November 19, 2012
I'm a little embarrassed to admit how much I like the Surface RT. I wasn't expecting a lot when I ordered it, but after a day of use, I realized this was more than Yet Another Gadget. It might represent a brave new world of laptop design. How can you not love a laptop that lets you touch Zardoz to unlock it?
(I'll leave the particular unlock gestures I chose to your imagination. Good luck hacking this password, Mitnick!)
I have an ultrabook I like, but the more I used the Surface, the more obsolete it seemed, because I couldn't touch anything on the screen. I found touch interactions on Surface highly complementary to the keyboard. Way more than I would have ever believed, because I lived through the terror that was Pen Computing. If you need precision, you switch to the mouse or touchpad – but given the increasing prevalence of touch-friendly app and web design, that's not as often as you'd think. Tablets are selling like hotcakes, and every day the world becomes a more touch friendly place, with simpler apps that more people can understand and use on basic tablets. This a good thing. But this also means it is only a matter of time before all laptops must be touch laptops.
I've become quite
obsessed enamored with this touch laptop concept. I've used the Surface a lot since then. I own two, including the touch and type covers. I also impulsively splurged on a Lenovo Yoga 13, which is a more traditional laptop form factor.
One of the primary criticisms of the Surface RT is that, since it is an ARM based Tegra 3 device, it does not run traditional x86 apps. That's likely also why it comes with a bundled version of Office 2013. Well, the Yoga 13 resolves that complaint, because it's a Core i5 Ivy Bridge machine. But there is a cost for this x86 compatibility:
| ||Surface RT||Surface Pro||Yoga 13
|weight||1.5 lb||2.0 lb||3.4 lb
|runtime||8 hr||6? hr||5.5 hr
|display||10.6" 1366×768||10.6" 1920×1080||13.3" 1600×900
|memory||2 GB / 32 GB||4 GB / 64 GB||4 GB / 128 GB
The size comparison isn't entirely fair, since the Yoga is a 13.3" device, and the Surface is a 10.6" device. But Surface Pro has x86 internals and is otherwise as identical to the Surface RT as Microsoft could possibly make it, and it's still 44% larger and 33% heavier. Intel inside comes at a hefty cost in weight, battery life, and size.
You do get something for that price, though: compatibility with the vast library of x86 apps, and speed. The Yoga 13 is absurdly fast by tablet standards. Its Sunspider score is approximately 150 ms, compared to my iPad 4 at 738 ms, and the Surface RT at 1036 ms. Five hours of battery life might not seem like such a bad tradeoff for six times the performance.
I like the Yoga 13 a lot, and it is getting deservedly good reviews. Some reviewers think it's the best Windows 8 laptop available right now. It is a fine replacement for my ultrabook, and as long as you fix the brain-damaged default drive partitioning, scrape off the handful of stickers on it, and uninstall the few pre-installed craplets, it is eminently recommendable. You can also easily upgrade it from 4 GB to 8 GB of RAM for about $40.
But there were things about the practical use of a touch laptop, subtle things that hadn't even occurred to me until I tried to sit down and use one for a few hours, that made me pause:
- The screen bounces when you touch it. Maybe I just have hulk-like finger strength, but touching a thin laptop screen tends to make it bounce back a bit. That's … exactly what you don't want in a touch device. I begin to understand why the Surface chose its "fat screen, thin keyboard" design rather than the traditional "thin screen, fat keyboard" of a laptop. You need the inertia on the side you're touching. The physics of touching a thin, hinged laptop screen are never going to be particularly great. Yes, on the Yoga I can wrap the screen around behind the keyboard, or even prop it up like a tent – but this negates the value of the keyboard which is the biggest part of the touch laptop story! If I wanted a keyboardless tablet, I'd use one of the four I have in the house already. And the UPS guy just delivered a Nexus 10.
