Nov 7, 2012
I’ve had my Surface RT for only few days now, and the best summary of my first impressions are simple: I love it!
Note: MYN/1MTD users, first, read my article about how the new Windows 8 tablets work with MYN/1MTD—that’s the most important information you need if you are a MYN/1MTD user. Only then read this article below, which is about general use of the Surface RT.
How I Like Surface RT
I’ve been using the Surface RT for about 5 days now. My expectations were a bit low because I had read a number of negative reviews. But I see now that those reviews were written mostly taking one of two perspectives, neither of which really fits me.
The first reviews were from technical PC early adopters who were expecting more of a PC power experience. The second type were from current heavy iPad users who were hoping they could replace their iPad with the Surface RT. If you are one of those two types, you’re probably not going to be happy yet. The first of you will only be happy when the Surface RT Pro comes out, with its uncompromised PC power. And the second will only be happy after a year or more when many more apps come out.
But the average windows PC user, who perhaps uses the iPad here and there, but who intends to do most of their work on that laptop—they will be delighted with the Surface RT, even now. Why? Because it really is the best of both worlds in combining an iPad-like tablet with a PC. You see, what Microsoft has done is provided a tablet with a top-level interface as easy as the iPad for simple operations, but with a PC just under the surface for more hardcore work. And I think “enough” apps are out now to make it compelling.
First, I love having the simple top-level tablet interface, and the deeper PC power, both available at my fingertips. Why? Because I’m constantly running into the following situation with the iPad: I reach for the iPad because I want to do a small quick task (check my mail, check the web). But soon, in the midst of that activity, I realize I need more power, and it’s just not there. So I have to switch over to my laptop. I find with Surface RT, I need to do that switch much less often; I can just keep working on Surface RT. You see, a PC with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more is sitting just below the covers and it’s easy to get at it.
However, that said, this still is a version 1.0 product, and so there are some rough edges. You are definitely going to miss some features and apps compared to your iPad. And it does take a few minutes to get used to the new interface.
Will Still Use a Laptop
And even after that, for power PC users, there’s no way this will replace your laptop for all your work activities; you’ll want to keep both the RT and your laptop in your briefcase. But I do feel that after a small learning curve the RT can replace your PC for many if not most of your work activities, even now. Way more so than an iPad can. So I’m pretty impressed.
Also, with the default SkyDrive implementation, if while working you do need to cut back to your laptop, any files you created on the RT will be available on your laptop. So it’s easy to switch back and forth. For example this article I wrote on the Surface, and then later, when doing final editing, I picked it right up on my laptop—it was there automatically.
Compared to the iPad
Here’s why I like it better than my iPad. First, as I mentioned above, I can do far more PC-like things on it than I could on my iPad. Using Surface RT so far, I find I rarely have to jump over to my laptop when I’m doing work.
Next, I like the graphic design of the user interface on Surface RT better, compared to an iPad. The Metro design (now called Modern UI) really works for me. It’s amazing but, after only a few days using Surface RT, now when I look at my iPad I feel like I’m stepping back in time; the iPad suddenly seems old. Microsoft really has moved ahead here.
Third, I like the touch interface on Surface RT better. There are more gestures that do more things on the RT. The Surface RT has what you might call powerful second level features—features that the iPad lacks—ones that are easily accessed using new swipe gestures. For example, jumping between currently running programs can be done in a number of different ways using a number of different gestures; and I really like having those choices; there are a ton of things like that (and I am learning more each day). As a result, it feels like a much more advanced tablet.
But learning these advanced tablet features is one place where I think the Surface RT is going to lose some buyers. You do have to study a bit to learn them. In contrast, with the iPad I never opened a manual and I was up and running. As a result, I do not think the Surface RT is suitable for some people. For example, a colleague of mine is a type-A person who will never read a manual or watch a YouTube training video—he just wants the thing to work intuitively. He never really got PCs, and he loves his iPad. While the top level of Surface RT is intuitive, I just know he would never get to the next level, where the real juice is. Rather, he would just scream about the missing apps; so he is better off sticking with the iPad for now.
But I think there are a huge number of people that will spend 5 to 10 minutes learning these next-level features. And enjoy discovering more as each day goes by. For them, since the Surface RT offers a deeper tablet experience, and offers so many useful PC features, it will yield a ton of utility, today.
I Can Work Around the Missing Things
As I said, the Surface RT is missing a lot of apps; and it’s missing some hardware functionality. What will you be missing compared to a current-day iPad? The list of missing apps is large. One example: I use a Sonos music system at home and I use their iPad app to control it. Well, that app does not yet exist on Surface RT. And hardware wise, GPS is missing, as is cellular broadband. Many reviewers were screaming about missing apps and features like this, “Why couldn’t Microsoft get it right?”
