A Semester with Surface - Sharing my experience

Reviews annoy me. They annoy me in general. Be it The Verge's reviews, Gizmodo's, Engadget's, CNet's, what have you - they all lack depth, a certain comprehensiveness that I believe comes from the kind of experience with a device that tech reviewers don't have. I guess that's the nature of the beast though - reviewers, by nature of the rapidly and ever-advancing medium of which they are writing, are forever condemned to short usage periods. Sure, the review could be "In-depth" and offer every little detail about every little feature and spec that you could possibly dream of, but they still only ever truly offer a first impression of the device in question. There is something telling about The Verge's Surface RT score of 7, and its user score of 8.5, and it belies the reason for my writing: When the Surface RT came out, I didn't trust the reviews, and neither should you.

I got excited for the Surface the minute details of its final form made its way onto the Internet. I watched the ads, over and over again, I watched the keynotes, I looked at pictures, I laughed again and again at the GIF of Sinofsky skateboarding on the thing through Skunkworks HQ. It was gadget lust as I've never felt it before: creeping, all-consuming. And so, when it finally popped onto the market, I ignored Gizmodo's review of "technological heartbreak" and ordered myself a 32GB+black Touch Cover bundle.

It came in the Box of Boxes, which, though dutifully taped shut with whatever titanium-concrete-depleted uranium tape that is the norm for exciting boxes, came open easily enough. I pulled the insert from the box, flipped up the cover, and took my first look at what my $600 had brought me.

It was... small.

And very black. Boringly so, in fact. I had expected a bit more flair from this thing, and all it was doing was staring at me, silently, almost ominously, reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's alien monolith. I wished then (and wish now) that I had opted for a colorful keyboard. It's too similar, in black, to the drab Dell boxes that populate my campus's computer labs. Besides, a red or blue keyboard cover would have complemented excellently the almost psychedelic patterns of Windows 8's Start screens (Though nothing compared to a certain theme included with Windows 7 - Those backgrounds seemed ripped directly from Yellow Submarine). When I took it out of the box and held it, the build quality felt good enough, but not outstanding. It immediately picked up my fingerprints, a problem I am still wrestling with to this day, and wouldn't let them go, as if it were a child holding fiercely to their favorite teddy as only a child with a favorite teddy can. I was also disappointed with the noise the kickstand made - Microsoft promised me a hearty, fulfilling click that I could use to replace the percussion in my dance routines. Instead, I get a feeble *snap* that couldn't drop the bass if it was pushed off a cliff. Fortunately, I got my click-fix from the snap of the Touch Cover going in to its slot. That is truly a glorious and well-engineered sound, a gloriously audible and tactile maelstrom akin to slipping a Nerf magazine into the blaster.

But enough of my first impressions. This is a story about day-to-day use, and three months of experience with this thing. How has it fared in the ham-fisted hands of a double engineering and music major?

I have never been so happy with a purchase of this magnitude in my life. I believe that I am part of the audience that Microsoft should truly be targeting with this machine - the college students for whom mobile computing power is not only desired but essential, but who would rather not carry around a (comparatively) heavy PC or MacBook laptop on top of all the other textbooks and general school burdens.There are a few specific reasons why I think this is true:

1: Office really is a godsend. I have a set of instruments that will give me a set of data in a CSV spreadsheet, and Excel is a great way to reformat all of these nebulous values and readings into a way that I can more easily analyze and make sense of them. While I've got it on my laptop, and all the lab computers, of course, have it, it's nice to be freed from lab hours. I can work wherever and whenever I have the inclination, and have the power to analyze data and type reports in a way that is both familiar and convenient. Sure, Office is boring and not without its foibles, but it's still very useful for a wide range of applications. The inclusion of OneNote in this Office package has proven itself one of the most useful things about this device. I bought myself a nice stylus (Adonit Jot Pro, rather expensive but worth it) and have been taking almost all my notes, handwritten, in OneNote. Not only is it saving me money on reams of notebook paper, but I find it convenient too- its SkyDrive synchronization is excellent, and being able to access, edit and view my notes anywhere from my laptop, to the web app, to the horrifically bare-bones app on my iPod has come in handy on multiple occasions. Of course, all the notes you take in OneNote can be printed (Exploiting my professor's "one page" of test notes policy by condensing all of them and printing them on one sheet, for example) if you can connect to a printer, which brings me to my next point:

