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For the past year, I've been skeptical about Windows 8, but on Launch Day last 26 October, I decided to dive in, upgrading my non-touchscreen laptop to Windows 8 Pro and taking delivery of a new Surface RT Tablet. The next day, I spent 13 hours in the air and in airline lounges, a grim-sounding day but in fact one that encouraged me to really get to know Win 8 (on my laptop) and Win RT (on the Surface). In fact, much of what I've been doing for the past four weeks has been using Windows 8 nearly nonstop and working on the Surface several hours a day. In this newsletter, I'll pass along what I've found in the hopes of saving you some time in making sense of Microsoft's latest desktop and its new tablet hardware. And trust me, I know what you're thinking when I say that Microsoft's selling tablet hardware. "New Microsoft hardware, Mark? So tell me... is it Zune-kind-of-hardware or Xbox-kind-of-hardware?" Lots of good news, bad news, and "why on earth did they..." stuff to tell you, but first, a word from our sponsor...
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28 Days Under the Surface: Running Windows RT on Microsoft's New Tablet
A few days ago, I got one of Microsoft's new Surface tablets running the brand-new Windows RT operating system. I got my order in early enough that my Surface arrived before noon on 26 October, just as promised. That's given me a chance to run both the new hardware and software through its paces, and I wanted to share my results with you here. But if you're impatient, let's do the short version first.
Summary: Surface Hardware and Software
The Surface hardware is an impressive tablet in many ways and a worthy competitor to the iPad. Surface's pathbreaking keyboard cover, numerous easy options for add-on storage, superior wireless networking and USB port will make iPad owners jealous, at least until they see that the Surface inexplicably lacks 3G or 4G, although honestly given no shortage of small, easily-portable, inexpensive hotspots, that may not be the dealbreaker that it seems at first glance. Having to buy overpriced cables for video and having to deal with a lame magnetic power connector are negatives but not significant ones.
The Surface's operating system software Windows RT is solid in a way that the iPad is not and surprisingly replete with drivers. It presents the new Metro-style desktop and Windows' new touch-first interface well, and is fun to work with. Despite being a deliberately cut-down version of Windows, RT carries more of the pre-8 Windows functionality with it than I expected, which was a relief for me but might confuse someone who picks up a Surface as a tablet and has never used Windows. ("Daddy, why does my tablet have two desktops?") Windows RT is horribly lacking in available applications at the moment, but Microsoft includes Office 2013’s Word, PowerPoint and Excel in every copy of RT. RT Office is almost good enough to make up for the lack of apps, but it lacks Outlook. Instead, you get some weak contacts / email / calendar tools, and no syncing of your Outlook notes. Many people will, however, overlook that annoyance because the Surface includes a version of Internet Explorer that lets you visit Flash sites, if puzzlingly not Silverlight sites. Overall, I like the Surface quite a bit, but it hasn't entirely replaced my iPad yet for now, they're cohabitating in my bag.
Now that we're past the headlines, here's the story. Let me first set the scene with a look at Windows 8 in general …
Windows 8 for PCs Arrives, and I Was Wrong It Doesn't Suck
When Microsoft released Windows 8 on 26 October, you may know that they actually released two very different operating systems. One was the latest in a long line of Windowses, Windows 8. That Windows 8 works on the same type of hardware that you currently run Windows 7 on. Microsoft that Windows 8 in three "SKUs" (we're all WalMart now, apparently). The first one is named simply "Windows 8," and while that sounds like a generic phrase for all of the new Windows, it's not it refers to what Microsoft has called the "Home Edition" in XP, Vista and Windows 7. (Coulda worked harder on that one, Redmond.) The other two are essentially identical versions called "Windows 8 Enterprise" and "Windows 8 Pro." Their basic difference is in how you buy them Windows 8 Pro is sold retail and Enterprise is sold through Microsoft's volume licensing program.
And about that name "Windows 8 Pro,” let’s make a couple of points. First, I'm not being lazy in saying "Windows 8 Pro" rather than "Windows 8 Professional," as the shorter name is the correct one there is no Windows 8 "Professional," just Windows 8 "Pro." Second, let me repeat that Windows 8 Pro is essentially identical to Windows 8 Enterprise, feature-wise, unlike Windows 7's "Pro." Buying Windows 7 Professional was a bit frustrating for many Windows users, as Windows 7 Professional left you without Bitlocker, Applocker, boot-from-VHD and other things that Enterprise 7 could do, and so you had to buy Windows 7 Ultimate if you were a small business and wanted the full array of Windows 7 features. With Windows 8, however, there is no "Ultimate" SKU, and no reason for a small business user or a techie home user to feel that they’re missing something if they buy Windows 8 Pro rather than Windows 8 Enterprise.
In any case, I need a generic phrase for Windows 8 / Windows 8 Enterprise / Windows 8 Pro to distinguish them from the all-new tablet OS called "Windows RT," so I'll generically call those three "Windows 8 Pro."
