Surface RT falls to canvas, struggles to find mouthguard, is called down for count

There’s little enjoyment or excitement in writing about things that work the way they should…and continue to do so. In fact, it’s the opposite–it’s actually boring.

“I woke up this morning…AND THE REFRIGERATOR WAS ON, STILL KEEPING THINGS COLD! I went to the coffeemaker…AND THERE WAS MY COFFEE, HOT AND BREWED JUST HOW I LIKE IT!”

Uh–yeah, you see what I mean.

Or, in Tech terms:

“I had some work to do this morning…SO I SAT DOWN WITH MY MACBOOK PRO AND GOT STARTED! My fiancee´ was curious about prices, and was LOOKING UP SHOPPING DEALS USING THE iPAD! There was information she needed from a previous Windows work session…SO I STARTED UP WINDOWS 7 AND RETRIEVED IT!”

Okay. My point is: while you want things to work properly and all the time, neither one of us–you or I–wants to see me write about that. It’s not noteworthy or newsworthy.

When something doesn’t work the way it’s advertised–or at least, the way it should–then that can be BIG news.

The tech products I’ve mentioned–the hardware and the software (MacBook Pro, iPad, OS X, iOS, Windows 7, respectively) work. If they didn’t, you’d be damned well within your rights to find some that did.

By now, you’ve probably already guessed that this is leading to another article on how the Surface RT isn’t doing as well as we might have thought…and how it doesn’t work as we might have expected–or, even hoped.

And you would be correct. The difference here is that these negative thoughts aren’t necessarily from fans of Apple or Android–even amongst loyal Windows users, the chorus of boos is growing.

Let’s be fair here–it’s not as simple as black and white. It’s not a complete stinker. Based on the experiences I’ve had playing around with it in the retail environment, it’s actually pretty interesting. But, I’m not a professional reviewer, and I haven’t worked with it for hours and days at a time, like the experiences of the four individuals whose articles I’m going to share.

The main issue is: this is Microsoft, not Joe’s Computer Company. The bar is set high for them, and it doesn’t help that they’ve gotten such a late start in the newly-competitive tablet business. Apple’s products work, and work well…so do Samsung’s, to give just two examples. Microsoft’s offerings must at least duplicate that–better still, exceed it.

Bottom line to this introduction: the reviews are starting to come in. I’ve learned that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire, and the fact that so many are generally reaching the same negative conclusions has to be more than a coincidence.

So–grab your freshly brewed coffee and iPad (or whatever works for you), leave your refrigerator alone to fend for itself, and let’s take a look, shall we?

Our first review states it pretty harshly and puts it right on the line. The author–Brent Ozar–really wanted the Surface that he bought to work. He shot many videos (included in the review) that show it clearly doesn’t.

From “Why I’m Returning My Microsoft Surface RT”:

Do not buy a Microsoft Surface RT yet.

I’m typing this with gritted teeth.  My 24 hours with the half-baked Surface have been a frustrating challenge, a mix of love and hate.  I want want want this to work, but one problem after another have led me to come to the conclusion – a temporary one at least – that this thing just isn’t ready to ship.

 THE HARDWARE IS UNBELIEVABLE

Every time Apple unveils a new gadget or laptop, my jaw drops and I wonder how they pulled off executing their industrial designs.  Their v1 designs look so beautifully put together, not a mishmash of plastic parts and lids like the PC counterparts.  Every now and then, a PC maker will bring out something similar, but it’s the very rare exception rather than the rule.

The Surface RT is Microsoft shoving their hardware partners aside and saying, “Lemme show you how this should be done. Pay attention, kids.”

This tablet hardware doesn’t just compete with the iPad – it bypasses the iPad in many ways that are significant and valuable for me.

I plugged in my USB presentation remote and it just worked.

I plugged in a 64GB micro SD card with all my presentations and files and it just worked.

