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 

CodeMash 2.0.1.2


It's like riding a unicorn over a double rainbow. CodeMash. All the way across the sky.
One of many CodeMash slogans on display

I went to CodeMash this year. I was one of the 1200 (or 1300 and something, after speakers and other people were counted). It was my first time attending this community-organised conference and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I would show you pictures but I neglected to take any as I was having far too good a time to remember that I'd brought a camera.

My wife and I1 arrived at the venue, the Kalahari Waterpark and Resort on Tuesday, the day before everything started with Wednesday's pre-compiler. Tuesday evening was spent meeting fellow mashers in the two resort bars, but ultimately led to a rocky start to Wednesday (breakfast was scheduled for 7am but I had forgotten to schedule bedtime accordingly).

My improvisation when the coffee cups ran out
My improvisation when the coffee cups ran out

At every meal during CodeMash, I enjoyed great food, nerdy conversation and copious quantities of caffeinated beverages with some fascinating people. Most of the time I dined with people I had never met, being sure to introduce myself and making a concerted effort to remember names (though, alas, I forgot a few). Although the pre-compiler day was overshadowed by a number of beverage-related issues varying from no coffee to no Mountain Dew to lots of coffee but no coffee cups (I improvised2), the remainder of the conference catering seemed to go without a hitch. This was in no doubt thanks to the CodeMash organizers and the amazing Kalahari staff.

Every evening after the sessions ended, a copious number of tempting options were available from the game rooms where D&D, poker and various other pastimes were enjoyed to Open Spaces3, from the bars, restaurants and water park to panel discussions. Attendees and CodeMash organizers alike would advertise a plethora of options to while away the hours until sleep was the only option. I was so exhausted after CodeMash that I slept for nearly a day when I got home.

What about the sessions themselves?

Wednesday

Going Independent

I'm not going independent, at least not anytime soon, but considering I have worked with many who are self-employed and might consider it for myself one day, it seemed prudent to learn more. Michael Eaton (@mjeaton) was the speaker for this session. He drew from personal experience and the experiences of those he knew (some of whom provided their own anecdotes) to outline the common practices and pitfalls that beset anyone trying to go it alone.

Michael's conversational style provided a great start to the conference and the information presented gave me a fresh perspective on the overhead, sales and productivity concerns of a business owner (apparently, if you manage 30 billable hours per week, you're doing well).  Even for someone under full-time employment like me, it provided useful details that will help me to continue supporting those who employ me.

HTML5 is here, and the Web will never be the same

Wednesday afternoon was spent with Brandon Sartrom (@BrandonSatrom) and Clark Sell (@csell5) learning all about markup, behavior and presentation with HTML5, javascript and CSS3. I am not a web developer, my acquaintance with HTML and its supporting technologies would probably make a professional sob, but this lab on the latest and greatest was fantastic. Each area of the HTML5 offering was presented with hands-on labs to sink ones teeth into. There was so much to cover that eventually time fell short, but I still have the labs on my desktop and be assured, I intend to complete them. This was a great stuff and the session so popular that we had to move rooms about an hour in. Apparently, this web stuff is a big deal. Who knew?

Thursday

Unlike the pre-compiler format of half-day and full-day workshops and discussions, the remainder of the conference was split into concurrent hour long presentations, open spaces, gaming and other activities. The sheer number of distractions was sometimes overwhelming, making the act of choosing a distraction in itself to the point where a couple of times, I gave up and just took an hour long break.

On Thursday, we had our first keynote speech, Rethinking Enterprise, while munching away at the remnants of breakfast. The speaker, Ted Neward, had an energy that made sure everyone was awake. Although Ted's presentation style was ultimately controversial, I felt the points he made were valid, well thought out and thoroughly enjoyable to learn.

From the keynote, I swiftly headed to see the popular double-act of Jon Skeet(@jonskeet) and Bill Wagner (@billwagner) presenting C# async inside and out. It was a packed out double session. Some only turned up for the much more complicated second session and I'm sure probably left very confused and scared of both C# and async. However, I loved it. Not only did I witness Jon Skeet's passion for C# first hand, but I also learned a lot (a useful mutable struct?).