Windows 8 Pro is an interesting new OS for a variety of reasons, but in the end analysis it's not really all that big a change from Windows 7. Seriously, take away the new Start Screen and it could have been called Windows 7.2. Don't misunderstand, I'm not meaning to speak ill of it, as I'm running it on my old Lenovo W510 and it's working great. The upgrade from Win 7 on my app-cluttered system was smooth as silk, with just one caveat: the upgrade wizard assumes that you want it to wipe your data on the install… so look twice before you go into the "Ok, Ok, Ok…" trance. After having lived with Windows 8 Pro on a real system with real apps for about a month, however, I honestly have to say that the biggest surprise is that in nearly no time at all, I just keep forgetting that I'm not still running Windows 7. If you're thinking about an upgrade from 7, you may like it for a few reasons. For one, you needn't buy new hardware to make it work. If you have UEFI BIOS hardware then the security story is sort of compelling, as bootkits and rootkits become gosh-darn near impossible. The file history undeleter's nice, although most techies already know that the shadow copy feature’s been there since Vista but has until this point lacked a decent UI. The multimonitor support is logical. And who knows, I might want to run one of the tablet-y apps that Windows 8 Pro supports.
No, the reason that I’m sounding kind of blasÚ about 8 is that Windows 8 Pro is not by any means a "bold re-imagining of Windows" any more than was adding .NET to Windows ten years ago. What’s .NET got to do with it, you ask? .NET is a software platform that enables developers to build different kinds of Windows applications than were possible before .NET's inception. Similarly, the biggest change in Windows this time is something called "Windows Runtime," which is mainly – you guessed it – a software platform that enables developers to build different kinds of applications than were possible before Runtime's inception. So in a few words, Windows 8 is a nice evolution, not revolution. Heck, in many ways, I could shorten my summary of a Windows 7-to-8 upgrade in just one word used famously by Douglas Adams: "harmless."
RT Runs on Different Hardware and Restores an Old Windows Housecleaning Tradition
In contrast, there was a part of the Windows 8 release where we got some big changes in software and hardware. I'm talking about that other Windows 8, "Windows RT," and Microsoft's new tablet, "Surface." There's a lot to say about each, and that's where I'll spend the rest of my time in this article. Let's start with the hardware.
Windows RT, which stands for Windows "Runtime," can't be purchased in any store, you can only get it by buying a device that ships with RT preinstalled, like Microsoft's Surface tablet. And even if you could get a copy of it, it wouldn't work on your current PC anyway. You see, it's built to run on are you ready? Ancient. Alien. Technology. I am not kidding, it's true.
RT's built to run on CPUs designed around an architecture called Advanced RISC Machine or ARM. The folks who created the first generation of ARM chips started work on it in 1983 in Britain. Yes, that Britain, the place where ancient aliens built Stonehenge.
Why are you looking at me so strangely? This all makes sense. First, I'm an American. Our immigration law refers to anyone who's not a U.S. citizen as an "alien." British people are therefore ah, now you're getting it aliens. And this whole ARM thing started 29 years ago, which in Internet years is hang on… carry the three … 71,261 years. Yup, ancient alien tech.
In truth, however, there is something a mite old and alien about Win RT, as it revives what was once a very important and, sadly, largely forgotten aspect of Windows NT: processor independence. When Microsoft released Windows NT 3.1 back in 1993, they released it not only in a version that ran on 486 and Pentium chips, but also on a little-known, little-used processor chip called the MIPS. Microsoft wanted an all-new Windows, one as industrial-strength as Unix, and that meant building an OS without the limitations and almost none of the code from Windows 3.1. In fact, that very, very earliest pieces of Windows NT 3.1 were written solely on the MIPS chip specifically to force Windows programmers out of the 386/486/Pentium mindset and create an OS that could be reconfigured to run atop almost anything. (I recall Microsoft people speculating aloud in 1992 about a version of Windows NT that would run on an IBM mainframe.)
Processor independence also made sense because in the early 90’s, no one knew what processor chip would win in the marketplace eventually. (Remember, the Mac was delivering some pretty impressive performance with some Motorola 68000-class 32-bit processors at the time, chips that in some ways put our 386es to shame.) Thus, the designers of the new Windows wanted it to be flexibly-designed and easily implemented on whatever new chips came around. In time, we saw a version of Windows NT for the MIPS, the DEC Alpha chip (a great processor architecture that I sorely miss, from a company that I miss just as badly), the PowerPC chip, and finally AMD's path-breaking "Sledgehammer" 64 bit chips, but in the past ten or so years, Windows has only run on the Intel/AMD world.
In any case, I'm glad that RT's main job -- produce an iPad killer -- had the side-effect of forcing Microsoft's programmers to go back and re-think big parts of Windows from the ground up. (Cleaning out the garage now and then is often a valuable exercise.)
While creating a whole everything-you-know-is-wrong version of Windows was a pretty big deal, it was really just the start. With every previous new version of Windows, there was always plenty of hardware upon which you could install the new OS and try it out. But RT, again, changes things. Prior to 26 October 2012, there was nothing, as RT requires what is currently the newest hardware platform on the planet. So Microsoft did what they only rarely do, and decided to sell hardware -- a new tablet. Borrowing from the name of an older touchscreen product, they decided to call it the "Surface RT."
Working with one of the first examples of a new hardware family running the first example of a new software family a Microsoft Surface RT running Windows RT has been a series of (mostly) pleasant surprises. I was expecting the Surface hardware to be an iPad-like tablet with some kind of keyboard, but honestly I didn't expect much in the way of looks and grace design-wise, as it has seemed to this point that Apple has the corner on that. On the software side, I imagined a Windows without any traditional taskbar/system tray/windows-with-minimize/maximize/close-icons desktop at all, just the colorful, frenetic field of big dynamic "tiles" (RT’s replacement for program icons) in the new Windows Start Screen. I saw Windows RT as a software platform aimed at hosting things like slide shows of pictures, managing libraries of movies and music, and equipped with tools focused on letting us remain constantly in touch with email, messaging, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the galaxy of social networking apps. RT did turn out to be those things, but it’s quite a bit more besides.
