Wednesday, December 12, 2012

One month with the Microsoft Surface - Week 2

‘One month with the Microsoft Surface’ is a series of 4 experience reviews that will be released on a weekly basis for the period of a month. They will be based on my experience with the Surface. These are not traditional reviews and will not cover every little detail of the device but rather what it’s like to own one. The aim is to leave you with a more intimate and true to life view of owning the device and hopefully factor in on your buying decision.
Week Two:

Offline Road Trip
182km south of the Muscat capital lies a small, seaside town; Sur. It’s calm, windy, cold, and its 3G connectivity is absolutely horrid if not completely nonexistent. But it’s certainly a beautiful place to take a break from city life and just relax. The lack of internet connectivity means that I’ll be able to last here for a week max, after that, my peace of mind will start to degrade rapidly. The Surface certainly won’t mind as it doesn’t have 3G built in nor does it support USB 3G dongles. Reports however do suggest that it works well with USB-Ethernet adapters. Anyways, I’m here for 5 days and I’ve brought the Surface with me. That will give me plenty of time using the device itself instead of trapping myself in its browser.

The Metro Experience
Contrary to the way I use Windows 8 on my laptop, I spend the majority of my time in Metro Modern UI environment on the Surface, only rarely going into Desktop mode to do things like transferring files or using Office. The Modern experience is absolutely wonderful with touch, bounds and leaps better than the now stagnant iOS UI in my opinion. With live tiles constantly displaying useful information and rotating, Surface feels connected and up-to-date despite the fact that it’s not connected to the internet. I’ve divided all of my apps into categories for easy navigation, but as you can imagine, over time, the Start screen can become very long. Thankfully, Microsoft have provided a solution to this in the form of Semantic Zoom, which allows you to simply pinch the screen to zoom out and get an overview of the entire Start screen, making it really easy and fast to jump from one end to the other.

(Navigation is a Pinch!)
The Modern experience makes it easy to accomplish basic everyday tasks efficiently, very much like Android and iOS. There’s an app for mail, weather, messaging, calendar and others. But since this is Microsoft we’re talking about, the Surface has some of the company’s other services built in; like Xbox Music/Video (Zune successors), Xbox Live, Skydrive, Office and Bing.
(Modern UI Multitasking)
One of my favorite features of the Modern UI is that everything, EVERYTHING is full screen. You use the edges of the screen to navigate the UI. It’s not very intuitive at first and for some reason, Microsoft doesn’t give you chance to practice while they demo how to use it during the Windows first time start up. So there is a learning curve, a simple one though and you get used to it fast. Using the edges to multitask is another great feature; with the ability to Snap apps next to each other.

Today I awoke with a full 5 bars of network reception on my phone accompanied by a tiny ‘G’ for GPRS on my Lumia 900, I saw it switch every now and then to EDGE but so far haven’t managed to even get Google up and running. However it does work. I get dings every now and then when new email comes in so I decided to try my luck and hook the phone up with Surface using its Internet Sharing feature. And to my utter surprise and disbelief, loaded. Some of my live tiles actually updated with new content and the Bing Maps app found my location, but didn’t load map imagery though. That’s as good as it got for me. I decided to turn the sharing off before its slowness and refusal to open Facebook got to my nerves. So I was back to square one in terms of getting connected, but hey, at least now I know that Wi-Fi hotspots work well with Surface.

Getting Used to Touch Cover
(Here's to all those reviewers saying you can't use Surface on your lap)
One thing I noticed about myself is that I’m typing much faster now with the Touch Cover! I’m making fewer mistakes and the cover is registering more of my taps. I honestly thought that it would take more than 2 weeks for me to get used to this thing. When I get back to the capital I’ll try to make this more of a scientific test by comparing my typing speed on my laptop and on the Touch cover using one of those words-per-minutes websites. That should give you a better indication of the covers’ usability.

Another thing I noticed is that the Black Touch Cover that I have has been collecting a fair amount of dust on its keyboard. I saw this coming. It’s the same reason witches in black don’t own white cats. It’s also another reason I decided not to wait for the then out of stock white cover when I ordered the Surface. Good thing the cover is spill resistant. Water slipped right off when I finally gathered to guts to spill some on the electronic device. A hand towel wiped all the dust off. A word of warning. Whatever you do, don’t use paper tissue (Kleenex) to wipe a wet Touch Cover, you’ll only make things worse.

With other electronic devices, be it phones, tablets or laptops, I would always advise you to get some hands-on time with it at a retail store before you make a purchase. Merely looking at images or watching videos of the device online cannot compare to how it physically feels like. Just like how images of McDonald’s burgers never look like the actual burger. The same is true with the Surface but not with its Touch Covers keyboard; the keyboard takes time to get used to and you certainly won’t feel comfortable the first time you use it. But if you’d rather not take the risk you could always opt for the Type Cover, which is a little thicker but features actual, physical keys. Too bad it only comes in Black though.

Surface as a Productivity Tool
Now that I feel comfortable with the Touch Cover, I figured it’s time to fire up desktop mode, launch Microsoft Word 2013 and get productive. Office 2013 (Home & Student) comes preinstalled on the Surface RT.
(If I didn't tell you this screenshot is from a Surface, would you have guessed?)
After Week 1, I got questions about what Office was like on the Surface and if it was actually usable. Well Office, initially a preview which can be updated to the final version via a 500MB Windows Update package, includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, and SharePoint Server. Some of the first things I noticed about this new version is its cleaner appearance, achieved by hiding the Ribbon and some nice design aesthetics. Buttons and menus are enlarged depending on whether I’m using the trackpad or my finger to operate Office. Everything is touch friendly and scrolling is incredibly smooth. I find it a little hard to believe that it’s running on an ARM processor since I noticed no performance impairments compared to using it on my laptop. And it’s the FULL version of Office, not some cut down, compromised excuse of an office suit for tablets. I’m looking at you iWork for iOS!
So to answer the question, yes. Absolutely. It’s a no-compromise productivity experience that works very well.

That’s all I’ve got to share this week. Next week, I’ll get a little technical. An iPad and Alienware M14x might make guest appearances to do battle with the Surface. Once again, if you’ve got anything specific you want me to look into or cover, drop us an email or contact us via Facebook or Twitter.
One Month with the Microsoft Surface:
Week 1
Week 2 (You are here)
Week 3
Week 4

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