I spent the past 48 hours with a Microsoft Surface Windows RT tablet. Here’s my review.

Last Friday we received our Microsoft Surface RT, and, like thousands of other bloggers, I spent the weekend playing with it and writing a review. Brian is somewhere on the other side of the world, so you're just getting my impressions for now.

Last Friday we received our Microsoft Surface RT, and, like thousands of other bloggers, I spent the weekend playing with it and writing a review. Brian is somewhere on the other side of the world, so you’re just getting my impressions for now. But he and Gabe have been emailing and texting me asking, “Did you get it?" "How awesome is it?" "Can you type on it?" and "What do you think?”

This article will essentially be a combined review for the Surface hardware, Windows 8 and RT, SkyDrive, several touch-based Windows apps, and Office 2013. A lot of this is pretty subjective and based on my own preferences for how I work, so with that disclaimer, here we go!

Hardware

Pulling this thing out of the box, I was immediately impressed. The packaging was nice and minimalist, but the real moment of awe was when I pulled out the Surface itself—it is definitely sleek and well-built for a non-Apple device. The only disconcerting thing is that I can see light from the back of the screen through various ports on the side and around the hinge for the stand. This isn’t actually a problem right now, but it seems like it would indicate that any moisture or dust has an easy path inside the device.

A note about the keyboard covers: not knowing at all what to expect from the Touch Cover (the one with non-moving keys) we ordered a Type Cover (the one with real keys). However, we got to know what they’re both like anyway, thanks to Microsoft automatically bundling the Touch Cover with the 64GB version of the Surface that we bought. Evidently Microsoft is making the assumption that if we’re buying the expensive version we’ll want a cover no matter what, but then they didn’t give us a choice, meaning that we had to pay extra to get the keyboard cover we wanted.

And since we’re talking about the keyboard covers, they’re both pretty cool, but with a few missing details. They both have a cloth, felt-like back, and the Touch Cover’s keys are cloth-feeling too, which is cool. They both have trackpads and two mouse buttons, which is really great, but the trackpad area is pretty tiny. Another problem is that neither cover has a magnet to hold it closed, and they don’t lie super close to the body of the Surface in either the closed or open position.

The Touch Cover would be nice for someone who wants to use the Surface more as a tablet, and the Type Cover for those that want it to be a laptop. The problem with that is that the Type Cover, which is indeed impressively thin, is a bit awkward when you flip it around to the back to use in tablet mode because you’re constantly depressing keys as you hold it. (Fortunately it’s smart enough to know not to register the key clicks.) Using the Surface with either keyboard in your lap or in bed is possible, but not ideal. Since it relies on the fold-out stand and not a stiff hinge connection to stay upright, things are a little precarious and not quite as solid as I’d prefer for typing.

Software

Since a lot of people have been using Windows 8 for months now, I won’t comment on navigating the tile world, other than it didn’t seem to take too long to get used to. This is the first time that I’ve spent more than a minute or two with it, and like others I would want to avoid the UI formerly known as Metro on non-touch devices, but I’m fine with it as a touch-based UI.

As for the mail, calendar, and contacts apps, I’m not a fan. The interface is just too minimalist—I could use a bit of texture or shadows to grasp onto. Overall, the apps feel like they’re not taking advantage of screen real estate—I would welcome having some of the (scant) buttons and functionality come back to the main interface of these apps, instead of being stuck in the swipe-in side menus.

What about Office? I have no big complaints here; I think Microsoft did a decent job. I do most of my spreadsheets and writing in Google Drive, and the amount of functionality here seemed comparable: there’s enough to do get the job done in most cases, and I can live with it. Even PowerPoint worked acceptably well with some of our graphic-heavy slide decks.

What do I miss on the Surface? Like I said, I use Google Drive to do all my writing, but since there’s no Chrome or Chrome web apps here, that means I don’t get to work offline. I’m also into using iTunes to take care of my media—I know that many of my friends (and pretty much all of them with Android phones) are more into streaming services like Pandora these days, but for me the lack of iTunes is a bit of a buzzkill.

But by far the biggest problem is that offline file syncing with Windows RT and SkyDrive is a few years behind the times. There’s simply no way to have files sync locally without manually download and re-uploading. Now, when the Surface Pro comes out we should be able to take care of this with desktop syncing agents for our clouds of choice, but for right now, this lack of real syncing is a major problem. Since Skydrive doesn’t sync offline files, you have to move them back and forth. There’s no Dropbox app, so you’ll have to download and upload manually to the website. There is a Box app, but when you download a file, it shows a warning that says “Switch back to Box after you’re done to upload any changes you make.” Seriously. This is all ridiculously annoying. I guess I can use Evernote if I want something that syncs automatically, but even that app was a bit buggy, preventing me from ever successfully uploading changes to a note.

What else? I could go on and on. The Netflix app was fine, though the Surface’s speakers aren’t loud enough for me to hear a TV show while doing anything remotely noisy. The Surface recognized a printer, but wouldn’t actually print; USB drives opened up just fine; and keyboards and mice worked as well. The Skype app was fine; the Wikipedia app is actually pretty neat; there’s no Facebook app, and BrianMadden.com videos (hosted by Brightcove) don’t work :(

And one last thing: despite Justin, our local IT admin Howard, and I all trying for an afternoon, we couldn’t get the Surface to connect to TechTarget’s wifi.

Completely subjective personal feelings about the Surface RT

After all this, how do I feel about the Surface overall? Brian wanted to know if it could replace his laptop and/or iPad. So if you’re reading this, bro, it does some neat things, but don’t hold your breath.

The Surface is in a hard place, trying to be both tablet and laptop at once. At first it felt weird to switch into desktop mode and suddenly see non-touch UI elements, but then you remember, “Oh, wait, this is still Windows, afterall.” But can it be both? I can only answer this for myself:

The Surface is a serviceable tablet, but it lacks a few features that I want in a tablet: iTunes, lots of cool apps, maybe a 3G connection, 7 or 8 inch size (my personal preference), and being separate from the device that I’m trying to do all my real work on. (I like to have two devices for situations when I’m watching TV on one and doing light work on the other.)

And it’s also a laptop (in fact, it’s the laptop-like features that I tend to like more about the Surface) but it also lacks what I want in a laptop: the ability to do anything and everything, lots of real of apps, iTunes, offline syncing, Chrome apps, and the ability to actually use it on my lap.

Come to think of it, for about the same amount of money (or less, actually) that we spent on the Surface, I could get everything I want by buying an iPad Mini and a Chromebook—and both of these are devices that I would prefer to spend my time in over the Surface. Still, there’s something that makes me root for this thing. Because it’s actually a viable option for people that want both tablet and laptop in one device, (something that Apple isn't doing) (or maybe just because of all the hype) it’s compelling and thought-provoking. Hopefully some better options for local syncing will come out, and in the meantime the Windows app store is growing and we’ll have the Surface Pro in a few months.

Last words

If you really do want to combine a tablet and a laptop into one device, this is the way to do it, and the Surface does a passable job. It’s just not what I’m looking for in a device right now.

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