The Surface Hardware
Again, "Zune or XBox?" My call is "much more XBox than Zune," but read on and make the call for yourself.
The Surface turns out to be a visually pleasing, light and useful tablet, but with a cover that doubles as a quite functional keyboard and what may be the first touchpad that hasn’t raised my blood pressure. Why a touchpad? As you'll read later, RT has two very different desktops, the "runs old Windows apps" Desktop and the "runs new tablet apps" Start Screen. The Start Screen's great with big fat human fingers, but the old Desktop still needs you to click little check boxes, small text fields, and tiny "close" icons. When manipulating old Desktop stuff you'll find that even the simplest mouse seems like manna from heaven.
The Surface Type Cover
I know this sounds goofy, but let me gush about this keyboard for a moment. Like an iPad cover, it's flat, soft, and has a magnetic hinge that lets it act as a cover for the glass/digitizer on the tablet. It’s about twice the thickness of an iPad cover. (There are two versions of this cover/keyboard, and I'm talking about the "Surface Type Cover," the one that costs $119 extra rather than the "Surface Touch Cover," which is exactly the same width of an iPad cover. More on it later.) On the side of the Surface Type Cover facing the tablet, though, is a full-sized keyboard with keys that actually depress and click. I’m a touch typist, and I've written this article on the keyboard, all 8,000-plus words. Having done that, I have to say that this thing gives me all the tactile feedback and ergonomic angles that I need. I'm pretty sure that a really fast typist could out-type this thing but it works for me. (Once in a while, though, Word gets itself in a knot and starts responding very, very slowly. I’m hoping some update resolves that and yes, I’ve already installed the optional half-gig Windows Update piece for Office. You should also if you have a Surface.) I also like the Type Cover because, again, its integrated mouse pad has yet to think that the heel of my hand is me trying to select an entire paragraph and then delete it. (I can show you two paragraphs in my Linux book that make no sense at all thanks to a Winbook touchpad, which is why the first thing I usually do when I get a new laptop is to figure out how not to merely disable the thing but instead to make is dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.) I love my iPad, but entering text on it or just about any other "soft" keyboard is just not very pleasant – ask any hand surgeon some time whether it’s a particularly good idea to bang your fingers against hard glass for hours. With the Surface, in contrast, let me put it this way: I’ve often considered writing a book about tablets, but now I’m considering writing a book on a tablet. But wait, there’s more…
When I flip the keyboard/cover around so that I can hold the tablet as a tablet, then the keys "go dead," and so holding the tablet doesn’t safdowhDSKGHwoihASELFJ – like that. There are keys for the five Windows 8/RT "charms," icons that RT uses to give you access to settings and such. They can be annoying to get to, so I've often observed that one kind of "charm" in magical stories is a curse, but putting the charm keys on the keyboard makes controlling RT a bit more, um, charming, and that’s nice. (I mean, heck, I wouldn’t have thought adding the things.) You know, I often start playing with an iPhone or iPad and say, "hey, isn’t that cool!" or "isn’t that pretty!" but with the Surface, I find myself saying, "isn’t that useful!" Boring as it sounds, having a Ctrl key so I can italicize the odd word without having to access some submenu is pretty darn neat on a tablet.
Years ago, a very low-power, crappy-screen small computer appeared called the Radio Shack Model 100. It came with a full keyboard, ran on AA batteries and was about the size of a trade paperback. Doesn't sound impressive? You could write an article, plug it into a phone line and then use its built-in modem to file your story. And you know what? Every friggin’ journalist in the world owned one, or at least coveted one. Surface might just be the Radio Shack Model 2012. (Actually, though, I think it's already outsold the Model 100 in its first week of sales.)
The bad part of the keyboard? There's only one downside I can think of it's not the default cover. The keyboard/cover you get by default on most models has bumps on it to represent keys that don’t move. The Touch Cover is better than banging your fingers on hard glass and offers a better angle to type on than the screen, but nobody’s going to buy a Surface for its default "Surface Touch Cover" keyboard. Why the good keyboard - the Type Cover -- isn't the default is sort of goofy when you consider that RT Surface tablets cost about $100 less than similarly-equipped iPads. Personally, I’d have matched the iPad prices and included the good keyboard. And okay, if I have to carp about something, now that I’m addicted to writing with this thing, I want backlit keys for when I’m on the plane or in a dark restaurant.
So besides the keyboard, what else matters about the Surface hardware? In no particular order…
Fit and Finish
When I look at a tablet, I ask, "how hard or easy is it to hold without dropping? How would I prop it up? Will I have to lift weights before I can hold it long enough to read an entire book?" Here's how RT scores.
The tablet’s size: I'm only simplifying a bit when I say that the iPad and the Surface are about the same thickness, width and weight, but the Surface is about an inch and a half longer than the iPad. The difference
I measure my iPad at about 9-1/2" x 7-1/2" and the Surface at about 11" x 7" or, rephrased, the Surface is about an inch and a half longer than the iPad. The iPad weights 1.46 pounds, the Surface 1.5, so no perceptible difference there. With the Type Cover installed, the difference in thickness between the two is a trifle more than the width of two US quarters -- about four millimeters. In sum, then, the only real difference in handling feel should come from the extra inch and some in length.