- A giant touchpad makes the keyboard area too large. On a typical laptop, a Texas size touchpad makes sense. On a touch laptop, giant touchpads are problematic because they push the screen even farther away from your hand. This may sound trivial, but it isn't. A ginormous touchpad makes every touch interaction you have that much more fatiguing to reach. I now see why the Surface opted for a tiny touchpad on its touch and type covers. A touchpad should be a method of last resort on a touch laptop anyway, because touch is more convenient, and if you need true per-pixel precision work, you'll plug in a mouse. Have I mentioned how convenient it is to have devices that accept standard USB mice, keyboards, drives, and so on? Because it is.
- Widescreen is good for keyboards, but awkward for tablets. A usable keyboard demands a certain minimum width, so widescreen it is; all touch laptops are going to be widescreen by definition. You get your choice between ultra wide or ultra tall. The default landscape mode works great, but rotating the device and using it in portrait mode makes it super tall. On a widescreen device, portrait orientation becomes a narrow and highly specialized niche. It's also very rough on lower resolution devices; neither the 1366×768 Surface RT nor the 1600×900 Yoga 13 really offer enough pixels on the narrow side to make portrait mode usable. You'd need a true retina class device to make portrait work in widescreen. I began to see why the iPad was shipped with a 4:3 display and not a 16:9 or 16:10 one, because that arrangement is more flexible on a tablet. I frequently use my iPad 4 in either orientation, but the Yoga and Surface are only useful in landscape mode except under the most rare of circumstances.
- About 11 inches might be the maximum practical tablet size. Like many observers, I've been amused by the race to produce the largest possible phone screen, resulting in 5" phablets that are apparently quite popular. But you'll also note that even the most ardent Apple fans seem to feel that the 7" iPad mini is an inherently superior form factor to the 10" iPad. I think both groups are fundamentally correct: for a lot of uses, the 3.5" phone really is too small, and the 10" tablet really is too big. As a corollary to that, I'd say anything larger than the 10.6" Surface is far too large to use as a tablet. Attempting to use the 13.3" Yoga as a tablet is incredibly awkward, primarily because of the size. Even if the weight and volume were pushed down to imaginary Minority Report levels, I'm not sure I would want a 13.3" tablet on my lap or in my hands. There must be a reason the standard letter page size is 8½ × 11", right?
- All-day computing, or, 10 hours of battery life. The more devices I own, the more I begin to appreciate those that I can use for 8 to 10 hours before needing to charge them. There is truly something a little magical about that 10 hour battery life number, and I can now understand why Apple seemed to target 9-10 hours of battery life in their initial iPad and iPhone designs. A battery life of 4 to 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at, but … I feel anxiety about carrying the charger around, whether I've charged recently or not, and I worry over screen brightness and other battery maximization techniques. When I can safely go 8 to 10 hours, I figure that even if I use the heck out of the device – as much as any human being reasonably could in a single day – I'll still safely make it through and I can stick it in a charger before I go to bed.
To appreciate just how extreme portrait mode is on a widescreen tablet, experience it yourself:
This isn't specific to touch laptops; it's a concern for all widescreen devices. I have the same problem with the taller iPhone 5. Because I now have to choose between super wide or super tall, it is a less flexible device in practice.
The Yoga 13, if representative of the new wave of Windows 8 laptops, is a clear win even if you have no intention of ever touching your screen:
- It boots up incredibly fast, in a few seconds.
- It wakes and sleeps incredibly fast, nearly instantaneously.
- The display is a high quality IPS model.
- A rotating screen offers a number of useful modes: presentation, (giant) tablet, standard laptop.
- Touchpad and keyboard work fine; at the very least, they're no worse than the typical PC laptop to me.
- Does the prospect of using Windows 8 frighten and disturb you? No worries, smash Windows+D on your keyboard immediately after booting and pretend you're using Windows 7.5. Done and done.
It's a nice laptop. You could do far worse, and many have. In the end, the Yoga 13 is just a nice laptop with a touchscreen slapped on it. But the more I used the Yoga the more I appreciated the subtle design choices of Surface that make it a far better touch laptop. I kept coming back to how much I enjoyed using the Surface as the platonic ideal of what touch laptops should be.
