Microsoft Surface RT Impressions

Microsoft launched the Surface RT last week to decidedly mixed reactions. I’m not getting one myself – I think it’s rather overpriced and much less useful than the upcoming Surface Pro. However, the device is the first manifestation of Microsoft’s new tablet strategy, so its reception should be instructive. The emerging picture is one of good hardware bundled with typical Microsoft 1.0 software: lacking polish and riddled with annoyances.

What stood out to me among Tim Anderson’s impressions is that the desktop part of Windows RT is far too prominent. I had expected a hidden chunk of Win32 API to support Office RT. Instead, the Windows 8 desktop is fully visible, along with an entire suite of touch-hostile system utilities and traditional error dialogs! The only difference to Windows 8 is that you can’t install your own desktop applications, removing the legacy desktop’s one significant benefit.

As you may have heard, the preinstalled Office RT is a preview version which caused some reviews to be more negative than perhaps deserved. The final version is already available but Microsoft failed to reliably notify Windows RT users, and the manual update procedure is not terribly discoverable. Overall, the Surface RT doesn’t appear quite ready for consumers. Its real target audience are developers who want to build and test Windows Store apps. All others should just wait for the Surface Pro.

That’s also the opinion of Microsoft MVP Brent Ozar who famously returned his Surface RT. He found the hardware easily a match for Apple’s iPad and more extensible to boot, but “the hardware makes promises that the software can’t deliver.” This includes Office RT Preview for which he did not receive an update notification, but also Mail which just stopped working for several minutes. And since my post wouldn’t be complete without a proper Apple troll, here’s Marco Arment discovering an alternate universe in a new Microsoft Store:

There were far more employees than customers, and I was curious, so I thought I’d stop in to take a look at Microsoft’s new tablet. The employees in the store were overly enthusiastic, especially for 3:47 PM, and practically mobbed anyone who entered. “HEY! WELCOME TO THE MICROSOFT STORE! WOULD YOU LIKE TO TRY THE NEW SURFACE?”

My demo was interrupted as another employee walked through the store, shouting enthusiastically, “WE HAVE WORKSHOPS IN THE BACK!” Nobody followed him there.

Aside from much Store hilarity, Marco complains that Windows RT is sluggish during screen rotation and other operations, and that animations and gesture controls are poorly designed:

Microsoft has applied animations and gestures in Windows 8 about as effectively as they applied color in Windows XP and transparency in Windows Vista: they knew that Apple had been successful with these features, so they made a checklist and just applied them haphazardly. “Apple does animations, so now we do animations! Apple does gestures, so now we have gestures!”

As a long-time Windows user I’m happy to concede that Apple has touch controls nailed down. When I got my first iOS device I was floored how well it combined intuitive gestures with responsive animations. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft still falls short here. Speaking of input, Marco asks “why the Touch Cover exists at all” since he much preferred the only marginally more expensive Type Cover (with mechanical keys). Good question – why dilute the appeal of a better keyboard by defaulting to a worse one?

So far the Surface RT launch seems disappointing but in the right ways, so to speak: the hardware looks decent enough, and most software issues shouldn’t exist in the Surface Pro. That’s where the real battle for the future of personal computing will take place.

2012-11-07: One more just for fun: Farhad Manjoo’s Why Is the Surface So Bad? calls the device “too slow,” “mercilessly buggy,” and “proving the wisdom of Apple’s limitations.”

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