Microsoft’s Surface: Less Than A Tablet, Less Than A Notebook PC, Less Than Ideal

by John Kirk   |   October 24th, 2012

Introduction

I hadn’t planned on writing a review of the Surface today. But after reading over a dozen reviews, a pattern has clearly emerged:

— Excellent hardware
— Not as good a tablet as the iPad
— Not as good a PC as a notebook PC

The Promise

But perhaps none of that matters. The Surface, after all, wasn’t designed to be only a tablet or only a notebook PC. It was designed to be a hybrid – the best of both worlds. Perhaps it succeeds in that role?

As Josh Topolsky of The Verge put it:

The promise of the Surface was that it could deliver a best-in-class tablet experience, but then transform into the PC you needed when heavier lifting was required. Instead of putting down my tablet and picking up my laptop, I would just snap on my keyboard and get my work done.

The Surface won’t satisfy the tablet user

The Good

It’s clear that Microsoft has really thought through the Windows RT tablet software.

It’s a new paradigm, and people are uncomforable with new, but new isn’t necessarily bad. And the Windows RT “new” appears to be very, very good indeed.

It’s not as discoverable as iOS and Android, and it will receive criticism for that but discoverability isn’t everything. Some of the gestures in Windows 8 are brilliantly implemented. Many of the reviewers found it to be more engaging, more immersive, more delightful than either iOS or Android.

In that way, I believe that Windows RT for the tablet will be like Android on the phone – it will appeal to the more advanced users who will love it for the power that it unlocks.

The Bad

There is absolutely no reason to have a desktop OS on the Surface RT tablet. The Surface RT doesn’t even run desktop applications, so why bother?

Almost all of the reviewer’s complaints stemmed from the schizoid nature of the dual operating systems. Sometimes you were in tablet mode. Then suddenly you were in desktop mode. There were two control panels and two Internet Explorers. In short, there were two too many operating systems in one device, especally when that one device didn’t even run Windows desktop software.

The Ugly

The Windows RT store is barren. Could this change? Possibly. But until it does, you’ve bought a tablet that doesn’t have any available tablet apps. And that’s going to make you very un-app-y.

The Surface won’t satisfy the notebook PC user

The only Windows desktop software that the Surface RT runs is Windows Office. That’s it.

There are over 4,000,000 applications that run on Windows. The Surface RT falls 3,999,999 applications short of being an adequate notebook PC. And that’s really short of ideal.

The Surface won’t satisfy its ideal user

Ed Bott, of ZDnet, describes the ideal Surface RT user:

On a busy Sunday evening a few weeks ago, I was sitting in Terminal 4 of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport waiting for a connecting flight. The guy sitting next to me was clearly an experienced business traveler.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as he pulled an iPad from his briefcase, checked some football scores, and played Words with Friends for a few minutes.

Then he put the iPad away and pulled out a well-worn Dell notebook (I swear it had duct tape on one corner). He waited (more patiently than I would have) for Windows XP to load, and then he worked on an Excel spreadsheet for 30 minutes until our flight was called.

That guy. The one who has to carry around two devices because neither one by itself can do everything that needs to be done. That’s who Microsoft’s new Surface with Windows RT was designed for.

First let me say this: There aren’t as many of those guys out there as we think. There are a whole lot of people who only need a notebook. And, as I tried to explain in my article entitled: “The PC is the Titanic and the Tablet is the Iceberg. Any Questions?“, there are even more people who only need a tablet.

But even if they are only a niche, there are still a sizable minority of people who fall into the above description of the Surface’s ideal user. And the most damning thing that I can say about the Surface is that it won’t satisfy it’s own ideal user.

– He’ll go to check on some football scores and then be frustrated that he doesn’t have access to one of a dozen available alternatives to the official ESPN app.

– He’ll go to play a game and then be frustrated that he can’t play any one of the 300,000 games available on Android or the game that everyone’s been talking about and that’s been available on iOS for over a year.

– He’ll go to run a Windows application and then remember that the Office suite are the only Windows applications that run on his device.

That guy. The one who has to carry around two devices because neither one by itself can do everything that needs to be done. The ideal customer for the Windows RT. That’s the guy who will be totally unsatisfied with the Windows RT.

Less than a tablet, less than a PC, less than ideal

Microsoft calls the Windows 8 operating system and the Surface RT a “no compromise” computing solution. But this tablet is such a compromise that it will satisfy no one – not even it’s intended target audience.

Ironically, it is the software, not the hardware, that is letting Microsoft – the software company – down. And that’s too bad because it would have been much better for Microsoft if it had been the other way around. It’s possible that another hardware partner would have fixed any deficienies in the Surface’s hardware. But no matter how good the hardware, it will still be running the Windows RT operating system. And that’s far from ideal.

