Long story short, I spent the year testing multiple tablet and portable computers. I started the year with an iPad mini, and went through the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10, Asus Vivo Tab Smart (Windows 8) and Asus MemoPad 10 FHD (Android), the Samsung Ativ Tab (Windows RT), and even the Samsung Chromebook (ARM-based) and Google’s Chromebook Pixel. Although in some ways, I was impressed with each device, none of them felt quite right. Looking back, the Windows RT solution was the best fit for me. However, by mid September I had returned or sold all of the above devices. No worries, Surface 2 was announced and I immediately pre-ordered one. But, could I last over a month with nothing but my trusty Nokia Lumia 925?
The answer is NO! I needed something for work purposes, and I also had an idea. Why not pick up the original Surface at the now standard $349 price point? I could not only have a decent mobile device, but would be in a better position to review the Surface 2 come late October. So that is what I did, knowing I had 30-days to return it. I was worried the underpowered Surface RT would scare me away from the platform, and diminish my desires for the Surface 2. I couldn’t be more wrong.
After all my experiments with form factors and operating systems, I know what I want and need in a mobile computing experience. My usage is split between consumption and productivity, leaning towards consumption centric. However, when I need to do work… I need to do work. In an IT Systems Management role, if a system is down, I need to hop online and get to the root cause ASAP. Having the option of a keyboard and pointing device, makes that easier. I don’t need a clamshell or convertible, as I won’t use the bottom half enough to justify the added weight. Weight is important to me, and is second only to battery life. I want to go multiple days off the charger. Mainly because I want the longevity there if I need to work off the device all day. If the device is light, I will carry it more places, and be more responsive.
Typically, I will use the device a few hours each day. While at work, I will email, browse the web and read documents when not at my desk and in meetings I should have skipped. I will also need to remote to my work machine and various servers to look things up and restore functionality. I’m not a big fan of VPN and RDP as I don’t want to carry the FOB nor spend time making connections. I use TeamViewer for connecting to my work PC and Splashtop for getting back to my Mac at home. Wifi gets the job done for the most part, but my company blocks the protocols both services use. So I need LTE. I want to use my own network connection whenever I can. This means I can work while out of the house and even on the road.
I’ve found that I need at least an 8” screen, but find it much easier to work on a 10” range device. Consuming media is better as well, especially with true HD resolutions. Both 1366x768 and 1920x1080 keep those pesky black bars off the screen more often than not. Widescreens are also great for working on two things side by side. Every OS and device let me down, except Windows 8/RT powered ones.
Surface RT 32GB running Windows 8* (no accessories)
In my opinion, the Microsoft Surface RT is the most underrated mobile computing device of all time. Period. I am using the Surface RT with no Touch/Type Covers or external pointing devices or keyboards. There is no way for me to get the same experience on iOS or Android. The screen size is perfect, as using the on screen keyboard still leaves enough room for apps. The keyboards width, thanks to the screen’s aspect ratio, makes it easier to type on as well. I can only imagine how much better it must be with a Touch/Type Cover. Only Windows 8/RT and the widescreen allows one to pleasantly snap apps next to each other on a tablet. I can see my email, and my server/browser/documents/etc… all at the same time. I can even consume AND produce at the same time. And as any Surface user knows, I don’t just mean in the background. Surface gives me the same abilities as the dual monitor setup on my home Mac.
Work gets done on a Surface RT. Live tiles are both fun and useful. I keep my Microsoft based apps up front on page 1, and my third party apps on page 2. My games round it off, and are ever changing. Calendar, Desktop, Internet Explorer, Mail and OneNote are my most used first party apps. They all help me keep up with the day, and shine at getting work done. I have used Outlook RT previously, and can’t wait to get it back. Outlook RT will likely make my Surface the primary device for work calendars, contacts and email. But for now, I still find myself happier than I was on iOS and Android. Everything feels right, and running the bundled apps side-by-side has clear advantages. The Desktop-based Office apps are nice to have, but I do realize the Touch/Type covers are what makes them truly usable. Still, I can follow along with documents in meetings, and make quick edits all with the touch screen.
Third party apps are where the fun is at, as I pin some apps just for their great live tiles. 500px just came out, as did the gorgeous Foursquare app. Flixster keeps me up to date with new releases, while NBC News alerts me to breaking stories. Hyper (YouTube), Netflix and Vevo are always showing something new to watch, or remind me to finish where I left off. Nokia Music is my go to service for mixes, but the Songza app is beautiful and seems to be the best implementation of the service, on any platform. InstaPic is the 6tag of Windows 8/RT and with Pouch and Twitter, rounds out my most used apps. However, TeamView and Splashtop is what bring Surface to the forefront for me. Without them, I couldn’t get my work done. Without the efficiency they offer me, I wouldn’t have time for the fun stuff mentioned above.
Now Surface RT isn’t perfect. Apps take too long to load, and occasionally they force quit or act up. Installing apps and performing Desktop-based operations take too long. But thanks to the Modern UI, I don’t venture to the Desktop often. And once apps are installed and configured, there isn’t much to complain about. App loading can take forever, but I have learned to leave them running. I can be over aggressive about closing apps, usually for no good reason. (I blame early iOS.) Battery life has been great so far, but I need to bring the device to work for a week for a good test. I’ll know more soon, but I expect to easily get 2-3 days usage.
The kickstand is less than stellar. It makes Surface look beautiful when I put it down, and comes in handy on a desk. However, I am a tall guy and the viewing angle isn’t optimal. The kickstand is near useless on my lap as well. The device sits OK in the hands, but is tad heavier than I would prefer. The feel of VaporMag is something other companies should pay attention to, although it can get a little slippery at times. I also can’t get over the screen. The resolution is lower than one would like, but the colors and overall balance is near perfect for my tastes. In the Modern UI, touchscreen responsiveness is great. It is a little off when in the Desktop.
Believe it or not, I can understand why Microsoft plans to keep selling the Surface. I am sure I will love the Surface 2 even more, but if I wasn’t a bleeding edge fanatic, I could live with the Surface just as it is. We know 8.1 will bring improvements across the board. I know the Tegra 3 and display resolution will continue to age poorly, but it doesn’t stop one from working and playing wherever, whenever. I think the most interesting part of the Surface continuing on at $349 is how close it is in pricing to its successor. For $100 more, one will supposedly get a radically faster device. For those who can afford it, it’ll be a no brainer. For those who can’t, it won’t stop them from having the best in class experiences only the Surface can offer.
iPads fall short in consumption due to their 4:3 resolution. You also need to buy external keyboards and covers for any true productivity experience. And there is NO mouse/trackpad support to be found. Android tablets fall short at the 10” range due to lack of apps. Small Android tablets are fine for play, but I just can’t get work done on them. And as phone screens get bigger, 7” tablets are less appealing. Android still has odd issues with lag, and third party skins can really mess the whole thing up even more. Android just doesn’t feel right for productivity, and my workplace blocks them from the network.
I’ll be getting an AT&T Beam USB dongle for LTE connectivity this week. It works with Windows RT and should be a great addition to both my Surface and Surface 2. I am sure to have additional thoughts on it, and the Surface in the weeks ahead. In just over 3 weeks, I’ll have a Surface 2. But to be honest, I don’t really care as much as I did. I am getting work done and having fun on my Surface TODAY. I hope all of you are too, and I hope many more get to experience it this holiday and beyond.
* I am still running Windows 8 as the 8.1 Preview has ended and Microsoft won’t let me download it.