Unlike its competitors, Microsoft has largely stayed out of the hardware business. They have the Xbox and a line of input devices, but coming up with the Surface RT was a big step for them. And the Surface RT is a genuinely different computing experience, one that can be enjoyable in the right circumstances.
Those interested in a laptop replacement may find the Surface RT insufficient, which is why the Surface Pro is being released early next year. Even though the Pro is not yet available, there are some pretty clear areas where I feel the RT version isn’t quite ready for prime time.
The many keyboards of Surface
I had a lot of hope for the Surface’s keyboard. I’ve noticed that Windows Phone 8 has a fantastic software keyboard — it handles auto-correct well and has excellent logic when it comes to figuring out where your finger is trying to press. The same can not be said for Windows RT, unfortunately. The virtual keyboard has pretty good auto-correct, but the layouts for both docked and split modes leave much to be <a href="http://xphonegadget.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/waterproof-ipod-shuffle-green-4th-gen-2gb-by-underwater-audio-free-and-discounted-waterproof-headphone-promotion/" title="Waterproof iPod Shuffle GREEN (4th Gen 2GB) by Underwater Audio â Free and Discounted Waterproof Headphone Promotion! <>” target=”_blank”>desired. The split keyboard, for example, makes the keys either too small or positions the keys away from the edge of the tablet. As a result, I am not nearly as capable a typist on the Surface’s virtual keyboard as I am on an iPad or Android tablet.
Fortunately, Microsoft released two different very clever keyboards for the Surface. There’s the Touch Cover, a buttonless touchpad with grooves and raised “keys” that allow you to type in much the same way you do on a virtual keyboard. It takes about a day of serious typing to get used to, but once you do adjust the keyboard a very good experience. Then the Type Cover is available for those of us who would prefer to hit press-able keys when typing. The Type keyboard feels about twice as thick as the Touch Cover, which adds a little to the bulk of the tablet when carrying it around, but the keyboard works well and will mean more words per minute for almost all users.
Neither of these keyboards use the same auto-correct as the virtual keyboard, so when you misspell something there’s no pop-up or suggestion to replace. You are left with that menacing red squiggle as though you were using a regular laptop. To make things all the more frustrating, the Touch Cover does offer a basic form of auto-correct where the OS assumes you meant to type a word and corrects it without even warning you. This seems to only happen if the keyboard detects your fingers on more than one key, and then it makes a judgement call for you. While this sounds really helpful, it’s somewhat maddening to see some words change right in front of you without warning or explanation while completely ignoring other words that you have clearly misspelled.
A barren wasteland of apps
When I first booted up the Surface RT I knew that the app selection wasn’t going to be stellar. I have been using Windows 8 on my desktop since the Developer Preview (in other words, over a year), and have watched as the slow trickle of apps seeped into the corners of the Windows Store. It makes perfect sense — neither iOS nor Android had a bustling ecosystem at launch, and there is a clear chicken-and-egg issue that must be dealt with. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a ton of developers interested in making quality RT apps and Microsoft isn’t making any public cries for help, like Google did in the early days.
This situation is made worse when you see paid apps for things like “meme generation”, basic services that are available on dozens of websites for free. This is not unique to the Windows Store, it also plagues iOS and Android, but when crapware like this show up in the recommended rotation you’ve got a problem. Because Microsoft can’t let the store appear stagnant by promoting the same 30 apps, occasionally you open the Windows Store and see offerings that are clearly not something anyone would recommend.
The perils of Desktop Mode
Desktop Mode is the place you go to when you want to be productive. It allows you to escape the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) and go back to the real world with, you know, windowed apps. It works great on my desktop and the Windows 8 laptops I have tested. Sadly Desktop Mode isn’t touch friendly, which puts the Surface RT at a disadvantage.
While the Touch Cover and Type Cover do include trackpad areas, they are quite tiny and not particularly comfortable to use for more than a few minutes. For the most part this is fine because the Surface is a tablet. Because of the touchscreen you would ideally never need a mouse, unless maybe you were on a website that wasn’t formatted for touch. Explorer for Windows 8 includes a lot of functions that make touch use easier. For example, folders include select all functions and when you long press you can get to the right-click pretty quickly. Selecting multiple items out of a folder or trying to use any of the menu options in the top right of a given window are just a few of the things in Desktop Mode that aren’t particularly finger friendly.
Doing anything at all on the taskbar, aside from accessing pinned apps, is just a bad idea. The icons are way too small and you will miss more often than not. This isn’t such a big deal on Surface RT, since not a lot happens in the taskbar. For the Surface Pro, especially if you install a lot of apps that prefer the desktop for use, this is going to become a problem pretty quickly. Since the Surface Pro isn’t out yet, there’s not a lot to say about how Microsoft plans to handle that.
Commendable, but not recommendable
My time with Microsoft’s first attempt at their own tablet confirmed that a Surface Pro is something I am interested in. The Surface RT hardware is fantastic, combining everything I want out of a 10-inch tablet and everything I want out of a travel laptop. I feel like Windows RT struggles to compete with Chrome OS, and I hope that Microsoft is learning from some of the things that aren’t quire right with this first Surface and makes sure that the release of Surface Pro goes off without a hitch. Otherwise, I’m afraid that the first generation may be the only generation of Surface.
Read more: 5 cool Surface RT features