Having a versatile Surface

On Sunday night I was sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife when I decided on a Windows 8 app I wanted to write.  So I picked up my Microsoft Surface and installed Visual Studio 2012 Express for Windows 8, then started to play around with it.  Given the lack of a table, I had it on my lap typing away on the Type Cover keyboard.  The next day I found myself grabbing a sandwich at Subway, and continuing to play with Visual Studio on my Surface.  Ok, so now I know what you are going to ask.  “Do you have a Surface Pro?”  Nope.  “Wow, you got your hands on a VS2012 for Windows RT?”  Sorry, no to that too.

There have been a lot of articles this last week bashing Microsoft, and bashing Windows RT, the Surface, and even the yet to be launched Surface Pro.   Most are way off base, some are so outright stupid that the authors appear to be legally incompetent.  I’m not going to try to go point by point in addressing their comments, nor even link to their articles (which might be likened to disability harassment).  But I am going to talk more about my own Surface experience these last three months and comment on a few topics that have come up about the product and form factor.

By now I’m sure many of you realized exactly how I was able to install and use Visual Studio with my Windows RT-based Surface, I made a Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) to a system in my home office.  That machine is a five-year old (Vista-era) Dell (Red) all-in-one that I upgraded to Windows 8 a couple of months ago.  Working on my home WiFi network I forgot that I was using RDC.  Using my Nokia Lumia 900 as a hotspot the fact I was working remotely was more noticeable, particularly since I was in an area not yet covered by AT&T LTE and was relying on their 4G-labeled HSPA+ network.  But it was certainly usable.

Despite not being able to run traditional Windows “Desktop” apps I’ve found the Surface to be an extremely versatile and pleasant system to use.  So much so that I not only don’t miss my iPad, I actually get frustrated when I try to use my wife’s.  I’ve talked about this in previous blog postings so I don’t want to be completely redundant, but having a device that meets both my consumption-oriented tablet needs and yet is far more useful for any task requiring substantial data input or content creation is just a blessing.

That brings me to one of my more recent observations from Surface usage, what happens when you have a Type Cover rather than the more common Touch Cover.  When Microsoft first disclosed the Surface the Touch Cover was positioned as the companion for the Surface while the Type Cover was positioned as the Surface Pro’s companion.  They are, however, interchangeable and I purchased both covers.  For the first two months, other than a brief experiment, I carried my Surface with the Touch Cover attached.  That included a 3.5 week trip in which the Surface was my only computing device.  Just before Christmas I wanted to see what carrying the Surface with the Type Cover would be like.

The Type Cover is a little thicker and heavier than the Touch Cover.  Basically think of the Touch Cover as a way to always have a keyboard capability with you on a tablet at virtually no compromise in weight or size.  The Type Cover gives you a much more traditional keyboard but demands small compromises in “tabletness”.  They are much smaller than the compromises required to add a keyboard to an iPad, and far more useful given Windows RT is actually is designed to work with keyboards and pointing devices.  I almost immediately forgot about the extra weight and thickness, and it didn’t change my habit of having the Surface with me at all times.

The one compromise that did take some getting used to was feeling keys move when holding the Surface w/Type Cover as a tablet.   At first you are disturbed by the experience because you wonder what weird things you must be doing when hitting those keys.  Fortunately they are disabled when the cover is flipped back so pressing them has no effect.  Later you either stop noticing them or actually find it fun to play with them.  It’s still a little weird, but I’ve adapted.

The biggest change you find with the Type Cover is that using the keyboard becomes so inviting that you spend more time using the device like a notebook than as a tablet.  For example, in restaurants I used to primarily use the hing with the Touch Cover flipped under the device and touch the screen (in other words, use it as a tablet).  Now in that same environment I find I set up the Surface with the Type Cover in front and make a lot of use of the keyboard and trackpad (although I still touch the screen quite a bit).

