First Impressions - Nook Color running Honeycomb and Froyo
The Advantage Microsoft has over Apple

Microsoft Surface - Early Impressions

I was having an e-mail dialog with a few folks, and thought I should get this out to a larger audience.

I wrote this after a few days of using the Surface for play (weekend) and as my only  active device for work.

What are your thoughts?  Have you used a Surface, are you interested in a Surface, are you interested in Win 8?

Purchase Story:

After seeing the pricing I hesitated, especially after seeing the report about how much space the OS took, and how little that left for local storage, then I remembered the micro-SD slot.  By the time I submitted my PreOrder they were sold out of Friday delivery.  So I ordered with the expectation of being able to go pick one up in person on Friday and cancel the online order.

Friday I called Best Buy – I thought they were going to have them in stock, but no one other than MSFT stores is selling them at this point (interesting since it’s in the Win8 picture on Best Buy’s website).

So MSFT has a store way out in one of the Western Chicago suburbs, but they opened a “Holiday Pop-up” store in the mall on Michigan Ave. - Michigan & Grand.  So, I swung by there Friday AM to pick up a 32GB model with Touch keyboard.  The “store” is really just some tables and a counter with cash registers.  Looks like an apple store in the middle of the mall.  There were a good number of folks there, however it was hard to tell how many were actual consumers.  There were store employees. MSFT Event staff, and press, as well as some local MSFT employees in plain clothes.  They had mostly surfaces setup – around 50-60, and a couple of touchscreen laptops running Win8 (saw 3 Sony Vaios).  Almost every seat was filled with people playing in the machine.  As I got in line after talking to one of the reps who pulled the hardware for me, there were 3 cashier lines, each with about 2-3 people waiting.


As I was waiting in line one of the employees asked if I needed help getting the device setup before I left, I declined I was trying to get in and out before my day of meetings started.  When I got there and tried to just get in line one of the employees told me they were still giving away a year of XBOX Music (Zune Pass replacement) to the first 100 people who purchased that day.  So, if they were sticking to only 100 of those they’d sold less than 100 units by 9:45AM.

I ran home and got on the phone, I was able to open the device – premium packaging if you haven’t seen it -very Apple like unboxing experience.

The first boot-up wasn’t bad, pretty quick, the biggest lag was actually after I logged into my MSFT Account, I assume that’s because I’ve used it on other Win8 machines, so it was syncing over preferences – sure enough, the colors, background, and accounts were all there for me after login, just like they are on my Win8 (MacBook Air) laptop.

 In typical MSFT fashion (boo) there were 15 of the pre-installed apps which needed to be updated, plus the Office apps needing to be updated.  That took longer than I would have liked, but I chalk that up to my terrible internet access at home.


I won’t belabor this.  As everyone has said the hardware is great.  Battery life seems pretty on par with my iPad 3.  The touch cover lives up to the MSFT hype.  Without any practice I’m exponentially better at typing on it than on glass, not mention that means the entire screen is visible.  I’m not as good as typing on a real keyboard, largely because I miss some keystrokes – have to hit a little harder/more on center than on physical keys, and I’m a bit lazy I guess,  I’ve been quite impressed.  AutoCorrect is also much better than iPad, but that’s not saying anything.  I will say autocorrect is approached like a PC not like a mobile device – in that when you’re using the physical keyboard it won’t autocorrect, it will spell check, when you’re using the on screen keyboard it will allow auto correct.  Ideally there’s a setting to change that (and ideally it’s syncing my autocorrect across my MSFT account (i.e. from my phone) – but I haven’t seen that.  The soft-keyboards are both (split and full) much better than the iPad - not a surprise given how good the keyboard is on WinPhone


I read several of the reviews that came out last week, from folk who had been using demo units and waiting for embargo to pass, before purchasing – mostly what I expected.  I’ve read several more from folks who have been using theirs like I have since getting a unit with the unwashed masses.

I used it off and on over the weekend (not all that much really as we went to a wedding in the suburbs and stayed at a Sheraton and I don’t have status so I wasn’t willing to pay hotel prices for internet (and can’t tether to my phone since tethering isn’t compatible with the international data plan).  But used it a bit on Sunday to catch up on personal e-mail, and RSS feeds.  The mail program needs work, I still find it exponentially better than the Mail app on iOS – which is beyond terrible. Mail would be ok for personal if I didn’t use Gmail to manage that account – they need a GMail app.  For Exchange e-mail it lacks some basic stuff – I’ve been a WinPhone user for over a year now, so I expected at least that level of capability, but it doesn’t even support flags (or at least not that I’ve found), and forget about Categories and Smart Folders.  Huge problem – I’ll have to change my workflow, I rely on flags, due-dates, categories, and smart folders to manage what’s where in requiring my attention.  This simply won’t work for that.  I can either change how I work or use OWA, or RDP into my laptop to use Outlook.

For RSS feed I use Google Reader – their native web interface leaves a lot to be desired, on the PC I use Feedly in Chrome, and on the iPad I use Mr. Reeder – which truly is the best App I’ve ever used, to the point that I’m more productive on my PC because I’ll wait to look at RSS feeds until I’ve got the iPad in front of me.  Mr. Feedly is iOS only.  I use Wonder Reader on my phone, but as of now there’s no PC/RT version of it.  So I’m using the aptly named Feed Reader.  It’s pretty good, but a bit slow, not quite as good of an experience as Mr. Reeder. Since I first wrote this I've picked up NGReader, which is much faster than Feed Reader.

