As many of you predicted, my decision to spend my family’s iPad budget on a Microsoft Surface is causing some friction around the house. But not for the reason you would expect. My wife has actually developed a fondness for the Microsoft tablet — so much that she gets exasperated when I take it downstairs or to the office to test features or try a new app.

Netflix on the kitchen counter.

Yes, I’m prepared to declare victory in my risky little experiment. My wife is happy. We won’t be returning our Surface.

But this doesn’t necessarily signal a broader win for Microsoft in its attempt to make a dent vs. the iPad with Surface and other Windows 8/RT tablets.

Here’s why: It turns out that the bar with my family is relatively low. We’re satisfied with basic functionality.

For example, the app that gets the biggest use, by far, is Netflix. My wife has been discovering new television series, and the Surface is a good way to watch on the couch or in bed (although the distribution of weight makes it a little unwieldy when fully reclined.) Especially if our daughter is napping or sleeping, it’s nice to be able to plug in the headphones and have a more personal (and quieter) viewing experience than possible in our living room.

We also are continuing to use the built-in Bing News app regularly. Personally, I like the fact that it provides access to selected Wall Street Journal stories without a subscription.

And yes, it was a very good sign when Angry Birds Star Wars was available at launch for Windows 8.

The problem, for Microsoft, is that these things represent the basic expectations when comes to tablets these days. They make the Surface a viable alternative to the iPad, but it’s difficult to make a strong case for the Surface as a better choice than the iPad in a family situation like ours.

The biggest selling point, for me, is the built-in support for multiple user accounts, which lets each of us treat the tablet as if it were our own, but that’s not the type of thing that will make the Surface fly off the shelves.

A few more notes and updates since my last installment …

Finally able to use Surface to Skype with my mom.

I have tried plugging the Surface into an external monitor at work, along with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with the idea of using the traditional Windows desktop via the Surface on the big screen, and using the Surface itself as a secondary screen on my desk. I like this in concept but the Surface screen is constantly switching from the Start screen to the traditional desktop whenever I click on the traditional desktop on the external monitor, which isn’t what I want. I haven’t figured out how to fix this in the settings — if anyone knows the trick, please let me know.

A firmware update this week seems to have made the Surface run more smoothly overall and also addressed some of the ongoing problems I was having with the Skype app. I can now connect to my parents reliably for video calls, although the app isn’t always as responsive as it should be. This seems to be an isolated problem, not widespread, and I’ve been in touch with Microsoft to try to figure out what’s going on.

Speaking of software updates, Microsoft needs to clean this up. There are at least three places where users need to check for updates — in the Windows Store, in the Windows 8 interface and in the traditional Windows desktop. After installing all the available updates for the Surface this week, I found yet another update via the traditional desktop. This experience is in need of some serious unification.

Battery life needs improvement. I haven’t done any precise measurements, but each morning I’m finding that I need to recharge the tablet. Yes, all the video we’re streaming takes a toll, but my sense is that we should be getting considerably better performance on this front.

That’s it for now. I’ll keep posting updates periodically as we continue to use the Surface. But I’m going to stop for now and get this thing back upstairs, just to be safe.

Previously on GeekWire


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  • whoami

    “the Start screen to the traditional desktop whenever I click on the traditional desktop on the external monitor, which isn’t what I want. I haven’t figured out how to fix this in the settings — if anyone knows the trick, please let me know.”

    Try clicking the charms menu (say settings ) on the external monitor first – then press the Windows button on the keyboard. this should toggle the start screen and desktop on the external monitor

  • Guest

    Thanks again for this thoughtful series of articles. I’ve been using a full-featured Windows 8 laptop for a few weeks and I’m slowly learning to like the Metro UI. There are still a lot of things I need to “re-learn,” and I’m finding a few niggles. For example, it’s annoying when a web app that’s playing music (e.g. Amazon Cloud Player) pauses playback when I open the Start screen. More independent apps will fix this, and I don’t see this issue with desktop-based apps like Pandora.

