Friday, July 19, 2013

One month with the Microsoft Surface - Week 4

‘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.

This is the final piece of the ‘One month with the Microsoft Surface’ experience reviews. First off, I’d like to apologize for the delay. Unexpected travel requirements are to blame mostly, not to mention Bloggers horrible editing tools, which kept messing the format up whenever I tried to upload the article. But it’s done now, and because I’ve been working on it more recently, I did manage to include some of the latest happenings in the world of Surface so without further ado, let’s get started.

Windows RT 8.1 Preview

The second the Windows 8.1 Preview became available to the public after Microsoft announced it in their //Build/ developer conference, I headed over to to get the new OS running on the Surface. The install was pretty straightforward; the aforementioned website will give you a small Windows Update package that will prep your PC for updating to Windows 8.1 via the Windows Store. The same will happen when the final version of the OS is released. The update is slightly over 2GB in size so depending on your internet connection speed, it could take a while.

My first impression after installing 8.1 was “wow”. I didn’t think Surface RT was slow before the update, but 8.1 made everything noticeably faster. Flicking through my long Start Screen was zippier, scrolling down long websites was smoother, and everything felt refreshed. I should mention that I upgraded to Windows 8.1, and all my apps, files and settings were still there. So the increased speed of the device was not a result of a fresh install of Windows. And that’s only the beginning.

Windows 8.1 brings with it a host of new features and usability improvements based on the feedback Microsoft got on Windows 8. The Start Button is back! Not that I really missed it but its there. No Start Menu though, the button just takes you back to the Start Screen. You can however set it so that it takes you the All Apps section of the Start Screen (above), which in my opinion is better than the cluttered Start Menu. You can also set Windows to boot straight to the desktop, not recommended for a tablet like the Surface but the option is there.

One of my favorite new features in 8.1 is the ability to set your desktop background as the Start Screen background. This makes switching between the traditional desktop and metro environments less jarring and more seamless.

Search has gotten a complete makeover, Bing is now built directly into Windows. A generic search from the Start Screen will result in Bing aggregating everything related to your search into a beautiful, panoramic view. Searching for a music artist for example will bring in the artists bio, samples of their music that you can listen to directly from search, pictures that you can sort with an array of filters, and the latest news articles related to them from the web. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this search experience ever. I guarantee you, you’re going to love it. I know I do.

Multitasking is greatly improved now with 8.1 on the Surface, you can now pin 2 apps side by side in a 50/50 split view, giving you a nice balance between the two apps. Apps now automatically put themselves in split view too. For example, if you open the Mail app in full screen and click on a link, IE will pop up in a 50/50 view beside Mail instead of taking up the entire screen like before. Speaking of IE, its been updated to IE11, which now allows you to open unlimited tabs. It can also open another instance of itself in split view, so you can have two IE windows open side by side. That can come in very handy as you can imagine.

In addition to functionality and UI improvements, a number of core Windows apps have also been redesigned, with the promise of all Windows Metro apps getting the same treatment by the time the final version of 8.1 ships. Some of the apps in the 8.1 Preview have already been updated, the Xbox Music app for example has been rebuilt from the ground up. The Windows Store has also been updated with a new UI with lots of new features like automatic app updates and lists. Windows apps like Alarms, Sound Recorder, Scan, Calculator and Movie Moments (Live Movie Maker) have received a Metro makeover. While brand new apps like Reading List, Health & Fitness, and Food & Drink (which features a gesture based hands-free mode!) have made their debut.

Outlook RT is also available now along with the Office suite, so if you’re a heavy email user, this inclusion should be a huge bonus for you to have on the Surface.

There are MANY more new features and updates in Windows 8.1. It’s much more major than its name suggests so I urge you to check out a full review of it.

A word of warning though, if you do decide to install the Windows 8.1 Preview on your Surface now, you will have to reinstall all your apps when the final version ships. If you decide to wait for the final version which should be out in a few months, you won’t have to. So I recommend you wait unless you don’t mind the extra hassle.


As you probably already know, the Surface RT does not allow you to install your typical x86 based applications, which in a way, completely defies the purpose of a “Windows” based PC. At least without its jailbreak you cant. Only apps from the Microsoft-certified Windows Store can be installed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Metro/Modern-style apps are lightweight and have a minimal impact on battery life. They’re not only functional, but they also look great while they’re at it. Most even out-design their iOS and Android counterparts.

