Windows 8 RT – iPad Killer?

Posted on October 29, 2012

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I have just taken delivery of a Microsoft Surface and it has knocked my sock off, it fell short of taking both due to its absence of proper Stylus support but I will come to that later.

The Windows Surface and Windows 8 RT is a great blend of Software and hardware I cannot champion it more in the convenience Tablet space. It is not a notebook replacement but it nails Apple iPad to the wall on its home turf and then some, :

  • Multiple Account support – YES, something Apple have arrogantly failed to listen to from their users. I can share my Windows 8 RT device securely with other family members and lock it down for child protection whilst not compromising my own experience.
  • Battery life – FANTASTIC and all day affair.
  • Keyboard – A choice of them as well that fit harmoniously doubling up as covers! Turns it into what the Netbooks always aspired to but never quiet delivered on.
  • Storage – Expansion via a micro SDXC card slot for up to a current largest available 128GB, and then there is external USB that you can take as large as you like it seems, it sees my 1Tb Western Digital HD no problems.
  • File Management – With the USB you can side-load movies and music directly into the Windows RT desktop NO hacking around with intermediary software (iTunes is a dinosaur in comparison), or simply sync with SkyDrive.
  • Display – The 10.6-inch 16:9 aspect ratio screen provides an HD video window that’s 42 percent larger than the iPad’s, and as far as I can see Apple Retina makes little difference.
  • Videos – With secondary App Store apps there is the widest support for video’s that with the convenience of file management noted above means this is a painless video playback platform.
  • eBook Reader –Amazon app ticks the box firmly here, no iBooks locking, and it works a treat, no other device required.
  • Productivity Suite – Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 comes by default makes this a real deal for the lecture rooms. Mail, Calendar and Peoples hub that supports multiple email accounts in an Outlook style touch friendly interface.
  • Gaming – Xbox linkage which requires further exploration but it has the hallmarks of a fully integrated experience that makes Apple Airplay look like thin air!

On the downside:

  • Lack of Full Stylus Support – A great shame, if there is one thing I want to leave behind when I am on the road it is the reams of paper that come from note taking. This was a missed opportunity to make this device a real killer by taking Samsung pen enabled tablets out of the mix as well as iPad’s.
  • Skype Failures – The Skype Microsoft Account attach being forced down Windows 8 RT users throats is a one way trip that CANNOT currently be reversed BE WARNED. I spend an hour on support with Skype trying to address this issue. As such I now cannot use Skype on my Surface as I use my Private Microsoft Account to login and Skype has been associated with my Corporate Microsoft Account during earlier testing.
  • Power Up – A pity this does not use a conventional Micro USB socket and has elected to go for a proprietary connector, but the mag-safe connection does have its upsides
  • Apps Store – with an apparent 500 being added each day this is very much on the Lite side but some of the core favourites are already there.

Unexpected Software Hic-ups:

Some things I would have least expected from a mature and experienced software company, but I guess this is what can happens when you move across disciplines into Hardware, focus gets lost.

The issues users will experience is a frustration that with a mobile platform of such elegance, the actual ‘Mobility’ and ‘Usability’ is severely hampered in two key ways:

1. Offline App support – Microsoft seem to have been completely blindsided by the fact that offline functionality is as critical in mobile devices like this as Oxygen is to life! Dramatic, NO. Take their own Pivotal application ‘SkyDrive’. Talk about setting the worst example to App Store developers. It is useless in a truly mobile world where you cannot depend on connectivity 100% or even stable connectivity when you have it. Try hanging onto a flaky WiFi signal on a 3 hour train journey, without the ability to access your files. That is the GAPING HOLE in SykDrive functionality (with the exception of Pictures which can be taken offline in the Pictures app. Unimpressive options to work around this are:

  1.  To rely on the Office Cache for files you have accessed, but that is uncertain and with a maximum 30 day retention.
  2. Copy your SkyDrive to your Windows 8 RT local storage. But then lose the replication and comfort of knowing all is safe in the cloud!
  3. Adopt a third party application and dump SkyDrive. Then you lose the Cloud dimension to your Microsoft Account existence and about 30% of the Windows 8 + Microsoft Account marriage of convenience.

 This scenario plays out across most Apps in the app store, making the Microsoft Surface a network tethered device when it has all the aspirations of being a winning Mobile device.

The good news is having spoken to some of the Microsoft team I understand that SkyDrive offline functionality is in the pipeline. The lack of urgency does surprise me, but at least it is coming.

2. Data Access – The inability to use the Windows Modern UI Apps to access data in attached storage ie: USB or the excellent option of a MicroSD card. To equip a device with a major feature such as storage expansion and then to hobble it by constraining access to it from core Windows Modern UI apps. There is a manual workaround, but it is not something obvious and for the type of consumer user of this device it is likely to be so far off radar they will never address this.

The solution at present is to use an old NTFS file sharing feature (Junction Point) that points all actions to a remote folder but as far as the OS is concerned the remote folder is part of the mapped local storage libraries. In this case these are the standard libraries (Music, Pictures, Documents, Videos) that Windows 8 RT apps are designed to access.  I will do a stepwise guide on this in the next week or so when I get time as the Microsoft TechNet documentation on the subject is not that consumer friendly.

I can only say there has to have been a lack of true road testing for these types of flaws to have reached market (a victim of keeping the great secret till the last minute), but I guess in old Microsoft parlance, they are Partner opportunities (pull the other one).

The future of the RT platform alongside the pending Windows 8 Pro version (spec comparison) will be dictated by the speed of improvement over such offline support and hardware leveraging issues. Most importantly for consumers it will be the growth of the Apps ecosystem coming up to speed fast enough to satisfy, and with features that leverage offline capabilities and the real desktop dimension of this svelte and high quality consumer device. So far things are looking promising.

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