Surface 2 RT review

First, full disclosure. Late last year, I entered a twitter contest being held by the official Microsoft Surface twitter account, @surface. I had to tweet what I would do if I won a Surface 2 with Surface Music Kit. My answer was somewhat throwaway; a spur of the moment thing:

A few weeks later, I received a DM informing me that I had won "something" and to provide my address within five days. I obliged, expecting to get a t-shirt or some other Surface-related swag; I was incredibly surprised when I received a shipping notification one Tuesday that showed a Surface 2 RT with Surface Music Kit would be arriving that afternoon. That said, there was no requirement on my part to provide a review nor that any such review should be unduly positive. With all that known, please read on.

Surface Music Kit

Surface Music Kit Cover and App
Surface Music Kit Cover and App

Keyboard

One of the cool things about the Microsoft Surface devices are their covers. The covers (available in touch and type variants) have an integrated input device and are the primary method of providing an external keyboard to a Surface1, though one could also use a Bluetooth or USB keyboard. Most of these covers have an embedded QWERTY keyboard and touchpad, much like a small laptop keyboard. However, the Surface Music Kit includes a special keyboard/cover designed for use with the Surface Music Kit application. This cover has three touch sliders (like electronic volume controls), some playback/record controls like one might find in a multimedia playback device, and a grid of 16 pads. Together, these can be used to mix and manipulate samples in the Surface Music Kit application2.

Surface Music Kit cover
Surface Music Kit cover; try typing your password on this
Back-lit Surface Type Cover 2
Back-lit Surface Type Cover 2

Since the device I won came with the music kit cover, my initial problems stemmed from having to use the onscreen keyboard. As cool as the Surface Music Kit is,  I can't type my email password with volume sliders and drum pads. Even though the onscreen keyboard is responsive and has a nice array of layout options (the thumb-friendly layout that splits the keyboard for easy thumb typing is great), I found it a little frustrating to use. Whichever layout I tried, the keyboard occupied too much of the screen, didn't provide the kind of tactile feedback I rely on when typing, and just wasn't fast enough when I wanted to unlock my device. These problems aren't unique to the Surface; I've yet to find any device where the onscreen keyboard doesn't suffer from these problems (though your mileage may vary). Of course, this problem is easily resolved: I received the Type Cover 2 as a Christmas gift from my wife.

Apps

By now, the number of apps in the Windows Store, especially when compared with equivalent Android or Apple stores, has been discussed to death. The Windows Store is getting more apps every day but the choices are limited by comparison with its competitors. That said, all the apps I really wanted such as Netflix, LastPass, and Mouse Without Borders were available and more often than not, other apps had an online equivalent (for example, I can watch Amazon Prime via the website, though it's not all roses when it comes to websites so read on).

The frustrating part of apps running on the Surface RT comes from the desktop. Surface RT devices run a version of Windows built for ARM processors instead of the usual x86/x64 processors that other Windows-based devices use. This means that unless a desktop application has been specifically written to run on this special ARM-based version of Windows (such as Office 2013, which Microsoft provides with the Surface 2 RT) it won't. The outcome of this is that even little apps that you find useful in every day stuff – especially as a developer such as git, node, Sublime, etc. – will not work. I didn't expect to find this as frustrating as I have and it has only been exacerbated with the unnecessary neglect of Internet Explorer by many websites.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer 11 is fantastic but also the only option on the Surface 2 RT given that other browsers are not available for the ARM-based platform. In the past, Internet Explorer has had a much-deserved stigma attached to it due to lack of standards compliance, quirky behavior, and poor performance. This has made it difficult for websites to support older versions of IE. However, the Internet Explorer of old is dead and in more recent releases, this stigma is just undeserved dead weight that needs to be cast aside. Unfortunately, this message has either not reached many developers or landed on deaf ears, leading to heavy-handed checks for IE on many sites that block IE users from getting a fully-featured site or interacting with a site at all, even though the site would work if that block were lifted.

As a developer, this has been doubly frustrating. I can't install useful tools like Git or Sublime, nor can I use many online development environments as they don't work or completely block their use from any version of Internet Explorer. This limited browsing experience isn't limited to development tools though; I have found that quite a few sites do not properly support IE. Perhaps one day, Microsoft will convince people that IE should be embraced once more and that its legacy should be left in the past, but until then, users of Surface 2 RT may face a substandard browsing experience.

That said, when sites do work with IE11, they work really well. A standout website for developers has to be Codio. I set this up against my GitHub account and have used it successfully to work on code samples for blog entries. Hopefully more sites begin to support IE like this.

Battery Life and Performance

This is where I should pull up some metrics of how the battery life is for various every day scenarios, but I'm not good at capturing metrics, so I'll tell you my experience. The battery life seems good when using the Surface for general stuff like editing documents, browsing the Internet, etc. The main complaint I have is that I'd like it to have an opt-in auto shutdown if left on sleep for more than a day. While sleep uses very little battery, there are times when my Surface has been sleeping for days on end, resulting in a drained battery. This has led to me shutting down the Surface 2 RT whenever I stop using it, which means I lose out on the "always on"-ness. Although the Surface 2 RT cold boots pretty quickly, the readiness after sleep is significantly faster. That said, I have no substantial complaints; my Surface 2 RT is definitely the most battery-efficient Windows-device I have had so far3.

