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

on October 24, 2012


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.