Coming from an iPad, there were a number of apps I didn’t find in the Store, even some of the basics like Facebook or example (which is coming soon), or Reeder/Feedly. However, quality alternatives are plentiful and in many cases better than their official versions. I don’t really find myself needing an official Facebook app since I use Facebook the good old fashioned way; in the browser. Which to be honest I prefer to a rather limited official app. NextGen Reader is an alternative that both out-looks, and out-functions Reeder.

Although many big name apps have started appearing in the Windows Store, like the official Twitter, CNN, and Spotify apps to name a few, there’s still a sense that something’s missing. Bad Piggies is STILL not available even though Rovio have already released Angry Bids Space and Star Wars to the platform. Though other popular games have appeared like Temple Run Brave and Rayman Jungle Run. Halo: Spartan Assault is also available!

So in general, the app situation is not great, but it’s certainly improving in rather big ways.

Surface Pro
It’s important to note that the Surface RT was not designed to be a laptop replacement for a power user. Those of you who depend on the Adobe Suite apps, AutoCAD and the like would be mad to throw their laptops away in favor of the Surface RT. You’ll want the Surface Pro for that. 

Rather, Surface RT targets the ‘average user’. Those of you that spend most your time updating your social networks, browsing the web, listening to music, watching movies and playing games. And as a bonus, you get the Office suite for your productivity needs. In that case, Surface RT in my opinion, is the perfect media consumption tablet. You get the very best of all Microsoft related services at the tips of your fingers; Xbox Live, Xbox Music/Video, SkyDrive, Bing, and Office among others.

My Alienware M14x was the only reason I went for the Surface RT rather than the Surface Pro. I didn’t need something to replace a rather powerful laptop that’s got a good 3-5 years left in it. Even if I did go for the Surface Pro, I wouldn’t be playing Crysis on it. I do believe though that a future version of the Surface Pro will replace the M14x. One things for sure though, it will have to have specs more powerful than a Core i7-2630QM and a GT555M graphics card. See it all comes down to specs, and currently, the Surface Pro is just not powerful enough for me, as a gamer, to consider. 

Now if you’re not into heavy gaming, then everything changes. The Surface Pro is meant to replace the Ultrabook. Which by the way, have been coming out with pretty decent specs recently. Surface Pro packs Ultrabook specs in a tablet form factor, and is priced accordingly. If you consider yourself a regular PC user, and you’re in the market for a new laptop, you owe it to yourself to give the Surface Pro a look.

Otherwise, if you’re not looking for something to replace your laptop, rather something that’s lighter yet still very functional, the Surface RT will do the trick.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, the Surface RT is exactly what I expected it to be and more. I wanted a tablet that was the best of the iPad’s design and Android’s flexibility/customization put together and that's precisely what the Surface is. Great hardware, great software, and a great ecosystem to back it up. What more could you ask for from a media consumption tablet?

Keep in mind that it’s been a year since the announcement of the Surface, so its safe to assume that we’re almost due for a refresh. If I had to guess what the Surface RT2 will bring to the table, I’d say a new Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 Quad-Core processor (or Tegra 4 maybe), 4GB of RAM, up to 256GB of storage, a 1080p display, a new kickstand that would allow angle readjustment, NFC, BT 4.0, and LTE, all while maintaining the same phenomenal battery life and slim form factor. Sounds wicked doesn’t it? But that’s just my educated guess. There are also rumors of an 8” Surface device. Might want to start gearing up for the holiday season 2013.

In any case, whether you decide to get the Surface now or wait for the second-gen model, you can rest assured that you’re getting a premium product that’s built to last. Having used Surface on a daily basis for several months now, I cannot imagine how I got by without it. How I had to put up with anything less than Office 2013, how I had to email everything from one device to another instead of simply plugging a USB stick in or using Bluetooth, how I had to place the iPad flat down on a table and awkwardly use the on-screen keyboard to take down notes in class. And the list goes on.

While Surface certainly has its flaws, it truly set the standard in tablet computing, and it set the bar high.

That concludes this series of Surface articles. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much I did writing them, and more importantly, I hope you found them insightful and informative. If you still have questions, by all means, get in touch, I’ll be glad to help you out.

Thanks for reading. :)

One Month with the Microsoft Surface:
Week 4+ (You are here)

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