The Type Cover (the one with real keys) just works.  I’ve got big hands that often struggle on undersized keyboards, but I can type very quickly on the Type Cover.  So quickly, in fact, that I can outrun Microsoft Word on the Surface.  I get the feeling that the Surface RT’s CPU or Word code just can’t keep up with my typing.  Here’s an example video:

But that’s not a hardware problem – and it’s time for us to talk about the ugly problem with the Surface RT.

 THE SOFTWARE IS ALSO UNBELIEVABLE

The hardware makes promises that the software can’t deliver – and the ability to type faster than Word can digest is a great example of that.  Sure, I understand that the shipped version is “Microsoft Word Preview,” but you can’t deliver software like this.  It’s a recipe for returned products – and frankly, that’s exactly what I’m going to do with the Surface RT, return it.

Word’s problems aren’t limited to slow typing.  Once you’ve banged out a document, saving your work is another adventure:

I can understand problems with Word because it’s a new piece of software that Microsoft has never released bef – wait, hold on. I’m being told by my staff that Word is not a new program, and has been out since the 1980s.

See, the Surface RT only runs Metro (whatever) apps, of which there are woefully few.  I didn’t even get to the point of testing the very few that I found – forget it, because the built-in stuff is so incredibly bad.  The lack of apps wasn’t a problem for me – I explained why I preordered a Surface RT – but the quality of the built-in apps was.

The whole point of the Surface RT was supposed to be a tablet that’s ready for work.  It’s not.  Don’t touch it.

Next we have a review by Farhan Manjoo of Slate.com–he asks the question, “Why Is the Surface So Bad?”

There’s only one question anyone should ask about Microsoft’s Surface tablet: Is it better than the iPad?

I’ve spent the past week and a half trying to answer that question. During that time period, the Surface was my exclusive tablet—the only time I touched an iPad was to examine points of difference to write this review, and to use one or two iOS-only apps that I couldn’t give up. (By which I mean, I played Letterpress.)

But it didn’t take me a week and a half to decide whether the Surface is better than the iPad. At most it took a couple days, and that’s being generous. You’d likely arrive at the same conclusion after playing with the Surface for just a few minutes in a Microsoft Store. That’s because the new tablet’s flaws are glaring: It’s too slow, it’s mercilessly buggy, and the add-on that’s supposed to set it apart from the iPad—its touch-cover keyboard and trackpad—is nice but far from revolutionary. At $499 for the base model, plus $120 for the almost-required touch cover, the Surface is also not very competitive on price: You can get the newest standard iPad for the same $499, the still pretty good iPad 2 for $399, and the new iPad Mini for $329.

The Surface’s shortcomings are puzzling. Microsoft has been working on the technology in this device for years. When it decided to create its own hardware, it had to have known that making a good first impression against the iPad would be the key to the Surface’s long-term survival. The Surface is also the most celebrated home for Windows 8, the touch-friendly operating system that Microsoft is hoping will become a big hit on tablet machines. In other words, a lot—for Microsoft, perhaps everything—is riding on the Surface. So as I used it, I was nagged by a recurring question: Why is the Surface so bad?

The first problem is speed. Everything you do on the Surface takes more time than you expect. When you load an app, switch between apps, launch a Web page, go back to a previous Web page, check your email, and do pretty much anything else, you’ll find yourself waiting a half-second too long. This sounds like nothing, but when you compound that time across every action on the Surface, the wasted half-seconds add up to an annoying trudge.

TechCrunch’s M G Siegler lets us in on “An iPad Lover’s Take On The Surface With Windows RT”:

So what about the Touch Cover? It’s pretty solid. At first, I wasn’t very good at typing on it, but I got quite good, fairly quickly. It’s a little weird because the keys don’t actually move, so you have to get used to putting pressure on them as if they were moving even though they’re not. This was particularly troublesome for using the shift key. But again, I got used to it. No, it’s not as good as a keyboard with moveable keys (which the more expensive Type Cover has), but I’ve come away impressed.

One thing you cannot do with the Touch Cover is type on your lap. This is a little odd since Microsoft is clearly positioning the Surface to be a full-on laptop replacement. It works great on strong, flat surfaces. Anything else, not so much. (By the way, the same is *not* true of the Logitech slim keyboard iPad accessory, which I use in my lap all the time.)

