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Microsoft’s Surface 2 shows the software giant’s vision of where personal technology is heading. It’s one most of us would be happy to live with.

Microsoft isn’t the only tech giant with a vision. Apple and Google, possibly even Facebook, have other ideas. Perhaps Samsung does. There are plenty of other visionaries out there who don’t have the clout these industry leaders command.

Microsoft’s long-term vision is one thing. In the short-term, there are contradictions, workarounds and occasional frustrations.

In part, this is because the Microsoft engine has to pull a long train of legacy carriages. You get the impression the Microsoft engineers who worked on Surface would love to uncouple most if not all of those carriages.

Two-in-one

All this means you see two Surface 2s in the one device. The visionary, futurist Surface 2 is lovely. Or at least it will be when it’s finished.

The other Surface 2 devices is a pragmatic look back to recent history. It’s like having a virtual Windows laptop crammed inside a sleek modern tablet. You enter this back-to-the-future world when you switch to the desktop world and the Office apps.

Surface 2 is physically minimal. And where its designers can get away with it, it’s minimal on the inside. The Metro apps are pared back – OK we’re not supposed to call them Metro anymore, but this is about communications, not branding. There’s a wonderful, European design theme running through them. Microsoft deserves credit for keeping complexity out of sight.

Consistent up to a point

At present, the Surface 2 apps aren’t tightly integrated. More about that later. But there is a design consistency so long as you stay in the Metro world. Once you’ve mastered a few basic ideas, working in the Surface 2 Metro-whatever world is easy and logical.

Sadly the switch back to Windows desktop is jarring. The good news is this is almost avoidable – in fact, it may be completely avoidable if you can find a decent Metro writing tool. I haven’t yet, but I’m too busy being productive to spend a lot of time hunting.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until Surface 3 for Metro-style versions of Microsoft’s Office apps.

I wasn’t sure when I started this experiment, but now I’m convinced, I could stay here. I could be happy and productive in the Windows stack. So could most people.

Whether people buy into all this is another matter entirely. It is said Microsoft’s core skill is selling technology. If so, it has its work cut out. Microsoft has leapfrogged a generation or two from where it was 18 months ago. Its engine could be moving faster towards the future than its customers sitting towards the back of the train.

A work in progress

For all the good stuff in Surface 2 and Windows 8.1, there’s still something of a work-in-progress feel about the software. I’m cool with that. So should you be? After all, people tolerated Gmail for years while it was still technically in beta.

Take the Windows 8.1 Mail app. It’s been upgraded since it first appeared at the end of 2012. Most of the time it is good enough for day-to-day work. It’s well laid out on-screen and logically organised. Messages are easy to read and compose. The touchscreen is used well.

It’s also possible to use Mail when the Surface 2 is working purely as a tablet. There’s a lot to like, but it lacks some basics.

More, better integration please

Overnight I discussed tonight’s dinner with my daughter, found a recipe on a website and sent a link in an email from my Windows Phone. My aim was to go to the recipe on the Surface 2, then cut and paste the ingredients list into OneNote, so we could pick them up later today when we visit the local shops.

Oddly, the link in the email, which is clickable from the Windows Phone mail client, isn’t clickable in Windows 8.1 Mail app. Some links are, this one isn’t.

To go to the web page I need to selected the URL, open a new Internet Explorer tab then manually cut and paste it in. I’ve found it easiest on the Surface 2 to use the keyboard and do a Control-C, Control-V cut and paste although the touch controls can do the job as well.

All-in-all I’m surprised at the lack of integration between Microsoft apps.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of integration between the Mail app and the Calendar or the People app. If I click on an email signature in the Apple OS X Mail app, I can then link directly to that person’s contact book entry and even quickly update fields. If I click on event time details in Apple’s Mail, I can turn it into a Calendar entry. Phone numbers can trigger calls. URLs are always links.