I thought the form-factor (clearly designed and optimized to be used largely in Landscape) would be a big problem for me, but I like it. the kickstand I great when sitting, and it feels much more balanced in the hands than the iPad ever has. 

Productivity & Office -

The Office support is excellent!  It’s real office, none of this hoping documents will open and disply correctly, like on the iPad.  SkyDrive integration is stellar, and the default behavior, SharePoint integration is good, but not as seamless.  There’s a SkyDrive app, but no SharePoint App.  The individual Office applications remember the various SharePoint locations you’ve visited, so you only have to enter them once, but it would be ideal to have an app where I could enter the multiple SharePoint’s I regularly use, ne enable me to browse their file structure and open documents directly from there, rather than going to Office.

As such, I would rate SharePoint as very good, but not excellent.  Due to the app I would rate SkyDrive as Excellent, but not Perfect.  It lets you browse, but does no offline Syncing.  I should be able to define some or all of my SkyDrive to sync offline (this applies to Office, Music, Photos, Videos, etc.).  I should have an easy way to ensure I have offline access so I can both have fun and be productive when I don’t have internet access.  You can do this with SkyDrive on the PC via their application, but this application is x86/x64 only right now.  hopefully there’s an update to the SkyDrive app for RT/Modern.

Snap or Split-screen is awesome.  I’ve rotated between having People hub (Twitter & Facebook updates), Mail, and OneNote up in the small side as I’ve worked or played.


Probably my biggest complaint, all of the current Windows (Phone, RT, Pro) need a centralized notifications center  things get lost too easily in the Live tiles, or popping on screen and disappearing if you ignore.

Also high on the list is input selection when not using a keyboard.  There’s no magnifying glass like in iOS to go back and define right where the cursor needs to be – or at least not that I’ve figured out.

Lets talk about apps – there weren’t a ton of apps I use on my iPad regularly, I mentioned RSS readers and Mail already.  There are a couple of nice to haves which are missing, but the workarounds do work quite well.

  • LastPass – no plug-in support, but it has a built in browser or easy search allowing copy/paste of passwords into IE.
  • Mint – Their website works better in IE than on Safari on the iPad, but would be nice to have native app
  • TripIt – My usage of this can be largely replaced by getting the iCal feed to sync to my calendar, but when traveling for leisure it is nice to have the native app which has an offline consolidated version of all of your itinerary, any additional items/notes you’ve added.
  • Office – I am a bit disappointed MSFT wasn’t more aggressive in updating Office to “Modern UI” although I do get it, if I’m just viewing something – the new reader view in Word is great, PPT presentation mode is perfect.  If I’m actually creating content I’m going to need a keyboard anyway, so why do I need the touch/Modern UI?  It’s quite interesting they did it with OneNote, but nothing else.  and PS OneNote Modern actually works, unlike on the iPad where it would crash nearly every time I synced, and would only display half of my notes due to formatting or unsupported features.
  • Lync – It lets you attend IM, voice, and video calls.  It lets you view some sharing, but not share your own desktop.

As you’ve seen in the reviews there are some occasional funkiness with UX and all that, but I haven’t had much challenge, probably because I used Win8 every day for 2-3 months.

The speakers are too quiet, much like the iPad, but they’re stereo, so still better.  The Magnet power supply isn’t as good as the Mag-Safe on my MBA, but still better than a traditional plug (although the cord is too short).

I haven’t experienced any performance issues, until now when I pulled up XBOX music in the small panel to the left, and started streaming an album – there’s now some lag in typing in Mail.  However, when I take music off screen (continuing to play in the background) the lag disappears, so I can’t blame that on streaming, it’s the visualization in Music, tsk tsk MSFT, this was always a problem in the Zune application.

Bottom Line:

I’ve used this thing exclusively for the past 2 days. Now, to be fair, I have had to "cheat" here and there and RDP into my PC (local files not on SP, Lync for desktop sharing, finding e-mails I’d flagged & categorized) but even when I’ve done that it’s been RDP an controlled via the Surface, I haven’t picked up the laptop.  I will admit the past two days have been mostly e-mail response, but I’m going to continue on, I’ve got a decent amount of content creation I need to crank out in the next couple of days.

For personal/play – i.e. the stuff I use the iPad for, the only inkling of missing the iPad is Mr. Reeder app for RSS, but the other benefits have far and away out weighed that.  The integration with Xbox Music is great, which has gotten better than Zune Pass – they’ve rolled out Pandora like free streaming.  They’ve rolled out iTunes (and Google and Amazon) Match like cloud matching (I pointed it at my local collection, and they’re now all matched and available on whatever machine I want), playlists are synced to the cloud.

It’s everything I like about Windows Phone, but on a Tablet, also how I feel about Windows 8 on my PC.  The problem with that is that windows Phone is something people don’t love instantly upon picking it ups, however it doe have the highest satisfaction of people actually using it.  I think Win8 will help this overall, that 90% market share will be a big boon to RT and Win Phone.