2: The USB port is a very useful addition to the Surface's arsenal and makes it stand out in versatility. SkyDrive is nice, but not a replacement for physical media when I need to transfer larger amounts of data. With Surface, I can use a jump drive as I would with a normal laptop - plug in, transfer, unplug. It's simple and familiar to any desktop or laptop user. The disk transfer speeds do seem to be rather low though, so transferring large files still takes a while. Of course, other tablets can themselves be used as USB storage, so this isn't exactly what makes Surface stand out. Where I find it really comes in to its own is when I'm working with my camera or trying to print. The Surface's camera is utter crap (and you look like a tool when you try to take pictures with a tablet anyway) so the ability to easily import photos from a nice camera that might not have a MicroSD card that I can pop into the Surface's port is a great touch. I can also connect to just about any printer with a USB cord that's currently on the market and print, driver-less, though printing through the "devices" charm (instead of finding a "print" menu option) takes tome getting used to. It also detected the ad-hoc wireless printer in my dorm room and added it to the devices charm without needing to prompt me or make me go through any dialog boxes.

People put too much emphasis on it can't do, rather than what it CAN.

The Snapping feature of Windows 8 can really come in handy - I can have my metronome and sheet music applications side-by-side, or iCircuit and the homework assignment I'm using it for. Some applications make creative use of the different window sizes, which are often not explicitly stated in the app description and can be a pleasure to discover. It can run Flash (but only on most sites once you bypass the whitelist, which is easy but incredibly annoying. There should be an option to turn it off), it can author complete documents and presentations and do heavy data analysis. If I need heavier computing power, I can use TeamViewer to remote into my laptop and get a 1:1 mirror of my display that's much easier to use like normal with the keyboard and trackpad than it would be simply with touch, such as when using VNC on an iPad. It also supports, without a hitch, my school's virtual engineering lab (from which I can access MatLab, Quartus, and all the other powerful programs I don't want to pay for myself.) It can connect to my buddy's TV and with my USB controller and Snes8x I can play Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past as they were meant to be played (as well as stream Netflix or whatever, but, you know, priorities). It presents me with unprecedented (in a tablet) control over the system in the Desktop with full file system access and a command prompt. The wonderful people at the XDA Deveolpers forums have "jailbroken" it to run certain x86 applications - Once I ran Bochs, which was emulating Windows XP, which was running portable Ubuntu which was running a Gameboy Advance emulator on which I was playing Fire Emblem (Unnecessary but I can, so why not? :D ). It's capable of so much more than normal tablets. It's almost truly a PC.

Almost. And that makes it kind of weird. I'm not quite sure what to call it. It's more than a tablet but less than a PC. It's a strange middle ground that, while in no way reducing its capabilities, give me kind of a funny feeling each time I use it, and confuses those who I show it of to. I think this is the most major detriment to its selling. Its PC-like features caused it to be compared to PCs and people aren't quite sure exactly what it's supposed to be. The Surface Pro, at least, is clear-cut: It is a Windows 8 ultrabook. The Surface is much, much more nebulous, and that's where I think its problem lies in the eyes of consumers. Of course, MS didn't do much to help the situation. Its extensive RT "education" programs are a stopgap measure to try to remedy the confusion caused by including the desktop in RT. Though I like it and am fully aware of its strengths and limitations, very few people are. Switching back and forth between the desktop and the Metro ("Modern," "Windows 8," "We don't care enough about brand recognition to pay a German company to license the name") UI is rather jarring and on a tablet, where smoothness and ease of use is a necessity, it rather breaks up the experience.

There is one part of the otherwise stellar build quality that antagonizes me, and that is the plastic housing around the antennae and camera. It's a relatively ugly part of what could have been a single, smooth piece of metal, and also seems to be slightly misaligned on my machine. It hasn't budged since I got it out of the box, but it mars the Surface's otherwise crisp, industrial look. Also, I have been having some interesting issues of late with the Surface's WiFi. It will, seemingly at random, decide to not connect to a network I've set it to autoconnect to when I come in range. It will also refuse to connect when I try to manually do it as well. I have a hunch that this has something to do with the campus's WiFi itself, because it connects and holds connection fine at coffee shops, my house, or my friend's apartment. However, my iPod connects fine (Although it has its own set of Internet difficulties), my laptop connects fine, and so does my friend's. Having to go through several steps to reconnect the WiFi is a hassle when you're trying to pull synced notes from SkyDrive and add to them in a lecture.

