As as soon I mentioned ordering a Microsoft Surface everyone said they looked forward to my review. My friends know I don’t write typical reviews with technical specs. Instead, my first couple days with a device is an appraisal of the experience. I never used an Apple iPad and while I have chosen Android phones, I began my Surface existence as my new normal.
What I’ll share here are my first impressions using a Microsoft Surface just as if I was someone fresh off the street. Today’s post probably won’t help you decide if you want to own a Surface or Windows RT device. As I learn more, I’ll write about the pro’s and con’s.
My typical day is spent with my hands on a small Lenovo X61 convertible laptop. I use it for almost everything and it allows me to leave my office so I can spend more time with my wife, Cindi. The only reason I still have a desktop in my office is for developing and debugging. Some times I even use GoToMyPC as a remote connection if I need to work on my desktop.
My goal is to find out how much of my laptop could be replaced and also how quickly I would learn to use a completely new environment. The best word to describe the Microsoft Surface is “ecosystem”. Everyone’s experience will vary depending on their activity on social networks.
“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system.”
Unpacking my new Surface was a pleasure and I was already configuring my personal preferences within 10 minutes. The absence of any instructions saved a lot of time. It looked so beautiful and glossy my instinct was to get up and wash my hands. This was totally absurd because I knew in no time the entire device would be full of smudges. I chose the 64GB model with a soft black keyboard/cover that feels like brushed felt. Its magnetic connector provides a confident bond and my heavy fingers are adjusting quickly even on uneven surfaces. I expect my typing skills will become more proficient and I know the textured keyboard will attract plenty of grunge over time. I should probably order an extra keyboard cover now.
New Interface (formerly known as Metro)
Years ago when my mother started to use Windows she was a victim of one its early user interface failures. She would keep opening windows until they maxed out the screen and she couldn’t find what she was initially working on. Jumping in blindly, I’ve had a similar first experience with Microsoft Surface. I had launched multiple apps and screens were opened somewhere. I took me longer than it should to learn how to get back to a specific app or screen. I knew there must be an easier way than what I was doing. Like using Android, most apps don’t have an Exit or Close which may be unsettling to some. By day two I started to search for tips online and quickly discovered there were much better ways to get around. I’ve listed some tips at the end of this post.
The small instruction pamphlet that came with Surface covered the fact I should swipe the side of the screen. It wasn’t complete explaining when I would need to swipe the screen edge and how it would change based on what was open on the screen. It failed to include many additional swipe methods and operational quick tips. Once I learned more it reminded me of teaching others how useful the right-click mouse button could be in Windows.
Before leaving his CEO position, Bill Gates promoted the concept of a document concentric operating system. I was never a fan of this concept and Windows RT remains app concentric. Microsoft has continued to work at fixing the 2nd biggest computer usability problem, “Where did I save that file?”. Microsoft Surface continues trying to reduce the need of a dot file extension and ties user data more directly to its application. The trend continues towards defining a descriptive folder as a repository of file types which I’ve seen work well.
The Elephant in the Room
What will be the most talked about aspect of Windows 8 is having two completely separate interfaces. You “Start” with the new interactive tiles that represent apps like those Microsoft hopes you’ll purchase from their store. I’ll cover what I like about the various tiles in a future post. For now you need to be prepared when you click on the Desktop tile or launch one of the Desktop tools. You will see a familiar Windows desktop minus an overly debated Start button.
Things work different in Desktop mode. New Surface users will discover there is a very different touch interface. My fat fingers are a disadvantage when trying to make selections. Text and windows work as they always have and won’t get smaller if you pinch the screen with your fingers. When you touch on an input box to type, the cursor blinks but the onscreen keyboard doesn’t automatically slide up.
Microsoft Surface in Desktop view
I was surprised to find plenty familiar Microsoft Windows applications, like RegEdit, NotePad, Windows Control Panel apps, File Explorer, IE and many administrative tools. This was a big confidence boost for me even though developing for the Desktop space in Windows RT appears reserved for Microsoft only.
New apps designed for Windows RT need to be built from scratch using a new developer kit. It builds app intended be sold in the Microsoft Store and designed to run in the tile environment. Microsoft has built a new Visual Studio tool and Software Development Kit so developers can easily create “Window Store Applications” for both a Windows RT machine and for Windows 8 Pro.
Windows 8 Pro
I’m loving my new Surface even if I can’t use legacy applications I now run under Windows 7. I expect to see plenty of Windows RT devices hit the market but at the same time many established companies will be selling Tablets, Ultrabooks, even another Microsoft Surface, loaded with “Windows 8 Pro”. When you switch to Desktop mode under Windows 8 Pro, all your favorite Windows apps including the full Office suites, should work normally. Windows printers and other devices should behave in ways that may be required in your work.
The downside is devices with Windows 8 Pro will be more expensive, they will most likely may be heavier and won’t have the same battery life available on a Windows RT based system. You will find more security options available for Windows 8 Pro. The advantage won’t matter until enough Windows RT devices exist to make creating malware cost effective. Since new apps for Windows RT will come from the Microsoft Store the chance of malware spreading will also be greatly reduced.
For a good comparison see the Microsoft Surface “Help Me Choose” page.
Microsoft Surface Important Tips
Doing this article it was important to have screen shots to illustrate my points. Most people may not need to do screen captures but as a support person I love all of you who include screen shots when reporting a problem. Unfortunately, you won’t find a PrintScreen button on the Surface keyboard. There’s a great Snipping Tool that runs in Desktop mode but if you want to do a screen shot of the Start screen or a Windows RT Store Application you need to know the following secret.
Tip: Screen Capture
Find the Volume down button on the left side of the Surface so you have a finger on it. When you’re ready, hold down the physical Windows 8 logo button on the bottom and press Volume Down. The screen will dim for a second and your image will be stored automatically in the Libraries –> Pictures –> Screenshots folder.
Tip: Start Button
One of the most talked about and ridiculous issues of Windows 8 has been the missing Start Button. When I search Bing.com for “Missing Start Button” it told me it had 131,000,000 Results. Many replacement apps have been created but I’m just as happy with Windows Key + X.
Tip: Task Manager
One of the most useful desktop applications was not easy to find. Even if you ask Windows to include Administration Tools it won’t list Task Manager. What you can do is press Windows Key + Z or swipe up from the bottom of the Start screen. This will show you the All Apps charm. Press this and scroll all the way to the right where you’ll find Task Manager along with some other favorites that have been converted to Windows RT.
Closing or Exiting an App
I mentioned one of the things I don’t understand on Android is there doesn’t seem to be an Exit or Close for most applications. Windows RT apparently manages apps in a similar way. Apps are suspended and get shoved around in memory until they’re used again or until Windows needs the memory for a new app and/or its data. Microsoft recommends you just let Windows do its thing but if you really need to exit an app you can swipe it closed. When the app is open on the screen take your finger and swipe from the very top of the screen to the very bottom. You should see the app stuffed away if you do it right. You can also use Alt-F4 if the keyboard is attached but again, according to Microsoft this isn’t necessary because a suspend app won’t slow things down.
You can verify this now that I’ve taught you how to find the new and most improved system application, Task Manager.
Click on any of the images for a larger version.