My first impression about the Microsoft Surface

I was offered a surface for father's day this year. I had an old iPad that I've used for several years, and I was curious to know if you can use the Surface just like a Windows laptop. While it has great features, faster Internet, and much more, the answer is clearly no.

Here is a summary of all the problems I faced:

  • It sometimes upgrade software when you want to switch off your computer. It takes so long, you think your Surface went sleeping, you eventually turn it off. Unfortunately, when you switch on again, nothing works, not even the Internet. You have to spend an hour over the phone with tech support to fix the issue, because there's no online help, even if you search on Google with the right keywords, to fix this stuff yourself. The problem also exists with Windows laptops, to a lesser extent. Not sure why Microsoft hasn't invented procedures that can resume nicely after a crash. We lost the power today, and that was also a big problem with the Surface when the power came back (Internet issue). One day, the screen was totally black. It was another hour wasted with tech support to fix the problem. Hopefully, with time, we'll learn and recognize the most frequent crashes and be able to fix it ourselves, it's part of the learning curve, it's just a steeper learning curve than for the iPad.
  • I started to write this article on my Surface, and at some point decided to email it to myself, and retrieve it on my laptop, where I typically make the final content upload on DataScienceCentral. You could argue that I should have done a simple "copy" and "paste" from the Surface's notepad onto my website, but this has its own challenges (maybe solved by using a mouse). Anyway, I accessed my email via webmail on IE on the Surface, barely succeeded in reaching the "add an attachment" button half-way hidden below the screen, managed to attach the document. Once I downloaded it on my laptop, it was unreadable. A total waste of time, I had to re-write the whole article from scratch. This was one of the nice features I used on my iPad.
  • The Surface touchscreen is not as good as the iPad one: too many times, "click" does not work and you need to zoom in, move your finger around or refresh the webpage and start again. Sometimes (maybe once every 50 clicks) 5 or 6 attempts are necessary to "click" with your finger. Sometimes it's because the web page is frozen. The biggest challenge is accessing links in drop-down menus, for instance the "group" link on LinkedIn, under the "Interest" tab. It's just simply impossible, and that's one of the pages that I visit very frequently. I have to use awkward workarounds to bypass this defect. Hopefully, when I use a mouse, it will work. Or it's a browser bug that Microsoft will soon fix.
  • I tried to install Chrome but it failed. I was redirected to the the Window Store which has very few apps. Of course Chrome, FTP, Cygwin, Putty - that is, all the apps I am interested in - are not available. 
  • It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to access the Windows command prompt (Windows shell). But I did find it and was able to use the default Windows FTP client in the command line! Not something great, but it worked.

I still think it is superior to the iPad, but it's by no means a substitute for a laptop, not for a tech guy. Sure you can do a lot of things just with a web browser - you can run R remotely as an API via a browser - but it's cumbersome. I'm sure these tablets (iPad or Surface) were not designed to run data science projects entirely through web interfaces.

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Comment by Mirko Krivanek on August 1, 2013 at 9:27am

Wondering if you can upgrade the RT to the Pro model, without having to ship back the RT Surface.

Comment by Tom Wolfer on July 25, 2013 at 8:57am

Vincent, you make some great points about the Surface Tablet. I don't have one; I have just played a bit with the first version to hit the market. However, I will say this: the Surface Tablet isn't necessarily dead as media reports have indicated. It stands a chance - especially in the business market -  if MS Office apps are restricted to Surface Tablets. Office is still - and will remain for some time, in desktop software or cloud format - the standard in office productivity (and that includes a LOT of data analysis, still!). http://tumbleweedmarketinganalytics.com/2013/07/25/decline-of-micro...

Comment by Dr Stephen K Tagg on July 22, 2013 at 11:00am

I've had a Surface RT since march and find it fairly worthwhile. I don't have any trouble with cut and paste, but my fingers are often too large to click on the high def screen. I've brought a couple of cheap stylises so I can try inputting by writing. I find the screen keyboard easier than the cover/ keyboard (unless on a desk with the kick prop out).

I believe that the surface professional is like a tablet laptop hybrid allowing you to run anything like chrome.. however not on the RT.

It scores over the iPad in some areas but not packages! I can access my 4TB. USB3.0 external drive and the PowerPoint runs a slave VGA+ for presentations with a valuable set of Windows on the tablet.

The internet explorer is adequate except for a strict implementation of features so that when using our university Moodle you can't drag and drop files from client folder's into the application, like you can with chrome.

What do I do with the tablet and what with the laptop. Tablet for Reading kindle books, news email triage...social media... laptop for spas, R PLS-SEM Moodle etc...

Comment by Vincent Granville on July 22, 2013 at 8:52am

Here is a comment from one of our readers:

Vincent, have you tried the Dell Ultrabook configured with Ubuntu?   It has profiles of open source software for both cloud and mobile app development, plus a decent touch screen, better keyboard than the Surface etc.   It's lightweight, can accept additional storage via peripherals and mine has had decent power longevity considering that I maxed out the onboard flash memory.
Comment by Vincent Granville on July 21, 2013 at 8:20pm

If you can remotely access your laptop from your Surface, and some vendors such as GoToMyPC allows you to do it via a browser, then you can do anything from your Surface, iPad or even iPhone. All you need is a device with a web browser. Of course, this would defeat the purpose why these tablets were invented, turning them into a proxy device to work on your laptop or your desktop from your bed, or on a beach 5,000 miles away from where your desktop physically sits.

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