Despite, that, when I'm holding it in my hand, the Surface feels a little … awkward. Like it doesn’t fit my hands the way the iPad does. Where the iPad’s edges are smooth curves, the Surface’s corners and edges are beveled. The Surface is just a hair thicker, but that small extra thickness makes it feel a bit too big. And the Surface’s aspect ratio – 16:9, perfect for HD although I don’t grasp why that matters on a computing device – all conspire to make the tablet feel a bit too big and clunky. Having said that, let me also say that I’ve been using my iPad very frequently for about two and a half years, so it may be just a matter of getting used to it, and let me also say that I don’t have terribly large hands, so your feelings may well differ from mine on this score.
The kickstand. Holding a tablet 24x7 just isn’t a realistic scenario, and so every tablet needs something that lets you view it kinda upright and kinda at an angle. The iPad’s cover offers two angles: one that lays the tablet flat but a bit too flat, and the one that sits it up nearly upright, and that angle’s too upright, and thus worries me that the thing will fall on its face and break. (It’s happened to me.) Microsoft’s answer is a built-in "kickstand" that offers just one angle. It’s upright like the iPad’s second position but it’s less precarious-looking than the upright iPad angle so it's a nice try, but honestly the perfect tablet will have something offering three or four angles. I solve that problem with the iPad by carrying a $14 "kickstand" adjustable stand, and it works fine for the Surface in my experience, as I'd imagine that any iPad holder would.
The connector for the charger. Arrgh. It's a cutesy narrow little thing with five tiny bumps on it that connect magnetically to five tiny pits in the side of the Surface. It always requires about a minute of fussing with to make it work, and the only way that you know that it's really connected is when a very, very faint pale white light issues from an LED at the end of the connector. Watch this closely the first time you plug in your Surface, or you'll find your tablet without power when you need it. It will actually work with the LED up or down apparently the five bumps-and-pits connect properly in either orientation but you'll find that one of the positions is a bit hard to make work unless the kickstand is open. Why we can't just charge the thing on regular old I-already-have-charging-devices-for-it USB is beyond me. (Not that the iPad makes life much easier, with its need of a USB charger that uses above-standard amounts of power.)
While I'm on the subject of power, consider pressing the power button to turn the power off when you close the tablet. For some reason I'm sometimes seeing that my screen's still lit when I've got the cover closed, which explains the time that I tucked it into my laptop bag during a long flight but found it drained when I removed it from the bag at the end of the flight.
The Screen and Sound
Screen: I might not be the guy to ask, as I’m not that picky about small screens. I mean, I’m still using and liking an iPad 2’s screen despite having spent a few days with an iPad 3. Hey, it might be prettier, but I can’t really see it and don’t want to have to waste CPU time servicing all those pixels. I have, however, watched a couple of episodes of Elementary on it, and it was perfectly fine. From a technical point of view it was a trifle better than on the iPad as the Surface screen has an aspect ratio better matched to HD content but … yawn … I’m having trouble staying awake worrying about it. It is a pain that my MKV videos won’t run. Maybe an app one day. (Edit: YxPlayer RT in the Windows Store claims to play MKVs; haven't tried it yet.)
Screen brightness: it seems a trifle brighter than the iPad, but I'm not sure. In any case, they're both bright enough for what I'd use a tablet for.
Video output: RT devices need a minimum resolution of 1366x768 to get the full Start Screen experience – that is, to let you put two apps on the Start Screen at the same time – and the Surface has that.
And in case you’re wondering why having two apps simultaneously on-screen is important? Well, at least in my case it would be kind of nice to be able to have both my calendar application and the Delta Airlines application on-screen at the same time when scheduling a flight with my iPad, but the iPad only allows one app on-screen at a time. So can I accomplish that on RT? Well, unfortunately not yet, as Delta hasn't written an RT application to my knowledge, so I can have two apps on-screen at the same time, but not the ones I want. (Feels a little like an O’Henry short story, doesn’t it?)
Video peripherals: You can then shell out $40 apiece for a VGA or HDMI cable. Both work as expected, as I used the VGA adapter to do a Surface presentation in Vegas in late October to a couple of hundred people, and the HDMI adapter to run a movie on my television – but the things should be in the box. (You can save a few dollars on the HDMI adapter, as any micro HDMI to full HDMI cable will work.) Compared to the iPad, the Surface does well here -- no magic's involved in getting the Surface desktop mirrored or extended on a TV or computer display, just good old WindowsKey+P or the Devices charm.
Cameras: there are two 720p cameras. They're also pitched so that when you have the tablet propped up with the kickstand then they're looking parallel to the ground rather than one pointing at the ground and the other one pointing over your head.
Are they any good? I'm kind of a camera snob, so all phone and tablet cameras kind of fall in the "why would you use them?" category. Shooting a few stills in a medium-brightness room with the iPad and the Surface didn't make the Surface look very good, although they were, again, both terrible. The Surface picture was a bit noiser, did not focus quite as well and yielded a somewhat less true-to-life color balance than did the iPad, but again it was a choice between Brussels sprouts and Brussels sprouts as far as I was concerned.
Audio: It certainly seems fine, but in truth I’m not picky about speakers that I know can’t be much larger than a few grains of rice. Comparing the speakers to the iPad speakers is probably the job of someone who's more of an audiophile, but... the iPad speakers are louder at max volume than are the Surface speakers, but they're also noisier at that higher volume. (Personally I score that a plus for the Surface, as I'd hope that most people use the thing with a headset in public.) The Surface also has two speakers and thus offers stereo sound, where the iPad has one.
