A week web browsing with the surface

For a week now, I have been using the Microsoft Surface, the latest gadget in the mobile world. A tablet computer in it's basic form, but also a work device, featuring office applications and the Windows explorer. This device is not the first tablet that I have owned, I purchased a HP Touchpad at reduced cost over a year ago, though I stopped using it after a few months. Ultimately, it didn't offer all the features I wanted, not to mention the terrible web browser, so thought now was the time to make a choice, the Microsoft Surface was my new tablet

The Device

Unlike most tablets, the Surface is intended for use in landscape, but also to be used with a keyboard, the Touch or Type cover. This is a different type of interaction than any tablet I have used before, it is strange, but I switch between the touch screen and the keyboard seamlessly, without thinking and without looking at the keyboard. It offers the accuracy of a laptop, with the simplicity of a touchscreen.

The Surfaces large, 10 inch screen at 1366x768, is a little unwieldily in portrait mode, but offers the best landscape browsing experience. There have been a few articles detailing the usage of tablets and web browsing, with most people using a tablet in landscape mode. This is how I found myself using the tablet, though for long pages, portrait is a curiously nice experience.

The Operating System

The Surface uses Windows RT, which is not quite Windows, but offers a lot of the same functionality of the core OS, without the ability to install ANY Windows applications. Only Windows store applications that run in the Modern UI can be installed, so that offers a big limitation for people wanting to replace a laptop. It also offers a big limitation for software in general, so you are reliant on the Microsoft store for everything, problem number two. The store doesn't have a lot of the basics, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram…

This means ultimately the average person is going to use something a lot of people don't really like to talk about, Internet Explorer, known to the average user as "The Internet"

The browser

Internet Explorer is no slouch, so don't think I am at odds with it, in fact, I'm very impressed. Since 2003, I have been using Firefox or Chrome, so going back to IE is something that I initially dreaded, but the Modern UI took away all of the clutter that IE used to come with. The performance is excellent and the browser has some of the latest web standards. The browser also has a few different size options, full screen, mostly full screen, and sidebar style size. This is great for working on the desktop on a document, while having BBC News open with the latest live event rolling throughout the day.

In that one short paragraph we have unveiled one big problem with the Surface, it appears a lot of people weren't really ready for such a device.

Issue number 1 - Is it a desktop?

One of my favourite new websites is Polygon.com, it is a great responsive website with some terrific gaming journalism. It is a beautiful look, with a simple navigation, sort of. On a touch screen phone you hit the navigation button to display the various sections, the first time I visited this site was on a phone, I think that is the first time I have done that on a mainstream site. In any case, I touched the section I wanted and away I went, though once in the office was confronted by an issue, my Surface couldn't use the navigation. The screen is wide, the resolution is big, it runs Internet Explorer, it must be a desktop right? This means the hover style navigation for desktop users was being forced upon me :(

While using a navigation on my Android phone, pushing the navigation button didn't open it and leave it there for me to peruse the sections, rather it opened a closed in a flash, leaving me unable to navigate. I was actually surprised that this style of navigation was used, as i continued to use the Surface, it seems clear many websites are bound to the idea that if it is IE10 using your site, the user must be using a keyboard and mouse input.

This is actually a problem with many sites, the fact is, the device shouldn't matter, therefor the input method should be universal, but this type of device is so new, it blurs the lines between what is a desktop and what is a tablet. Does that show that some websites are only building for phone, tablet and desktop, with devices slipping through the cracks…Maybe, but it should be a good example that IE 10 is not a desktop computer, it is a browser that can run on a host of different devices with different inputs.

Issue number 2 - The sidebar browser

This is a great idea from Microsoft, multi tasking in terms of a mobile OS is actually quite a difficult thing to grasp for some, so putting two things on one screen is a neat idea, something to quickly glance at. This issue has been summed up quite nicely by Tim Kadlec, but many websites simply haven't implemented the @-ms-viewport rule, thus leaving Windows 8 users high and dry. My concern here is that many websites simply won't bother to do this, leaving this potentially useful way of browsing to those who have the time and availability to test.

Closing thoughts

After using my Surface for the past week or so, it has shown me first, how bad most Android tablets are, but secondly, that navigating the web is hard when something thinks you are a desktop computer. Imagine being at a high school reunion with the wrong name tag on, if people don't remember your face, it can be a pretty awkward experience, which is how i found the Surface while using the web. In time, things will change, but in the mean time, the web is going to be a interesting experience for Microsoft tablet users.