Surface RT: The Two Month experiment

As has been well documented and my family can attest to this, I am a bit of a technology nerd. Okay not a bit, more like a lot, either way, those who know me know I like shiny new tech toys and when Microsoft released the Surface RT, my nerd needle was spiking to insta-buy before the tablet was even released.

Although I struggled a lot with the decision to buy a Surface RT knowing fully well that its bigger, better brother was coming out just three months later, I pulled the trigger and decided to get Microsoft’s first attempt at a tablet.

At first I walked into this with a view of using the Surface RT as an experiment. I was intrigued by its form factor and that ingenious touch cover and I wanted to see how it would fit into my daily life. The idea was, if the Surface RT does what I want; then the Surface Pro would be the king of the hill. So starts a two month adventure that has lead me to share my thought on the Surface RT.

Before I get into this, I should note this isn’t a review of the device, nor is it a review of Windows 8. I have my own views on Windows 8 and I don’t want to get into them here. For the most part, I want to focus on the Surface RT and my experiences with it.

Apps for Me, Apps for You

The principle issue everyone seems to have with the Surface RT and Windows RT in general is its lack of apps. Granted, the Windows store isn’t what I would call busting at the seams with content, I really have struggled to see where people are coming from. I have been an Android user for many a year, and have owned a few Android phones and tablets, and I have yet to find myself sitting on my couch struggling to do something due to the lack of a certain app.

Can there be more apps available? Sure. For starts Windows RT needs a native Twitter app. The web experience is just fine, but it’s disconnected from the rest of the Windows experience and their mobile site isn’t what I call fully featured. There are third party twitter apps available in the store, but they struggle from Twitter’s own rules which results in extremely high app prices. I mean, I love supporting developers like anyone else but paying $10 for an app that may just stop working at any moment seems like a stretch.

Some people will point to the built in People app that integrates a bunch of social media feeds together, and once again I point to the fact that the way I use Facebook is completely different from the way I use Twitter. And as incredibly elegant the People App may be, it fails to present those feeds in a useable way, at least for my perspective.

The mail app is also a bit iffy. It does the job, but it’s far from the experience I get from the Gmail app I use on my phone. I had issue with the Mail app from back in the Dev. Preview of Windows 8 and I still have issue with it.

Come to think of it, that seems to be the general feeling I have with a lot of the built in apps Microsoft offers. They work just fine and at times brilliantly, I point at the news and sports apps as examples, but way too many of them fall a bit flat. The Messenger App fails to work; literally, it just flat out refuses to connect to Facebook chat but none of these apps disappoints me as much as Xbox Music +Video.

The Crux of the Problem

The principle activity on my tablet has always been listening to music and watching movies and videos. And I was really looking forward to using Xbox Music. As a long time Zune user, and a Zune Pass owner, why wouldn’t I. Cloud sync for my music and playlists, brilliant. Expanding the music store, outstanding! Tighter integration with my Xbox 360, thank you kindly! Does it all work as advertised…? Not all the time.

I have yet to use an app that is so Jekyll and Hyde. On the one hand it runs brilliantly on my many desktop. Click play, music starts playing almost instantly. Browsing my library and the store is quick and responsive, and making playlists are relatively easy. But switch over to my Surface RT and the app just falls all over itself. Half the time I am waiting for music to play and once the music plays, it randomly pauses or kicks up an error of some kind. It’s not unusable, it’s just notably worse to use on my tablet than on my desktop.

Backing up to the issue of playlists, it’s not what I call… intuitive. Microsoft hasn’t really done a good job of teaching people how to use its new OS and apps and it’s no clearer than in the Xbox Music app. Things are embedded within themselves and although it makes the experience visually clean, it makes using it annoying. If you are viewing your library and want to pick a different song from your current playlist, it’s comfortably five or six swipes and taps just to get to the song playing… Assuming of course the app doesn’t freak out on you and miss a tap here and there.

It’s so frustrating having two completely polar opposite experiences using the same app, and Microsoft really have been taking their sweet time addressing these performance issues with the Surface RT. And now we arrive at my pet peeve with Microsoft and particular their arcane Xbox Live rules.

Imagine a rather start forward scenario, and if I recall correctly, the PMs back in Redmond love scenarios. I’m heading on holiday for a few days out in Europe somewhere, let’s say Spain. Before leaving home in Canada, I rent a few movies to watch on my flight to sunny Spain and off I go. I watch Looper and follow it up with the brilliance of Rocky IV. I arrive in Spain and get settled in. A few days in sun doesn’t hurt my mood and I pack everything up getting ready to head home. Before leaving I decide to rent a movie to watch on the way home and opps, Xbox Videos DOESN’T WORK OUTSIDE YOUR HOME COUNTRY! Com’on man! Sure this makes sense with a console seven years ago, but not with a $500 tablet I’m meant to travel the world with.

This may seem like a slight issue to most, but believe me, it’s a big problem. A problem MS have to sort out. Xbox Live account migration I hear you shouting from the rafters? Good luck with that one. Google and Apple have their stores humming along nicely and yet I’m stuck only watch movies domestically.

Now that my rant is over, I realize it might be a good idea to stop here. I seem to have got most of my negatives out the way already and reading through this, I notice my tone seems oddly negative. Maybe I should continue to highlight some more positive aspects of my time with the Surface RT in a follow up post… But I suppose that really depends on if anyone cares enough to know about how remarkably charmed I am by this tablet, even with all my ranting.