By Michael Fisher | March 20, 2013 6:19 PM
I’ve learned that there are two things about being a smartphone-and-tablet reviewer.
The first thing: you get to handle awesome gadgetry days or weeks ahead of its official release date, and you’re not just allowed to use the heck out of it; you need to, in order to do your job. That’s the awesome thing.
The other, less-awesome thing: you eventually have to give it all back.
“Empty Nest” is a recurring column discussing what I miss -and what I don’t- about the devices I’ve had to return.
My relationship with Microsoft’s first self-built tablet has always been somewhat distant. I wasn’t the one who reviewed the device for Pocketnow; that honor instead fell to Brandon Miniman, who praised the Surface RT’s innovative aspects, but didn’t think much of the tablet overall. Some follow-up coverage came from our in-house Microsoft expert Adam Lein, who compared the Surface RT with the Surface Pro before going on to craft many more articles and videos featuring that younger, more-powerful sibling.
My introduction to the Surface RT came later on, after some chatter on episode 022 of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast prompted me to take a second look at the tablet, which by that time had taken a bit of a beating in the tech press. I had an opportunity to live with the Surface for a few weeks before sending it off to continue traveling the circuit of Pocketnow editors. Now that it’s been gone almost a month, I have a better grasp on what I miss most – and what I’m glad to be rid of.
It’s Good To See You
Pocketnow’s resident Surface RT will eventually make it back to our Boston offices after its east-coast tour, primarily because I’ve specifically requested its return. I want it back in part because my girlfriend, who often eschews the various other tablets in the office for the Surface when she visits, misses it. In preparation for this piece, I asked her why. She replied that she liked the Windows UI, and also mentioned that the tablet’s in-hand feel is good, with “crisp edges,” and that it “doesn’t feel cheap.”
That’s a sentiment I wholly understand and agree with. Not that the other tablets sharing office space with the Surface are badly built or cheaply made, but Microsoft’s product feels somehow better, more premium. The VaporMg coating, aggressively angled edges, and the stiff responsive clack of the kickstand combine to produce a device that feels more substantial than its competitors. That latter feature -the kickstand- also lends the Surface much more utility than other tablets out of the box, as it’s able to stand on its own without the aid of an accessory. Finally, there’s the Touch Cover, which for all its flaws is one of the most futuristic and good-looking accessories I’ve ever laid hands on.
It took an extended absence to confirm what I’d always suspected my favorite aspect of the Surface RT to be: its look and feel. When Surface is deployed in desktop mode with its kickstand extended, magnetic charger attached, and Touch Cover opened up, it looks like a futuristic concept of a computer – something out of the mind of an early-1990s novelist. Whether I’m taking in some Netflix, browsing the web, or just watching Windows RT’s live tiles flip and scroll, the Surface delivers an experience that’s beautiful to the eye and smooth to the touch. It’s one of the prettiest devices I’ve ever used.
It’s Good To See You Go
The problem with a pretty face, of course, is that it’s not always attached to a deep personality. During my time with the Surface, the principal challenge in making it work as a useful daily driver was Windows RT.
That’s not to say it’s a bad OS. Windows RT has a lot going for it in terms of its beautiful interface – but there’s less functionality beneath the beauty for a specific kind of user. I’m talking about the person who’s deeply embedded in the Google ecosystem: someone for whom Gmail, Google Drive, Gtalk, and all the other G-type titles aren’t just handy accessories, but necessities. Google hasn’t written apps for Windows RT (or, for that matter, Windows Phone) to optimize these features, and while they’re mostly accessible via the browser, it’s not an enjoyable experience – at least, not on a device that bills itself as a tablet.
The easy way out is to call that certain, specific kind of user -the Gmail addict who buys a Surface- a fool. “Get an Android tablet if you’re so dependent on Google!” Sure, fine. But a prime Microsoft competitor – a little company out of Cupertino – boasts a tablet of its own that features a suite of very capable Google-sourced apps. And while we can certainly pin the lion’s share of the blame on our friends at Mountain View for the Surface’s app gap, it doesn’t change anything. Using the Surface would be much more enjoyable if I were willing to jump with both feet into Microsoft’s ecosystem, but I’m not. Unless your personal life or work situation makes a switch to an Outlook.com/Skype/SkyDrive lifestyle an easy one, you’ll fail to get the most out of Surface. That’s especially true given the general lack of apps on Windows RT; you can run a ton of apps on the Surface Pro, but the RT doesn’t have anywhere near that level of versatility. That was my experience – and I really don’t miss trying to warp myself into the kind of user I’m not, just to make my tablet work the way I need it to.
Till Next Time
The beautiful thing about computers today is that they’re ever-evolving. The limitations placed on their growth by hardware are growing less burdensome by the generation, and each new software update brings added functionality and a more refined experience. Microsoft has committed to supporting the Surface RT through 2017, and we’ll doubtless see a lot of growth in the company’s halo tablet over the coming months and years.
Microsoft got the more crucial aspect of the Surface RT -the hardware- dead right. While I’d like a higher-res screen and the kickstand isn’t the greatest for in-lap use, I otherwise adore the Surface’s construction. As Microsoft continues honing the software experience via OTA updates, and the Windows userbase continues to expand, the Surface will grow more and more useful. That’s why I missed the Surface RT when it went away, and it’s why I’m looking forward to getting it back. It’s also why anyone who invested in a Surface has more than the philosophy of sunk costs to console them: barring a total disaster of epic proportions, it only gets better from here.