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Today I’m returning my Surface, although I wish I wasn’t

November 14, 2012

After living with my new Surface running Windows RT for a few weeks I wanted to joy down my impressions.  I am comparing it to my iPad (version 1) running iOS 4.  It’s definitely not the newest and shiniest iPad but it’s what I own and use. I forced myself to put my iPad away and ONLY used the Surface.  Originally this was just a comparison post.  But after really thinking about what I need, I am shipping back my Surface and pulling out my old iPad. No matter how much I want the Surface to work, it just doesn’t fit my needs yet.

Here’s what I found:

Where it’s better:

Software

  • Internet Explorer 10 — particularly the desktop version — is a better and more compatible browser than Mobile Safari
  • Word, Excel and PowerPoint work as expected.  It’s not really "touch aware" — I used the trackpad on my Touch Cover more than I used my finger while editing a document — but it has all of the features you’d expect.  If you need to edit docs on a tablet, this is a far better experience than any of the Office-compatible apps available for the iPad.
  • Windows RT is a joy to use on a touch device.  The slide gestures (from left to switch apps, from right to display charms, from bottom to display context menu, from top to close or dock app) now come quite naturally to me. It’s far more efficient than iOS.  App switching via swipe or Windows-Tab both work better than iOS. And the standardized controls make it much easier to navigate apps.  Without a doubt this is a better O/S than iOS.
  • PRINTING.  Out of the box, with no configuration, Windows RT found my network printer (an HP PhotoSmart 6390) and printed to it first time.  No driver installs, no "print apps", no configuration at all.  It just worked. I know that there are some iPad users who have been able to print by having an "Apple everything" chain (Apple wifi, Apple printer).  But in my heterogeneous world, my iPad has never been able to print reliably.  And most people I’ve talked to echo that. 

Hardware

  • The Surface is a gorgeous piece of hardware.  It’s made to be held and you will want to hold it.
  • The screen is very clear, text is crisp, and it has a brightness range that allow me to use it in bright sunlight and in complete darkness comfortably.
  • Full size USB port. Used it several times when moving docs back and forth.  Awesome feature.
  • The magnetic charging plug ensures that you won’t trip over the cord and yank the Surface off a table.  It also has a small LED on the end to tell you that t is really charging without having to turn the Surface screen on.  You can plug it in either way and it still works.  And it charges quickly – about 2 hours for a full charge.

However, all is not perfect in the land of Surface.  Where it fails:

Software

  • Apps.  There just aren’t very many of them, and many of the ones there are aren’t very good.  Hopefully this is a problem that will fix itself over time, as ISVs see Windows 8 / Windows RT as a viable platform and start developing for it.  
  • Desktop / Tiles confusion. If you’re using Office apps and Windows 8 apps, you’ll find yourself switching back and forth between the desktop and Windows 8 style.  This is annoying.  It gets worse if you’re using Internet Explorer because you could be using both versions at once.

Hardware

  • Proprietary charger.  I’d really prefer a USB charger option (even if it had to be a 2.1-amp charger like the iPad’s) as well as the super-fast wall charger.
  • The kickstand is only set to one angle, and since I’m tall (6′-2") it is too steep.  In practice that means that the screen is dimmer than it would be if I was facing it at 90 degrees, and Skype callers typically see me from chest to chin.  I have to tilt it up to see my face.  Not a big deal but annoying.  How hard would it have been to have a second angle option?
  • 16:9 widescreen display is great for landscape content, and allows for that side docking of a 2nd app.  But it’s awkward in portrait mode – too tall. So reading (Kindle app) becomes a chore.  In general this shape is better when on a desk, and worse when in your hands, when compared to a 4:3 aspect ratio like the iPad.

However, all of these disadvantages could be overlooked if not for two deal-breakers.

Deal-breaker #1: No 3G/4G.  I have a 3G iPad.  In the past I’ve had a 3G Kindle.  Having the ability to download without having to search for and then connect to a wireless access point is very freeing.  And maybe it’s just me, but I frequently find myself somewhere without public wifi. In the past week I was at four meetings with my Surface and no access to wifi.  Which means my lovely Surface loses about 2/3 of its usefulness.  With my iPad I barely even noticed.  And until I didn’t have it, I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

Deal-breaker #2: No usable Evernote.  I might forgive deal-breaker #1 and buy a Verizon mobile hotspot if it wasn’t for deal-breaker #2.  The Evernote client for Windows RT is virtually unusable on the Surface.  Not only is it slow and buggy, but it lacks even the basic features that other platforms (Windows 7, iOS, Android) have — rich text editing, saved searches, check boxes, etc.  I was hoping for a client more like the Windows 7 Evernote client.  What I got was something far worse than the first iOS client (which was pretty bad).  And it doesn’t run in the background, which means that synchronization stops as soon as you shift away from Evernote to a different app.  As I’m watching, the client which has been syncing for almost an hour is at 26%.