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • Luke

    Microsoft got it all wrong. They should’ve released it (with keyboard) for under $300. In this day and age people want what they pay for: quality hardware, quality software and excellent support. Microsoft is greedy though, they’d never sell a product unless they were scalping the OEM or end user, even if the label of total irrelevancy was knocking at their front door.

    • mhikl

      @80d5b53c263c05a7a9b0a3fd24cfb4bb:disqus I am soooo curious to see how Microsoft stock fairs come introduction. Re-priced at $200, stock should soar, based upon what happened to Apple stock when $329 slipped from Timboy’s lips. More than that will probably bake a loaf of head scratching sores.

  • http://profiles.google.com/elaine.normandy Elaine Normandy

    I supported business travelers as an office manager for a couple of years. I can’t see them using the RT when it depends on wireless for connectivity. And they get really peeved when they have to expense the wireless everywhere they go, or tether to another device. Always connected is the killer app for business travelers.

  • thorntondw

    It would have made a lot more sense for Microsoft to introduce the Surface with Windows 8 Pro first. That is the one that is intended for the iPad/Dell airport business user.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I suspect Microsoft’s underlying strategy was to take the lead on the ARM version and let its OEM partners lead on the Windows 8/x86 tablets. HP, Lenovo, Dell, and others will likely ship full Windows 8 tablets ahead of the Surface Pro.

    • Grwisher

      I agree and I think Microsoft would have wanted to bring out the Intel version ASAP. However, from what I understand, the Intel chips that would give decent battery life are not ready and that is the reason for the delay.

  • Dennis

    The complaints about Surface mainly revolve around an immature ecosystem and first gen OS. Fortunately both of those things can (and should) improve as the weeks go by.
    I’m mainly concerned about hardware. Does the kickstand and keyboard perform as advertised? How’s the battery life? What is the display like? As long as those things are adequate I think the Surface should be a safe bet. I think based on this hardware, it is priced about $100 too high. The entry model should have came with the keyboard.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I’ll give a report after I get a hands-on tomorrow. But I can answer a couple of questions now. By all reports, the kickstand works very well. Reviews on the touch keyboard are, as would be expected, mixed, but the median response seems to be better than an on-screen keyboard, not as good as a physical keyboard with key travel. Battery life is good, roughly equal to the iPad. The display lacks the pixel density of the iPad retina, but is high quality and more than acceptable. In other words, the hardware is fine.

      Only time will tell how the software issues will be resolved. I’ve been disappointed by the quality of the build-in Microsoft Windows 8 apps; Mail, in particular, is really bad. Will ISVs step up to the plate? I think we’ll know by the end of the year.

      I don’t think Microsoft could have priced it much lower and made money. This is premium quality hardware and with no real way to may a subsidy model work, Microsoft has to sell it at a profit.

      • mhikl

        @steve_wildstrom:disqus “I don’t think Microsoft could have priced it much lower and made money.”
        Ah geez, too true. But don’t expect reason to fit into the mix. At the moment, ‘cheap like borscht’ rules the game of many reviewers and the stock market. It’s an awful affair of Santa cum Grinch.

      • FalKirk

        No matter where Microsoft priced the Surface, it would have been trouble. Too high and they hurt sales. Too low and they cut off the oxygen to their – ha, ha – “partners”. That’s what comes from employing two diametrically opposed business models.

    • FalKirk

      “The complaints about Surface mainly revolve around an immature ecosystem and first gen OS. Fortunately both of those things can (and should) improve as the weeks go by.” – Dennis

      I can’t emphasize this enough. Microsoft does not have the luxury of time. This is a platform war. Apple holds the high ground everywhere with their user satisfaction numbers, they are not ceding it anytime too soon. The only reason that Microsoft can hold out hope is because Google has completely botched their tablet efforts.

      But it will be poor solace indeed for Microsoft to be number 2 in tablets if they end up being another Zune, Windows Phone 7 or – heaven forbid – another Mac.

    • Nit

      ‘Kickstand’?? Is someone asking about the ‘kickstand’?!
      It has one position and only works on tables.
      Does that allay your fears?
      Even M$ can do hardware, it’s not that hard once you’ve had two whole years to study somebody else’s ideas (iPad). Ah, but the software, now there’s where M$ can’t match Apple.

  • mhikl

    “Microsoft calls the Windows 8 operating system and the Surface RT a “no compromise” computing solution. But this tablet is such a compromise that it will satisfy no one – not even it’s intended target audience.”
    Yes, but if they say it loud enough, will they come?

    • Rich

      All advertising can do is get people to try the product. When they try the product, advertising is irrelevant.

      • FalKirk

        Right. Marketing gets your foot in the door. Advertising gets their foot in your store. Ultimately, it’s the product that makes (or breaks) the sale.

        • mhikl

          i know, but I like to stir.

