The Microsoft Surface RT – It is not a toy

On the 25th October of this year Microsoft released its first in-house venture into the world of tablet computing; The Microsoft Surface RT.

Surface RT

What is RT? Is it Windows 8?

Microsoft is famous for its use of two letter acronyms; we have had Windows NT, which stood for Network and Windows XP which stood for Experience and now we have RT, which stands for absolutely nothing. That isn’t to say it isn’t different to the version of Windows 8 running on your home computer. As such it is important to understand what makes it different to Windows 8 for computers.

Thanks to Walter Werzowa’s simple yet highly annoying sound trademark, on an almost subconscious level, we are all aware that computers have an Intel processor powering their insides. Operating systems are written with two computer processors in mind, those of Intel and AMD. However, with the rise of the smart phone and in turn tablets, a third processor has joined the party in the form of ARM.

ARM is a UK company that specialises in making small, powerful and energy efficient processors ideal for mobile devices. They are so good, they are used by HTC, Nokia, Sony, and Samsung and dare I say it, even Apple. I mention this because while the Surface RT projects the illusion that it is a computer and has a traditional looking Desktop, none of those applications that you have running on your home computer will work on the Surface RT. To install applications on your smartphone you have to go to a marketplace. The same is true for the Surface RT. You can only install applications that have been purpose made for it. The significance of this statement will be covered shortly.
Another consideration is that this version of Windows 8 has no networking capabilities. You won’t be able to bind it your office infrastructure like you would a notebook with Windows 8 Pro.

Microsoft Office

The Surface RT comes preinstalled with Microsoft Office 2013. Don’t let any tell you otherwise, this was a stroke of genius on the part of Microsoft. I will digress, but promise to get back on message soon enough, in the hope of explaining why this was such a good idea.

I work in IT, and for the last few years a popular question levied at myself and colleagues is “I need an iPad for my job, what can I do with it and how can I integrate it into our IT?” the hypocrisy of this statement is almost always lost on the person that voices this question. The reality is that very few people “need” a tablet for their job, if they do, they always know why. Most just want a tablet, and more than that, they want an iPad. Yes, they will deny it, if only to justify the expense, and over time they will have downloaded Pages or Evernote, and thus be able to convince themselves and those around them that it is an integral business tool, but they are lying.

The reality is that out of the box, no tablet will work in the way your office computer does when it comes to writing a document or manipulating a spread sheet. There are plenty of applications you can download that will work just like MS Office, but none integrate as seamlessly with, and are as familiar to use as, Office. That said it isn’t the full version of Office. There is no Access, as it is only a preview version rather than professional version of Office, but there is PowerPoint. Most notable by its absence is the lack of MS Outlook however. This isn’t some jaded cynical commercial exploit forcing you to buy your beloved email client via their marketplace, nor is it some glaring oversight by Microsoft, where they have simply forgotten that Outlook is part of Office. The truth is that Outlook does not work on an ARM processor. The tablet does come with Mail though. Think of it as Outlook lite. Until now, tablets have been marketed as a Jack of all trades, and a master of none. The Surface is the first to focus its use towards productivity.

SkyDrive

As already mentioned, Office on your tablet will integrate seamlessly with Office on your computer. This is achieved through a service called SkyDrive. SkyDrive is Microsoft’s cloud storage solution. A direct competitor to iCloud, Google Drive and Dropbox, SkyDrive is where you are intended to save your documents and files that you want to share across devices. Upload a file from your tablet while you are in a coffee shop, and it will be ready to access from the SkyDrive installed on your work computer. It is preinstalled in Windows 8, but you can install it on Windows 7 and Vista computers.
As Microsoft is so late to the party, they have had to be really generous when it comes to the specification of the service. And they haven’t disappointed. You can find a full comparison between these products here.

Microsoft App Store

It is often said that a mobile device lives and dies on the strength of its applications, just ask any Blackberry user (assuming you can still find one). This is where Microsoft’s largest challenge is. The Store is currently comprised of 20 categories, intended to help you focus on finding that app you need. The big problem is that the store is a veritable wasteland at present. At the time of writing, here were less than 7300 apps available to download. Once, that number would have signalled a treasure trove of choice. However, we now live in an era where our options on rival devices are being counted in the hundreds of thousands. This may account for why Microsoft has packaged the Surface with Office, without it the device would be about as much use as a Playbook. Yes, it has got Angry Birds (God help us), Netflix and The Telegraph, but the list of recognisable or genuinely useful or entertaining apps are few and far between. This will improve, one cannot understate the influence that Xbox could play in this area, the question is how quickly Microsoft is able to gain support from the wider developer community.

