Surface RT–My First Impressions

WP_001462As a technical evangelist for Microsoft, I do a lot of traveling to visit customers to talk about our technology. I often have more than one device with me in order to access corporate and personal email, do technical presentations/demonstrations, and to keep me entertained when I'm either on the plane or hotel room.

As you might have heard, all Microsoft employees were going to a Surface RT device. A lot of my colleagues purchased their devices as soon as they came out back in October. As much as I wanted to get one right away, I opted to wait for the Microsoft issued one.

I had played around with a couple during one of the "New Era of Work" launch events where they had Surface RT devices as well as third-party Windows RT devices. I was pretty impressed with how the devices felt and what they provided but I wasn't sure how productive I could be with it.

Early Impressions

The initial setup of the device is pretty straight forward. Like any new device setup, you answer a couple of configuration questions and you're off and running. Assuming you already have a Windows 8 device and its associated with your Microsoft Account (formerly known as Live ID) and you associate that with your Windows RT setup, many of your configuration settings, let WiFi profiles, desktop background preferences, etc. sync with the device.

I had setup my Surface RT at the office but when I got home and turned on the unit, it had already connected to home WiFi and passcode because of profile synchronization between my Microsoft Account.

A good friend of mine had been interested in getting a tablet so that he didn't have to carry a heavy laptop anymore. His office uses Windows Terminal Services. Using my Verizon MiFi device, I fired up the Remote Desktop Client on the Surface RT, and within a minute or two, he was online with a remote session. That's impressive!

Battery Impressions

When it comes to portable devices, the first question almost everyone asks is "what's the battery life on the device"? The typical answer is "it depends." During the Surface Launch Event at NYC on October 25, the presenter talked about how he's able to watch five hi-definition movies when he travels from Redmond to China (10 hour flight) on one battery charge. I thought I would try it out myself. Unfortunately I don’t have trip to China planned anytime soon, but I could load a number of movies on a microSD card and have them play in the background when I worked.

I played three (3) movies back to back. Each movie averaged about 1 hour and 45 minutes. After the third movie finished, I started to surf the Internet for some information I needed to find as well as started answering email using the Mail client. I even fired up OneNote and started the outline for this article. After the normal workday ended, like around 6 pm, I played some games (Angry Birds Space, Jetpack Joyride, and Fruit Ninja) on it. Based on that usage, I ended up using it for about 8 hours on a single charge and the battery still showed about 15% charge left. I know…15% of what? Well…considering I used it for about 8 hours playing videos, games, and was productive at the same time, having the battery show 15% of the battery still available is pretty good in my book considering video playback takes up a lot of juice. To fully charge the battery, it took a little bit more than two hours to fully recharge the battery. Also not too bad.

Some interesting facts discovered along the way

There is a Windows 8 Lync client that works well with Surface RT. You can plug in a USB Headset that's Lync certified and you can use it for your calls. As of right now, you can join Lync calls, make calls (assuming your organization is Enterprise Voice enabled), and instant message. Sharing your desktop is currently not available.

The Surface RT's Touch Keyboard is pretty slick. If you're a touch typists and have been using a laptop for a while, I don't think you'll have too much trouble getting used to it. Like most keyboards, it does have touch indicators on the "F" and "J" key to find the home row.

If you're a really keyboard jockey, you might noticed that there aren’t any function keys. The truth is, they're there, but through keyboard combinations. Along the top of the keyboard, you'll notice a set of keys (12 to be exact) between the ESC and DEL buttons. Going left to right, if you hold the Fn key plus one of the keys along the top of the keyboard, they will fire off the corresponding Function key. So Fn+Mute is F1, Fn+VolDown is F2, and so on. You really want to get a hand cramp, if you're used to pressing ALT+F4 to close an app, on the Surface it will be ALT+Fn+Play/Pause. Puts a whole new spin on the 3-finger salute.

Speaking of keyboard shortcuts, another absent key is the PrtSc button. If you've done a screen capture, this key is your friend. There is a shortcut to do a screen capture on the device. On the Surface itself, you have a Windows icon. It's actually a button. Press the Windows button plus the Volume Down button on the device itself and the screen capture will be saved in your Photos app under Screenshots. I'm glad they thought of that one.

For what it's worth, the boot time and shut down time on the device are pretty quick. Assuming you shut down the device because the plane you're on is about to take off (and of course we all comply with FAA regulations), it shuts down in about 30 seconds. Starting it up from a shutdown state takes about 30 seconds.

Final thoughts (for now)

I'm quite impressed by the device. The screen is really easy to on the eyes. The keyboard cover is nice and you can be productive almost immediately. Eight plus hours of battery life while using the device for video playback and actual work is big winner in my book. You might think as a Microsoft employee I’m paid to say this device is awesome and better than all the rest. I’m not paid to say it but I’m certainly encouraged to. A good friend of mine, Jeff Kent, whom I used to write programming books with spends a lot more time testing out devices than I do. I recommend you check out his thoughts about the Surface RT as well as his comparison between the Surface RT, iPad, and Samsung Series 7 Slate with Windows 8 on it.

Obviously there are a lot of device choose from ranging in price, size, and capabilities. I often carry a lot of devices with me when I'm on the road (computers, portable media player, MP3 player, ebook reader, etc.), which makes the backpack pretty heavy. Remember, with every device you carry, you often have to carry a corresponding power cord. Is it going to replace my main work laptop, most likely not because there are a lot of corporate resources that I need to get access to. Can I see myself taking it along with me on a business trip or even vacation, absolutely! I've only had mine for a few days now, but I already feel my backpack getting lighter.