This segues nicely into my only real issue (but not really, I'll get to that) with the Surface: It is a Version 1 product, and it feels that way. Almost all of the Microsoft apps that come on the device feel rough and unpolished. The Music app in particular was extremely buggy and lacking in features (though most of my wishes have been added and the vast majority of bugs fixed since I first used it). Maps used Bing Maps, enough said, and a suitable Google Maps replacement hasn't come out yet. The Mail app is adequate, which is probably the only good thing I can say and the People app, while a good way to quickly browse and update Facebook and keep track of your contacts, is slow and buggy. Windows RT itself will act finicky sometimes, necessitating a restart.. During the first week I owned it, it would occasionally decide that I was constantly typing 'f' even though I certainly wasn't. I occasionally have baffling stability issues on my Surface that I don't on my Win8 laptop. The difference between the outstanding quality of the hardware and the sometimes lackluster software astonishes me - It's almost as if Microsoft shipped the system in beta. In some ways, in fact, they did - much like the WII U shipped requiring a day-1 update that enabled online functionality, the first thing I did upon unboxing my Surface was install a host of updates that improved Office and, from the update description, fixed some pretty major bugs in the system. Having to deal with an essentially beta product is frustrating. It retains, unfortunately, a certain high-maintenance nature that I feel is unique to the Windows platform.

That said, RT has come a long way in the past few months. the vast majority of the bugs I spoke about earlier have been fixed, and most of Microsoft's app offerings have improved significantly. The News app (though it uses Bing as its engine) is great to use for quick headlines and perusing the news. It excels especially well in portrait mode (as do other text-based apps and browsing long web sites, and some games). Their Solitaire and Minesweeper apps are classics, and updated to run on the Surface they look and play marvelously. Does anyone remember InkBall on Windows Vista? If I HAD to choose one thing I liked about Vista, it was that game. I spent hours drawing lines with my mouse to guide that stupid little ball vaguely near the holes, and I think it would go wonderfully with Windows 8 considering the preponderance of touchscreen devices. In any case, along with Microsoft's app offerings, the Windows Store, I think, is a complete offering. Though it lacks a couple big first-party apps like Facebook and Spotify, it makes up for it with a wealth of beautifully-designed applications. Microsoft's Metro design language has, in my opinion, accomplished a great thing for a Version 1 product: It has created a uniform (and I think brilliant) look for any developer to emulate, creating an almost seamless experience across applications. Google is only just getting this right with its Holo design guidelines, and iOS offerings are still all over the place. Also, new applications worth downloading appear in the store every day. Tow of my favorite programs, Pocket Tanks and iCircuit, appeared unceremoniously in the store sometime over these past couple weeks to my great surprise and glee. Great Big War Game is there (and cheaper than Steam!) and so is Sketchbook Express, Pulse News, and many more. The dedication a lot of these developers seem to have to supporting their offerings, too, blows my mind. Daily, I download updates to my applications, and whenever I've asked for support, I get it. I understand that this is on the part of the developers, not the platform, but I'd like to think that the devs want the user to have a good experience with the Surface as much as MS does. So far, there has been an application to cover all my needs - from an excellent tuner, to iCircuit, to TeamViewer - the list goes on.

To finish, then - Surface fills my needs perfectly. It is an addition to my laptop, but not a replacement. It's light enough to not notice its footprint in my backpack but powerful enough to crunch through the operations I, as an engineer, do on a daily basis. It's durable enough that it has survived a drop from chest height onto a wood floor and several others from desk height onto carpet with only minor scratches for posterity. OneNote and its integration with SkyDrive make my note-taking simpler and convenient, though it baffles me that MS only is including Wacom pen support only with the Surface Pro, because that is the largest feature that the RT device is truly missing. I've seen Bluetooth styluses (stylii?) for iPads that fake palm rejection, and hopefully support will come soon to Surface. The Touch Cover is a marvel of modern electronics and I got used to it very quickly (I've typed all this on my Surface in about an hour and a half!), though my friend likes the Type Cover more. Despite its foibles, it enables me to get work done anywhere and any time I want to with a minimum of hassle.

The Microsoft Surface, then, has found its market. Not in people who just want to read their eBooks and play some Angry Birds, but in people like me, who need a small but powerful computing platform, who are able to to tolerate its minor troubles. It has found its place as an outstanding tablet PC for the student, and welcomes those who take it from its case, feel the cool, sharp metal of its superbly designed chassis and open it up with the mission to create.

Also, it absolutely can be used in your lap, as long as you're wearing pants.

Discussion and feedback (on the subject and on my writing - there's always room to improve!) is appreciated and encouraged.