Yes, it is a bummer that the only currently available Surface is ARM based and does not run any traditional Windows apps. It's easy to look at the x86 performance of the Yoga 13 and assume that Windows on ARM is a cute, temporary throwback to Windows NT on Alpha or MIPS which will never last, and understandably so. Do you see anyone running Windows on Alpha or MIPS CPUs today? But I'm mightily impressed with the Tegra 3 SOC (system-on-a-chip) that runs both the Surface RT and the Nexus 7. Upcoming Tegra releases, all named after superheroes, promise 75 times the performance of Tegra 2 by 2014. I can't quite determine how much faster Tegra 3 was than Tegra 2, but even if it is "only" ten times faster by 2014, that's … amazing.
I think we're beginning to uncover the edges of a world where lack of x86 compatibility is no longer the kiss of death it used to be. It's unclear to me that Intel can ever reach equivalent performance per watt with ARM; Intel's ultra-low-end Celeron 847 is twice as fast as the ARM A15, but it's also 17 watts TDP. In a land of ARM chips that pull an absolute maximum of 4 watts at peak, slapping Intel Inside will instantly double the size and weight of your device – or halve its battery life, your choice. Intel's been trying to turn the battleship, but with very limited success so far. Haswell, the successor to the Ivy Bridge CPUs in the Surface Pro and Yoga 13, only gets to 10 watts at idle. And Intel's long neglected Atom line, thanks to years of institutional crippling to avoid cannibalizing Pentium sales, is poorly positioned to compete with ARM today.
Still, I would not blame anyone for waiting on the Surface Pro. A high performance, HD touch laptop in the Surface form factor that runs every x86 app you can throw at it is a potent combination … even if it is 44% larger and 33% heavier.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Why is the Surface with Windows RT 'only' 1366x768 while the surface pro will be 1920x1080? Perhaps the higher screen resolution contributes to the shorter battery life?
If the Surface uses Corning glass (and it probably does), your password is hackable because after you login a few times your greasy fingers will leave telltale streaks that are visible when your screen is reflecting light. The streaks by themselves are not sufficient, but they generally narrow things down a lot.
Notwithstanding, I agree that the touchscreen laptop is an idea whose time has come, but Asus has been doing similar things with Android tablets for a while already.
Don't underestimate Intel. They are now competing in smartphones with the Motorola RAZR i which achieves measurabely better battery than its ARM counterpart in the otherwise identical Motorola RAZR M whilst seemingly sacrificing almost nothing in performance.
I too have a Surface RT and I would say that its performance is the biggest problem I have with it. It is not quite there yet and I actually think the Tegra 3 CPU is the problem. Having had Tegra 3 based smartphones (and a Nexus 7) I can attest that other ARM CPU's are more powerful by some margin.
I love my Surface too and being able to use it for long periods with no battery concerns and no heat coming from it is great. It is the future, but isn't quite there yet.
Can you give a short list of some of the benefits that touching the monitor can bring to a developer?
I disagree that widescreen portrait is awkward. I remember myself rotating my desktop display into portrait, which worked great for longer reading sessions.
Quote: There must be a reason the standard letter page size is 8½ × 11", right?
Actually, the diagonal of a standard letter page is 13.9", which makes it bigger than even the Yoga's screen.
Hats of to Microsoft, I am no fan-boy but I want to touch the Yoga...
http://www.thinkmind.org/index.php?view=article&articleid=icsea_2012_5_10_10017 suggests with the right tools developers would be at home in this tactile environment, I find the combination has a lot of potential, I have not yet found a context aware editor with built in sftp and ssh client that I can run on a Nexus 10 so Surface Pro beckons, also they have stylus support which appeals... The two screen Asus Taichi another interesting approach, good to see some innovation in form factors even if not every attempt is a win!
There are several tablets using the Clover Trail version of Intel's Atom that appear quite promising. Don't write off Atom yet, because Intel isn't.
