Microsoft Surface RT. Why? No, really, Why?

For the past couple of months I have sporadically been playing with the Microsoft Surface RT. The fully castrated version, not the one they are hoping will work better soon. If it were worth the effort I might go into a lot more detail than I am about to go into but, frankly, this is a piece of landfill that is not worthy of such exertion. I will just highlight some examples of why this is probably the worst tablet or worst PC on the market today.

I did have some hopes for this. I thought it might be a laptop replacement, I thought it might be a grown-up tablet, I thought it had some interesting and creative ideas, especially in the interface, that separated it from the pack. Those hopes have been soundly dashed.

I’ve tried hard to find something to like about it but have so far failed. Compared with Android and Apple alternatives, it is uniformly worse by every measure I can think of. The hardware is ugly, heavy, unintuitively and unergonomically organized, the battery life is mediocre, the screen is average, the power brick is poorly designed, the keyboard lid is very disappointing (doubly so because I ordered both the standard and clicky versions but they sent two standard versions and would not take the wrong one back because I had opened the packaging).  Compared with even a two-year-old Android tablet it is slow, limited and clunky. Compared with my newer Nexus 7 or recent iPads, it feels like a stammering sloth. The lauded kickstand is pointless if you use the device vertically and useless unless you are working on a table or desk. Of course, much of the time, you cannot use it vertically anyway. Logging in, for example, insists that you hold it horizontally, and a fair number of apps seem to know nothing about the second dimension. Despite efforts here and there to allow for the form factor, the mindset of all the designers seems firmly fixed on the PC model and the classic horizontal screen, with the addition of a touch screen. 

And that is problem number one. This device cannot make up its mind about whether it is a PC or a tablet. It wants to be both and fails on both counts. The Metro interface is interesting and innovative. I can see that it might have some value on a cellphone, though it is not a patch on the newer Android flavours in terms of functionality, and it lacks the elegance and sheer usability of the iPhone. However, this is the first tablet for which I’ve needed a manual before I could even use it. For those who are stuck at the first hurdle, the thing to remember is that actually doing anything involves swiping from different sides of the screen. I was still floored for a while by the problem of logging out, but got there in the end. I’m still a bit puzzled about the odd things that happen if you try to drag the tiles around, especially off the screen. They can wind up in the oddest of places.

Metro is quite pretty but, after a very short time, I realized that it had been designed by the makers of Spongebob Squarepants. If you don’t already have attention deficit disorder, you will after a day or two of using this machine. It might be almost acceptable if it distracted me with things I actually want to see but, frankly, I really don’t want to see pictures of random contacts moving across my screen, or know the temperature in degrees farenheit (I did eventually figure a way to stop this, but not before setting it and failing several times) or have what MSNBC thinks is news scrolling irritatingly on the screen while other things move around it. Actually, I don’t even want news from my own feeds in that form, unless I specifically ask for it. But, in a pattern that repeats throughout the system, there is no obvious way to have a choice in the matter, apart from deleting the offending tiles. Which is a pain in itself and, again, is not intuitive. Actually, having not done it for a while, I just tried to do it and couldn’t work it out again. It’s not memorable either.

But I could live with Metro if I had to. Unfortunately, a full-blown Windows interface (but not Windows in the sense that you can run Windows programs) is a tap away at any time. Some things work as Metro apps, others as Windows applications. There are no clues about what you are likely to get when you tap their tiles. And of course, many of the Windows applications know little or nothing about being on a tablet. It’s a similar sensation to using a virtual PC running a different operating system. It works, but everything works differently.

Once you are in the old Windows environment, the thing is truly appalling. For running Windows, the screen seems tiny, often unreadable, and touch is a nightmare on an interface designed for a mouse. On many occasions, even using a stylus and carefully pressing in the right place I’ve got something different appearing as a result. And it’s absolutely impossible if you are on a plane or bus. Of course, you might be inclined to use the awful touch keyboard case to try to use it that way, but it is hopeless to type on and, again, totally useless if you are moving around. Compared with equally slim, elegant keyboards available for Android and iPad devices for less than $100, this feels like a piece of dull cardboard. Compared with using my Macbook Air, which may be marginally heavier and slightly larger in some dimensions in real life, it is like a clunky, useless toy. The RT is slightly cheaper, of course, but not by the orders of magnitude that the gap in functionality between them would suggest. The Air is just as portable (fits in an iPad pocket) feels barely if at all heavier because it is well balanced and ergonomically designed and, above all, it actually works. I can even run Windows 8 on it at high speed with all apps working, unlike the RT. Which is of course another major problem with the RT device. Even things like browser plugins do not work unless they are compiled for the device, and hardly any are. The range of apps in the Microsoft Store is put to shame even by the Blackberry Playbook, which was the previous contender for dumbest tablet of all time. At least the Playbook kind of made sense in a weird way, even if a few minor apps that no one would ever need (like, say, email) were skipped early on in its unhappy career.

