Shane BarnhillTuesday,27 November 2012

The Snap:

In Part One of my review of the new Microsoft Surface RT tablet, I described how a child’s perspective can be particularly insightful regarding the usability of a new device. Before reading my thoughts on the Surface RT, I’d encourage you to first check out that post, which incorporates the thoughts of my five year old son (aka “Mister S”). The short version is that ease-of-use isn’t a strength of Microsoft’s first foray into tablets.

The Download:

But what about my thoughts?

For starters, I found the Microsoft Surface RT’s software design to be refreshing change. The bold use of color and the large Live Tiles make both iOS and Android (even Jelly Bean) look tired by comparison. Thus, while the Surface RT’s display may not match the retina quality of the latest iPad, the bold color schemes allow it to overcome this deficiency. I will say, though, that I found the Surface RT’s Live Tiles (which are just app icons that provide real-time updates) to be a little “meh.” I really liked them initially, but after awhile they felt noisy.

Second, Windows on the Surface RT definitely takes some getting used to. The user interface just isn’t intuitive. This isn’t a deal breaker, of course. On my second visit to the Microsoft Store (yes, I went twice, and both times with Mister S), I began to get more comfortable with the user interface’s specific gestures and charms, which provide shortcuts to commonly-used functionality. But frankly, it felt like work. It felt like… wait for it… Windows.

Another drawback is the Windows App Store, which is housed in a Live Tile dubbed “Store.” At this point, it isn’t a completely bare cupboard, but it’s definitely not stocked, either. My first search in the Store tile (and this is after I figured out the *correct* way to search, which wasn’t entirely clear) was for foursquare, one of my daily go-to apps. Sadly, foursquare isn’t yet available. And neither is a native Facebook app. My searches for Facebook within the Store tile instead opened up Facebook’s website. When I questioned a sales associate about this, he assured me that Facebook is tightly integrated with the Surface RT, and thus a native app simply isn’t necessary. Uh huh.

The Surface RT’s Touch Cover, by comparison, is a strong point. I went from hunting and pecking (due to the slight learning curve associated with using the touch-based keyboard), to typing along merrily in no time. The track pad is extremely responsive, even more so than the keys. I still prefer typing directly on the screen, but the Touch Cover will be handy accessory (it’s sold separately) for most users.

But even this strong suit comes with a catch. Because of my preference for typing onto tablet screens directly, I disconnected the Touch Cover, in order to get a better feel for screen-based typing on the Surface RT. Unfortunately, when I pulled the Touch Cover off of the device, nothing happend. Nothing. At all. A keyboard didn’t automatically pop up onto the screen. I didn’t even get a dialog box asking whether I’d like to use a screen-based keyboard. After 30 or so seconds of utter confusion, a sales associate (who was looking over my shoulder) grabbed the device, muttered something along the lines of “Well, that’s not supposed to happen,” and then navigated through a Settings menu to configure the on-screen keypad (which, I should add, failed again in about 2 minutes).

So yes, true to form, this Windows device is buggy.

By comparison, my experience browsing with Internet Explorer was bug-free. IE served up websites quickly and reacted to gestures well. One drawback, however, is that IE requires an extra step — a simple upward swipe — for a navigation bar to appear in the browser. This is a minor annoyance, however, because the lack of a navigation bar provides a full-screen display for web content. All in all, a fair tradeoff.

Another tradeoff associated with Surface RT — or, more accurately, Windows RT and 8 — is the inclusion of a “Desktop Mode” on the device. This is the “classic” view of Windows that most people will recognize, and it’s a requirement for some apps. Many reviewers — including Siegler — simply hate it, but I found it oddly comforting. More importantly, during my time on the Surface RT, I never intentionally switched over to Desktop Mode. It simply appeared and disappeared as needed. A non-story IMO.

Pricing, on the other hand, is a big story. I really big effing story. The Surface RT ranges from $500 for a 32 GB model without a Touch Cover, up to $700 for a 64 GB model that includes a Touch Cover. I’m sorry, but those are iPad prices, and this device is built to compete with less expensive tablets such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire line. Microsoft may disagree — and granted, I’m sure the Redmond-based giant has a stable of pricing analysts to back up its price points — but the first-generation Surface RT just isn’t ready to compete with Apple in the high end of the tablet market. And Microsoft would be well-advised to take a look at the market share of Windows Phones when pricing its tablets, which is a point that I’ve made before:

Just take a look at the persistently low market share for Windows Phones, which continue to lag well behind iPhones, Android-based devices, RIM’s BlackBerry, and even Nokia’s mothballed Symbian OS.

When you’re getting your ass handed to you by Symbian, it’s time to think differently.

In conclusion, there are numerous pros and cons associated with the Microsoft Surface RT tablet. The device’s colorful display and Touch Cover are both strengths, while its dearth of apps and complicated usability are weaknesses. It’s a good tablet, but it’s not a good value for the money. To re-quote Mister S from Part One of my review: “It’s good. I can play Angry Birds Star Wars on it. But it’s not as good as an iPad.”

Thus, given its high price range, this first-generation device just isn’t a good buy. If you’re determined to buy a Windows-based tablet, then I recommend that you either wait for the Microsoft Surface Pro, or consider a Windows 8 device from another manufacturer. But unless you’re a die hard Microsoft fan boy (does Microsoft even have them?), then I’d suggest an iPad at the mid-to-high end of the tablet price range, or an Android-based Nexus 7 at the lower end. Both are excellent devices values.

Hat Tips:

The VergeTechCrunch, PC Magazine, CNET, ZDNet

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