Life with Surface RT – and why I’ve upgraded to a Surface Pro

I picked up my Surface RT on launch day last year as I happened to be in New York for work. The strong yen made it a bargain and I’ve been living with it since. Because it won’t run most desktop apps, it has seen limited use. It was an excellent video player during flights, but nothing an iPad could not have handled. Word made a passing replacement for Windows Live Writer with it’s built in blogging system, but it wasn’t perfect. Thanks to Microsoft locking down compilation for ARM-based apps, third parties have not been able to fill in the missing functionality gaps.

Read on for my views on living with the Surface RT for six months, and why I’ve picked up a Pro.

 

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Surface Pro on the left, Surface RT on the right. Note the difference in kickstand angles.

 

The Surface RT as a Remote Desktop machine

Where the Surface RT absolutely shined was a thin client, Remote Desktop machine. The latest version of the RDP Protocol that ships with Windows 8 is another leap forward from previous versions. Whilst we lose Aero remoting, we gain adaptive encoding that encodes different parts of the screen in the most appropriate fashion, changing algorithms for text, pictures and even video. Video now streams due to re-encoding on the host side – previous versions of RDP required Media Foundation compliant players which would attempt to bitstream the actual video file when being played. In reality, this only worked with Windows Media Player when playing MP4 or WMV video files. UDP support also improves connection reliability.

Remote Desktop is the reason I am not keen on using Macs when I have even one Windows machine in active use. The version of the Remote Desktop client for OS X runs a protocol somewhere between Windows XP and Windows Vista – it supports network-level authentication but the performance is that of an old Windows XP client, with almost a decade-old set of algorithms for streaming the session. It is unusable over cellular links and glitchy even over LAN. Surface RT of course has none of these problems due to an up to date client.

Surface RT for work

Because you cannot install binaries unless signed by Microsoft, you can kiss goodbye to the idea of doing any “real” work on the host OS of the Surface RT, beyond simple Office work in Word and Powerpoint. Outlook is not available, so you’ll be relegated to webmail (the Metro Mail app is so bad it is not worth talking about). You can of course Remote Desktop to a work machine, but be warned that if you require a non-standard VPN connection (such as Cisco AnyConnect), you won’t be able to install the software required to connect to your workplace.

I travel a bit for business, and the Surface RT has been great as a video player – the built in kickstand perfectly fitting on an economy airline table. The battery life will last even the majority of a 13 hour flight. Just remember you won’t be able to do real work on it (unless Powerpoint is your job) – so if you are flying business because your firm hopes you might get some work done (and be well rested), you’ll need to bring a real laptop with you. The Surface RT is small enough to slip in the same laptop sleeve as the MacBook I use for work, so carrying it is not a burden. However, MacBooks can play videos quite well and business class has power adapters so the Surface is a bit unwelcome if you have a “work laptop”.

Why buy a Surface Pro when I already have a Surface RT

So what made me get a Surface Pro? Ultimately it came down to it’s biggest failing – note-taking. Surface RT ships with it’s killer app, OneNote, but with a touch screen that won’t handle stylus input. I wanted to do some sketches in OneNote, so picked up the Adonit JotPlus capacitive stylus. Whilst it was somewhat accurate enough, the lack of palm detection made writing and drawing impossible. In OneNote – an application designed for handwriting and drawing. Palm Detection prevents your hand from interrupting your drawing, but with no stylus support, the Surface RT has no way of knowing what is a “pen” or your finger.

This was a bridge too far. I used to use OneNote back at university with the awesome, ahead of it’s time, HP TC1100.

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The HP TC1100 discontinued in 2005 – look familiar?

The TC1100 had a Wacom stylus and digitizer (like the Surface Pro), a detachable keyboard (like the Surface Pro) and a 10.1 screen (like the Surface Pro, but 4:3 like the iPad, so actually useable in portrait orientation). Tablet PCs fell out of fashion around the time Windows Vista came on the scene – maybe because it wouldn’t run on any of them.

I remembered how OneNote basically got me through four years of note taking at University with this pen, before the battery completely died.

So, the Surface Pro can do everything the RT can do, except run for 9 hours on a single charge. However, it has a stylus, runs all Windows apps, supports unorthodox VPN software and even uses the same Touch Cover of the Surface RT? I was sold.

Buying a Surface Pro in Japan

After picking up the Adonis JotPlus pen from LOAX in Shibuya, trying it out in the pub and realizing that this isn’t the tablet experience I remember from 2004, I got on a train to Akihabara to see if I can find a Surface Pro.

Surface Pro has no scheduled date for Japan. Next month, Microsoft will release the Surface Pro in the UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. But not Japan.