Many thanks for the interesting post.
I just measured a Surface RT screen with a ruler and the diagonal is definitely 10.6 inches, not 11.6 inches! ;-)
Great review and lots to help those thinking which way to go with their next purchase. Windows 8 definitely needs to be used on a device with some form of touch screen for users to 'get it'. I also think version 1 of the Surface RT just needs a few tweaks alongside the Windows App ecosystem maturing to become the definitive next generation computer but will it get long enough to fulfil it's potential?
Friday I played with a Surface RT at a nearby MS Kiosk.
I fired up IE and tried loading the theverge.com -- it took forever (maybe a minute), to the point that I was suspecting that either the Surface wasn't connected to the Internet or The Verge itself was down or slow. Just as I hit the back arrow in IE the site started loading. I hit the forward arrow, and had to wait every bit as long for it to reload. (Upon leaving the booth I fired up The Verge on my LTE iPad (3). It loaded essentially instantly, so there was no issue with the website itself. )
The MS minder (there was one for each of the 4 Surfaces at the Kiosk) says to me: "It has Office!"
So I fired up Office (Word), which took a long time to load, and typed a sentence on the attached keyboard. I had one typo hitting the letter N instead of the space bar between two words -- something I do a lot on the iPad virtual keyboard. I tried moving the cursor using touch to where the N was to fix it -- couldn't do it, it kept selecting the entire word. I asked the MS minder who had been standing next to me the entire time for help -- she couldn't figure out how to position the cursor either! Finally I saw that it could be positioned by dragging one of the edges of the whole word selection to where I wanted to go.
I realize that the slowness of the web could have been due to a very poor a Internet connection to the MS Kiosk. But that points to another glaring Surface flaw -- no cellular option -- you are stuck on WiFi whether it is good, bad, or non-existent. And what does it say about Microsoft to have such a poor demo setup?
tl;dr: Did Jeff try the same device I just did? There is something something one of us is missing.
I went with an Asus VivoTab RT instead of the Surface because I wanted GPS and NFC and so far have had a similar experience to Jeff. I'm still waiting on the (temporarily) free keyboard dock but just as a bare tablet it's kind of amazing. It's not the fastest device that I use, but I can't think of any reason to expect it to perform identically to my 3rd-gen i7 with SSD laptop. For what they are, both the Surface and VivoTab RT are fantastic little machines.
That all said, I don't see "ultra tall" being a problem. Holding my tablet in one hand I actually prefer to read most websites in portrait mode and kind of like the extra content that I get by NOT having a 4:3 screen. It's possible that might just be a preference thing between different people though.
BTW - My one complaint about the VivoTab RT: The Windows button on the bezel is capacitive so it's frustratingly easy to hit it when you don't intend to. It only took me an hour to train myself out of that though.
You start off saying how much you love the Surface, but the whole article is about loving a completely different piece of hardware and OS. Because, apparently, the Surface isn't good enough. In fact, it's so not good enough that "I wouldn't blame you for waiting for the Surface Pro." Which also is another completely different OS. But I do love this thing :)
Can you tell me what you like about the Surface? If you were going to sit down and do some work on it, what would you do? You couldn't run Visual Studio, Dreamweaver, your standard FTP client, Photoshop. I mean, I don't know what kind of developer you are, but are you running any of the tools you normally use to get work done on it?
If you were a business professional, none of your apps will run on the Surface either. Even Outlook. So if you were traveling you need to bring the laptop.
I mean, people rave about being able to connect a usb camera or a laser jet printer to this thing. But what are you going to do with a camera without your image editing software? What are you going to print without quickbooks or acrobat or publisher or project.
The portrait screenshot you posted looks infinitely more usable than the landscape one; I'm surprised you prefer portrait? Look at all the extra text that's on it too.
Even with multiple widescreen monitors on my desk, my browser window is still "portrait shaped", because reading long text is easier with narrow columns, like a newspaper.
