8th day thoughts on the Microsoft Surface RT

So, a little more than a week ago, I made the impulse decision to purchase a Microsoft Surface. I ended up spending most of my lunch hour in line at the Microsoft Store in The Domain in a mostly chilly morning with about a 115-120 other shoppers. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who had lined up, although most of the pleasantness was not recognized at the time, because it was pretty chilly and I was in shorts and a sweatshirt

Anyhow, let’s get to the meat of this entry: the Surface RT itself.

Everyone has talked about the beauty of the hardware itself and I am mostly in agreement with that. Of course, I have not owned any other tablet device, so I do not have a comparison point, but I have used my parent’s first generation iPad and I would say that it easily blows that device out of the water (which it should do for a device that is a few years old). Compared to the various laptops I’ve owned, this definitely feels nicer and sturdier. Microsoft has promoted the sounds of the hinge and the clicking in of the cover. I’m not sure what is so special about it, but again I have not had the benefit of comparing it to another high-tech device with a hinge. The clicking in sound does sound pretty satisfying but I found, after 8 days of usage, that the only time I was clicking the cover in or out was when I wanted to demonstrate the sound to another person.

Let’s move on to another piece of the hardware: the Touch Cover. When the Surface was first announced earlier this year at an Microsoft keynote, this was the thing that immediately caught my eye. In fact, I even remember immediately posting a picture of it on Facebook, in awe. Unfortunately, Microsoft elected not to bundle the cover in the price of the base device, which I think was a misstep. That said, the keyboard itself works phenomenally for a device that is so thin and non-keyboard like. I am writing this entire review on the Surface so that I have the benefit of a relatively large document to test the keyboard out. I still make several typos and have to use the backspace key liberally, but it is eons ahead of any on-screen keyboard. In fact, when I’m in tablet mode on this device and the on-screen keyboard shows up, I can only use it for a few short words before I just flip the keyboard around and use it. The trackpad is also surprisingly responsive and challenges and, in some cases, betters the performance of several laptop trackpads. It supports multitouch, as well.

The problem areas for me with the keyboard are the space bar and the left shift key. In general, it seems that any key that needs to be fired with my pinky are slightly problematic as my brain needs to readjust to the fact that I need to apply more pressure to those keys than I’m used to. I suppose that is a con, but it is something that doesn’t really affect me that much. I will also concede that long typing sessions will probably cause fatigue to the wrists because there is no rest area for them. In conclusion, though, the keyboard is a fine piece of engineering.

The camera is unfortunately a letdown. I haven’t had a chance to do video chat on it yet, so I don’t know whether it will suffice for that purpose but for everyday picture taking, it is not very usable. I guess that makes sense since it is kind of silly to carry around a 10″ device to take photos, but it would be sweet if it packed a higher-resolution camera. The angled back camera also makes sense if the thing you want to tape is right behind your device but kind of an inconvenience for anything else. I tried to use the camera to take photos during my Halloween party last week and it was hard to use and produced pretty crappy looking photos.

Next, let’s move on to the software. The Surface RT comes bundled with Windows RT, which is essentially a handicapped version of Windows 8. When the Surfaces were first announced, I had my heart set on a Surface Pro as my laptop replacement. However, once Microsoft announced the pricing model of these devices, I realized that the Pro would probably fall out of my budget, especially given that my current Sony VAIO still works fairly well. In addition, I wanted to take advantage of the slightly lighter Surface RT as well as the fact that it was available now (see earlier comment about impulse purchase).

I did download a couple of the Windows 8 previews this year but did not get the chance to use it extensively. I set it up on my HTPC that is connected to my computer and found that the interface, while beautiful, is really not designed for a point-and-click environment. Which is why the Surface is the perfect device to take advantage of the “Modern UI” that Microsoft has been pushing. As a multi-year owner of Windows Phone devices, I have already completely been sold on the live tile-based UX and was excited to see it expanded. Having used the Surface for a little more of the week, I have to say that the gestures are very well designed and consistent across the Modern UI. I find myself swiping the Windows 8-style gestures when on my Lumia 900, now.

Let me go back to the handicapped nature of Windows RT, for a moment. As you may or may not be aware, the Surface RT packs an ARM microprocessor which means it is not compatible with Intel x86 code. Which, for the less technically-inclined, is essentially any Windows software that you have encountered prior to Windows 8. Microsoft ported a version of Office to the ARM processor but apart from that, any “apps” need to be installed from the Microsoft store. As a developer, I haven’t had the chance to play with the SDK yet and haven’t really followed the Build sessions so I do not know how restricted the available APIs are for Windows RT. It would certainly be neat to be able to run some legacy stuff, especially drivers (my printer is not supported) and stuff that rely on browser plugins (such as my work VPN as well as Google+). The porting of that legacy stuff will depend entirely on the commercial success of the device.

With regards to the stability of the device, I would give it a decent score. I do encounter some lag when I have a lot of stuff open or in some specific apps (Xbox Music being a prime example) but in general it doesn’t affect me on a daily basis. I did encounter a situation yesterday when apps seemed to crash to desktop when attempting to use them. A restart (and the restart itself is quick) fixed the issue but it was still a minor inconvenience. That said, I have applied the workaround that allows me to get to any Flash-enabled website that I want, so I’m not sure if the Surface was equipped to deal with the crappiness of Adobe’s platform.