I also find that with the Type Cover I’m more comfortable using the Surface propped up on my lap than I was with the Touch Cover.  It’s a little sturdier and the tactile feedback makes it feel more natural.  So just changing the cover moves the Surface a little more towards being a true convertible than being a tablet with a physical keyboard capability.  That gives you hints about what the Surface Pro, arguably really designed to be used more as a notebook replacement with tablet capabilities, experience should be like when it appears in a few weeks.

One article floating around questions the portability of the upcoming Surface Pro vs current Ultrabooks by basically comparing it to the well proven clamshell design.  I’m sure buggy manufacturers used similar arguments to address why automobiles were inferior transportation devices to horse-drawn carriages.  One argument this article makes is that the footprint of a clamshell device is actually smaller than the Surface Pro with its hings open and Type Cover in front and thus clamshell’s are better for trains and planes.  Note to author, in coach seats on planes there usually isn’t enough room to use either a clamshell device or a Surface with the hing open and keyboard cover extended.  At least with the Surface Pro you can fold the cover back under the hing, or hold it in your hands, and use the touchscreen.  With a clamshell you can try to use it in coach, at least until the passenger in front of you puts their seat back and breaks your clamshell’s screen.  Yes, that has happened to me.

That article also dismisses the weight advantage the Surface Pro will have over a clamshell Ultrabook by pretty much arguing that users won’t notice the difference in portability between a 2lb Surface Pro and a 4lb clamshell Ultrabook.  Umm, should I really dignify that with a response?  Sadly I must.  In a world in which users are making purchasing decisions based on a 1-2 OUNCE difference in the weights of devices they sure as heck are going to make a “federal case” out of a 1-2 pound difference.  Even with the extra 8 ounces that a Surface Pro carries over my Surface it is likely I’d carry it everywhere.  But a four pound clamshell?  It will live in my briefcase until needed.  And when I travel?  With the Surface Pro I need one device.  With a clamshell I’d also be carrying around a Surface, iPad Mini, or Kindle Fire HD to meet my full computing needs, adding a bunch more weight and complexity.

I’m not arguing that the Surface or Surface Pro is a substitute for clamshell devices in every, or even most, scenarios.  I’m saying that it is the versatility of these devices that makes them so attractive, particularly in the portability dimensions.  It’s like having a handyman who can do all kinds of repairs and minor construction projects.  You want to move an electrical box over a few inches?  He can do that then repair and repaint the wall.  Building an extension to your house?  The handyman might be able to do it, but you’d be better off bringing in a general contractor (and her electrician, plumber, drywaller, painter, etc.) instead.

Back to the Surface, their has been some criticism that a few power-features are missing from the version of Microsoft Office that comes with Windows RT.  When we were doing PredictableIT  my co-founder created our business model in the most sophisticated Excel workbook I’d ever seen.  We could tweak any aspect of the business, from product mix to specific operating costs to pricing to commissions to you name it and see exactly what our bottom line projected out several years would look like.  It was based on a workbook that he’d created for a VC to use with their portfolio companies.  So I asked him if it would work on the Windows RT version of Excel.  His response: “I may have (unnecessarily) used a Macro but it’s use was limited and I am sure I could have worked around not having them.”  Now I personally do not recall seeing any macros in the workbook, and I did a fair amount of modifications to it.  But the point is, Office on Windows RT is not some super weakened subset of the product.  It is a fairly complete port of Office Home and Student.  In my own use of it to date I have not noticed any limitations, and I’ve benefited mightily both from being able to view and manipulate others’ documents and creating some of my own.

The Surface (and Windows RT in general) is somewhat held hostage to the immaturity of the Windows Store and Windows Store apps.  The RDC solution I opened this blog post with is one way (and sometimes a better way than having a local app) this can be addressed.  Another is the completeness of IE10 and that it allows Windows RT to access the full functionality of nearly all of the world’s websites.    Especially when using the Type or Touch Cover’s trackpad, website’s are often far more useful (and full featured) than the apps available on IOS or Android.  So while they don’t provide the full touch experience, full platform integration, or offline capabilities of good apps,  I find IE10 does mitigate the Windows RT app shortage while the Windows Store content grows.  Remember that we are only 3 months in to the life of Windows 8 and Windows RT.  A year from now we likely won’t be talking about a lack (or immaturity) of Windows Store apps.