Once you reach the apps, they are wan shadows of the equivalents on Android and iOS machines. The thing that most enormously bugs me is the almost total inability to move things between apps. iOS’s send-to functions or Androids ability to send to any receptive app are sorely missed when you don’t have them. They are what makes small, limited-purpose apps such a great idea. It means you can send the output of one to form the input of another, so you can assemble the functionality you need. But Microsoft is lost in the world of monoliths that are supposed to do everything, or complex COM components that seem largely absent on this underpowered dog of a machine. At least, I’m guessing that’s the case, because apps that are delightfully interoperable on iOS and Android, if they are available at all, are crippled on the RT.

It crashes and freezes. Well, it is Windows after all. But you’d think that, if they were in control of all of the hardware, that this wouldn’t be as much of an issue as normal. But it is. It is not helped by the fact that the emasculated versions of the main Office programs are still in beta (or ‘Preview’ as they coyly put it). They really want to suck you in to the Microsoft ecosystem with this, trying to encourage you to keep your files on their cloud servers and making it quite tricky to avoid it. There are other painful consequences of this avaricious and blunt bullying that make Apple (who are demonic in this regard) seem almost saintly. Of course, Bing and IE are omnipresent. Goes without saying. But I could not even test Skype without linking my newly minted Microsoft account with it – it would not allow me to log in with my old Skype ID, even though I had studiously avoided linking it despite nags on at least 7 other devices before that. Thankfully I was not so careless as to use the Hotmail account I’ve owned since before Microsoft purchased and demolished it or I would now have amalgamated Skype and Messenger accounts. I keep them separate for a reason. That is and should be my choice. Of course, Microsoft are now retiring Messenger so it’s no big deal. Just means I have to find a good alternative to Skype such as Google Voice, though I will be sad to lose my UK SkypeIn number that is a local call for friends and family in the UK.

The RT is (kind of) futz central. However, unlike the old Windows machines, the machine does all the futzing for you so that you can sit back and wonder about life, the universe and what the hell was going on in the heads of the people who came up with this disastrous machine. I think that, so far, I have spent as much time waiting for it to reboot, to unfreeze itself and (this is a big one) to install large updates as I have actually using it. I should mention that it does not always give you a choice as to whether and when those updates happen. You get a countdown, after which it will start the process even if you are in the middle of something important that cannot be interrupted. It can be 15 minutes or more (over half an hour on one occasion) before you can use the device again. 

I could go on, but I think I’ve almost made my point. There have no doubt been some talented and creative people involved in the design of this and you can see occasional good isolated ideas that might come to something if they were consistently integrated and thought through more clearly, but these creative people appear to have no more say in the design than dullards and narrow-minded people who still wonder what the fuss is about – isn’t everything a PC and why did we have to stop using DOS? With which, of course, this stupid machine is incompatible, which means it is truly the worst of all possible worlds. I have forgiven Microsoft in the past for the layer upon layer of workarounds, patches and fixes that they have had to string together to retain backwards compatibility with devices originally released nearly 30 years ago. It is one reason that Windows PCs are cranky, slow and insecure. Its not a good reason, but it’s an understandable reason. Apple were in a similar position at the end of the 1990s and threw all that away in order to build the elegant machines they make today, a move that some people saw as suicidal. But Apple didn’t forget their existing user base, and provided Rosetta to run sandboxed versions of old Mac apps (at least for a while – no longer there in the latest version of OSX). But I can’t even run an ActiveX control in Internet Explorer on this new machine. I can’t run DOS programs. In fact, I can’t even find the command prompt. 

I have no doubt that, given time, I could figure this horrid patchwork out. There probably is a command prompt, there may well be ways to stop that horrible flashing movement on the home screen, deleting tiles is probably really simple once you know how. But why should I bother? There are no benefits at all, as in NONE, of this machine compared with a modern Android device or an iPad, while there are enormous disadvantages. It doesn’t work properly, consistently or well. It’s difficult to use beyond some very limited use cases. It’s expensive. It has very few apps, most of which are far worse than the same ones on Android and iOS. It’s a half-baked bastard child of a PC and a mediocre phone, only without the phone and without the PC. It feels like stepping back in time 10 years then running through history again in an alternative universe in which the iPad and Android never happened (apart from a couple of borrowed ideas like a magnetic power cable and snap-on cover) and in which Microsoft still dominates the market.

As a software company, Microsoft rose to prominence by producing software that didn’t quite work yet and was poorly designed, but that was packed with features people wanted and that was good enough to be getting on with. Most importantly, this process meant they could chuck this stuff out years before companies like IBM, Lotus and WordPerfect, who (in retrospect) foolishly wanted to produce reliable software that worked, could get to market. I’m wondering whether that is something like the model they are using here, albeit having arrived very late to the party. It’s an abysmal and resounding failure, but so was Windows 1 and so was Windows 2. I’d like to be able to say that they can’t get away with it with hardware because patches are not so easy to produce but, on reflection, I think they might. Replacement cycles for tablets are beginning to look much like those for phones so, while a few people may be put off this rubbish now, Microsoft might get another chance later. I kind of hope not. It’s an evil company but, till now, has never been as evil as Apple in terms of intentional lock-in and cynical market manipulation. Now it looks like they want that too.

In summary…

What’s hot: nothing I could discover

What’s not: everything

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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