Let me talk about the stock apps a little bit, now. Unfortunately, almost all the stock apps that I use on a daily basis are pretty sucky. First, there’s the Mail app. This app is pretty slow and definitely needs a second pass before it is usable on an everyday basis. It syncs down fine and everything but is just very laggy. Next we have the Calendar app. First of all, the Calendar app neglected to sync down my Facebook calendar properly and it is still an issue I haven’t figured out. Secondly, it appears Google still hasn’t enabled multiple-calendar support for the Surface so only the default calendar gets pulled in. I downloaded some trial software to sync my work Notes calendar with Outlook.com and it promptly brought my Calendar app to an unusable slowdown. Luckily, the live tile and notifications still work fine, so I don’t have to go into the actual Calendar app that often.

Next, there’s the Xbox Music app. Unfortunately, I think this app is a drastic downgrade from the really solid Zune desktop app. I sure hope the development team at Microsoft work on improving this app (they’ve pushed out several updates since Windows 8 was RTM’d) because right now it is buggy. I encounter everything from random songs being skipped due to Xbox Music Pass issues to the UI becoming unresponsive when trying to control my playlist. Once I get everything queued and started, it works pretty well, but that is not an ideal usage scenario.

The People Hub also appears to be a downgrade from the experience in Windows Phone. The biggest problem I have with this is the live tile doesn’t mark items as being read so I have notifications from several days ago still flipping around. Without a first-party Facebook app (so far) the People app also does not bridge the gap well enough so I find myself going into the browser-based experience often. Speaking of the browser, IE10 is very solid. The Modern UI app works really well and gives me a nice, full-screen view of the pages I want. There is still room for improvement in the form of the back and forward actions, which appear to reload the page from a very, very slow cache.

All this said, it is gratifying to note that none of the stock apps are part of the operating system, which means that they will have the ability to be updated regularly. Whether we actually see Microsoft throwing resources towards the continued improvement of those apps is anyone’s guess.

In conclusion, I’m very happy with this device. The major negative areas for me appear to be in updatable software portions. I expect Microsoft may have cut some features in their stock apps to be ready to ship by holiday season, and I hope those features get scheduled in the next few updates. This device isn’t ready yet to replace my laptop, but that is mostly a function of it not being an x86 device, something I knew going into the purchase. The Remote Desktop app actually functions pretty well so I can theoretically access anything I want from the Surface as long as I am on a network with an x86 computer I can remote in to.

I would recommend this device to anyone who is willing to deal with the growing pains of a 1.0 device. I think the keyboard is a must-buy if you get this device because it is what sets it apart from other products in the same form factor.

why i love windows phone 7

The internet, in general, hates Windows Phone so I decided to write a quick post to explain why I’m completely smitten by the platform. For background purposes, the Nokia Lumia 900 is my fourth smartphone after a BlackBerry Curve 8310, the iPhone 3GS and, most recently, the HTC HD7S. I’ve been using the Windows Phone platform since about July 2011 (the HD7S) and there’s no looking back, for me. Let’s go into details.

It’s Freaking Beautiful

The UI is absolutely stunning. Yes, the screen resolution doesn’t allow for “retina display” and WP manufacturers have not entered the ongoing pixel arms race, but the actual presentation of the operating system is beautiful. Metro is easily my favorite user experience on any piece of software I’ve used. The large tiles are bold and bright and the sharp edges gives them definition. Compare this with the grid of tiny icons that iOS/stock Android presents you (along with a number-based notification system) and the difference is massive if you allow yourself to believe in it. Of course, iOS and Android are making strides with an improved notification system and widgets, respectively, but I’m a fan of the WP presentation. It’s sexy and utilitarian. If I want to check the weather, I just need to unlock the phone and the live tile tells me the current weather and the next two days. If I want to see if anyone has posted anything on my Facebook or tweeted anything at me, once again, the live tile grabs all this information.

Everything is integrated

When I was using an iPhone, I had:

  • My contact list on my phone
  • My music playing off of Spotify with the Spotify app
  • My Facebook notifications coming through the FB app
  • My Twitter notifications coming through the Twitter app
  • Any synchronization being done through the shitty iTunes interface
  • QR Code/barcode scanning being done through third party apps
  • Pandora for live radio
  • Shazam to do song recognition

And it goes on. I use my phone primarily to keep track of my social networks, to text my friends, to listen to music and occasionally make a call or two. All the above things I mentioned are integrated into the core Windows Phone operating system. When I first set up my phone, I logged into my Windows Live and Facebook accounts. This grabbed all my contacts and even matched them up with the relevant Facebook accounts. I did install the third-party Facebook app but I hardly use it (also, it is extremely buggy).

