Friday, 9 November 2012

Microsoft Surface and Windows RT

I happen to be working on a very exciting project with around 15 Microsoft Consultancy people. We are running the only full wave 15 deployment of the Microsoft platform in the world. If you're not the technical sort, what this means is that where I am working, we are looking to roll out Windows 8 and all the other latest versions of everything Microsoft within the next 6 months, and I'm technical lead on the SharePoint 2013 stream. I'm also working on a storage consolidation exercise, but I won't write about that now.

I've been a long time fan of Microsoft, not least because their products have kept me in employment most of the time for the last 17 years. So when I found out they were releasing a new tablet device to compete with the likes of iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab, I naturally pre-ordered one. After all, Windows 7 was a great product and the preview of Windows 8 that I'd been working with was also a pretty nice experience. Furthermore, here was a shiny new product that I could actually see myself using.

If only I had actually seen myself using it before parting with my hard-earned cash for one.

First things first, the device hardware is mostly fantastic. A magnetic keyboard attaches to it and doubles as a case. The build quality is great and the screen is clear and vibrant. It has a USB port and a HDMI port so it's got connectivity, and really the only faults I could find are that it's a little on the heavy side, and the magnetic power connector is quite fiddly to use, especially in the dark. Oh and there's no USB charging so you have to carry a plug-in charger around with you if you think the battery might run out. If you've taken your Surface to work and gone out for drinks, don't try to plug it back into your charger when you get home.

Moving onto the software, once I got used to Windows 8 I found it a joy to use. I love the way it's been designed and after an initial frustration caused by my complete ignorance of the welcome video it tried to show me, I found it very natural and even found myself trying to swipe the screen of my regular laptop (now upgraded to Windows 8) on several occasions.

Unfortunately I've decided to return it, which in itself was a bit of a mission. I'll come to the reasons for returning it shortly, but let's just say my customer service experience with the Microsoft call centre wasn't great. They were unable to process the return for a week because apparently they hadn't taken payment from my card, and they didn't know when payment would be taken. Thankfully this has now been sorted and my return has been authorised.

So why am I returning it?
Well the short answer is, frankly it's useless if there's no wifi connection and it's launched without several key apps. The device is marketed as a mobile tool and it's all set up to use Microsoft Skydrive for storage by default. On a regular Windows 7 or Windows 8 Pro computer this wouldn't be a problem as there's a Skydrive sync application, which allows you to work with files locally and synchronises them to Skydrive when a connection is available. Sadly though there's no such application on Windows RT, the ARM processor version of the operating system that's installed on the Surface. Following several inquiries on the Microsoft support site, I decided to try and write a script that would approximate the way Skydrive sync works, but sadly the tools I'd hoped to use for that don't seem to work properly on a drive mounted from the web, leaving me with what is essentially a very expensive coaster.
It has other problems too. No facebook app, no native twitter app, and when you ask Microsoft staff why not, they direct you to the People Hub, which is about as useless as a chocolate teapot. Except that at least you can eat a chocolate teapot. The newsreader app I downloaded because Flipboard isn't available isn't bad, except that it doesn't pre-fetch any news, so if you want to read news while you're on the train, you can't because there's no wifi connection. And the device doesn't even have the option of a data connection so you're stuck. Add to that the stories doing the rounds about how Microsoft are making about $250 on each unit sold and I know I'm getting a raw deal. As far as I'm concerned Windows RT means Windows Return

It's a really unfortunate experiment, and for the price there are plenty of alternatives that will be more practical and more useful. I didn't expect to pay £650 to be a Microsoft beta tester for a product that isn't really ready for an already-competitive market.

What will I replace it with? Well I've just ordered a Sony Vaio Duo 11 ultrabook. It's got an 11 inch screen that runs at a much higher resolution than that of the Surface, Intel CPU so runs full Windows 8 and all the apps I need, and has a neat sliding keyboard action with the all-important trackpoint seldom seen on laptops these days. It has double the storage and considerably more  power, at the expense of £200 more in price, weighing a little more and having slightly less battery life. Because it's a Vaio I can expect it to be of decent quality and have a reasonable level of support, and it has the potential to replace all my computers at home, which is a bonus!

Can't wait for it to arrive!

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