Microsoft Surface Reviewed: Is it Right For Mobile Learning?

I have to admit I was looking forward to Surface for a long time.  As a long term Windows user on the PC, the idea of this Windows 8 environment that would transcend devices was exciting. I used three Android tablets for a long time without really falling for them before finally going with the Apple crowd and getting an iPad 2 about a year ago.

My personal journey from PC to iPad illustrates the first roadblock for Microsoft in the tablet race – they are late to the party. Rather than picking up a Microsoft tablet 18 months ago to go with my Windows PC with no other exposure to the tablet world, I am now very experienced with various tablets.  I’m comfortable with my tablet of choice, have learned all the ins and outs I personally need to know, and have added a phone with the same interface to my personal technology arsenal.  Microsoft missed the chance when they had me exclusively using their products.

Still, I was quick to order the Surface RT and for good measure added the “type cover” keyboard to the order.  At $599 for the 32gb model plus $129.99 for the type cover, this makes for a pretty pricy order… but part of my job is evaluating new technologies. I was ready to give Surface a try.

My first impressions were mixed.  The tablet itself was nice enough and at first I liked the “kickstand.”  The “touch cover” keyboard (not the “type cover”), take some serious getting used to.  It reminded me of felt over cardboard and I was surprised to see a trackpad.  If you’re ordering a Surface, skip the touch cover keyboard and save $100.  The type cover is a nice keyboard that works well, but the trackpad is kind of showstopper unless you really just want a smaller laptop. I simply don’t get having a trackpad as standard equipment on a touch screen, mobile, or tablet device. The power cord snaps into place magnetically (wonder where this idea came from), which is neat, but it also unsnaps far too easily. I could envision charging my Surface up overnight for a day at a client site only to find it had not been snapped in and charging at all.

The worst features of a PC… on a tablet

Then I turned it on. Right away it asked me to “choose a PC name”.  Later, it said “to help your PC run better…”  Huh? Isn’t this a tablet?

Microsoft Surface has an identity crisis.

Upon turning it on a few days later, I got the message “Windows update in progress…will automatically restart in two days”.  Yes, seriously, and I took a picture of those screens (with my iDevices) to prove it.

Microsoft Surface is not good for mobile learning.

I found the screen to be not as crisp as a retina display but still very nice. I kind of liked the way it snapped into the keyboard and thought maybe this was an improvement over the typical Bluetooth connection (remembering a couple of Bluetooth keyboards that lost connections occasionally).  Then I realized I was stuck in landscape mode when typing or using the kickstand.  The only way to even use the Surface in portrait would be holding it in your hands.

Do You really want to use a mouse?

I had long thought having a USB port would be good on a tablet.  As it turns out, the only thing I think it would be good for would be for a flash drive, and with the explosion of cloud based storage I don’t even have a personal need for a flash drive anymore.  Still, the site of my Surface with keyboard and mouse attached makes me simultaneously chuckle and cringe.  It’s like a tablet dressed up like a PC for Halloween (or is it the opposite?).

Microsoft Surface with keyboard and mouse

I was surprised to like the Windows 8 (or “Metro”) interface right away.  It worked well for navigating around and I liked the real time information in the panels.  However, after a couple of weeks of using this I found all of that information a little bit much.  There is just too much going on and this only increases as you add apps (if you can find any).  It still stuns me to touch the “desktop” app and see the old familiar Windows desktop UI.  Again, is this supposed to be a PC or a mobile device?  I was also struck by the all too familiar Windows update messages.  This is what I want to leave behind in going mobile.


Microsoft Surface Windows UI

Office is not optimized for Mobile

I tried out Word and Excel.  Launching either moves you right into the old Windows desktop world.  Both appear to be fully functional versions.  The interface is very similar if not identical to the desktop versions.  This makes the trackpad (or a mouse) essential, because navigating all the small icons on the menu bars is difficult with a touch screen and your finger.  I can see how having Office would be an advantage for some people.  Again, though, it seems to be just replicating the desktop experience in a smaller (and really not much smaller) environment rather than creating a new way of doing things mobile.

Microsoft Surface is not fun to use with Office

The real surprise with Office on Surface is that when you go in for the first time you’ll find FAQs prominently displayed.  One of the first ones explains that the version of Office on the Surface is “not for revenue generating activities.”  So, legally you are not to use these tools for business purposes.

Limited App Selection For Now

Next I headed for the Store to see what apps I could get.  If I were to switch over to Surface as my tablet, I’d want a good Twitter app and one or two good news apps (like Zite).  The pickings were slim: Tweetro couldn’t even connect to my Twitter account half the time. I later found MetroTwit, which I’ve learned is supposed to be the best one.  Not bad, but the free version comes with ads on the main page that change frequently and are a distraction.  Pretty disappointing.  There are some decent news apps, but nothing I could find that pulls stories from all across the web like Zite does.  I found many familiar apps, such as NY Times, Kindle, Evernote, and Netflix.  These all work fine.

All in all, the apps available are OK and you could probably get used to them.  There are not many available, but I’ll give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and say that if the Surface gains traction the apps will follow. The lack of a good Twitter app was a showstopper for me personally.

Overall impression: Not Good

I think Microsoft has missed a strategic opportunity.  Why RT in the first place?  Unless you’re in the business of evaluating technology like I am, why would anyone buy the RT version a few months before the Windows 8 version is due out?  Why not release Windows 8 and the Windows 8 phone simultaneously and make the multi platform benefits the story?  What is the Microsoft mobile strategy?   They seem to equate mobile with “put everything on the desktop into a smaller device.”  That’s not mobile, it’s portable.  There’s a difference.

It seems like Microsoft is having an identity crisis on multiple levels. If having Office on the tablet is a competitive advantage, then why are they releasing Office for iOS in early 2013? Why are they pushing out Surface as their first attempt at hardware at the same time they are pushing Windows 8 on other devices?  The 32gb Surface only has about 16gb available for use.  Why didn’t they make the 32gb come closer to its advertised space?

Again, the concept of Windows 8 and multiple devices using it was pretty exciting two years ago.  Microsoft is way behind and this initial release of Surface seems all wrong from the actual product to the strategy (of lack of) behind it.  Windows 8 itself is worthy of a review of its’ own… and those I’ve read are not good.  The Surface seems to be a product late to market using an operating system not ready for the market yet.  Not a good combo.  Regardless, my investment was money well spent because as clients slowly start wanting to go mobile with their learning solutions, we are in a position to provide them with knowledgeable advice on choices they have to make. There are some really good choices, but Surface is not one of them.