Another sometimes claim about Windows RT is that you could just as easily use an Intel Atom processor instead of ARM and run full Windows 8.  That would give you the ability to run arbitrary desktop apps, such as Visual Studio, with no compromise to device price, battery life, size, weight, etc.  Besides running more non-touch first applications being a bad thing on devices intended for very heavy use of touch, and that desktop apps are not at all battery life or resource friendly, it misses a general point about configurations.  Yes you could install Visual Studio on an Atom with 2GB and either 32GB or 64GB of storage, but would you want to?  It isn’t going to perform well.  And you are going to significantly eat into that moderate amount of storage.  In fact you likely wouldn’t find it viable on a 32GB system unless that was all you were going to use the system for.  The rest of the configuration doesn’t scream development machine either.

This is why the Surface Pro comes with a Core i5, 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage, and a Displayport so you can use a large monitor when you are in an office.  The SD card slot is easily accessible, rather than hidden under the hinge, to make use of additional storage more mainstream.  It is a configuration much more amenable to use for traditional Windows notebook or desktop scenarios.  I could in fact see making it my primary computing device when coupled with desktop peripherals in the office.

In my experience the Surface does exactly what it was designed to do, without trying to stretch into territory where it would be deemed an inadequate answer.  It is those who want it to be something it wasn’t designed to be that are dissatisfied.  There is a valid concern that Microsoft hasn’t done a great job on positioning the Surface so that it is blatantly obvious when and why you’d want a Surface (or other Windows RT) machine rather than either an iPad or a Windows 8 system.  Hopefully they will soon tweak their messaging to address that.  But I believe no matter how good their message the critics of Windows RT would still be critics of Windows RT.  They just don’t like that they can’t have their cake and eat it to.  I’m happy eating my cake.

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32 Responses to Having a versatile Surface

  1. Thank you RDP to my other win8 boxes is exactly how I was using it 50% of the time…I am picking up the pro for the digitizer I just wish they had it on the RT version

    • halberenson says:

      I know others lusting after the digitizer. But they also have some Tablet PC era desktop apps they want to use it with.

    • Brian says:

      I bought an Adonit Jot Pro as a Christmas gift to myself (and to try it out with my Surface). It doesn’t work with the Metro version of OneNote, but it does with the Desktop version. But, it is *extremely* laggy as you write (If I sign my name, “ink” starts to appear on the screen about the time I finish each word). I’m assuming that isn’t because of the capacitive digitizer, but it’s because of the ARM processor’s lack of guts.

      My daughter is a OneNote expert (graduated from engineering school nearly 2 years ago after having taken all of her class notes in OneNote on a circa 2007 Lenovo tablet PC). She looked at it and laughed, saying that it would be unusable.

      (As an aside, I have never understood why MSFT never pushed OneNote as the killer app for Tablet PCs – it’s ideal for college students (particularly those in the sciences whose notes are peppered with diagrams and graphs))

      • halberenson says:

        I have a capacitive touch pen for the Surface (and all the other capacitive devices in the world), and no it doesn’t work as a precision instrument. I don’t really care what Adonit did to improve the device, the basic concept is just broken. This is why Microsoft originally went with a digitizer instead of a touch system for the Tablet PC. The design center was optimized around information workers and their tasks (e.g., note taking) rather than a finger oriented UI. Of course that is also partially a timing issue since today’s capacitive touch systems and price points were not practical a decade ago. Tablet PCs never really reached the price points where they would be good devices for students.