Surface 2 has potential

I sometimes wonder how different the world would be if Microsoft got the Surface, or something similar, out of the door when Apple first released the iPad. That aside, you have to give Microsoft credit for persistence. The Surface 2 is a huge improvement on the first Surface. If history is any guide, the product will hit its stride when it reaches version 3.1.

The $130 Microsoft Type Cover 2 costs NZ$10 more than the $120 Surface Touch Cover 2 keyboard. Yet when it comes to productivity, the Type Cover 2 is streets ahead. At least for me.

That’s because I’m a touch typist. I learnt to use a keyboard without looking at it. That means I can write faster and more efficiently than using the hunt and peck approach. It’s also something I’ve done for the last 3o years. Changing now is difficult.

Moving from the Touch Cover to the Type Cover makes a difference. With the Touch Cover the Surface 2 is just another tablet – with the ability to type a few characters on the flat slim keyboard. The Type Cover turns the Surface 2 into a laptop replacement.

Surface 2: almost a laptop

It can’t do everything a laptop can, but it can do the most important 90 percent. And that’s important. Suddenly my week in the Windows stack has changed in ways that I didn’t expect.

Above all, I barely need to use conventional Windows. I can efficiently deal with mail, social media and browsing all from the Surface 2 without skipping a beat. Writing – which is what I do most of the time – works fine on the Surface 2. More about that later.

Surface 2 has enough processing power to handle my immediate needs. There are times when I’m waiting for apps to load – some can take a minute or more to fire up. You can keep plenty of apps loaded in memory to avoid this.

Writing

On Tuesday I wrote a couple of stories from scratch using Microsoft Word on the Surface. I also wrote another couple directly into WordPress using the web-based full screen editor. Both work well.

Jumping into Windows desktop to use Word is a little irritating. It’s something I could get used to. Cutting and pasting text from Word into the WordPress editor is not as smooth as cutting and pasting between conventional Windows apps. Again, this is partly down to lack of practice. Moving between apps on the Surface isn’t so much tricky, as different. You can, but don’t normally, get to see two windows open at the same time.

I ran into three speed bumps. None of them serious.

First, if I get a mail invitation to an event in the Apple Mail app, I can click on the time details to send the information directly to the Calendar app. I kept trying to do this on the Surface before realising there is no such link between the apps.

The job is made harder because you have to continually switch back and forth from the Windows Mail app to the Calendar app to fill out the details. It’s clumsy in comparison. It isn’t a deal breaker. However, I incorrectly entered one invitation – something that’s less likely in the Apple stack.

Internet Explorer, better not foolproof

Second, Surface restricts you to Internet Explorer 11. You can’t install Chrome or Firefox. Again this isn’t a big problem most web sites seem to work fine. I ran into problems with a custom-made online content management system that struggled to display anything in IE.

I tried to get around this using an App called Mimic Browser. This ran the CMS fine, but the user interface is poorly designed. Normally I do an on page search for the button I need to enter my copy – there are thousands so scrolling and looking doesn’t work. Either Mimic Browser doesn’t allow on page searches, or I couldn’t find it. Using Search from the Charms bar didn’t work.

In the end I had to fire up Windows on the MacBook to do this simple task.

Almost no need for a PC as well

With the exception of that one problem, the Surface 2 means I could almost do away with the laptop – at least for day-to-day working. This brings me to an important point, Apple sees a tablet as an adjunct device. The iPad doesn’t attempt to replace a laptop. Although for some people, perhaps most, it is all the computer they need.

Microsoft sees its tablet as a replacement for a laptop. When you see images of the Surface 2, it is rarely shown without the keyboard. Workers who don’t need big screens or tons of storage could go from three devices to two quite easily in the Windows world.

Windows 8.1

Most press reviewers and bloggers agree there’s little wrong with the Microsoft Surface 2 hardware. Microsoft gets credit for bringing its tablet hardware up to date.