But I think buyers and reviewers often get into an “I gotta have it all” mode, and sometimes overlook key benefits that outweigh their favorite missing features. For example, in my case, after I thought about it, I realized I have other options for Sonos. Same with GPS; I used that occasionally on my iPad, but really, I usually use GPS on my iPhone if I need some quick navigation. So if you have a smartphone, you’re probably OK; you can get to most of your missing apps and features with it. And as to cellular broadband, I’d cancelled that on my iPad a long time ago because I found I was almost always within reach of WiFi and didn’t feel the $300 per year cellular charges were worth it for only occasional use. I guess what I’m saying is the design compromises on the RT aren’t that bad. Especially if you focus on what you are getting with the Surface RT: a cost-effective marriage between an iPad-sized tablet and a PC.
Another feature some people say is missing from the Surface RT is dictation; the latest iPads have that, and supposedly Surface RT does not. Well, actually Surface RT does have a dictation function. In fact, I’m using it now—I dictated almost this entire article on Surface RT (except what I edited later). I’ll write more about RT dictation in a separate article.
I need to mention the Mail app in Surface RT. A lot of people are beating it up, and I agree, it’s not great. But I think we need to give it a break; it’s good enough for quickly checking mail, as we often do on a tablet.
First of all, it’s not fair to compare it to Outlook. Yes, I’m still upset that Outlook is missing from RT, but I can get over that—I have alternatives when I really need Outlook (which I will mention in a moment). More important, it’s far fairer to compare the Surface RT’s Mail app to the Mail app in iPad—not to Outlook. If you do that, it’s close. Yes, the iPad mail app has a few more features (flags for example). But for occasional use, I’m OK with the Surface RT Mail app feature set. It even does a few things better than the iPad. And I like the graphical design of the Surface RT Mail app better; like I said earlier, the iPad strikes me as looking really dated in comparison.
Alternatives When You Really Need Outlook
But if I know I am going to work through a lot of mail, then no, the Mail app is not good enough, I want my Outlook. What to use instead? It depends on why I need Outlook. If I need it to do high volumes of e-mail reading and writing, then I just cut over to OWA, which is the web version of Outlook. It runs great in Internet Explorer (IE) on RT. This only works of course if you have Exchange (if you do, then get the OWA address from your Exchange administrator). If you do not have Exchange, then maybe your mail provider also has a web interface that works well?
And if you want Outlook for tasks, then options are tough. First, the Mail app does not work for tasks, and there are no dedicated Exchange-based Task apps out yet that work with MYN/1MTD. And OWA cannot be configured for MYN/1MTD. So what to do?
Well, you might install a remote desktop app on Surface and access your Outlook that way. Two such apps are available as of this writing: Microsoft’s Remote Desktop, and TeamViewer Touch. No doubt Logmein will have an app out soon too.
But what I did instead was set up gSyncit to sync my tasks into Toodledo, and I am now using Toodledo as my task manager on RT in its IE browser (and I continue to use Outlook for tasks when working on my laptop). I wrote about gSyncit here; but I never really used it. Well now I have fully implemented it, and it works great. I set up gSyncit on an extra computer I have that’s running all the time, and now my tasks are always synced across both my laptop copy of Outlook and Toodledo on the RT. I’ll write up more on how to do that in a later post.
But with all the Outlook compromises I listed above, you might ask the question, Shouldn’t I just get a Pro version of Windows with a touchscreen and take a pass on the RT? I think for many users the answer is yes—just so you can have Outlook running. Of course, depending on which manufacturer you pick, you might want to see how thick and heavy it is. And does it start up almost instantly. If the one you want is not tablet-like, then you may want both, the RT for quick tablet things, and the Pro laptop for heavy duty work. Or wait for Microsoft’s Surface Pro next year. I talk more about this here.
There is a lot more I can say about the Surface RT. But let me wrap up here by reiterating my main message. Surface RT represents a merger of an advanced iPad-sized tablet with a Windows PC. Having that combination in my hands is amazing. I am finding myself using it for so many things. Granted, it’s not replacing my laptop for everything, but it will replace it for quite a few things—particularly for word processing and spreadsheet work, and a lot more. Because of that, I know I’m going to be reaching for the Surface RT instead of the laptop quite a bit more than I did with my iPad. And for that reason, the Surface RT will be replacing my iPad in my briefcase, starting today.