        OneNote was specifically written as a killer app for the Tablet PC, but that also left its fate largely tied to the Tablet PC effort. The last couple of years has seen a rebirth of OneNote as Microsoft put Skydrive at the center and provided free versions for the iPad, Windows Phone, and other devices. But they still don’t promote it that heavily. They run adds trying to sell Windows 8 with Fresh Paint, but not with OneNote. They could really make a point showing using OneNote on a Surface and then working on the same information on Windows Phone and sharing it with an iPad user.

        Personally I’ve gone from disliking OneNote for being non-intuitive to loving it and having it be a go to tool. I make huge use of its Skydrive-focus on device ubiquity. It’s even become my Printer! Literally I often end up needing to print a web page and finding myself without access to a printer, so I print to OneNote. In Australia last month I kept showing up at places with their voucher “printed” to OneNote on my Surface and then presented to them on my Nokia Lumuia 900.

        The Surface Pro has a digitizer and will be a great device for the apps and users who can benefit from that. I have a friend who has been waiting months for a convertible PC with digitizer to replace the Tablet PC that went DOA last summer. OEMs missed the boat by not including that feature in their convertibles, and she’ll be getting a Surface Pro asap. Even if the Surface had a digitizer it wouldn’t have met her needs because she has a bunch of old work apps she needs to run. But the Surface Pro is almost exactly the device she was looking for. Actually if their was a 12″ class version it would be absolutely perfect. But right now the Surface Pro is as close to perfection as she’s seen.

  2. Exactly. All the reviewers who reviewed the RT expected it to run legacy apps. And now with the Pro, I will bet they will compare with the iPad.

  3. Tim says:

    The one frustration I’ve had has been the inability to connect via VPN to my corporate network (and therefore RDP to my work machines). We use Citrix and the last time I checked Citrix doesn’t have the right component needed for WinRT. The security folks at my place have stated what comes built-in to Windows isn’t secure enough. One guy messed around with it for 20 minutes and couldn’t get it to work (presumably because he didn’t really know what he was doing).

    • halberenson says:

      My understanding is that Citrix does have Windows RT support for their newest product, but not for an older generation they’ve been trying to phase out. So now you have Windows RT caught in the middle between Citrix’s refusal to support their older product and IT’s refusal to upgrade to Citrix’s newest.

      • Tim says:


        • BennS says:

          Actually, it’s not a refusal, it’s about development resource constraints. The version of Citrix Receiver in the Windows Store is still a Tech Preview. The final release, coming soon, will support a much broader set of current customer installations.

          • halberenson says:

            For those who won’t realize it, Benn is an “authoritative source” 🙂

          • Tim says:

            Great to hear. We are, indeed, on an older version of the CAG, so hopefully that will fall under the “broader” installations banner.

          • Tim says:

            Old post, but I thought I’d follow up here by saying that either the update to Citrix Receiver was pushed out OR I never was trying correctly to begin with. What I did differently this time was to FIRST turn on IE compatibility mode for my company’s Citrix portal web page, then I could log in. Once there, I clicked on the Remote Desktop app link and then used the newest version of Citrix Receiver to open the .ica file. Bingo. It feels really nice to be able to use the Surface RT for pretty much everything now. No more laptop on my vacations.

      • Allen says:

        The point is there are countless other use cases that JUST WORKS on a Wintel platform that does not work in any other environments. Just because you cannot think of a use case does not mean those use cases do not exist – there are many “unknown unknowns”. For example, I want to record TV over WiFi from my Silicon dust tuner sitting on my home network and carry the tablet with me on the road with content already on the device. I don’t think a RT device will support this use case for a long time.

        • Gabe Frost says:

          Hi Allen,
          WinRT provides all the necessary API and platform affordances necessary for Silicon Dust and others to build an app that does this very thing on Windows RT and Windows 8. It is a valid question *when* they will build this app, but seeing CETON publish an app is a good sign even if the specific scenario you mentioned isn’t material yet.

