Friday, November 22, 2013

Microsoft Surface impressions: thumbs down


I recently purchased a Microsoft factory refurbished Surface RT 64GB tablet for $200 on eBay.  In addition, I purchased a refurbished Type Cover for $60.  While I can't recommend the Surface tablet for most users, it does show promise.

Microsoft produces three different Surface tablets: Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro. This review is for the original Surface, which was formally called the Surface RT.  At present, the Surface tablet retails for $349 but is available for steep discounts.

The Microsoft Surface tablet is nice piece of hardware that has only gotten better with the Surface 2 (faster NVIDIA processor, HD screen, better cameras, thinner and lighter, two position kickstand with improved battery life).  In addition, the Type Cover attaches easily, via magnets, to the Surface without the need to fuss with Bluetooth or batteries.  I'm writing this blog post in bed, with the Surface on my lap, kickstand up with Type Cover using Google Blogger with Microsoft Internet Explorer 11.  Overall, it's a very good user experience.

The ability to expand storage capacity via the micro SD slot and transfer media via the full-sized USB port are nice features.   However, I did experience a defect with my original Surface - the Type Cover ripped the magnets out of the Surface tablet.   I immediately reported the problem via Microsoft's support website and was informed that a new replacement unit would be shipped immediately at no charge.   Apparently, this was a known issue.  I received the new replacement Surface two days later and I returned the broken unit to Microsoft with the pre-paid shipping label.  While it was unfortunate that my unit was defective, Microsoft support was excellence.

While the hardware is good, it's ultimately the operating system and applications that are the key weaknesses.   However, one exception is the inclusion of Microsoft Office - which I consider a big plus, particularly for enterprise use.   The ability to take a presentation that I created on my Windows laptop and present on the Surface, unmodified, is a big advantage.  I can also make changes to the presentation on the Surface since it includes the full version of PowerPoint.  While PowerPoint charts can be viewed natively on the iPad and modified via multiple applications like Apple Keynote, full fidelity can be a problem, particularly for complex charts.  In addition to PowerPoint, the Surface also includes Word, Excel as well as Outlook after upgrading for free to Windows 8.1.  Other enterprise-friendly features include Workplace Join, which brings a limited set of Active Directory management as well as Work Folders, Open MDM as well as other features.   Increasingly, enterprises I speak with are exploring deployment of Microsoft Surface tablets.

One of the key disadvantages of Surface RT is that because it doesn't utilize an Intel processor, it can't run traditional Windows desktop applications.  Only the Surface Pro models have that capability.  Instead, non Pro models run Windows apps (i.e. "Metro") installed via the Microsoft app store.   Today, there are over 100,000 Windows app in the Microsoft app store including many popular application like Evernote, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Skype and more. 

The biggest problem for me with Microsoft Surface is its split personality between modern, touch user interface and legacy Windows desktop with small icons and text that isn't optimized for touch.  In short, Surface appears to be a work in progress, incomplete and trying hard to have it both ways.  In the end, it does neither very well.   That said, I see promise with Surface and I hope that the OS will be updated.   I hope the new Microsoft CEO takes a more aggressive stance with regards to mobile technologies or risk becoming irrelevant in the marketplace.

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