Other bits and bobs

Front camera, start button and rear camera
Front camera, start button and rear camera

The two cameras on the Surface 2 RT: one front-facing and one rear-facing, stereo speakers and built-in microphone are all excellent and it was a pleasure using all these to give a Skype tour of our new bathroom to my parents back in England. The built-in kickstand with two viewing angle positions is also fantastic. In addition, the Surface 2 RT has a full-size USB port, 3.5mm headphone jack, mini-HDMI port, and microSD slot.

Surface inputs and outputs
Surface inputs and outputs

Service

It is not often that one gets the opportunity to review the quality of device service and repair at the same time as reviewing the device. However, it has been some time since I first received my Surface 2 RT and in that time, I had the misfortune of dropping it on the concrete floor of our basement4. While the Surface 2 RT took the fall with grace, it fumbled the landing, which shattered the screen rendering touch operation impossible.

I followed the instructions on the Surface Online Service Center site to register my device and submit a service request. A broken screen is not covered by the standard warranty, so I paid a $200 fee and got myself a return to print out. I then detached my keyboard and removed the microSD card I had inserted5, and took my broken device to the local FedEx shipment center along with my return information. The packing and shipping of the device was included without any additional charge.

I do not recall just how long the service took, but within a week or two, a refurbished Surface 2 RT arrived on my doorstep. I eagerly unpacked it and turned it on. It sat in a reboot cycle.

I was not happy.

I plugged in the power and tried again. Still stuck in a reboot cycle.

Eventually, I found instructions to do a full factory reset, after which, the device booted but clearly had problems. It was not until after I had downloaded and installed just over one gigabyte of updates that it started to behave properly. It is because of this that I have mixed feelings about the service experience.

On the one hand, it was easy to register my device, submit a service request, and get it shipped. On the other hand, I had to use quite a bit of technical know-how to get the replacement device to work. I feel that if Microsoft wants to win over the non-tech market with these devices, they are going to need to do a lot better. I know for sure that many of my friends and relatives would not have known what to do next if faced with the reboot cycle, probably leading to endless tech support calls to Microsoft, or worse, me.

Conclusion

I have been using my Surface on and off over the last few months. Trying to see where it fits in my life between the eight core desktop PC at home, my core i7 ultrabook at work, and my phone, I was unsure that a tablet/laptop hybrid would work out and to begin with, it did not. However, once I got the QWERTY type cover and discovered which scenarios were useful to me, the Surface 2 RT has been a great addition to my regular arsenal of gadgets6.

The service experience was disappointing. While initially wonderfully easy, it became terribly frustrating once a replacement device was received, especially since I had paid $200 for the privilege. Microsoft needs to pay more attention to detail in this process if it is to become a first class experience.

Overall, I like the Surface 2 RT and will continue to use it (in fact, I have been writing most of this blog using it). However, I have to ask myself if I would have bought one and if I'm honest, I would not. Not because it isn't a great device but because the price tag, like most slates/tablets7, seems high for what you get8.  Of course, that also means I wouldn't buy a competitor's device either so read into that what you will.


  1. both have a track pad, but the type cover has more traditional, plastic backlit keys 

  2. Unfortunately, there is no SDK for using the Surface Music Kit cover in your own apps, which seems like an oversight to me 

  3. I currently use a Windows-based Core i7 ultrabook, but have had a Nokia Windows Phone and a variety of Dell laptops 

  4. It was during a jam session and I was trying to balance it so I could see the lyrics while I played guitar – the Surface was eager to prove that I was stretching myself beyond operating parameters 

  5. Specific instructions stated that these were  not guaranteed to be returned if I left them with the Surface 

  6. desktop, laptop, Android phone, xbox 360, xbox one 

  7. delete as applicable 

  8. clearly, I would've paid $200 for it, considering I was happy to pay that for the repairs 

Our new desk

IKEAEver since we moved into our house, we've had grand plans for our office (originally, the third bedroom). The plan was to use it as a reading room but that just never panned out. We had painted it when we moved in, then populated it with bookcases from IKEA, which in turn were populated with our books and CDs, but that was about it. Though we had a little tiny desk in there with a computer, all we really did was use the room to store things or hide other things when guests came over.

Given that this space was not really adding value to our lives, this year we decided to make a concerted effort to get the office into a more pleasing state with a view to actually using it as an office. So, we measured things, sketched a plan on the whiteboard in the kitchen and penned a list of tasks, including items to purchase.

Step one was to move some of the bookcases, so I did (though perhaps not at the pace my wife would've preferred). Once the bookcases and their contents were moved to the appropriate location as per our sketch, we were ready for the next step: the new desk. If moving the bookcases had been too slow for the missus then getting a new desk had been going in reverse. However, eventually we decided to head out to IKEA for inspiration and see what we could find.