    Windows 8 is hardly perfect, but Microsoft seems committed to it, and I look forward to future updates that will improve the experience.

    (Not a Microsoft employee, contractor, or advertising spokesperson)

    • Aaron Evans

      It’s taken you several weeks to slowly learn the Metro UI? And you still have issues? But you say you like it?

      Reminds me of a Yelp review I saw for a certain restaurant downtown: The staff was rude, the place was dirty, the food was awful, we got food poisoning. 3 stars.

      • Guest

        I had to learn how to use Windows (pre-8) the first time I used it. I had to learn how to use Mac OS X. I had to learn how to use iPhone. All of these platforms continue to have their benefits and drawbacks.

        Don’t fear a compu that challenges the status quo. Learn it and love it.

  • Bob

    Sounds like you’re not taking much advantage of Office, or the touch cover, or the USB. If so, then I can see how the Surface v iPad advantage is much less clear. But hey, at least your choice didn’t result in a divorce. So that’s a win!

    OT: I’ve seen references that Sinofsky wrote an internal blog post recently arguing against a reorg at MS. Have you heard anything about that? Also that he was questioning the value of MSR, at least as currently structured? If true, I’d be interested in hearing what his thoughts were. Suspect others would be as well.

  • rsk

    My experience is exactly opposite. I bought my wife a surface last week. And she is quite fed up within a week. I will be returning it this week. I had already prepared her for low count of apps before buying a new one, so that’s not an issue. The reasons, it is going back :

    1. Battery : Though battery life is almost 5-6 hours of heavy usage. Battery gets drained way faster than normal even if it is not used. So, if we charge on the night, battery would be less than half next morning.

    2. Quality of Apps : Most of the third-part apps are low performing and hangs quite often. In fact, inbuilt apps like Reader app hangs while opening 200 page PDF. My guess is since Microsoft kept Surface confidential from almost all of its employees, even microsoft employees could not get their apps tested on Surface and they were testing only on Win8 desktop machines.

    3. Lack of progress bars : Though this is not lack of functionality, it is lack of essential user experience which make it look like unfinished. For example, when you are navigating store app, when things are getting downloaded, you don’t see any progress bar, but just a white screen, which makes it look like that it is hanged.

    4. Having to switch between Metro and Desktop mode more often than you would like. Desktop mode works horribly with touch, so having to switch between keyboard/mouse and touch quite often is frustrating. I will give you one example : I was opening a mp3 from a website. I clicked on the link in metro IE, it gave me option of opening or saving. I clicked open. After downloading the file for about 5 minutes, nothing happened. I tried again, same thing, wasted 5 minutes. I then went to desktop IE to do same thing, it opened the mp3 in Metro Music app. So small things like these add up to a lot of frustration.

    • rruffman

      I am really not understanding your issues 1 and 3 I can get 8 hrs. easy, and when its not in use the battery does not move i only close the touch cover and there is NO DRAIN its been reported by almost every tech site.. so I cannot understand how you are having a drain issue. issue 3 when ever I install apps it works just like the updates as it will show you the progression of the installed app so not sure where you see a white screen only if there is nothing to install meaning its done already before you check…

      • rsk

        If nobody else is seeing it, battery Drain could be issue specific to my model. Probably, It might be worth getting it checked at Microsoft store.

        If you go to store app, and click on something, say “Top Free Games”, 2-3 seconds it takes to load all top free games, there is no progress bar and only white screen. During those 2-3 seconds, I always gets a weird feeling that something has got hanged.
        I also own a windows phone 7 (planning to upgrade to wp8), and I am absolutely in love with wp7, feels so much polished and smooth. windows rt feel quite unpolished compare to my 2 year old wp7.