  • htrsh

    The standard Surface is not that exciting in my opinion. However, the real game changer is the Microsoft Surface Pro. It is basically a full-fledged laptop in a tablet shell. Now that’s what I want. It’s going to be expensive though.

    • FalKirk

      “…the real game changer is the Microsoft Surface Pro.”

      1) It’s not ready for sale and Microsoft needs to start selling it now, now, now.
      2) I have severe reservations about the product. I’ll wait until it ships before I bore you with those reasons.

  • Defendor

    Other than the immature ecosystem (lack of apps, even the apps that exist are buggy, lackluster), I have always felt the Surface Keyboard was an awkward mess.

    It types better than the unyielding glass of the screen, and for only $100 more.

    Then you have the cumbersome layout of the whole package with the keyboard, that needs are large flat surface like a table. Not really suitable for your lap. A laptop that isn’t usable in your lap, or on airplane trays etc… It is more novelty act value than real world usability as a laptop.

    People talk about the Apple RDF, but Microsoft should be given an RDF award for convincing people that the awkward surface keyboard setup was a credible alternative to a laptop.

    So at best that makes a mediocre laptop with a cumbersome awkward keyboard and a tiny netbook size/resolution screen. Winning?

    Then as a tablet, a couple of review have mentioned it crosses the line into too big, it isn’t that comfortable to hold and use in landscape mode, and it is ridiculous in portrait with its tall skinny 16:9 screen. On screen typing is horrible.

    Bottom line from what I read. Mediocre tablet experience, mediocre laptop experience, with minimal, amounts of limited, buggy software.

    While the Surface Pro will remedy the lack of “laptop mode” software, it still has the same awkward “laptop mode” ergonomics and will be bigger/heavier making for even worse tablet ergonomics.

    I live in Canada. Some of my friends call the “All Season Tire”, the “NO Season Tire”. The temptation to attempt the “Best of Both Worlds”, More often delivers “The Worst of both Worlds”, and that seems to be where we are heading here.

    • FalKirk

      “Some of my friends call the “All Season Tire”, the “NO Season Tire”.”

      I am definitely stealing that analogy. I promise to give it a good home.

  • Rich

    “There is absolutely no reason to have a desktop OS on the Surface RT tablet. The Surface RT doesn’t even run desktop applications.”

    John, I knew the Surface has some odd features but why in the world would Microsoft install a desktop OS on a device that can’t run desktop apps? Ford doesn’t give you a year’s supply of orange juice as fuel for your new Focus.

    • FalKirk

      “…why in the world would Microsoft install a desktop OS on a device that can’t run desktop apps?”

      I think they needed it for the integrated Office Suite. But they should have made the Office suite touch optimized instead.

      • steve_wildstrom

        Microsoft is still in many ways a victim of its successful legacies. Completely rearchitecting Office apps to Windows RT APIs and the requirements of the “Metro” UI would have been an enormous undertaking–and still might have failed to win acceptance with the critical enterprise customers who don’t want to deal with a massive retraining effort. So they settled for some relatively minor touch enhancements recompiled the software so it would run on ARM processors. The result is the half-assed RT implementation of Desktop.

        • FalKirk

          “So they settled…” – Steve Wildstrom

          Totally agree. But Microsoft is down in the world series of personal computing three games to none. You don’t make a four game comeback by playing it safe, hedging your bets and “settling”. You have to go for it!

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

    It’s like this.

    If the critics of the iPad (those bozos chanting ‘real work” like some kind of Zen koan) are absolutely convinced that the iPad is pointless and one should stick with a laptop, then they must admit that the Surface II is dead in the water. Microsoft has released a tablet with an OS that is not optimized for use on tablets. How else can you explain the keyboard/trackpad attachments pride of place in any and all advertisements and discussions regarding the Surface II?

    If you entire world view is one sponsored by Microsoft (tablets can’t do ‘real work’) then you already know for a fact that your money is better spent on an intel laptop that will run all those Win32 apps you supposedly crave.

    If you think the Surface RT, unburdened as it is by applications, is more useful than the iPad simply because the Surface RT has a file system and a trackpad, you have to admit that your criticisms of the iPad are entirely unfounded, given that you will buy an intentionally hobbled product based on a worldview you simply don’t believe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/BeyondTheLionsDen Trent Slack

      Be honest can you?

      Windows 8 on a tablet is great, using the iPad can’t do real work, its for people wanting to waste time. At least on rt we can get real work done. You can’t fool us, so don’t even try

      • steve_wildstrom

        This argument is getting very silly. Obviously, the iPad is productive for those people who find it so. Count me among them. I have been using an iPad since the day it came out and I am very aware of its limitations. But I am also aware of its strengths. It can’t do everything and it isn’t always perfect for the things it can do–I am writing this on an iMac, not my iPad, because I am home and at my desk, but it does many things very well. The same is true of the Surface or any other device people find useful.