  4. Joe Wood says:

    Hal – on your point about the quality of the app store:
    The lack of RT apps still bothers me and will be one of main reasons people will opt for the Surface Pro. Generally the quality of first party apps has been pretty poor – and I think this reflects badly on the platform. The XBox was only a success because of the quality of first party titles and exclusives.
    For example: Mail, Calendar, XBox Music – all offer functionality far lower than their desktop apps. All run slower. OneNote is probably the only exception, and this is still missing major functionality.

    If Microsoft wants to become a major force in mobile it needs to write better software. It can’t build a platform on second rate third party apps. Where is the “Visual Studio RT”? Where is the music app that is as good as WMP and Zune? Why does touch enabled mean “lightweight”?

    • halberenson says:

      I agree completely. With the exception of the apps that the Bing guys wrote the rest of the first party apps range from embarrasingly poor to fair at best. I can’t even understand how they let that happen.

      • Joe Wood says:

        Looking from outside in, I suspect the lack of quality RT apps has something to do with a lack of evanglising internally as MS between WinDiv and other groups.

        For WinRT to be the true successor to Win32 Microsoft has to prove that RT apps can offer as much functionality as their desktop equivalents, without sacrificing the ability to use touch or resorting to new chrome elements (toolbars etc.). I think when they do this they will justify the hybrid laptop/tablet model.

        Right now there are huge gaps in WinRT as an API, plus most of the applications offer little more functionality than their website equivalents.

        • halberenson says:

          The main counter-argument on your first point is that most of the crappy apps come out of the “Windows and Windows Live Division” itself. The much (and deservedly) maligned Mail app is a perfect example. The apps the Bing team did are rather good. And it looks like other teams, such as Dynamics, will produce great Windows Store apps. I’m sure some tensions between the teams, and Windows’ own focus on secrecy, haven’t helped the cause. For example, teams inside Microsoft (but not actually part of Windows) were reportedly not able to obtain builds any earlier than external customers. They had to work with the Developer Preview right up until the Consumer Preview came out. So many probably didn’t get serious until rather late in the cycle.

          As for the app vs. website point this applies to iPads and Android devices too. Any app that front-ends a website is limited by the website’s functionality. They can add responsiveness, touch orientation, use of local capabilities (location, share contract, etc.), and some other nice touches. But in general they can’t outdo the website. Usually they don’t even equal its full functionality.

          • Joe Wood says:

            Agreed on the point about the Mail app and other WinDiv apps. No excuse there.

            On the second point about apps front-ending websites: – I think this is an important point, and it does apply to iOS and Android too. it all depends on what the back-end service is. If the service is like SkyDrive (storage and content synchronization) – then there’s no reason an app cannot be fully featured. It’s an architectural decision of where the functions of the applications are deployed to. Sanbox limitations aside, I see no reason why Windows 8 apps cannot be as fully functional as desktop apps in the future – and that should be Microsoft’s goal. I don’t think users will accept much less.

          • Tim says:

            Yes, I’ve used some apps in the Windows Store that are a front-end to their website and I find the website to be more usable (or perhaps just more comfortable to use due to familiarity or more easily accessible functionality).

    • jcallahan says:

      I have to agree with Joe. I find this also applies to the WP8 platform as well, though to a much lesser degree. One example I came across recently is that I can’t change the profile picture on a Microsoft Account contact and have it transferred up to the cloud (it stays on my phone). It doesn’t replicate on my Win8 People app. I know that’s just one trivial example, but it’s those small things that people start equating to overall quality. There are so many more examples.

      The bottom line is that Microsoft has considerable resources and they really, really need to step up the quality of their first party apps. It’s hurting their public image and it’s also demoralizing the troops. I would like to move our company’s internal apps over to Win 8 in the future, but it’s a tough sell at the moment due to perceived quality of the OS.

