Surface RT

Line at Surface LaunchYes, I will admit that I was the 9th person in line at 6 a.m. on Friday morning to get my hands on a new Surface tablet. I won’t lie… I was excited about getting my hands on the new tablet, but Microsoft had sweetened the deal by offering a free $99 XBOX Music subscription to the first 100 people in line. Living in a city like St. Louis, I figured the odds were pretty high of getting one. I was right. There were about 40 of us hard core geeks standing in line at the Microsoft Store kiosk in the Galleria Mall. I got my hands on my new Surface at 7:30 and planned to get some “real work” done that day, but was still playing with it at 2 p.m. I had to mentally force myself to put it down, I found it so addicting. (Please note that this is actually the first tablet I own. I didn’t want a tablet of such a diminutive size as the Kindle or Nook, and I didn’t want to buy into the whole Apple ecosystem of iPad, iTunes, iPhone, iPod, etc. etc. And I just plain despise the Android OS. Worst. OS. Ever. So I was holding out for a Windows tablet.)

Surface

The tablet itself is great. The picture quality is fantastic. The aspect ratio of the tablet seems wider than other tablets, but it makes sense once you realize that Windows 8 apps are built to scroll left to right. I find the wider, shorter layout works well with many of the apps I installed. The battery has proven to be pretty impressive so far, too. Obviously, it’s not an e-reader so it’s not going to have a battery that lasts days on end, but I find its battery stands up better than my phone. I think I used it for about 6 hours or so that first day before giving it more juice. So often, when it comes to using my phone or my Zune, there’s an idea that the battery can go a long time… just don’t have the screen on. In the case of the Surface, I had the screen on the whole time and the battery held up pretty well.

I sprung the extra $20 for a colored “type pad” as they call it. At first I was skeptical about the type pad. As its name indicates, it’s very thin. I was doubtful that I would get any sort of satisfying feedback when pressing the keys. Surprisingly, I found I got used to it very quickly. (If you really want to have a better “feedback” experience when typing, you can buy a spring-loaded keyboard for a few more dollars. I chose not to buy it because I didn’t want to add the extra size to the tablet.) What I like about the type pad is that a.) it has a magnet that snaps to the computer, so there’s no risk of accidentally prying some wires loose when taking it on and off, and b.) the tablet senses when the type pad is bent behind it (for those times when you’re holding the tablet like a book with its book cover bent behind it), and displays the on-screen keyboard automatically. That means you can keep the type pad attached to the tablet, but just fold it behind it when not in use. Finally, someone at the launch from the MS Consumer Products division told us that Windows 8 itself senses when you have multiple keys pressed at once (as when you’re just resting your hand on the type pad) and won’t register any of those keys on the screen. It will only type something on the screen when you have just a couple keys pressed at once. I thought that was a pretty clever software solution to a hardware problem.

I have to admit, I’m still holding out for a tablet that only weighs as much as a paperback book. I’d like to have a tablet that I can hold over my head in bed and read without my arms getting tired. Sadly, the technology is not there yet. However, the Surface is remarkably small and light, in comparison with other tablets.

Windows 8

I was a bit of a late adopter to Windows 8, in the sense that many of my colleagues had Windows 8 installed on their boxes months ago, during the Beta period. Since I really only have one workstation laptop that I host all my virtual machines on, I frankly didn’t want to risk putting a beta OS on it. I had installed Windows Server 2012 and had gotten a preview of how the tiles worked, but that was about it. I decided to install Windows 8 on my main laptop the day before I bought my Surface, partly because I wanted to see how many apps were in the app store before I bought the Surface. Unfortunately, there’s no way of previewing that on the web. (It’s a bit of circular logic, in my opinion, that you have to own the OS in order to find out if you want to buy the OS.)

I actually own the first generation Zune, which seems to have been the very first go at what has now become the Windows 8 “Metro” design. I then bought a Windows 7 phone. It’s interesting to see how Microsoft has taken the “live tile” concept and run with it.

Microsoft always has a fine line to tow between completely overhauling their products and not totally alienating their base. I think they’re in the same boat again. On the one hand I’ve heard it reported that people don’t want to use Windows 8 because it’s not what they’re used to. On the other hand, though, I’ve heard reports that many people and companies don’t want to upgrade because they don’t see why it’s much of an improvement over their existing Windows 7 OS. It’s a bit of a catch 22 for Microsoft. I heard one article say that some pundits are citing Windows 8 as the “biggest overhaul since Windows 95” and one of the “biggest gambles of Microsoft’s lifetime”. I personally think that’s overblown.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes. Windows 8 is a little of the old and a little of the new. In fact, I find it works a little like two separate operating systems on the same box. You have the Windows 8 interface, and you have your “legacy” desktop. In fact, there are some programs (like Internet Explorer and your e-mail client) that exist in both places. This might be confusing to some, but provides flexibility for those who don’t want to necessarily work within the Windows 8 environment.