After the Skeet/Wagner show, I took a break to check on my wife and make sure she was having a good time. I actually had to persuade her to make an appointment in the spa as she was perfectly happy eating homemade gumbo and watching bad daytime TV in the hotel room. Once I'd convinced her to spend some money in the spa (what did I do?!), I headed back down to learn about usability testing with Carol Smith (@carologic), attended a vendor session from Robert Half Technology, and then headed to David Giard (@DavidGiard) and his presentation on data visualization.

I have to say that while I enjoyed all the talks and workshops I attended, David Giard's presentation on data visualization was by far in the top two sessions I attended. Not only did Mr. Giard give a great talk while very much under the weather, but the examples of good and bad data visualizations he presented were useful and clear. I came away with a new found appreciation for graphs and charts, and a new found skepticism of those who create them and their motives.

Thursday was rounded out by dinner, the hilarious Pecha Kucha competition, live music, impromptu free beer in one of the hotel rooms and a late night water park party just for CodeMash attendees. At least, those were the things I attended; as always there was far more going on elsewhere in the resort if one was so inclined to attend.

Friday

Friday started slow. The night had once again taken it's toll but breakfast was thankfully an hour later, which helped. I skipped the first session, opting instead to wander the vendor stands and show my appreciation for their support.

My first session of the day was Dealing with Information Overload delivered by Scott Hanselman. I really wanted to catch one of Scott's two presentations as I had seen him present at the San Francisco StackOverflow DevDays and really enjoyed his presentation style. Just as at DevDays in 2009, Scott gave a very enjoyable presentation packed with useful, necessary tips, tricks and lessons in how to deal with information and stay productive. I have already started to fold some of the techniques into my working day and intend to continue. Along with the Data Visualization presentation from Thursday, Dealing with Information Overload was in my top two talks of the conference.

Lunch followed with our second keynote speech, How We Got Here, And What To Do About It presented by Barry Hawkins. The keynote was excellent and the presenter only went up in my estimation when we spoke and I learned he was both an anglophile and a thoroughly nice chap4.

As lunch digested, I rounded out the conference with some C# Stunt Coding from Bill Wagner (and a little Jon Skeet when he got up to refactor Bill's code; thoroughly entertaining) and some applied F# from the crazy-shirted Gary Short (@garyshort). Both of these talks were wonderful and gave me some inspiration for some crazy and not so crazy things to try in the near future (both code- and fashion-based).

Friday night's raffle was entertaining, but I didn't win so I'm not saying anymore about it. I'm not bitter, but seriously, didn't win. I did, however, win a book from O'Reilly (@oreillymedia) just for singing a couple of lines to a song. O'Reilly had a large collection of books with them on their vendor booth and gave them all away to anyone willing to sing on video. I haven't seen that video surface yet, but I'm sure it will. Still, I now have a spanking new copy of Programming Android and they're not getting it back if they decide they don't like my pipes (but seriously, thanks for the book).

The End

Jafar hamming it up for the camera while the wife and I pose
Jafar hamming it up for the camera while the wife and I pose

And that was that. There was more partying and water park fun but the mashing was over. My wife and I enjoyed the remainder of our stay, including a few photos with Jafar, the Bengal tiger and then travelled home to pass out and catch up on sleep.

Congratulations to all who helped put this together and a hearty thanks to all the folks (speakers, staff, attendees and Jafar) that made my CodeMash experience. It was such a wonderful event to have been a part of and I hope I am fortunate enough to get a ticket next year.


  1. Yes, I took the missus. While I was learning and networking and totally not eating too much bacon or drinking, she was cooing at a Bengal Tiger cub or doing spa type things. 

  2. Okay, so I took at least one photo. 

  3. Open Spaces are free-form discussions on topics suggested by attendees where an open exchange of ideas, experiences, tips and other things can occur. 

  4. My assessment and conclusion of the latter was in no way swayed by learning the former…I swear.