The first place I went was IOSYS in Akihabara, opposite Donki Houtei – the same place I got my Nokia Lumia 800 last year. This is a great shop that sells imported (US) phones and tablets. They had the Surface Pro in stock (along with the RT), the 64GB model was 124,999 yen, the 128GB was 139,999 yen. Note that this does not include a Touch or Type Cover (I already have a Type Cover for the RT) and works out at about $1400 – a 40% markup on the US RRP of $999. This isn’t a bad deal considering sales tax, shipping and the possibility of being stung by customs on import taxes. Its still a significant markup, but they do provide a 6 month warranty. I picked up the 128GB model.

First Impressions

The Surface Pro is slightly thicker than the RT, but unless you compare the two side by side, you don’t notice after a while. The angle of the kickstand is a little lower (meaning that it points up a bit more). The screen is at 1920×1080 and Windows has the desktop scaled to 150% to compensate. Be ready for some blurry text in badly-written applications unless you drop it down to 100% scaling. The high resolution isn’t too unusable if you are sitting in front of the machine, but the same restrictions about using it in your lap apply. Not that you’d want to – both Surface models are notoriously hard to use with the keyboard attached on your lap on in bed.

Performance is that of an average Core i5 laptop with an SSD installed. Visual Studio and SQL Server both installed in 15 minutes, whereas Office was pre-installed. All my machines are SSDs now, so performance is very similar across devices – the slightly slower processor here might bite me later if I decide to do something like encode video on the Surface Pro, but I would probably farm that out to my desktop machines. The RAM is a paltry 4GB but Windows 8 is very economical with OS memory usage. Serious processing tasks will still be farmed out to a larger machine.

The pièce de résistance is the stylus. It attaches to the power charger magnets instead of sliding inside the device like older Tablet PCs. The magnets are strong though and I haven’t had it disconnect in my bag yet. I don’t think this will be as easy to lose as some reviews are claiming. The stylus in OneNote compared to the JotPlus “fake finger” stylus is like night and day – the pen supports multiple pressure levels and you can reverse it and erase with the opposite end of the pen – exactly like in 2004. The biggest downside is the widescreen ratio of the Surface and the fact that portrait mode looks so stupid – maybe we’ll get a 4:3 version someday.

For media playing, it does everything the RT does, but you can actually install VLC and WinAmp. No longer do I have to convert MKVs to MP4 like I had to on the RT.

Overall

Ultimately I feel I will still use the Surface RT as a “holiday” device and the Surface Pro as a “business trip” device. The RT does everything I need for recreational purposes, with the ability to Remote Desktop into a “real” machine if I need access to unavailable applications. The Pro however, whilst I have no intention of doing so myself, could easily be a desktop replacement. The stylus has already reawakened my almost decade old OneNote obsession.

I’ll probably write up my experiences with the Surface Pro in a couple of months time. Stay tuned.

AdBlock alternative on Windows RT’s IE10

On the Surface’s Windows RT, you cannot install alternative browsers. This means no AdBlock.

There is a workaround to this, using IE10’s “Tracking Protection”. First, fire up desktop IE10, click the little gear in the top right and select Safety -> Tracking Protection. Click on “Get a Tracking Protection List online…”.

You should see a list of tracking protection lists on Microsoft’s site. You will want to click Add next to the Easylist lists. These might not cover all ads – feel free to add a few more.

With these lists added to IE10, both the Desktop and Metro versions will filter out the ads. This method is not quite as good as AdBlock which removes the ads from the screen entirely, but is better than nothing.

See before and after screenshots of The Register in Metro IE10 below.

Why I won’t be returning my Microsoft Surface RT

I’ve picked up a Microsoft Surface RT from the “temporary” New York Times Square Microsoft Store. While the purchasing experience was a bit of a mess (untrained sales staff – I ended up having to type my own details into their POS terminal as I’m not quite sure the guy knew how to type), I managed to make off with a properly boxed (I skipped getting the staff to unbox it and walk me through the “Out of Box Experience”) 32GB Surface, Type Cover and VGA adapter.

The device

This is an amazing piece of hardware. I’ve dabbled in and out of portable computing ever since the original Windows Tablets in the form of the HP TC1100. The TC1100 was ahead of its time – a full version of Windows in a tablet with a decent attached keyboard that went together to make a case. However, the hardware was pretty bulky – fans and a display too far away from the glass, making touch, even with the included stylus, inaccurate.

This really looks like something out of a Bond film. The tapered edges and kickstand both apparently go off at 22 degrees (I haven’t measured), looking deliberate – as if designed by actual designers. I would not be surprised if some ex-Apple guys worked on this device. The battery is said to go 10 hours of mp4 video – more than enough for a long haul flight, and I can personally attest to the quick charging of the Surface up to around 50% in about an hour. The camera is at an angle to compensate for the slant when using the kickstand. Portrait mode looks slightly ridiculous, but I can’t imagine using it in portrait when just sitting the device landscape in your lap works so well.