There’s a different story with the tablet’s software. Scan the news feeds and you’ll find Windows RT 8.1  comes in for almost as much criticism as the original Windows RT.

Is this justified?

Windows 8.1 RT is a small update on the operating system that shipped with the original Surface RT tablet. For most of the time it looks and behaves exactly the same as Microsoft’s desktop operating system: Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 RT perceptions

This is where problems begin, because Windows 8.1 RT can’t do all the things that a desktop operating system can. More precisely, it can’t run full Windows applications. That means users are locked out of the Windows apps they’ve used in the past. It also means they no longer have millions to choose from.

You can’t run Photoshop or install the Chrome browser as an alternative to Internet Explorer. You can’t run some cloud services that have Windows clients.

On the other hand you can run any of the apps in the Windows Store. Some of the traditional Windows apps come in Windows Store versions for RT, but many don’t. It would pay to look at the store to check it meets your needs before plonking down cash for Surface 2.

The wrong Windows?

Microsoft has a product for people who want to run Windows apps on a tablet. It’s called the Surface Pro 2 – prices start at $1300, roughly twice the price of a Windows RT tablet.

At least part of Windows RT’s problem is confusion about the difference between the two product ranges. Given that the OS looks like Windows and acts like Windows,  people expect it to do everything full-blown Windows can.

This is essentially a marketing and perception problem for Microsoft. It doesn’t help that the flip-side of the logic could be framed as ‘you pay less money and get an inferior experience’.

How Apple deals with this

You could ask yourself why Apple doesn’t face exactly the same problem. The iPad’s operating system is equally limited when compared to the Mac’s operating system.

There’s a clue in the names. Apple calls its tablet OS iOS, while the desktop OS is called OS X. If Apple had launched iPads with OS X RT, it may have run into similar problems.

Which brings up to an interesting point. How does Windows 8.1 RT compare with iOS 7?

It’s certainly a different experience. You may find cast iron reasons why you consider one better than the other, but most of that is a matter of taste and need.

Where Office fits

Windows 8.1 RT comes with plenty of software. There’s a version of Microsoft Office which looks and behaves just like the desktop version. Not so long ago, you’d pay more for a single copy of Office than you pay now for a Surface 2 with the software installed.

Office works with Skydrive, so you can work with files on the move, then make changes to the same documents from a desktop computer later. Or on a smartphone. The new version of RT comes with a full copy of Outlook, an  important productivity tool for companies committed to Microsoft’s technology stack.

Overall Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT works well. I found the touch controls in Windows 8 were clunky and awkward on a desktop, on a 10-inch screen they make perfect sense. Everything is well signposted with big clear buttons to tap and lots of navigation help.

Cognitive leap

There’s a cognitive leap you have to make – particularly if you’ve used other tablets – because many screens are quite minimal. This keeps things tidy and uncluttered. What isn’t immediately obvious is that there are screens and menus behind these screens which you get at through swipe gestures from the edge of the display.

Once you grasp this, you’ll find Windows 8.1 RT can be as productive as any tablet. Possibly more so. I wouldn’t describe it as intuitive. I would say that finding your way around isn’t hard.

Multi-tasking is much improved over the original Windows 8 RT. It’s now practical to have two windows open at the same time, making it easier for tasks such as cutting and pasting between apps.

Where’s the desktop?

Long-time Windows 8 users will notice there’s no desktop button on the 8.1 RT start page. That’s because you mainly don’t need to go there. However, the one aspect of Windows 8.1 RT I dislike most is that the Office apps all work on the desktop. So there’s a jarring transition between what was formerly known as the Metro interface and the old-school Windows desktop when you switch to Office.

Personally, I would have been happier if Microsoft had created Metro-style versions of the Office apps. I don’t know whether the company chose not to maintain full compatibility with the desktop version or whether Microsoft just hasn’t got around to modernising the apps yet. Either way, this discontinuity is annoying.

