Review: Surface RT - Going Once, Going Twice, Sold.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Surface RT launched to mixed reviews, but they all shared one thing in common. They were written on the back of artificial time spent using the device as opposed to living with it 1. My experience with a Surface RT, however, has been real. I pre-ordered a Surface RT last October. I had it for six months. But then I decided to sell it last week. Apps were not the problem. It was the stage they were set on. It was not the ultimate stage for Windows.

A session without an app crashing was rare. And not just third-party apps either. Internet Explorer, the app I spent most of my time in, was the biggest offender. I question Microsoft's decision to accomodate the "full web" by supporting Flash. Sure, the correlation between Flash support and IE's stability doesn't imply causation (there was never any feedback about the cause of a crash), but I know at least one person who would think it does. Even when Flash wasn't necessary, such as on websites that offered a HTML5 video alternative, Flash was still used by default. And other than video, the only other application of Flash I would encounter on sites I visit was for interactive ads, leading me to conclude that the full web isn't necessarily the best web. At least not for me.

Crashes in general happened often enough that the experience of using the RT became defined by anxiety. As my confidence in the RT eroded, I used it less. It was never reliable enough to be consistently an arm's length away. Its unreliability violated my trust. And once trust became an issue, no amount of monthly firmware updates was going to regain it.

There were occasional gains facilitated by the Touch Cover and an Arc Mouse. Touch, keyboard and mouse coexisted effectively. This setup made sense and felt really good. It was empowering. There were tangible results too. If writing is considered work, then I got some serious work done. But it was always from a desk. I expected the kickstand to be a trivial differentiator, but it did add meaningful value as a laptop desktop (with Touch Cover) or second screen (without Touch Cover) enabler; away from a desk, I also used the RT in bed quite a lot because of it. Finally, the combination of USB port and MicroSD slot made transferring data to and from the device, specifically from my DSLR, a breeze. My next tablet must have both.

I didn't expect to get any work done on the RT when I bought it. Yet I managed to. But I didn't buy the RT for work. It was for play and it was here where the experience fell apart. Issues with reliability, as established earlier, made it impossible to feel relaxed when using it. The slightly underwhelming battery life exacerbated matters. 

I considered it an achievement when I comfortably managed to get a full day's use out of it on a single charge. The strategy implemented halfway through the day usually involved reluctantly reducing the screen's brightness. This was annoying because the screen was too dim on anything other than full brightness. This dilemma was somewhat counterbalanced by the exceptionally quick charging times, but I was still disappointed because I remembered reviews generally being impressed by battery life. But then again these are usually based on benchmarks involving looping a video at a specific brightness setting.

The terribly low sound from the speakers meant I disappointingly refrained from using the RT to watch TV or movies (or listen to music or Skype even). Any media consumed inconveniently used my earphones - the RT's mobility meant the earphones were rarely within easy reach. Although the 16:9 aspect ratio was a relatively unused feature, it still had an indirect effect on my experience. Unfortunately not in a good way as it stopped me from doing any long-form reading on the device 2. I tried using it in portrait a few times but I felt silly every time. So I stopped entirely. 

Ironically, playfulness and not productivity was my RT's greatest shortcoming. The seeds for abandonment were planted early, but being an early adopter you're programmed to persevere. My threshold for accepting the RT's inadequacies may have elongated as a result, but it wasn't boundless. Last week, my patience was finally up. And not because of any particular incident but a belated acknowledgement of the diminishing returns the experience offered. An experience severely compromised by the guts of the hardware. 

I probably won't be pre-ordering the next Surface RT, but I'm still hoping it will address the first-generation's deficiencies through the necessary hardware improvements and software optimisation. As long as the first-generation RT on the Microsoft campus was the same as mine, I'm cautiously optimistic about its next iteration as its problems are as obvious as they're solvable.

Although my experience wasn't positive, I've still come out of it respecting Microsoft's vision. I get it. Its the execution that isn't there yet. Fortunately, modest sales mean Microsoft have a second chance at a first impression with the majority of Windows users. If you were considering on picking up a discounted first-generation RT, don't. If you're waiting for the next RT, either be careful or be conservative (i.e. get a Pro instead 3).

1. This problem isn't specific to Surface RT's reviews, but applies to reviews of software and hardware in general. Someone needs to start a site where stuff is reviewed after reasonable real-word usage.

2. PDFs or ebooks.

3. The Pro's hardware shares some of the same problems as the RT. And has some of its own. But it's at least reliable. That is more fundamental to the user experience than a few less grams in weight or a few less hours of battery life.