Before the new desk
Before the new desk

I admit I wasn't expecting to find anything appropriate but after looking at all the desks and tables we could find in IKEA, we settled on the VIKA AMON black desk. We were originally going to get both the drawers and the storage leg, but the drawers only appear to come in white (I don't get why), so a change of plan was required. After examining all the other legs available in the VIKA range and discovering most options were out of stock and not quite what we wanted, we settled on the wooden legs.

The wooden legs
The wooden legs don't quite match our black office furniture

The only problem with the legs was their appearance, but unlike the white drawers, the plain wood made this a reasonably easy fix. The office furniture is black/brown, including the desk top we selected so a quick trip to Home Depot was required to get a matching wood stain. The stain I selected was a Classic Black Minwax Polyshades stain and polyurethane in one with a satin finish. I admit that I mostly guessed at what colour might match the existing IKEA furniture. I also admit that I'm lazy, hence the stain and polyurethane in one.

I forwent the application of conditioner to the wood as I was applying an extremely dark stain to the wood. Over two days, I applied two coats of stain to the legs. In hindsight, three coats may have been better but any thin patches on the legs are not easily noticeable, so they can be our little secret.

Minwax stain and polyurethane
Minwax stain and polyurethane

After two coats, the legs were barely distinguishable from the desk that they were to support.

The stained legs and the desk top
The stained legs and the desk top

With the legs ready, it was time to clear some space in the office. So I dismantled the computer and moved everything out of the way to clear space for the new desk.

Space cleared, ready for the new desk
Space cleared, ready for the new desk

Some quick, effortless assembly later and the desk was all ready to install. The three legs attached to the desk as per the instructions provided with each leg. The remaining support was provided by the free-standing storage unit that we selected for housing our computer.

The desk, assembled and ready
The desk, assembled and ready

Once the desk was in place, it was clear we'd made a good choice as there was just enough room for the lamp in the corner. It was time to reassemble the computer and put it into place.

The finished work space
The finished work space

Proud of my efforts, I grabbed Chrissy to show her my handiwork. She was, of course, quick to point out that we still need to get lampshades and put our lamps on the new desk. Perhaps then, the office will finally be finished1.


  1. Just in time for us to turn it into a nursery? No, this is not an announcement. 

Rewiring awesome lamps

First, let me apologise. There's a good possibility that some of what I write in this post will come across as bad innuendo and euphemisms (there's a bit of poking and screwing). This is or is not intentional, depending on whether you find it funny or are incredibly offended (or both).

Anyway, my wife has a couple of black and green lamps that are, well, words fail me so here's a picture.

Samson and Delilah - the lamps
Samson and Delilah - the lamps

I don't know enough racial stereotypes to know if anyone should be offended by these lamps (Do you? Are you?) due to anything other than their general appearance. They appear to be painted plaster and given that standard lamp fixtures can easily be attached to them, I doubt they're particularly old (even though my wife keeps calling them antiques). However, the wiring in them was getting dangerously frayed so we decided it was time to give them an electrical overhaul (yes, we're keeping them). Especially since we're going to put them on our new desk in the office (seriously, we're keeping them – perhaps after a new coat of paint).

For Samson (my nickname of the dashing gent on the left with the impressive torch protruding from his midsection), we got a replacement cord (with plug attached) and a new lamp fixture to hold the bulb. It was pretty straightforward to remove the old electrical fittings and replace them with these new pieces. However, Delilah (my name for the delightful damsel on the right) was not so straightforward.

To begin, the cord (with plug attached) that we had purchased for Delilah and that was identical in every way to the one successfully used to rewire Samson just didn't fit. No matter how had I tried, there was no way I could persuade the cable to slide up to the top of Delilah's head. So, we headed off to the hardware store and bought some 18-gauge lamp wire and a little, easy to install plug.

Delilah and her bits
Delilah and her bits

The first job was fitting the plug. This little thing really was simple to use. The centre pulled out and the prongs moved apart, making a gap for the wire. Making sure to thread it through the plug case first, I inserted the wire into the prongs. At this point, I learned something new; lamp wire has one side that is ribbed for differentiating live from neutral. Did you know that? I certainly didn't.

Plug ready to be assembled
Plug ready to be assembled

Anyway, following the instructions, I made sure the ribbed side was in the appropriate place and closed the prongs. This pierced the insulation on the wire and ensured the wire and prongs were connected appropriately. I then reassembled the plug pieces.

The plug all assembled and ready
The plug all assembled and ready

Next, I threaded the wire up through Delilah until I had a couple of inches poking out of the top of her head (keep it clean). I then threaded the wire through the lamp crown and screwed that into place.

Crown screwed on and wire threaded through
Crown screwed on and wire threaded through

Before I could attach the wire to the switch, the two strands needed to be separated, stripped, twisted and tied into an underwriter's knot.

Underwriter's knot
Underwriter's knot

I attached the wires to the switch and slid the fixture back together, then I pulled the slack back through Delilah before pressing the fixture firmly into the crown until it clicked into place. The last step was to borrow Samson's light, stick it in Delilah and fire up the power.

Delilah has the power
Delilah has the power

Job done. Just need some tasteful lamp shades now.