The 3G broadband hardware: It ain’t there. Just Wi-Fi. Fer crissake, I’d take 2G. Gimme something that’s always connected. This is by far the biggest screwup hardware-wise in the Surface, no questions about it and maybe a fatal screwup, which is sad given that I’ve got a Virgin Mobile USB 3G/4G transceiver that works fine with my Windows 7 laptop and that when I plug it into the RT, Device Manager seems to have a driver for it but RT doesn’t seem to have an app to enable me to use it as a network device. Maybe that’ll change. (By the way, I did say "ipconfig." RT’s got a command prompt. It even runs my get-ipinfo PowerShell script. More on that later.) I picked up a Verizon 4620L "Jetpack" hotspot at a not-terrible price that lets me roll my 4G/3G needs for my iPad, Surface and laptop all into one service and it seems pretty neat so far the Surface loves it and it’s how I’m getting to this document on SkyDrive while traveling.
Wireless: Yeah, I’m bugged that there’s no 3G/4G. But the wireless is pretty good, I have to say. Recently I was just sitting in an airport restaurant and thought I might just indulge myself and get an Internet connection for the hour I’d be waiting (I hadn't gotten the hotspot yet), so I clicked the Settings charm and found several hotspots, but none more than a bar. Bummer, I thought, I bet the iPad would have done better, so I pulled it out, sat it next to the Surface, and …
It couldn’t see a single hotspot. I had seven on the Surface, zero on the iPad. Later, on the plane at Atlanta (I live in the South, and you can’t fly direct to anywhere – when you die, you go to Atlanta and then change planes to Heaven or Hell), Surface saw five networks, the iPad saw two. When I got to my hotel, I tried again and the iPad saw two, the Surface saw nine. Nice antenna. (It’s a “MIMO” or something like that, and I have idea what that means, nor do I care, but I will certainly be looking for it in the future.)
I am used to begging my iPad to accept my data. "Hey, I’m sorry, but could I ask you to maybe read this file?" The notion of a central set of system-wide storage, a "C:" is apparently foreign to an iPad. "You want to see colons? Go to medical school, I guess." Every iPad app is forced to create its own weird data storage that talks to no other app’s data storage, which honestly feels like the way we stored files on mainframes in 1975. Strange as it sounds, using the "Apps" window in iTunes to drag one of my files to that app’s samizdat storage feels a little wrong, like I’ve jailbroken something and will, one day, have to pay for my misdeeds. Storing stuff to C:, in contrast, feels guilt-free. (Although I am a little worried about having questioned Apple’s design choices. I’m sorry, Cupertino. I won’t do it again. I just can’t get past this 20th century notion that it’s my data and that I kinda get to say where I put it and what I do with it.)
Encryption: RT also has Bitlocker, the drive encryption tool that makes it tougher for bad guys to extract data from a stolen or lost tablet. Even better, it's on by default -- my C: is encrypted. The iPad has nothing like that, but on the other hand the iPad has that wonderful free "find my iPad" feature. I'd sooo like to see that for the Surface. [EDIT: I'm told that when you put a PIN on your iPad, it encrypts the storage. Good to know!]
Cloud storage: This is kind of an interesting topic because sometimes it seems as though Microsoft should just give these Surfaces away and make money on the related services you’ll want for them. If you want to centrally manage it, you’ll end up getting InTune and possibly a System Center license. If you want apps for an RT box, you’ll pay Microsoft its 30% AppStore "tax" for each app. If you want cloud storage, you’ll probably get SkyDrive, but if you really start using it, you might need to upgrade your storage beyond the basic 7GB you get for free. Having said that, though, if you did want a cloud storage service, you could do worse than Microsoft’s, as it’s a better deal than most of the competition, including Apple's -- you get more free storage upfront and pay less to upgrade it.
USB port: Only 2.0 and only one, but wow. RT seems to have an in-the-box driver for everything I plug into it. Maybe someone will build a clip-on-the-tablet USB hub. I did a presentation on Surface a couple of weeks ago and used a hub to power a couple of USB sticks, my 3G dongle, an iPad and an iPhone all at the same time. I am told that the reason that it’s USB 2.0 rather than 3.0 because the ARM chipsets don’t support USB 3.0, but I’ve not been able to verify that.
And One More Point...
Running apps with a real keyboard. Have I mentioned that I love this keyboard? I’m writing and ctrl-S is right there. I can italicize with a couple of finger motions. For years I’ve been barking at Microsoft people because there’s no Office for iPad, but now I couldn't care less. They still need to create iOffice, but for heaven’s sake, if we’re going to try to create an interface that makes us productive, never forget that we have ten very, very programmable digits. (Office for the iPad is a funny thing to talk to people about, as everyone seems to think that Redmond has a working one that they may or may not start selling in the next six months. Seems reasonable to me, although I sort of wonder how many people will buy a $150 iPad app. One thing you've got to give Apple is that they've created a software market where $15 is about the most anyone would pay for software. Maybe they'll sell some piece cheap and then charge a monthly fee? It'll be interesting, whatever happens.) I should probably also mention that running apps with the onscreen keyboard can be a bit perplexing, although I'm not sure that it's entirely Microsoft's fault. I do so much of my work with systems that don't have a touchscreen that I've memorized a few dozen Windows key shortcuts that I sometimes don't know the "real" way to get to some things. In any case, get ready to do a bit of noodling around to figure out how to get the keyboard up in some situations.
The bottom line hardware-wise is this: I bought a Surface expecting only another tablet. But I got both a nice tablet and a very nice great-screen, small-size, long-battery-life laptop that runs Office for under a grand. Dunno what history will decide, but for my money, the Surface is "the writer’s tablet."