The Windows Phone search button (a dedicated touch button that can be pressed at any time) allows you to not only search for text but to scan a barcode or QR code or even listen to music. Yup, the Shazam feature is automatically built in. Pandora still needs a third-party app (wpFandora does an excellent job) but more importantly, all my music is tracked through the Music & Videos hub. This means that if I heard a song on Pandora and then listened to other stuff on my phone, I can easily find the track in my music history as if it were being played from the same source.

I cancelled my Spotify subscription in favor of the Microsoft Zune Pass, which is the same price. The advantages? I don’t have to use iTunes again, ever. I can’t put into words how huge this advantage is for me. I absolutely detest iTunes. Zune is a more than worthy replacement and is about 1,452,530 sexier than iTunes. You know how OS X has been building up all these “full screen, immersive apps” the last few months? Well Zune has been doing that since… well, a long time. Another positive of Zune Pass is that it is essentially iTunes, Spotify, Spotify Mobile and Pandora rolled into one. I can listen to any song on Zune through subscription, and I can download it to my phone and play it offline. Of course, if I haven’t downloaded a song, I can look it up and play it from the marketplace section on the phone and even download it and save it to a playlist. Without having to buy it. Without having to download Spotify. The Pandora equivalent is “Smart DJ”. You can search for any artist and click “Smart DJ” and it will start playing related songs. Sure, their algorithm is probably not as good as Pandora’s, but you can get started with it immediately.

The hardware and software are unique… “different”

I find it most hilarious that I’m using Microsoft software and being “different”. It seems like only yesterday when Apple was forcing “think different” down everyone’s throats. For those not in the know, Nokia is using the slogan “beautifully different” to drive Lumia sales. And it’s ironic, but Microsoft’s product offering here is really unique and different. The iPhone is now the go-to smartphone for most users and the marketing advantage that Apple had with Macs of having “something cooler than yours” has not carried forward to their phone product line. Everyone has an iPhone. Except those people who have Android, which, in my opinion, basically means that you want (/need) to tinker with your OS to customize it to your needs or you are just to cheap to buy an iPhone. Or you hate the fact that Apple makes minor improvements to their product every year and then sells it as if it’s the greatest new thing. Android buyers have the latest technology available at a low price now, instead of next year. Alas, it comes at the cost of a fragmented marketplace that is struggling to deal with all the different versions of the operating system on their hardware, now.

Windows Phone has a minuscule market share and one that Microsoft, I think, should increase only enough to become the Mac of the smartphone market. The Lumia 900 is a fine hero device because it’s not just Android hardware with the WP software on it, but a device built from scratch to match the sexiness of the WP7 operating system. Of course, MS has historically operated on volume so they are trying to give the device away for free to try and get it in people’s hands. I suppose this works, but at some point I think MS should try to make Windows Phone a luxury device, rather than the Dell of smartphones.

And finally, the negatives…

Of coures, there are several negatives with the platform. The two that have been brought up the most are (1) “there are no apps” and (2) “this is last year’s hardware”. Yes, the app offering is fractional compared to the iTunes App Store and the Google Marketplace (or whatever its name is, right now). And the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that most big-name developers don’t even consider developing for WP. Which is mindblowing to me, as a developer, because Microsoft’s developer suite (Visual Studio) is heads and shoulders above iOS’ (XCode or Mono Touch) or Android’s (Eclipse or whatever Java editor you choose to use). .NET technology has been around for ages and most developers already know how to code in it. One would expect there to be a lot more Windows Phone developers, but I guess they are driven by market needs.

But going back to the crux of the issue, yes, there is an app problem. Any Windows Phone user who tries to tell you otherwise is just lying to himself or herself. I want to play Draw Something on my Lumia. I want to be with the “in” crowd of whatever game ends up being the next viral craze. This is a work in progress and it’s only going to change if there is a sufficient shift in market share for Windows Phone. All that said, the apps for WP are legitimate in themselves. There are several really nice apps that take advantage of the Metro UX and understand Microsoft’s vision with the operating system.

The second negative is, in my opinion, mostly just FUD. Yes, current generation Windows Phones are babies compared to the technical specifications of Android. Isn’t there an Android phone out there which is going to be quad-core? And really, the first thing that comes to my mind is, “why the hell do you need four cores on your phone?” It sounds like either the developer SDK is not efficient or that the developers are dumb. Windows Phone works like a dream with a single core. Everything is snappy and I have encountered little to no lag. That said, I do think that a few of the software requirements/implementations could use improvement. For example, I’d like to have higher resolution graphics and better camera software. I’m hoping Apollo will change some of this. And if Apollo does include dual-core support, I can’t imagine how awesome the platform would be. If WP’s performance is already comparable with iOS/Android with a fraction of the cores, a multi-core experience is only going to be better (especially given that MS has software pedigree in developing successful multi-core operating systems).

Alright, I’m gonna step off my soap box, now, since this was a fair bit longer than I expected. Keep in mind that these conclusions are drawn based off of my Lumia 900. A few of my opinions would be very different if I had been writing this article whilst using the HD7S, which is essentially just an Android phone with the Microsoft OS on it.

Feel free to comment with your opinion! I completely understand that my love of the MS offering is highly subjective. As with taste in music and preference for beer styles, I respect the fact that people like different things.