’re getting an iPhone they quite happily take a second device or sign their phone number over to me permanently. So like it or not it’s easier to give them an iPhone than to argue about why it’s a flawed platform.

The lack of apps is almost made up for with Internet Explorer 10 which is fast and works well.  It runs both Flash and Java and I even got it to render Farmville which is a fantastic bit of engineering on Microsoft’s part.  There are several good apps for Remote Desktop, Team Viewer and Citrix access.  With a little tweaking I think the Surface will become the only device needed for out of hours support of the network and I can only hope we see more apps at the quality of the RDP and Citrix standard.   As another Commentator said it will be nice when the “Surface gets the apps that it deserves.”

I have been following the apps deployment since I installed Windows 8.  I was disappointed with the early mail app that let me see meeting requests were in my inbox, but did not tell me when they were, or let me accept them.  Microsoft fixed this and turned the app into a decent product, but there are a number of core applications such as Lync 2013 that while an excellent basic apps require full apps elsewhere to be usable.  I still need Lync 2010 for example to set up my audio sources on the laptop or change my profile picture.  This is kind of confusing, as its labelled Lync 2013, not Lync Lite or Lync Basic and the features that are there are great and well done.  Shipping pressures aside I am not sure why Microsoft has released products that clearly are not fully complete.  Similarly the mail app devotes 30% of the screen to a box for the To: and CC: fields when composing a message.  There’s no way to hide this waste of space which crams the actual email body into the remaining 70% of screen.  It’s purely a case of not having been thought through or tested with a wide enough market prior to release.  The saving grace here is that we are seeing regular updates on a number of Microsoft Apps so we can only hope that they will continue to polish the product.

The final challenge with Apps is that many are tied specifically to the Microsoft account in use on the Surface.  Two notable examples are Skype and the Xbox Glass app.

Since Microsoft purchased Skype they have decided to replace Skype user accounts with Microsoft logon’s.  This is great and I quite happily merged my Skype account with My home account and used it on my laptop with no issues.  On the Surface however I can’t use the account because I am not logged into the surface with that account.  I either need to sign into the surface with my home email (and re-install the App under that profile) or create a new Skype account associated with my work address.  It’s confusing and not logical.  My laptop doesn’t care, my iPad doesn’t are, but my Surface won’t let me into Skype.

XBox Glass does something similar, but once running provides an excellent mechanism to drive the Xbox which is almost worth the purchase price for this feature alone. We use Xbox with Windows Media Center to show pictures on the TV regularly.  Being able to get rid of the Xbox controller and use the Surface is great. The ability to add home and work profiles to a single device is however a great idea and lets you separate work and home functions.  I do not have children, but i can see the benefit of being able to segregate their access away from my corporate work and apps. I am sure there’s at least one person reading this that has had a child delete emails from their iPad when they got sick of Fruit Ninja….

Issues

I have been looking issues and caught a few above but on the whole I am really very happy with the Surface.  It’s not as light as an iPad but you don’t really notice that.  The Touch keyboard does not support a “double tap space” to add a full stop  but the screen keyboard does.  A number of apps aren’t polished but they are functional and being actively developed.  The bugs I have found remind me of the iPhone’s early inability to only send pictures one at a time from the photos app, As opposed to the iPhone’s inability to support Flash and dump Google for its mapping service.

Closing thoughts

The Surface represents a solid entry into the marketplace by Microsoft.  While they have had the advantage of building on the environment created by the iPad they have missed a number of opportunities.  But as the company that owns the corporate desktop, the introduction of mobile Office almost guarantees that they will capture the marketplace provided they can offer a compelling application store to compete with the rest of the industry.  This will be the big unknown.   Can Microsoft provide enough of an environment to lure developers to its app store, or will it end up dieing off in favor of the Pro tablets that will come onto the market in the coming months? If we see some solid integration with the likes of Facebook in the coming months and some support from the other common application services then I think the answer is no.   Having used previous versions of Windows CE and Windows Mobile it feels like this time they have got it right.

On the whole the Surface provides an excellent alternate to the iPad which offers a number of additional benefits through network integration and Office support. The change from Apple is simple and easy to accomplish and the benefits for doing so are immediately obvious.  If Microsoft continue to enhance their application environment and adds 3G support then the Surface will easily become the tablet of choice.  I purchased this Surface with the view of passing it on or turning it into a presenting device if it was not workable.  It will be my iPad that ends up getting passed on and this will become one of my primary work tools.

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