        I will never understand the insistence of some people in telling others that the tools they have chosen are worthless.

      • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

        That. Is. Awesome.

        Thanks for behaving in exactly the fashion I described in my post. That takes a real lack of self awareness.

  • http://sweetlabs.com/ Alan Masarsky

    Am I the ONLY ONE that thinks it’s hilarious that according to this post, Josh Topolsky works for “The View”?! (see first paragraph)

    • steve_wildstrom

      I’ll fix that, but your right, it’s pretty funny to imagine Josh on The View.

      • http://sweetlabs.com/ Alan Masarsky

        No worries! I can totally envision Josh and Whoopi getting along. I agree with David Pogue’s definition of the new OS having “split personality”. IMHO Microsoft should have just pulled the band aide off and removed the traditional desktop experience in WinRT.

    • FalKirk

      “Am I the ONLY ONE that thinks it’s hilarious that according to this post, Josh Topolsky works for “The View”?!” – Alan Masarsky

      I said Topolsky wrote for “The View”? Was that a Freudian slip? Does it say something deeply disturbing about me…or Topolsky?

      Thanks for the catch, Alan. I’ll try to do better next time.

  • Kenneth

    I’m not sure why you are trying to compare Surface RT to PC’s without mentioning Surface 8 Pro. The Surface Pro will run all of the Adobe creative programs, Autodesk programs, and any other PC application. So RT does not? So what? RT is for a different market – one that only needs entertainment and a few basics.

    2nd, your complaint seems to revolve mostly around the lack of apps. This is a chicken or egg dilemma for MS. They’ve decided to have the chicken first and hope it …er … lays eggs. That is, that it spawns lots of apps. And, the ease of making an app that is instantly compatible with phones, tablets, and PC’s is too tempting for developers. The apps will flood in within a year of tablet sales.

    From a doing business point-of-view I plan on investing in the Surface Pro and skipping RT. That way I can markup architectural drawings on my travel to a job site, and then be able to share and discuss drawings on site with others in the way a tablet outperforms a laptop. Surface is fantastic for architects, designers, and artists.

    RT will be, like Ipad, for children playing games.

    • steve_wildstrom

      You seem to assume that just because the Surface Pro is theoretically capable of running heavy-duty Windows programs, it will actually be usable that way. Remember that you will be dealing with limited storage and a much less capable processor than you would find on most desktops are laptops. We’ll see how well AutoCad really runs on that Clover Trail processor. It will be better than the unlamented netbook experience, but how much?

    • Rich

      “RT will be, like Ipad, for children playing games.”

      You’re not really that ignorant of what the iPad is capable of, are you?

      • http://www.facebook.com/BeyondTheLionsDen Trent Slack

        No he’s not, just telling you how it is

    • FalKirk

      “I’m not sure why you are trying to compare Surface RT to PC’s without mentioning Surface 8 Pro.” – Kenneth

      The Surface Pro is not yet available. And it really has no bearing on the Surface RT, right?

      2nd, your complaint seems to revolve mostly around the lack of apps. … The apps will flood in within a year of tablet sales.

      Like they did(n’t) with Windows phone 7?

      Platforms are hard and Microsoft is very, very late. And developers seem very reluctant to jump on the Windows 8 bandwagon. We can’t assume that the apps will come. We’ll have to wait and see.

    • Neil

      Kenneth, my iPad is like my RSX. I can go to the ball game or drive 1000 miles in a week for my photography business. I can go alone or carry 3 others with me. I can carry enough gear for most gigs but not for a really big shoot, for that I need a van.

      In other words my car is perfect for most of my travel needs.

      I watched the entire ‘Surface’ presentation a few months ago. It answers questions nobody is asking and is proof that Apple has successfully routed Redmond.
      To be successful ‘Surface’ will need to have broad appeal, and since I know of not one single creative pro that uses Windows, even niche markets are not going to be wildly impressed.

  • def4

    You nailed it yet again, John.

    I’m starting to suspect that top management people at Microsoft are really stupid.

    When I first learned that Microsoft was porting Windows to ARM I jumped for joy and started singing and dancing at the thought of a cheap, light, fan-less laptop with whole day battery life.
    Instead of delivering that, Microsoft did the exact opposite and delivered everything but what I was (and still am) craving for.
    They chose to do what they have always done throughout their history: play defence and chase after Apple with an inferior product.

    At least people at Google have some sense and they announced the hardware I want, but alas, it runs Chrome OS. Even Android would have been better than that wreck.

    I wonder if it makes more sense to hope that someone will figure out how to hack Windows RT onto an ARM Chromebook and jailbreak it to run ARM desktop programs than for Microsoft to get a bloody clue.