I know a reasonable amount when it comes to the games industry, so I can see the potential of this Xbox integration. Surface comes with a USB port that recognises Xbox controllers. And in addition to the potential for premium Marketplace games such as Bastion translating to Surface, there is the Indie Games section, which is ideally suited to the social gaming space, and exclusive to Xbox. The Indie Games section of Xbox has games priced for roughly 80p that have been made by independent developers and can be played on your Xbox console. Some of these games are already available in the Game Store. While this should be a good thing, at this stage it only fills me with concern. The first game I noticed under new releases is Rocketgirl for £3.49. Just so you are left in no doubt, this is one of the most appalling games I think I have ever played. And that price point would leave any consumer once bitten and twice shy. Microsoft cannot allow there to be too much junk in their store. Because it is challenging already establish ecosystems, they would be prudent to not focus on quantity but more so quality. Only time will tell if they are on the right track.

It is also the most expensive store. Taking the mobile lobotomy that is Angry Birds Starwars as an example; on the iPad it is £1.99, on Android it is free, on the Surface it is £3.49.

Connectivity and remote working

Cutting right to the chase, the Surface comes with Wi-Fi; there is no 3G or 4G variety of the Surface. Letting you into a little secret, there is no need for you to have a phone tariff for your tablet as well as your mobile. Top tip, convert your smartphone into a password protected portable hotspot in settings and tether it to your tablet, and you have no need for a second contract.

In terms of actual remote working, you still have the ability to manually configure VPN connections if you need to, in much the same way as you did before. That said when I configured our office VPN for the first time, it didn’t work. It was only by deferring to the internet that I found out that Windows 8 disables VPN authentication protocols by default. I have no idea why Microsoft would do this, but you can re-enable them within the Security tab of your VPN connection’s properties. Once you have established the VPN connection there is an app you can use for Remote Desktop. It works much the way it always has. A note of caution if you are connecting to another Windows 8 desktop however; the RDP client opens full screen, this makes it virtually impossible to open up the start menu of the machine you connecting to as it always opens the start menu of the machine you are connecting from. This rendered the remote desktop experience completely useless for me.

Office 365 is a delight to use on Windows 8; anyone would think that the two were designed to work in synergy.

Storage

The entry level Surface comes with 32GB of storage for £399. That is the same price as a 16GB version of the latest iPad. This is a good aggressive pricing strategy offering you more value for money. It does seem strange that with this pricing strategy they didn’t release a 16GB model, with a price drop that actually puts it ahead of the iPad and marginally more than a Nexus 7 for instance.

The reason there is no 16GB Surface is due to a typically Microsoft own goal; the 32GB surface doesn’t actually come with anywhere near 32GB of available space. Due to the size of the operating system and accompanying applications, 8GB is swallowed up straight away. This is compounded by a further 5GB devoted to recovery tools. This 13GB is then rounded up to a cool 16GB by the system’s file explorer. This explains the lack of 16GB model. If they were to release it, it would have no space available for the end user. For context, IOS is 2GB and Android is 2.75GB. Effectively the entry level Surface is the same price as an entry level iPad, but market in a way to make you think that it is better value. I hugely dislike that sort of nefarious marketing practice.

It does have the functionality to increase its storage by way of MicroSD card by a further 64GB, which is a nice option for those accustomed to Android. However, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away in this area too. Windows 8 recognises external storage as just that, external storage. If you have, for instance, your movie collection split across on-board storage and an SD card, Windows 8 will split them accordingly within your library. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is another opportunity to sigh. This is after all a unifying operating system, if it can’t unify your file types, then it is failing in its purpose. Because it is a Microsoft product, there is a way of tricking the operating system into seeing your SD cards as on-board storage; the point is that you shouldn’t need to.

Conclusions

The Surface is as fickle a beast as one has come to expect from Microsoft. Windows 8’s Tiles interface is easy to pick up and a fresh means of interaction. It is also colourful and dare I say it really quite cool. The device itself is well made and has some nice touches, with the USB port and built in kick stand. A first party keyboard and cover combo is also a clever idea well suited to the device’s strongest asset; being a productivity tool.

For actual every day work, the Surface is best in its class. If you are part of the 87% of people who have a Windows computer in your office and are looking for an alternative to your laptop or want a tablet that will integrate with your work documents, then the Surface is peerless.

Beyond the world of work though, there is, in my opinion, the ever present shadow of value for money. The Marketplace is modest and mediocre, and what there is available is generally more expensive than its competitors. And £100 for a keyboard? Please. . . .

But maybe I am missing the point, maybe regardless that the adverts are making me think this is for me, the consumer, maybe this is actually a business tool intended to be purchased by businesses rather than individuals. But then why would business buy the RT version when a full blown Windows 8 Pro Surface is being released by Microsoft at the end of the year? We will have a look when it is released.

I am torn as ever when it comes to my love and hate relationship with Microsoft. I would happily own one, as I could use it for work, I also own an Xbox so could use it with that. I like the interface, largely because I love bright shiny things. But would I pay the best part of £500 for one? I am not convinced I would. That is a very expensive toy to gather dust by my sofa, and I already have an iPad to fill that role.

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