Now, if Adobe would only build LightRoom for it, I could take to a photo blind, shoot pictures in raw camera format and actually see what they look like in nearly real time. One day, I guess, which brings me to the software side of the Surface the Windows RT OS and its apps.
Windows RT Compared to Windows 8 Pro, iOS and OS/X: Similar Goals, Different Answers
As I've said, the move to ARM wasn't Microsoft's first rebuilt-Windows-from-the-ground-up, so seeing Windows on a new processor is nothing new. Moving to ARM was, however, different than putting NT on the Alpha, MIPS or PowerPC in that the ARM is a considerably less-powerful chip than modern Intel/AMD processors, and Microsoft never even intended to get all of Windows onto the ARM – RT is a cut-down version of Windows that can’t run a single existing Windows 7 application. But how much would they leave out? All I thought I "knew" were a few broad strokes:
Okay, Microsoft, I'll give you "bold" for that one. (And I should note that I was dead wrong on the first bullet, as we'll see.)
But then again, maybe this wasn't so bold – ask any Mac user. Consider the situation for an Apple Mac user who buys Apple’s iPad tablet. She now owns two Apple computers, but nothing that runs on the Mac runs on the iPad and vice versa. OS/X (the Mac OS) and iOS (the iPad/iPhone OS) are very, very different animals. Yes, they’re both OSes, but they’re built to serve different needs, sort of like SUVs and motorcycles – both provide transportation, but in very different ways and for different audiences. In the Apple world, the Mac and its OS/X operating system can, like Windows 8 Pro, host any kind of application software that you can imagine, from web browsers to web servers. They are both full-featured OSes, and that means that they require some big, powerful, energy-sucking hardware to support them. iOS, in contrast, is a significantly simpler / weaker / smaller / whatever-adjective-you-like OS trimmed down to focus on tablets and phones devices which are clearly computers, of course, but computers with slower processors, less RAM, and far less storage space than desktop or laptop computers, but that run much longer on batteries. WinRT, then, is to Windows 8 Pro as iOS is to OS/X, and so now Windows users can either opt for a computing device metaphorically offering better gas mileage, wind in their hair, and loud but inexplicably legal amounts of noise (WinRT systems, the motorcycles), or the gas-guzzling, usable for either shopping trips or cross-country trips, equipped-with-A/C boxes (traditional Windows 8 Pro-compatible Intel/AMD systems).
Oh, but hang on. Windows 8 Pro also runs RT apps. So putting Windows 8 Pro on a touch-equipped Intel/AMD laptop is sort of like buying an SUV that transforms itself into a motorbike any time you like. Nice.
What Windows RT Promised
As in much of life and presidential debates, expectations are everything. My expectations for anything running RT were simple: "I expect any tablet OS to run somewhat lamely, because CPU lameness is the price of long battery life in a light, portable computer." (The Clovertrail Atom processors may prove that wrong, as it looks as though they can deliver ARM-like battery life while still retaining acceptable Pentium compatibility.) What I expected out of RT, then, wasn’t a lot. To get that longer battery life, RT would be built atop that old, slow, limited ARM CPU. Many folks build ARM CPUs, but the one Microsoft chose was Nvidia, and given the number of blue screens they’ve generated for me video-wise, I can’t say that I was enthusiastic about the product.
On the other hand I may have been unkind there also, as while it’s an ARM, it’s a quad-core ARM.
So how did the reality of the OS match expectations?
When I first saw Windows 8 demonstrated at Microsoft's September 2011 BUILD conference, I was impressed but skeptical. Windows 8, we were told, would run all the old Windows apps built on the .NET platform we've known for ten years and the Win32 that we've known for twenty, but it would also enable a whole new class of pretty, Internet-centric, touch-friendly (which is a nice phrase for "has buttons big enough for fat human fingers") applications called "Windows Store applications" by Microsoft but called "Metro applications" by everyone else.
Windows 8 and the Two Desktops
When Windows developers got the chance to start building and releasing .NET-based apps ten years ago, many .NET apps appeared, but most end-users had no idea whether they were running Win32-based or .NET-based apps. With Windows RT-based apps, however, you can't miss the difference, as RT apps live on a completely different desktop called the "Start Screen." Anyone playing with even the earliest betas immediately saw that Microsoft had drawn a very clean line in the sand between "pre-RT apps" (Win32/.NET-based ones, everything you've been running for years) and "Metro apps," as they ran on completely different desktops. Run a pre-RT app, and the "Desktop" (capital D) shoves the Metro apps into the background, clears the screen and shows the familiar old Windows desktop with a Taskbar, wallpaper, the system tray – everything but the Start button. Press the Windows key, however, and the screen clears again, immediately replaced by Start Screen, at which point it’s pretty clear that you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The Start Screen is populated not by icons but by larger rectangles called "tiles" that not only let you start programs like normal familiar program icons but are programs in themselves. For example, the "weather" tile’s text changes regularly to tell you the current weather conditions. (Of course, if you have a job that forces you to ask your computer if it’s raining outside, quit that job. Just a thought.) Metro apps are in general architecturally constrained to be low-power, tablet-ish apps. Expect a Yelp, eBay and Bing Metro app, not a C++ compiler. Expect Angry Birds, not Photoshop. Expect a Zune-like Metro app ("iZunes?"), not Sound Forge. In other words, think "Desktop apps smart and diverse, Metro apps pretty and fluffy." Sort of like the difference between Mac OS/X apps and iOS apps.