Since I use Evernote to organize my tasks, record project information, and generally act as my digital memory, not having a working version for the tablet that I want to carry everywhere is a deal-breaker.  And while I can’t directly fault Microsoft for the lack of a 3rd-party app, they are the ones that created this monster by moving to an app model that required new sets of skills and all new apps. 

So it’s with a heavy heart that today I am packaging up my Surface and sending it back to Microsoft.  I’m NOT going to buy an iPad 4, either; I’m going to wait in the hopes that Microsoft comes out with a 4G Surface and Evernote comes out with a decent client. 

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8 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on A small man with big opinions and commented:
    Super cool post guys

  2. John Dwyer permalink

    Seems like an odd review as my perception is the pro’s largely outway the con’s. The dealbreakers seem to be more a matter of impatience than anything else. Like you I’m an Evernote user, and would be frustrated if it doesn’t perform, but I would have though the combination of Onenote and Skydrive might compensate. For connectivity, isn’t tethering a afallback option?

    Your review has actually done more to reaffirm my interest in a Surface as legitimate alternative to the other options in the market, but I’m going to hang back and see what the Pro version delivers at this stage.

    • John, I’m glad you see it that way. My review is definitely mixed as I am conflicted. There is so much goodness there. Honestly, I suspect that the Surface Pro (which should be out in January) is going to meet most of my needs and if I have to jailbreak my iPhone to get tethering, then at that point it’ll be worth it.

  3. I get excellent data performance on the Surface using the 3G LTE internet sharing feature of my Windows phone. It connects automatically and transparently when there is no wireless around. I am not sure why I really need or would want 3G/4G on board. I am never anywhere without my phone anyway. The device is very good and when combined with Office and Skydrive, it has been excellent for productive work.

    • On AT&T I have a choice: unlimited data OR internet sharing / tethering. Thus far I’ve stuck with my grandfathered unlimited data plan.

  4. Rob permalink

    Too bad dude. I understand that you may have a lot of information already in Evernote, however if you didn’t then I would really suggest OneNote. It is much more powerful and easily sync’s across all your devices, via SkyDrive. I use OneNote at the office, home, in meetings etc.

    The only reason I posted was if people stumble across this blog, as I did, and read these comments then I would suggest that unless you are already heavily using Evernote then OneNote is by far a better product in my opinion. Further to that, if you wait and get the Surface Pro with the pen and digitiser OneNote will be even better as it does hand writing to text conversion and math formula to text conversion natively. This is also in the same in the Surface RT which you can use a capacitive pen on , it just gets better in the Surface Pro with the better pen and screen digitiser support.

    BTW there is Evernote for Windows 8 RT in the store however, the reviews indicate that it is beta software andisnt feature rich.

    To your point on no 3G/4G, I use a personal Mifi (wifi) hotspot which I can tether up to 5 devices. This means I can usemy Latop, non 4G phone any device that has wifi and volia 4G connectivity. I am in Australia and my telco Telstra has some reasonable prepaid options that suit my light usage needs.

    Just my thoughts and each to there own.

    • Rob — Thanks for your comment. I have used OneNote extensively in the past (I spent 12 years at Microsoft) so I am pretty familiar with it. And while it is a very good product, I found the notebook / section / page paradigm didn’t work for my notetaking style. Evernote’s freeform text notes and saved searches fit my workstyle very well.

      With respect to Evernote for Windows 8 — Yes there is an app. Yes it is awful. Completely unusable.

      I too am waiting for the Surface Pro… pen input in Evernote is also pretty slick (since OCR is done in the cloud) and I’ll be able to run desktop Evernote (a.k.a. the good one). At that point I’ll probably just tether via my iPhone.

      • Rob permalink

        Fair enough dude. I haven’t used Evernote extensively but many of my colleauges swear by it, looks like a great product as well. If your already prepared to tether to the iPhone, is the web version of Evernote any good?

        FYI, OCR is done locally on OneNote, so you dont need to be connected to the Web for it.

        Nice to have all these choices though, as consumers we are really spoiled with choices these days!!

        Probably the biggest thing Surface brings is a very competitive product.

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