      • The need for top quality 1st party apps is well understood and motivated by Microsoft exec management. Presumably this will translate into improved experiences in the near future. At least I hope so; I greatly enjoy my privately purchased Surface RT with the exception of perhaps the single most important application for any internet connected device. Fortunately there has been a somewhat regular cadence of incremental improvements so I am content to see what happens in the coming months.

  5. BennS says:

    The Surface RT is a very nice device, in all the ways that Hal mentioned in the article. However, the crippled Office (no Outlook, and consumer-oriented licensing), a lack of apps in place to make it truly competitive **at the current time** in the market, and the confusion created in the market by positioning it as a full member of the Windows family (yes it is, modulo the aforementioned issues) have created a bit of a difficult situation for it.

    Yes, it makes a very nice device to RDP somewhere and get real work done, but it’s a fairly expensive device for that, unless you really need to sit in front of the TV, with a device balanced on your lap, doing your real work on a remote system.

    That said, all these issues could very well be rectified over time, and I fully expect that the Surface Pro will be perceived differently, since it will not have these constraints. Its biggest challenge could likely be other Windows devices.

  6. jcallahan says:

    Criticisms aside, I’m really on the fence as to which Surface to get. I’m secretly hoping for a 2nd generation Surface Pro with Haswell that approaches the battery life and thinness of the RT version. I’ve only played with the Surface RT in a BestBuy, but I was very impressed with the build quality and size.

    • halberenson says:

      It’s always the case that if you wait a little while then you’ll get something new and better. I don’t know what Microsoft is thinking about lifecycles for these devices, but I would bet it is on the same order as we’ve seen from Apple, Samsung, and others. That is, they probably have a lifetime of a year or so. So I’m sure there will be a Surface 2 later this year and a Surface Pro 2 early next year. But what tradeoffs will they bring? That is an open question.

      • Brian says:

        I wouldn’t be surprised if the Surface line expands. For example, a smaller format Surface (perhaps without anything like a touch cover) with a screen that likely won’t support showing two apps at the same time. Perhaps an Atom-ish powered RT device (or an Atom-ish powered device running Windows 8 non-pro-edition). Maybe even a big “All-in-One” in Surface clothing.

        • Joe Wood says:

          Unless there’s been some special deal with MS’s partner OEMs about forcing a laggy adoption of hardware, I would expect rapid updates. A Surface Pro with the Haswell chip, adding missing LTE support (now more common with shared data plans), maybe Bluetooth GPS. A 7″ Surface RT, possibly subsidized by (and heavily directed to) content from XBOX and maybe B&N (aka the Amazon model). I could see most of this announced this summer. Possibly also a Perceptive Pixel Surface, with 60″+ screen. I think so far we’ve just scratched the surface (sorry).

          • halberenson says:

            There are lots of things to balance in deciding when and how to do updates. But basically, unless they can make more than they can sell there is no reason to do an update. New products for new segments, definitely. Replacing a product when it is still on a growth curve, no.

            Unlike software hardware updates are super expensive and give away all the benefits from riding the cost curve. So while I see a lot of pressure
            to come up with a 7-8″ class device, the pressure to rush updates (other than perhaps LTE variants) for Surface and Surface Pro isn’t their yet.

            We will likely see 2-3 devices out of IEB this year, and a large form factor Perceptive Pixel device for telepresence.

            An updated Surface could come this summer, and fall by the latest. But a Surface Pro update might wait for winter. It really depends on how much concurrency Microsoft can really do. I think they have both internal engineering team and rather severe supply chain limits. It’s the price of being relatively new to the hardware business.

          • Brian says:

            The only hardware updates I see between big splashy releases (which I’m guessing will occur annually) will be related to moving the hardware cost down.

            Look at Xbox 360. The form factor has changed once or twice since it was released. However, the mainboard probably gets rev-ved two or three times a year as they push learning curve costs out of the system (well, I know they did that in the first years of the 360, I’m not sure if they are still doing it). Now, this might result in battery life improvements as well because they components that they swap onto the mainboard might beslighly more parsimonious with power, but it will be incidental.

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