The trackpad on the Touch Cover is decent. I find it odd that it exists at all, but when you need a cursor (more on that below), it comes in handy.

If the Touch Cover is the highlight of the Surface, desktop mode has to be the lowlight. It’s hard to put into words just how dumbfounding it is that Microsoft included this. The only answer I can come up with is that they could not get the Office apps ready for the “Metro” interface in time and had to — wait for it — compromise. If this was an actual roadmap decision made by someone at Microsoft, it’s one of the worst decisions ever made.

Desktop mode (or the Desktop app, if you prefer) is a cruel joke. It’s the same old Windows of decades past that you’re used to (well, minus the Start button itself), but it’s on a touchscreen device. And while some of the UI has been updated to make it more touch-friendly, a lot of it has not been well, touched. I’ve never had more mis-clicks, accidental closings, and all-around frustration with a computer. Ever.

I considered growing out my fingernails Howard Hughes-style just to be able to test Excel. Instead, I went to minimize it and closed it instead. And then I never thought about opening it again.

If Microsoft grafted on the Desktop mode to Windows RT just for Office, they clearly added the trackpad to the Touch Cover just for Desktop mode. You absolutely need it there unless you want to go insane.

Lastly, we have an article from a writer who regularly covers Windows–it’s his job. How bad is it when someone is a Microsoft fan and can’t get behind the product?

From Paul Thurrott’s Supersite For Windows weblog:

Windows 8 Sales Well Below Projections, Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Sales of Windows 8 PCs are well below Microsoft’s internal projections and have been described inside the company as disappointing. But here’s the catch: The software giant blames the slow start on lackluster PC maker designs and availability, further justifying its new Surface strategy. But Windows 8’s market acceptance can be blamed on many factors.

One of my most trusted sources at Microsoft confirmed Windows 8’s weak start this week. And with all of the drama surrounding Windows 8 and the recent, unexpected departure of Windows chief Steven Sinofsky, rumors are sure to swirl. But looked at logically, some trends emerge.

Microsoft blames the PC makers. My source cited to me the PC makers’ “inability to deliver,” a damning indictment that I think nicely explains why the firm felt it needed to start making its own PC and device hardware. In a related conversation with Microsoft the week after [the BUILD developer conference], I floated the notion that the company’s retail store expansion could one day lead to it becoming the number one in-store experience for PC makers’ wares, a not-so-subtle change in their relationships. This idea had clearly been considered as a possible future, leading me to believe that Microsoft has indeed soured on its traditional partner relationships and is looking to shake things up.

Lingering questions about Sinofsky. While Steven Sinofsky was removed from Microsoft because of his divisiveness and his ostracizing of far too many valuable executives and employees, many will continue to wonder if some failing in Windows 8 (and Windows RT) is what in fact led to his ouster. The timing on his departure couldn’t be worse, and while the promotion of his closest lieutenant, Julie Larson-Green, was clearly designed to promote the notion of orderly transition, the fact that she wasn’t made president of the Windows division hints at more changes to come. One of Microsoft’s many problems under the Sinofsky regime was that it wasn’t at all transparent: Its current lack of transparency about the succession plan for Windows is just as problematic because it makes those outside the company distrust anything they say. This lack of trust will cause consumers to look elsewhere.

It’s the economy, stupid. Microsoft launched Windows 8 at a time of great economic uncertainty and midstream in business deployment of the product’s predecessor, Windows 7. It doesn’t take a tech analyst expert to know that businesses are simply not going to deploy Windows 8 in great numbers. And while that’s obvious, it also means that only consumer acceptance of Windows 8 can possible help this release match the success of its predecessors. But consumers have plenty of choice these days, and many are quite comfortable stretching out the next PC purchase and using a companion device, like an iPad or other tablet. The problem is, they may discover that’s all the computer they need and simply opt out of Windows going forward.