Windows 8 itself is architected to be manipulated with fingers and swiping motions. After having used my Surface for several days now, I would have to say that Microsoft is wildly successful in this regard. It didn’t take me long at all to understand the swiping motions necessary to get where I needed to go. Here are the basics:<

  • On every app and every screen, if you swipe from the right side of the screen leftwards, you’ll get a basic menu of items that are applicable to the tablet as a whole; you can hit the Windows button that takes you back to your home screen (which MS calls Start, but is drastically different than what you would think of as your old Start menu). You can also get to your settings, where you can do things like connect to a wireless network. It’s handy to be able to get to these settings no matter what application you’re in. In some cases, you can set some app-specific settings here, too, like the accounts your synching with.
  • In any app, if you swipe from the left side of the screen to the right, you’ll find yourself dragging and dropping the previous app you were looking at into your main screen. (It’s kind of like a “back” button.) A nice feature is that you also have the ability to drag and drop that other application into just the side of the screen, so that you can actually view multiple apps on the same screen. This comes in especially handy if you want to have your e-mail and your calendar up at the same time, or you want to have your e-mail open while you surf the Web.
  • If you drag your finger from the right side of the screen to the left, but then backtrack back to the left, you see a whole column of the apps that are currently running on your computer. From here you can select, or close, whichever app you choose.
  • If you navigate to the bottom of the screen, you’ll be able to get back to your Start screen as well.

So, to summarize, the left and right sides of the screen are used for overall operations.

  • If you’re within an app, if you swipe from the bottom of the screen upwards, you’ll get a menu of app-specific settings. This is kind of like the control panel for your specific app, where you can set your preferences, etc.
  • In a select number of apps (and this is up to the app designer, obviously), if you swipe from the top of the screen downwards, you can have app-specific elements, such as navigation. In the USA Today app, you can see the different news categories to navigate between. In Internet Explorer, you can see all the tabs that you have open.

So, to summarize, the top and bottom of the screen are used for app-specific settings.

I find this paradigm actually quite intuitive.

That being said, I’m finding the OS quite a bit more difficult to understand when using it on my laptop with a mouse. In some case, I still find myself having to click and drag, but in other cases, it seems as if the right mouse button triggers some of the commands that swiping takes care of in a touch environment. I’m sure I’ll get familiar with it over time, but it’s a little frustrating to have to figure out the difference between using a mouse and using a touch display. To sum up, I would say Windows 8 works excellently in the environment for which it was designed, that being a touch display. However, I’m still finding it a little bit kludgey in a desktop environment with a mouse.

Portability

One of the nice features of Windows 8 is the fact that your Windows 8 settings are actually stored with your Microsoft ID (previously known as your Live ID or your Passport. Ay, ay, ay, Microsoft and their changing branding initiatives. Hopefully they can’t go wrong with the generic term Microsoft ID. But I digress.) When I bought my Surface, I bought the reddish-orange type pad, so I decided to set my Start page background color to a similar red, and I choose a design for the background. When I logged onto my laptop, the same settings showed up. Furthermore, when I go to the app store, it will tell me all the Windows 8 apps that I’ve downloaded onto any machine, period, and then tell me which apps are actually installed on my current machine. So, although you clearly still need to pull down the actual application bits to install on your current machine, it’s interesting that you have a way of keeping track of what you’ve download and/or purchased. I believe that some of the apps themselves will also retain the settings you saved when using the app on another system.

Apps

Out of the Box Apps

Windows 8 comes with some basic apps that you would imagine come with your OS: an e-mail client, a browser, the app store, etc. I was happy to see that the “People” app I first got familiar with in the Windows 7 Phone OS was brought over. On one screen, you can see a combined list of all your contacts from applications like Facebook and Twitter, as well as from your Exchange or other e-mail accounts.

The e-mail account is obviously one of the ones I use the most. Unlike Exchange, but again, like my Windows 7 Phone, I like the fact that in one environment I can view multiple e-mail accounts, regardless of what kind of account they are. For instance, in my environment I have two Exchange accounts, a Yahoo! account, and a Hotmail account. One of my only complaints is that I have a huge hierarchy of nested folders in my primary Exchange account. Unfortunately, the list of folders doesn’t expand and collapse, so I have to scroll through my bazillion folders of old clients just to get to a folder with a name of “Verifications” at the bottom of the list. That’s minor, though.

The calendar app I’m less thrilled about. The month view of the calendar is clunky and busy, and every time I open an event, I can’t seem to figure out how to get into a “view” mode of the calendar entry, rather than a “view” mode. This is irritating because in the “view” mode of an event, I can click on the link to a teleconference meeting, rather than what it currently does, which is try to have me edit the link. Again, small but irritating.

My comfort in many of these things is that I know that this is version 1.0 of these Windows 8 apps. I have a feeling that, with additional feedback, Microsoft will modify them so they work better. Or, perhaps, other vendors will fill the void with better apps. After all, Outlook 2013 is still there, so I have an alternative if I want.

XBOX Music

My maiden name was VanBruggen, and as you may know, Dutch folk are as cheap as they come. (There was a restaurant in Grand Rapids, MI — a city full of ethnically Dutch people where I went to college — where you could order your food with a phone, and they brought the food out to your table, so you didn’t have to actually tip a waiter. I’m not kidding.) At any rate, I’m not the kind of person who would probably pay money for a subscription to any kind of music service, whether you’re talking Sirius or Pandora or a Zune Pass or whatever. However, getting the XBOX Music (previously known as a Zune Pass) subscription is quickly changing my mind.

Much of the service is what you would expect — the ability to play songs on demand, whether it be by genre, by artist, by song, by album, etc. I’ve found the library pretty darned extensive so far. What I find especially nice about it, though, is the fact that your settings are stored with the service, so you can access your same songs and playlists across devices. In my case, that means I can now listen to my music on my laptop, Surface, or on my TV using my XBOX.

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