So to answer my original question, is the media criticism of Windows 8.1 RT justified? We certainly need to stay critical but some of the negativity is overstated.

Work needed on sales and marketing

Microsoft and the people in retail stores selling the Surface 2 could do a better job of managing customer expectations. I heard a sales person, wrongly, tell a customer an earlier RT device had a full copy of Windows. That doesn’t help. More retail training and clearer advertising may help.

The switch to desktop when using Office is not enough to dismiss the OS. For people who don’t need powerful desktop apps like Photoshop – let’s face it, that means most people – a Surface 2 tablet will be all the computer they need. RT’s limitations are not such a big deal for 90 percent of the population.

Microsoft’s second stab at making a tablet is a step up from the first time around. It is hard to find fault with the beautifully engineered hardware.

At least it’s hard to find fault with the tablet hardware. I mentioned problems with the keyboard which is just a little too small and the keys a little too close together for comfortable typing.

The experience reminded me why I never got on well with netbooks and find 11-inch laptops cramped.

After finishing the earlier story, I had aches in my arms and lower back. I still do. They could be from sitting cramped over the small keyboard for two or three hours.

Another possible explanation is that the discomfort is a result of controlling things by moving my hands from the keyboard to the touch screen. Or it could be to do with the low-profile no-travel keyboard.

My fault?

Now you could argue the Surface 2 wasn’t built for professional journalists to sit hunched over typing at the keyboard for hour after hour.

I hear you. On the other hand whatever the designer’s purpose, that’s exactly what some people are going to do with a device like this.

To be fair to Microsoft, I have to report I went through something similar when I first began using my iPad as a typewriter. It could just be an adjustment thing.

And I’m partly to blame. Sitting a desk doing nothing by typing for a couple of hours isn’t healthy no matter what equipment you use. Even so, this is something I’m going to need to keep a close eye on.

While we’re on the subject of the keyboard, I found I hit wrong keys more often than normal. I touch type so hitting the odd wrong key is normal.

Hitting the wrong keys can slow down writing as you go back to make corrections, so there’s a small productivity hit. When I’ve done this in the past I’ve found I quickly adjust to the new keyboard and things get back to normal.

surface-pro
Microsoft’s first Surface Pro wasn’t a hit

From the “If at first you don’t succeed” department Microsoft is readying the second generation of its Surface devices one year after the range’s initial launch. The company has invited US journalists to an event on September 23 in New York.

Leaks have, er, surfaced in recent weeks of two versions. The Microsoft Surface 2 Pro will use Intel’s power-sipping Haswell Core i5 processor while the plain vanilla Surface 2 is based on Tegra.

The Surface 2 Pro is expected to include more Ram, 8GB instead of 4GB in the current model. There’s also an uphdated kick-stand.

Some US media outlets report the launch could include a seven or eight-inch Surface mini although others suggest this device is not yet ready for the market. Reports suggest the new Surface devices will go on sale at the same time Windows 8.1 hits the streets, that’s due for October 18.

Curiously Nokia has a New York launch planned three days after the Microsoft event.

Comment: Microsoft never gets the credit it deserves for making great hardware.

While the Windows RT Surface is not much to write home about, the Surface Pro is still a fine device – one of the best new products to emerge in the last year. It manages to straddle the sliver of space between touch screen tablets and laptops.

Microsoft’s engineering is high quality, the Surface is built with the same attention to detail as Apple products. Microsoft did a better job than many of its hardware partners.

Windows 8 may look weird on a traditional PC. It makes perfect sense on the Microsoft Surface Pro. Yet I suspect the criticism surrounding Windows 8 is at least part of the reason the first generation Surface failed to fly.

It took until version 3.1 before Windows hit the spot.

Microsoft took a US$900 million write down on the Surface. But the company has never been frightened of taking two or three tries. Persistence is one of Microsoft’s virtues. Eventually it will deliver a Surface the market wants.