Don’t get me wrong about David Pogue. Even though his pro-Apple bias sometimes infuriates me, I enjoy reading his weekly column, and I continue to believe that he’s one of the few truly essential technology columnists out there. But that’s part of the problem. When Pogue trashes something, it has an enormous impact on whether a product can survive in the marketplace. This is especially true in an environment where consumers are dubious about buying anything that is not on their proven comfort zone. So the purpose of this post is to say that Pogue really screwed up in his review of Microsoft’s Surface RT.
I bought the Surface RT on the day it became available, with the idea in my mind that I had 30 days to play with it and return it if it didn’t suit my needs. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Surface is Microsoft’s attempt to reinvent the tablet computer, making it more laptop-like, without sacrificing battery life or weight. They came up with a truly elegant device that has a slightly bigger screen than an iPad (16×9 ratio for you movie geeks out there) and weighs about the same. It has a built in kickstand and a snap-on keyboard that also acts as a cover. The genius idea was to put an accelerometer in the keyboard so that the device knows when you want to use the external keyboard and when you want to use the on-screen keyboard without having to miss a stroke. From a hardware perspective, it’s a beautiful device, and Pogue acknowledged such in his review.
The software side of the equation is where Pogue messed up. He reviewed it as a hybrid slate/laptop, and criticized the “hobbled’ version of Windows 8 that it was running. He complained about the fact that one can’t install traditional Windows programs on it, that you had to install apps from the Windows store, and that there weren’t enough of those apps available. He criticized Microsoft’s decision to build an operating system that has both a touch-optimized interface (he calls it “tile world”) and a mouse-optimized interface–a criticism he continues to level at all iterations of Windows 8.
From my perspective, this is looking at things ass backward. Slate computers, such as the iPad, are built for consuming media and browsing the net. They have been traditionally awkward for getting any real work accomplished, partially because a mouse interface and a keyboard are necessary for the type of fine control one wants when working and creating. There is a thriving business in peripherals for these devices to make up for that deficiency, but none of those external keyboards and mice make up for the lack of professional software to get any real work done.
The Surface RT, like the iPad, should be looked at as a slate computer that is optimized for consumption of media, but unlike the iPad, with one button press it turns into a work device with access to the complete Office Suite without the need for any peripheral devices. So, what Pogue calls “tile world” is the everyday interface for consumption of media. But, if I need to get some work done, one button gets me to the familiar desktop to get it done. In the months since Pogue’s review was published, Microsoft released a full-featured version of Outlook for the RT desktop, which has plugged the one hole that legitimately existed when Surface RT was released.
What about the lack of other Windows programs? Most people don’t need other programs when they are on the road. I don’t use Quicken except when I’m paying the bills, which I do at home. I don’t edit videos or other do media-related projects except when I’m at a more powerful computer. If I do need to use some kind of specialized software that is not available for RT, I can connect to my home or office computer via Remote Desktop and use any software that is installed on either of those computers. And since remote desktop uses the processing power of the remote computer, it doesn’t matter that the Surface RT is using a less powerful processor. If I need a file that I don’t have on the Surface, Skydrive, which is built into Windows RT, allows me to access those files as if they are local, even if they are on my other PCs.
What about the lack of apps that Pogue bemoans? Well, all of the major apps are there in the Windows store. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, you name it…if there is no official app, there are dozens of unofficial apps that act as full-featured clients. They all have the amazing live tiles that we know and love from the Windows Phone interface, so we can get social media updates without having to open up any program. And if there is no app, the web versions of these programs are all available. RT has a truly full-featured web browser, which, unlike the iPad, has full Flash support. HBO Go? No problem. Hulu? No problem. The single service that I’ve encountered that doesn’t work is Slingplayer, and I have to believe a fix is in the works. By the way, Pogue mentioned in his review that there was no New York Times app. In fact, the New York Times app was released the same day that the Surface RT was released, and it’s a beautifully designed app that is completely integrated into the operating system (the way almost all of the apps are) making it a breeze to share articles via any of your installed social media clients.
So how could my experience of the Surface RT be so different from Pogue’s? Perhaps because I use it every day. When I’m on the couch, I fold back the keyboard, use the touch interface and can read, browse, interact and consume the way one would expect to on a slate computer. When I’m away from my office and need to get some work done, I flip out the kickstand, fold out the keyboard and press the button. Now I’m ready to work. If I want to watch Hulu or HBO Go on my big screen TV, I plug in the HDMI cable and there it is. If I am doing a presentation, I load up PowerPoint and can connect via HDMI, VGA or wirelessly to any DLNA device. If I want to show a slideshow of my photos, I can wirelessly send it to my TV, and I can include any photo that is on my home or office PC via Skydrive. In other words, it does everything I need it to do. And did I say that it’s a beautiful, elegantly designed device? I constantly get asked by people what it is when they see it.
Is it perfect? I haven’t met the perfect device in any category yet. Like David Pogue, I’m a technology junkie, and I’m the first one to find the flaws in any device I use. Windows 8 is a brand new operating system and it will occasionally freeze up or crash. But I’m already using the preview version of Windows 8.1 which will be released to the public in mid-October, and there is a vast improvement in performance.
My advice is grab one of these devices now, since they are on sale for as little as $199 with educational discounts. Imagine a device that does everything an iPad can do, plus has a fully functional version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, and it costs under $300 with keyboard. Would you buy that? There will undoubtedly be a 2nd generation Surface RT coming out soon, but I’m perfectly happy with the first.