On the other hand, iOS developers have proven me wrong a few times, when I see learning tools like The Elements, games like Civilization Revolution or Great Big War Game, or music apps like Garage Band for the iPad. SpaceTime on the iPad is a candy store for a numbers and equations geek like me. These are all humblingly awesome works of art, and in in the long run I hope to see all that for Surface. And to Windows RT’s credit, Music Maker Jam appeared for RT, and if you want to have some fun putting together a somewhat-original piece of music but you haven’t the fingers for a keyboard or the breath for a sax, give it a try. Unfortunately, to Windows RT’s non-credit, Microsoft wrote RT’s wonderful comes-free-in-the-box almost-Office for the Desktop, not the Start Screen. And yes, you did read that last sentence right.
Windows RT Platforms: Two Desktops, After All, and It’s a Mixed Blessing
RT has a Desktop. As in, "switches between the Start Screen and the Desktop."
My initial response was, "huh?" I mean, the Desktop runs Win32 and RT doesn’t support Win32 or, at least, that’s what they said. As it turns out, however, there kind of is a Win32 and kind of is .NET on Windows RT, but not that non-Microsoft programmers can access. I’m not someone who codes for a living, but it sort of feels wrong that Microsoft can build an app like Office on the Desktop in RT, and no one else can.
Clearly an Office Win32 desktop monopoly is, if not evil, at least odious. Or unfair. Why not a Metro version of Office, Microsoft? And if the answer is, "it’d be impossible to build something like Office on Metro," then shame on you for blocking others from building and offering similar new RT apps that run on the Desktop. Before you think that they’re acting anti-competitive on a grand scale, though consider that they have also locked RT out of one of Microsoft's coolest programming platforms, Silverlight. A few years ago, Microsoft came out with Silverlight, a neat in-browser programming platform that kind of did what Adobe Flash did, but in a more modern, secure way. Even a dope like me could put together some nice-looking stuff with Silverlight and spruce up a Web site with it.
Inexplicably, however, RT didn’t get Silverlight support, so all of those hardworking Web devs around the world who poured time and skull sweat into building some beautiful apps are left out in the cold. So why offer RT support for Flash and not Silverlight? I don’t know, but I listen to a lot of Windows developers, and many of them have opined that then-Windows division president Steven Sinofsky locked the Silverlight group at Microsoft out of RT in one of the turf wars for which Sinofsky was famous. Personally I’d be dumbfounded if it were true, but I’ve heard the conjecture from more than one smart Windows insider. Bummer.
RT’s Desktop: The Good News
On the other hand, there are two very, very cool side-effects of having a Desktop on RT.
Really – you get a pretty much complete command prompt environment. Now, if you’re a normal human reading this, then that might not seem so terribly impressive, but it is. Here’s a couple of reasons why.
First, you get a complete backstage pass to your tablet. I love my iPad, but when I’m running it, I’m just a dumbass user. The CNN app says "the network connection is unavailable" when I’ve got five bars on Verizon 3G, and what does that mean? Is the network really not working, or is the CNN web server just too underpowered to respond to my request, or is the CNN app – horrors! – just plain buggy? With iOS, there’s no way to know. With RT, I just open up a command prompt, try an ipconfig, a ping, maybe a tracert, and I have my answer. There’s Device Manager, Disk Management, Event Viewer, GpEdit (yes, there are local GP settings, just not domain ones), the advanced firewall manager, Task Scheduler, Local User Manager, TPM management, and a lot more. For me, this is just so cool, enabling me to troubleshoot and repair tablet problems in a way that I can't on the iPad short of turning it off and turning it back on.
Second, some things are just easier from the command line. Say I need to create a new folder named "stuff" on C:. (I know, iPad users don’t ever have to do that, any more than prisoners have to worry about what color shirts to wear, but you get my drift.) From Explorer, it’s a bit of clicking, right-clicking and the like. From the command line, it’s "md C:\stuff."
But it gets better. Type "powershell" and you get a PowerShell prompt, giving you access to the automation power and it’s-my-device-and-I’ll-do-what-I-want-with-it power that PowerShell offers. No, you can’t install your own Win32/.NET applications on RT, but you can download and run thousands of PowerShell scripts on RT.
I hate the common overuse of this word, but this is …. awesome. A touch-based tablet-y thing that you can also build power tools for. I’m shaking my head. This is big. It’s kind of like your car having a big socket where you can spend a couple of Saturdays building a plug-in to make it a helicopter, or let it just use Google Maps to get you where you’re going and you can just hop in the back and take a nap.
Or, to put it another way, the existence of the whole new Start Screen, "Metro" interface lets me choose to be just a user of a pretty, easy to use graphical touch-based information appliance like an iPad, and honestly that would be enough for most of the folks who want a tablet of any kind. It’ll let you surf the Web, update your Facebook status, get email, play Angry Birds and the like. But the command prompt and PowerShell… well, they’re the band saw, lathe and drill press that you can play with in your spare time to create apps, to make the computer your own, or to use scripts that others have built to make your tablet do what you want it to do, and without Microsoft getting to say whether you get to do it or not. (Try my get-ipinfo PowerShell script from my last newsletter. Worked the first time.) I wouldn’t be surprised if RT 2.0 didn’t have this stuff, but we’ll see. Put differently, PowerShell scripts can get to anything .NET-wise if you want them to, and that kinda means that there just might be a lot of things that you might be able to download and run on your tablet that – horrors! – lets you do what you want with the computer you paid for, without Microsoft's permission.