I use computers mainly to develop software. Anything less than a 15" display is unusable. I got a 15" touch laptop to test my Win8 apps. I truly hate the win8 touch interface and enormous waste of screen real estate to maintain the "metro" aesthetic. Windows 8 makes things even worse with the constant flipping between sane mode and metro mode. Using 2 monitors for Win8 dev is almost tolerable as it allows you to keep visual studio from flipping out to tiles. Sorry Jeff, but I don't understand your attraction to the SurfaceRT. It's Windows 8, but worse and that's not saying much. Maybe I'll change my mind about Metro, but I doubt it. The more I use it, the less I like it. Metro and Windows 8 seem like a lame excuse on Microsoft's part to show that they're innovating. Change for the sake of change. The user experience is terrible, the use of touch is unnecessary and the display real estate is completely wasted.
There must be a reason the standard letter page size is 8½ × 11", right?
"The American Forest and Paper Association argues that the dimension originates from the days of manual paper making, and that the 11-inch length of the page is about a quarter of 'the average maximum stretch of an experienced vatman's arms'."
Plus, the real ISO standard is A4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_216
"Way more than I would have ever believed, because I lived through the terror that was Pen Computing."
I never understood this position. I have a convertible tablet, and I think it's *great*. I have not really used a touch laptop and to some extent I don't want to knock them, but it seems that the places where they're good differs quite a bit.
For instance, with a pen I get both precision *and* not aiming with a mouse (as opposed to "if you need precision, you switch to the mouse or touchpad"). It's active, which means that if I want to see a tooltip or hit a webpage that requires you to hover, I can actually use that web page. (I'm not sure what the story is with something like Win8, but my experience with the iPhone and such sites is that you use such sites by hoping you can find a different one that you can actually use.) And for taking notes during class it can't be beat: it writes mostly like pencil & paper, but gives you something that you can back up (without a photocopier) and search. I whine incessantly about 99% of the software I use from Windows to Linux to every web browser to command shells, but OneNote running on my tablet is a piece of software that I honestly think works *really* well and I actually mostly enjoy using.
"Actually, the diagonal of a standard letter page is 13.9", which makes it bigger than even the Yoga's screen."
And not only that, but my impression is that in most of the rest of the world, the "standard" page is A4, 8.27"x11.69" (as also mentioned by ceejayoz), which gives a 14.3" diagonal, which is even bigger than letter.
I have an ultrabook I like, but the more I used the Surface, the more obsolete it seemed, because I couldn't touch anything on the screen.
Ah, welcome to the hell that the early converters to touchscreen convertibles and laptops have dealt with for the last 5-10 years. People sneered..."no, it can't be better! Remember those pens? BLECH!" But we knew. Oh, we knew.
Now the rest of the world will, too.
I have been using the Samsung Series 7 Slate for the past five months. Yes, the battery life is not as good as the RT and probably won't be as good as the PRO. But I have to say, I never want to buy another laptop again.
I think I truly fell in love with it when I was in a conference room with it hooked up to the projector using a MicroHDMI cable and drawing diagrams with the Wacom pen. Love this thing.
As far as the greasy finger effect and the password that someone mentioned before, that assumes that you are using it only to log in. Play a Facebook game or Taptiles on it for five minutes and then get back to me.
Actually, the diagonal of a standard letter page is 13.9", which makes it bigger than even the Yoga's screen.
I was about to say the same thing, but if you include the iPad's vertical margins of precisely 7/8" and horizontal margins of precisely 3/4", the screen diagonal of a letter page tablet is ~11.61".
Derivation (apologies for the spam):
>>> ((8.5 - (7.31 - 9.7 * .6))**2 + (11 - (9.50 - 9.7 * .8))**2)**.5
Source of iPad numbers:
@Ted T - I think this review was more on the hardware is my guess, and less on the software (Windows). Your assessment seems to correspond to the reviews I've seen elsewhere, especially the slowness.
