Hollywood often withholds badly conceived movies from reviewers so that bad press doesn’t adversely affect the opening weekend box office. So it was with Surface with Windows RT, for me at least: Microsoft refused to let me even peek at this machine ahead of the launch day. And although the Surface is no dud -- in fact, it’s very well made -- Surface RT is no PC replacement.
Likewise, Windows RT is currently an unacceptable alternative to mainstream Windows 8 versions. Learn more from "Surface with Windows RT First Impressions + Photos."
Although this information will come too late to save the many people who pre-ordered Surface with Windows RT, as well as the many who queued up at Microsoft stores around North America late last week -- thanks again, Microsoft -- it might at least ease the minds of those who waited, or who now face shipping delays. In its current, woefully incomplete form, Surface with Windows RT is nothing more than a PC companion, a secondary device like an iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire HD, or Android tablet.
Which is to say that it’s pretty good for email, web browsing, Facebook updates, and media consumption, with a tiny but growing app and games store and a fun and useful set of surprisingly decent Touch and Type covers. (And yes, they’re both surprisingly good, and a clear advantage for this machine.)
But where Microsoft bills Windows 8 as its “no compromises” OS, Windows RT (and, more specifically, Surface RT) are all about compromise. In fact, they’re nothing but compromise. And in just a few short days of use, it’s painfully clear to me that these compromises have, well, compromised the experience.
The problems don’t hit you right away. Instead, they sneak up on you like the phone or doorbell ringing late at night. At first you marvel at how much like Windows it is, because, duh, it is Windows, just Windows recast for ARM processors. And it’s amazing how much of Windows is in there. Admin command prompts, Remote Desktop Connection, Computer Management, PowerShell, it’s all accounted for.
It’s also amazing how much is missing. And this is where the insidious nature of Windows RT and this first Surface device really comes back to bite early adopters.
On the software front, you get everything that’s wrong with Windows 8 -- the half-finished Metro environment with its lack of even a single gotta-have-it app, as the most obvious -- but also none of what’s right. There’s a desktop environment, but no compatibility at all with both mainstream Windows applications -- iTunes, Photoshop, Chrome, Firefox, and so on -- and browser add-ons. So you can’t integrate secure password solutions such as Last Pass nor play online video utilizing Microsoft’s own Silverlight technologies.
The Surface hardware is beautiful to look at, and it feels high-quality to the touch. But the list of what’s missing is longer than the list of what’s included. It has a single USB 2.0 port -- take that, iPad! -- but one isn’t enough, and there’s no dock or USB 3.0 support at all. It has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, of course, but not NFC or even optional 3G/4G capabilities. It has wonderful Type and Touch keyboard covers, but they don’t even stay attached to the device when “closed”; they just hang there.
Microsoft tries to take an Apple-style high road on the hardware limitations, claiming it had to make “hard decisions” to make Surface pure and stylish. I agree that denying customers features that they require is probably a hard decision. But it was also the wrong decision.
The Microsoft ecosystem holes are even worse. If you’ve bought into Windows Phone 7, you Microsoft fan, you, then you’re out of luck. There is no way -- and there will never be any way -- to sync that device to Windows RT. You need to upgrade to Windows Phone 8. (Or, on the flipside, use Windows 8.) If you purchase some Xbox Video content in HD format from the Xbox 360 console, as happened to me twice, you’ll be shocked when you try to play or download it from the Surface because it’s not available to you there. And although the device has microSD expansion in a bid to help you overcome the limits of the 32GB or 64GB of integrated storage, well, the joke’s on you. You can’t add that storage to your Windows RT libraries normally, so you won’t be able to easily access it from the system’s media apps. Are you laughing yet?
I am not.
I’ve written before that Windows RT is the future, that it’s the new NT. And it is. But it’s NT 3.1, not NT 4.0, a half-finished peek at a future that could indeed be wonderful if only then were now. But in the real world of today, both Windows RT and Surface RT have too many trip-ups and outright dead-ends for me to recommend this without serious caveats.
So now what?
If you’re looking for a PC companion, the iPad software, services, and hardware add-on ecosystems are breathtakingly mature and getting better every day. Even Android is in a better spot right now, although you would admittedly be taking a chance on some devices.
But my primary recommendation is to closely examine two alternatives. Obviously, Surface with Windows 8 Pro will be here eventually, and other Windows 8-based tablets and devices are currently shipping. But the dark horse, the one truly interesting hybrid device type, might be just around the corner. Intel’s PC maker partners are about to ship a new generation of “Clover Trail” Atom-based Windows 8 devices that will offer the best of both worlds: the hardware and software compatibility of Windows 8 combined with the battery life and thin and light form factors provided by ARM devices.
I’m holding out hope for that latter option, and I’ll be reviewing Clover Trail devices as soon as possible. It’s a shame Microsoft isn’t making a Clover Trail-based Surface. Its first model, Surface with Windows RT, is simply too frustrating and too limited.
PS: I wrote this commentary on Surface using the Type keyboard, on a plane. It really is a nifty little add-on.