The Type Cover is like nothing you’ve seen before – forget the comedy Bluetooth “keyboard covers” for iPad users desperate to do a bit of actual work on their devices – this is genuinely a pleasure to use. The small multitouch trackpad is great, but strangely defaults to inverted scrolling like OS X Mountain Lion. My only gripe is that they still have the Caps Lock key – I will have to delve into the Registry to switch this to a Control key. Yes, I did say Registry…

The software

Windows RT is installed by default and is the most fascinating part of the device. Many pundits have long called for Microsoft to abandon backwards compatibility and build a new operating system – if they did, it would look something like this. Windows RT is Windows 8, but without the backwards compatibility legacy. The full Windows desktop is here – the Command Line, PowerShell, Windows Explorer, Paint, Notepad, VPN connections, BitLocker – the works. The only difference is that WinRT only allows Microsoft-signed applications to run on the desktop. Visual Studio 2012 can build ARM applications but this is blocked by Microsoft – bypass the block with a registry setting and the compiled binaries are blocked by Windows RT. I suspect this is because the device is subsidized and they hope to recoup revenue from the Windows Store apps, but it might just be a ploy to force developers to build Metro-style applications. The thicker, heavier, noisier Surface Pro is due soon and will run the full x86 Windows 8 Pro, bringing legacy support with it.

If the Surface RT is meant to be used as a main or only machine, this is going to cause problems. In the Microsoft Store, non-technical members of the general public were already asking if they “could use their iPhone with it” – yes, they can, but only to charge and download photos. iTunes will not install. Firefox will not install. Even some Windows Store Metro apps will not work – notably Google’s suite. If you or your company uses Google Apps, steer clear from Windows RT until Microsoft or Google budge and allow Google Drive syncing. There could be serious backlash due to Windows RT – if enough customers kick off a storm, Microsoft might remove the signature check when running ARM binaries, allowing third-parties to treat Windows RT like a first class citizen.

In reality though, a Surface RT is not going to be your only machine. It absolutely shines as a Remote Desktop thin client – you can have Visual Studio running on your 12-core beast machine in the office and just remote in to use it. Flash is built into the browser, allowing stuff like Adobe Connect to work without a problem – the web browser version being much better than the iOS version, which still hasn’t been updated to support retina or iPhone 5 long displays. One thing you can’t do is share your screen with Adobe Connect. Full desktop-class Web Apps such as Google Docs work fine in Metro IE10 and without any browser chrome, could be mistaken for a “native” application.

Games from the Windows Store run quite badly on Surface. Jetpack Joyride has a pretty bad frame rate when lots of sprites are on the screen. Hopefully there is room for improvement in drivers, but don’t expect iPad 4 quality graphics. You cannot see pixels when sitting back and typing thanks to ClearType, but the resolution is nowhere near the iPad Retina display.

You might have a few favorite Windows applications that won’t run on Windows RT. I was worried that I would not be able to live without Windows Live Writer, but it turns out that Word has had a great blogging tool since version 2007, and it is even better with 2013.

Office 2013 RT

The first thing you should do with Surface is run Windows Update. This updates the Preview version of Office RT to the final version. Microsoft plan to deliver incremental functional updates, giving another reason to get a Microsoft Surface and not another Windows RT ARM device. Other manufacturers could cause delays to updates like Windows Phone 7 has been plagued with – carriers and device makers literally stopping you from using the latest version of the software running on your device (if MS do a Windows Phone 8, you should get it instead of any third party offering).

Office 2013 starts up very quickly. Saving to SkyDrive or the local drives just works. This really has full compatibility with Office files. The only glaring omission is Outlook – however, Exchange accounts are fully supported in the Mail application and Gmail works great in IE10.

Why I’m keeping it

I can actually do something productive with this device, unlike the iPad which has been reduced to a wife-pleasing YouTube machine. It has a great built in RDP client for when you need to use software that does not run on WinRT. It has a USB port which works with actual mice, USB drives and even my Kensington PowerPoint remote. If the space runs out, I can just insert a Micro SD card and expand the storage capacity. The Surface fills a useful void between an iPad and a MacBook Air – something that you can just throw in your bag without a laptop bag cover but can still get some work done on. Word, PowerPoint and Excel come free with Surface RT – these separately would be $30 or so on an iPad as iWork but here you get the real deal. I really am sick of lugging around proper laptops when I could just remote into a beefy machine under my desk. With LTE tethering in Japan, this is becoming a reality.

Only buy a Surface RT if you know what you are buying and can live without full legacy application support. As a thin client for real world web applications, it might make some people very happy indeed.