I will *never* forgive Microsoft for the ridiculous amount of time the "delete file" feature in the XP/Vista UI took. Go to console, erase file - fast. In UI, sloooow. C'mon, are they doing an unindexed search of the filesystem to create an inode table or what, maybe using a bubble sort, and doing some miscellaneous laundry? Apple got this right, the UI is fast on the iOS. Forget the details, but I think they just spawn a thread task, and return immediately to the UI. Whatever the technique, it's *fast*.
But Nielsen, rather influential guy in the UI area, has some a more detailed review of Windows 8 Surface RT (or whatever it is) and my conclusion is that this is a typical Microsoft 1.0 rollout. They'll eventually get this right, but we are far from the days where MSFT owned the platform, so they don't enjoy the luxury of the necessary time to get it right. Here's the review:
Hidden features, reduced discoverability, cognitive overhead from dual environments, and reduced power from a single-window UI and low information density. Too bad.
I'm very surprised no one commented on the resolution on the Surface RT. I bought one and returned in the next day. My phone resolution on the Galaxy Note 1 was better than this expensive tablet. The Galaxy Note 1 registered at 285 ppi, while the surface rt has a ppi of 148. For any power user the difference is immediately noticeable when browsing.
Note (no pun intended), I have no Ipad, or anything with a retina display. however comparing a Lumia 920 to the surface showed the marked difference. comparing my Galaxy Note 1 was still night and day. For an expensive item that you'll be browsing constantly with, the noticeable pixelation was just too much for me to enjoy long term.
I returned and bought a Nexus 10.
@Robert Sullivan: I would not give much credence to Nielsen's conclusions. He was negative on the Kindle Fire:
And on the iPad:
And have you actually browsed his site useit.com? *shudder*
Lastly, I hope I don't come accross as confrontational by asking this, but have you used Windows 8 or RT yourself? It's fine if after giving yourself a fair chance to get used to the new interface that you still don't like it, but at least you didn't rely on others' (often agenda driven) comments to make your tech purchase decisions for you.
The one thing I totally disagree with is 13" is too large. I have a couple of tablets and the major fault is being too small! I run 2x 24" HD screens on the desktop, and even my laptop is a 17" hd screen.
The only requirement for larger useable screens is resolution needs to match. Running a 13" low res screen is pointless with low resolution, resolution should be at least 1920 x 1080 on a 13" or larger device.
I've also looked at the ipad and think having high resolution on a tiny 10" screen is equally a waste of power and resources.
I'm waiting for a full x86 laptop with touch screen in minimum 15" min 1920x1080 form and hopefully a foldback display, full keyboard etc to make a large useable touchscreen laptop / tablet device. (A 15" surface pro type device would be nice.)
Reason #2 makes my head hurt. The Surface touchpad is smaller than the Yoga because the screen is smaller. What should Lenovo do? Not cover the screen when it's closed?
The Surface looks too cool for me not to get one.
Jeff did you happen to use one of the Asus Transformers? (of the Android kind).
If you did it would be interesting to hear your take on the Transformer vs. the Surface as both are similar conceptually.
Author should be ashamed of saying this: "Does the prospect of using Windows 8 frighten and disturb you? No worries, smash Windows+D on your keyboard immediately after booting and pretend you're using Windows 7.5. Done and done."
Everybody knows the old windows style can not be fully experienced without a FREAKING START MENU! If it only had the old start menu i would totally agree with the author. But no, it does not have, so no, you can't experience "Windows 7.5" because it is incomplete.
I tried out a Surface at the Microsoft Store in the Park Meadows mall, south of Denver. It was okay. Didn't seem slow to me, but it didn't do the things I want to do with it.
I'm going to check out the Surface Pro. One thing I really want with it is some kind of TypeCover that uses bluetooth so I can set the thing in portrait mode and use it that way. I also plan to dual-boot it with Fedora or Ubuntu Linux.
The Samsung machines are awfully tempting too.
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That's Zed, by the way, not Zardoz.