        • BottledWater

          I’m not having the battery issues you are it may be a defective unit. When you’re installing apps from the app store there is a link at the top right – if you select it you can see the status of your current installations

  • NewAgeMeMe

    Thanks, this has been very useful. I’ve played around with one that my father just bought and have decided to get one for my wife to use for her work while around town at appointments (she needs MS Word and a keyboard) and for around the house in the evening. We have an eclectic world of a electronics in my house…Blackberry Bold (wife), Iphone 5 (me), Windows 7 (everyone), Kindle Fire (me & kids) and soon-to-be Surface (wife & kids). [at work it’s 70/30 windows XP/imac]

  • Derwin Behling

    I have had the surface tablet since day one as I stood on line in nyc in timed square at midnight. I am totally satisfied and use it almost everyday. Its an amazing piece of hardware, though not perfect. My girl hates that when I come home from work, I go straight for my tablet and been using less of my laptop.

  • BottledWater

    Hi, when using a second monitor you can find the options for that display under charms=>devices. Here you can select to duplicate or extend the desktop. It works just like it would under windows 8, When you select the desktop the start menu goes away – that’s typical. It will not go away if you have an app running on the surface display (unless you drag something onto that display). You may also split screen and put a partial app on either monitor. Hope this helps.

  • SilverSee

    There are a bunch of reasons why the Surface may be attractive vs. non-Windows tablets, as long as certain usage scenarios are important to you… Todd has already mentioned a couple. Here’s my list.

    1. Multiple user accounts (with parental controls)
    2. Office
    3. Easy access to many USB peripherals
    4. Easy access to shared network folders
    5. Great mobile browser experience with (some) support for Flash
    6. Mouse + real PC keyboard support for desktop use
    7. Metro user experience
    8. Xbox Music
    9. Attractive hardware
    10. Touch / Type cover
    11. The display (which I think is second only to the iPad among tablets)
    12. Cloud services integration

    Of course, the iPad and its various Android clones offer attractive features of their own, the Surface and Windows RT are still experiencing some teething issues, but I am super-impressed overall at what Microsoft has accomplished in bringing Windows to ARM.

  • randall lewis

    Thanks for doing this series Todd. I am a fan of the Surface and use mine every day at work and at home. That said, unlike so many users of tech devices regardless of company, I don’t think it is perfect. I haven’t found battery life to be a problem, as I’ve used Office on the Surface during the day and had plenty of power left to relax with Hulu once I get home. My wants: Microsoft needs to make SD cards more useful by letting the apps see media files stored on them without needing to play around with the library settings; and a good basic photo editor like Windows Photo Gallery. I think the differentiator for Surface is Office and SkyDrive. Another plus, though this is true of Windows 8 as well as RT is being able to include my work Exchange server mail along with my personal mail in the Windows Mail app; not needing to use Outlook Web Access anymore was a pleasant surprise.

  • Humphrey

    Since Windows OS is still predominant in most homes, I am wondering the Windows RT is still vulnerable to security threats. That means the OS will be bloated overtime through updates and security patches. Unless, this is the reason the RT only allow users to download apps through Windows Store.

    • Ordeith

      That’s part of the reason.
      the other part is that Windows RT runs on ARM processors, meaning applications written for x86 wont run on it, and this includes all of the viruses left behind in Windows’ legacy.

  • Christopher Budd

    I just wanted to thank you for this series. It was really well done. It gave me the best sense of this new device of anything I’ve read (I share this out when people are asking about or talking about getting a Surface).

    I hope you’ll make this series a framework for future articles of this type for other devices and technology.

    I also wanted to say that I’m thankful beyond words that (at least lately) the comments have been reasonable and mature and devoid of the “M$FT sux/screw you Apple fanboy” tone. So thank you reader for the comments too.

  • Michael Ortlieb

    Not sure if this is noted elsewhere but SurfaceRT runs Flash, so you can pin Amazon Instant Video and HBOGO links to your startup screen, until those apps become available in the W8 store.

  • Imperial Dynamics

    i’m a happy Surface RT owner and the battery life is amazing

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