Friday, 28 December 2012

Surface Tension

I have in my hot hands a Microsoft Windows Surface running Windows RT (the ARM / lite version of Windows 8).

There's been a lot of criticism of the Surface, and the world always needs another opinion, so here's:

My take on three Windows 8 criticisms:

1. It's immediately unintuitive, unlike the iPhone and iPad

I bought my first i-anything about one year ago, and beyond the initial "launch an app" there were things I had to learn - moving apps, customising contact layouts, making folders - it was all unintuitive, but still easy once I knew how.  The Surface is no different - the swipe gestures (swipe from top, swipe from right, etc) have to be learned, but once only for all apps.  I don't find them any harder than Apple or Google's methods.  If they were the same, you would complain that Microsoft is just a copy cat, and they would probably suffer a "patent the mouse-click" lawsuit.

2. The Desktop is horribly hidden as just another app / Sometimes you use the traditional Desktop, sometimes you use Metro

OK, your alternative is: no desktop.  That's what the other big tablet OSs give you.  Instead, Windows 8 offers you the choice - some apps are just suited to a Desktop (eg. Word & Excel - an offering that you don't even have in the alternative OSs).  I would much rather have this choice, than not at all.

I just designed a small user manual on my Surface.  Office 2013 is incredibly easy to use with one finger.  I uses a full suite of templates, pictures, charts, and booklet layouts and I didn't find the need to use a mouse once. (Actually I did once, when trying to format a bar chart.  It seems though my problems were a design oversight, and I expect them to be fixed in the next version).

3. It's slow, clunky, and buggy

I haven't noticed much to confirm this.  Occasionally an app closes and leaves me at the Metro UI.  Probably twice the amount of times on the Surface than on my iPhone, however I would call iOS established and mature, and Windows 8 is almost like a "point-0" release, so it has some bugs to iron out, as did Windows 7, Vista, MP, XP, etc.

You're obviously a Microsoft Fanboy / zealot / MacHater / paid spin doctor, why should I listen to you?

None of the above.  I have had various Nokia, Ericsson, Windows Mobile phones in the past.  I currently have an iPhone 4S, Nexus 7 (Android), Windows 7 laptop, and more recently the Surface tablet.  Truth be told, I have used the Nexus more this week than any other device, but mainly because I'm on holidays and just "browsing" games and the 'net.

I don't like everything about the Surface, here are a few of my real criticisms:

No start menu

I can't decide whether this is a criticism or not.  Neither Android or iOS offer a start menu, however it is so ingrained in the Windows user mentality, I'm not surprised people are crying out for it.  Windows 8 has stuck by it's principles - "we did it that way in the past is not a valid reason to continue to do it".  It feels hard to find apps that you're used to finding on a the start menu, but only because I'm used to finding them there.  I can still find them (perhaps even easier) using the search gesture or button on my keyboard.

It's not suited to running on a traditional desktop / laptop

I can't help feeling that desktop users (including laptops without touchscreens and detachable keyboards) are in second place.  All the new gestures are great - for the touchscreen.  Without it, I found moving the mouse into the top left/right/whatever of the screen unnatural, and sometimes even difficult.  (Try doing this using remote desktop into Windows 8 - sometimes it's impossible to get the mouse in the corner when there's no screen edge.

Selecting text with the touchscreen is hard to impossible

There are times when you won't have a mouse or trackpad, otherwise the Surface wouldn't let you remove it.  It is a tablet after all

Trying to do so on Windows 8 is tough.  There is no "zoom" bubble like iOS, so your finger obscures the text in which you're trying position the curser.  Selecting text is also tricky, as a curser with a circle below appears - which is an indication you can drag something - however, dragging it will sometimes select the wrong line, unselect text, or even move the viewport

Not enough apps

This is to be expected, as the platform is so new.  Hopefully it grows, however I don't understand why Microsoft didn't make the Surface a low-cost intel platform, and have the full suite of Windows apps available in "desktop mode", like the upcoming Surface Pro.

No Metro widgets

iOS doesn't allow widgets at all.  Android allows fully customisable widgets that can take all or part of your screen and show any content the developer chooses.  Windows 8 only allows two tile sizes: small (square) and large (a horizontal rectangle double the size of the square).  The user has the opportunity to choose the large or small tile, and whether you want the app's live updates or not (useful for stopping potential adds / spam) however you can't design a tile outside these limits (eg larger or with more content).


That's ultimately up to you.  I like the Surface for it's almost-full laptop power (typesetting, formatting, web browsing, communicating); great battery life and ultra portability.  I don't like it for its product immaturity - hopefully this will be improved with time (the definition of maturity?).  I only hope the departure of Steven Sinofsky won't allow compromises.

Let me know what you think.

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