Confusing range of device types. Faced with a reimagined, touch-focused Windows that is more at home on mobile devices than traditional PCs, and responding to increasingly hysterical pleas from Microsoft to innovate more, PC makers attempted to do in hardware what Microsoft did in Windows 8’s software: Create hybrid devices that could serve all needs. Unfortunately, the result is a mess of different hybrid designs, rather than a concerted, industry-wide effort to consolidate around a few basic designs. The result is obvious: Confusion, both on the PC maker side—where different companies are pushing a variety of different design types—and with consumers, who simply don’t know which, if any, device types to make. I love Lenovo, but consider this one PC maker’s designs: The firm is selling traditional laptops and Ultrabooks, touch-based laptops and Ultrabooks, “multimode” convertible laptop/tablets (the Yoga line), a traditional convertible Ultrabook (ThinkPad Twist), slate-type tablets (ThinkPad Tablet 2), slate-type tablets with keyboard docks (IdeaPad Lynx), and then a related but separate line of Android tablets. And that’s just the portable computers.

Windows 8. It’s a floor wax. No, it’s a dessert topping. Microsoft’s new whatever-the-F-it-is operating system is a confusing, Frankenstein’s monster mix of old and new that hides a great desktop upgrade under a crazy Metro front-end. It’s touch-first, as Microsoft says, but really it’s touch whether you want it or not (or have it or not), and the firm’s inability to give its own customers the choice to pick which UI they want is what really makes Windows 8 confounding to users. I actually like Windows 8 quite a bit and can’t imagine switching back. But I do understand the complaints of customers who aren’t getting what they wanted or asked for.

Windows RT. Imagine Apple announcing a major new version of iOS and then releasing a new tablet that runs Mac OS X instead of that new iOS version. Doesn’t make a lick of sense, does it? Well, that’s what Microsoft did: On the day that Microsoft launched Windows 8, it also launched Surface … running Windows RT. And while Windows RT is obvious a version of Windows 8, it’s a largely incompatible version of Windows 8, and one that runs in the resource constrained ARM environment. That means no existing desktop software will run on these devices, not to mention lots of hardware. Confusing? You bet. And I actually get this stuff. What’s a typical consumer to think?

Surface. And speaking of Surface, it bears repeating that Microsoft is now competing directly with its partners. But even educated consumers are confused by this entry. Those that do understand they should skip Windows RT now have to wait until January to see what a Surface Pro is like. And that means … you guessed it … they’re simply going to wait. How could Microsoft launch Windows 8 and not launch Surface Pro? It makes no sense at all.

Finally: the cryptic headline refers to the 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight (video). Coming into this fight Tyson was undefeated, having just scored a 93 second knockout in his previous contest, and now faced 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas. Instead, the fight became perhaps the best answer to the trivia question, “What is the greatest sports upset of all time?”

There is no direct comparison–Microsoft is not Tyson, nor are any of its rivals Douglas. As far as problem situations go, it’s already faced several Buster Douglases–Vista, for instance–and has survived. But after reading the reviews I’ve included here, the one image regarding Surface RT that kept reappearing in my mind was the one of Tyson, knocked down in disbelief after being undefeated (and really, practically untouched) in all his bouts–scrambling to find, of all things, his mouthpiece. Were he of a more sound mind, he gets up and finishes the fight, and possibly wins. Instead, he is dumbfounded.

Windows isn’t new to the computer business. It’s seen how Apple, Samsung, even HP and RIM have fared in the marketplace with their offerings. It should have learned from its own mistakes, and from those of others. One of the worst things that a company can do is bring a product to market that isn’t finished, or looks unfinished. Half of the four I’ve mentioned have done that (Apple’s iOS Maps app, RIM’s PlayBook), and have been roundly criticized for it.

Like I said: it has to work.

It’s been said that the very future of Microsoft depends on Windows 8. After all that we’ve seen in these reviews, perhaps there’s a correlation to Mike Tyson after all. Not believing that it could release a product that’s less than extraordinary, then scrambling futilely for answers that–even when found–likely aren’t going to be of much help.

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