RT’s Desktop: The Bad News
Much as I love having my geeky Desktop jones satisfied, having two desktops is going to hurt WinRT sales. Put an iPad in the hands of a smart 14-year-old who’s only used Windows her whole life, and in ten minutes she’ll be getting things done. Do the same with an RT tablet with a similar 14-year-old who’s only used the Mac, and he’ll be dumbfounded. What’s this weird UI that keeps getting flipped between "tablet interface" and "odd windowed interface?" Why can I pinch in and pinch out to zoom out and into almost every iPad screen, but only some RT screens? Why am I expected to have to click icons and other GUI controls with my fingers when the text is so small, when again an iPad solves that problem by letting me zoom wherever I want? Hang on, I’ve got to use a mouse or tablet pen on one screen and fingers and touchscreen on the other? Who thought this was a good idea?
In a way, Windows RT’s programmability and GUI in comparison to the iPad’s is a lot like the same comparison of Linux versus regular old Windows. Linux gives you the source code and the ability to do anything that you want with your computer, but its GUIs all feel pretty off-off-Broadway compared to the Windows GUI. RT would work better if all of the admin tools that must run on the Desktop -- computer management, TPM management, disk manager etc -- were all rebuilt as Metro apps, and perhaps you'd only see the Desktop when you ran the Command Prompt, something normal folks would never do.
How RT Might Have Been Sooner and More Successful
As I've said, Win 8's main goal was to offer competition to the iPad, and as soon as was possible. Unfortunately, however, Microsoft missed an opportunity: Windows 7 Phone. Nope, it didn't sell a huge amount of phones, but just about everyone I talk to who has a Windows 7 Phone really likes it. So why didn't they just follow Apple's lead and put their phone OS on a small, long-battery-life tablet? Had they done that, we might have seen Metro-ish tablets in time for Christmas 2011. Ah well... water under the bridge.
This will be a brief section, unfortunately.
It’s a good thing that RT comes with Office, because there isn’t much else exciting on the RT app front. Some of the glorified Web sites, like Urban Spoon, ABC News, a few Twitter and Facebook clients and the like. A smattering of games. An attractive news magazine built in ("Bing News"). A Kindle Reader app that is a pale shadow of its iPad sibling, and a Netflix app that claims to offer subtitles but after showing one subtitle, it just gives up. Music Maker Jam and I Love Piano are great apps for those who’d like to do some fun composing on their Surface. But in the main, the fact is that if there are indeed thousands of apps in the Windows Store, I can’t imagine anyone buying more than one or two. That is, of course, something that may change; after all, the Windows Store has only been in business for a month as I write this.
While Office RT 2013 is indeed the ray of light vis-Ó-vis RT apps, it too comes with some bad news. There's no Outlook in RT's Office, and apparently that's by design. Instead, we get some simple Metro-y apps to replace it Contacts, Calendar, Mail that just don't cut it entirely. For example, Mail can't handle POP accounts. There's nothing to synch the Outlook "yellow notes" with RT. It's just this kind of silliness that happens when you don't offer a public beta beforehand. But who knows, perhaps some third party will offer a worthy Outlook replacement.
Since I wrote this, I've gotten a couple of questions about remote access. To that end, I can say at this moment is that the RDP client is exactly the same one that you get with Windows 7/8. Fully functional and terrific. I have not yet set up a VPN client.
PowerShell-wise, I've only done a bit of remoting so I can't vouch for all possibilities, but I have successfully done an enter-pssession from my RT box to a Windows 7 system and run a few get-whatever commands. Let me hasten to say that the only tests I've done involve these commands:
And that's terrible, security-wise. The reason that I was being lazy is because I can't join an RT box to a domain, and so to do remoting right, I'd have to cook up a bunch of certificates and I've just not had time to do that -- but you should, if you're planning on an RT rollout.
Before leaving the topic of applications, I should mention that you can spy on the apps that you do have, and with some familiar tools. You can either fire up Task Manager on the Desktop, or "tasklist" on the command prompt, or get-process on PowerShell and actually see (and kill) processes, which is convenient. The apps that are really just glorified browsers show up as instances of WWAHost.exe, and the "real" apps built with C#, VB.NET or C++ appear as standalone EXEs, like AngryBirds.exe.
Having said that, though, I’m really, really liking having a
tablet including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. I’m kind of thinking
that with a hotspot and the RDP client on this thing that maybe I’ll
be able to teach classes with the RT for PowerPoint and RDP into my
servers back home for demonstrations. Not carrying a
Finally, let's talk reliability for a moment. I love my iPad, but I surely hate iOS. I’ll start a program and it’ll pop up on screen momentarily, and then disappear without a trace. Hey, I get that apps fail, but how about leaving a suicide note behind? And then there’s the fact that every single app vendor for iOS apps offers the same troubleshooting advice—shut down the iPad and start it again. Now, that might be because they’re all fans of the British show The IT Crowd, but seriously, guys… it’s 2012. Macs and Windows did that in 1990. Thus far, I’ve seen no such behavior in RT.
There’s more I could say, but at this point I’ve been working on this for four weeks in my spare time and if I don’t publish this soon then we’ll be getting RT 2.0. I hope I’ve offered a few thoughts that might help you in making the buy-or-skip call in Microsoft’s "bold, new reimagining" of their tablet offerings. Drop me a line if I can answer any questions about RT or Surface. No guarantees I'll have the answers, but I'll try.
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All contents copyright 2012 Mark Minasi. I encourage you to quote this material, so long as you include this entire document. Thanks very much for reading, and see you next time.