21 Feb.

Something Is Growing On My Surface

And that would be me. I embraced the Surface with a sense of skepticism, knowing in advance the shortcomings of Windows RT versus Windows 8, and the limitations of the included versions of the Office applications, yet it hasn’t been placed in the “pile of questionable hardware devices for testing purposes that my wife wishes I would get rid of”.

What’s Not To Like?

I will deliberately keep this section short, too many articles and conversations on Surface and Windows RT focus on the negatives. There are some traditional Windows applications that I miss, but I’m coping without them. The current Mail/People/Calendar apps do not allow me to work the way Outlook 2013 allows me to, but it has forced me to use these apps more than I would on my Windows 8 based devices. I’m not completely sold on the Video app only allowing me to watch videos in two sizes on screen, neither of which are watching videos in half screen mode while being able to take notes, and the side by side split ratio doesn’t really allow the right balance to be made.

Surface Versus Surface Pro

As I mentioned in my last post, Surface Pro doesn’t fill a gap I have in my existing device line up. That’s not to say that I won’t get one at some point, but for now the combination of a 2012 Sony Vaio Z and the Surface is the combination that works for me at this point in time. The 13 inch screen of the Sony is on the edge of how small a screen I can run at 1920*1080 without using text scaling, which to me defeats some of the purposes of having a higher resolution display. Running the Surface Pro at its native resolution without text scaling is not a great experience due to the small size of the text, and based on empirical data, I assume my eyesight will only get worse, not improve as I get older.

Is Adding Outlook The Right Answer?

Originally I would have given a definitive yes as the answer, but now I’m not so sure. The reason my views are changing is that I already spend too much time on the Windows desktop on Windows RT as it is, and adding an ARM compiled version of Outlook 2013 would only make that balance worse. Instead Microsoft needs to deliver major improvements to the existing Mail and Calendar apps. I won’t comment on the People app because I haven’t really spent enough time in it to pass judgment. The Office 2013 desktop applications don’t provide enough of a touch friendly interface to enable them to be first class touch applications in Windows 8 and Windows RT, so I don’t see an Outlook 2013 port as the real solution, just a stop gap measure.

All Hail The Windows Desktop

This somewhat contradicts what I wrote above, and is a polarising topic, but there are some people who think that access to the Windows desktop is a weakness of Windows RT, but for me it provides comfort and easy access to advanced settings and features I need access to. Snap, PowerShell, adding certificates, Internet Explorer presented the way I am used to it, applying local policies, and more. I accept that I am part of a small percentage of the audience for Windows RT devices, but without it I doubt I would bother taking my Surface around as secondary device.

Connected Standby

I discovered an interesting side effect of the Surface’s connected standby – it keeps my internet sharing active on my Nokia 920. In comparison, my other laptops lose the connection when sleeping, meaning I have to start internet sharing after waking the laptops. This isn’t normally a big problem, but recently the only power socket in a hotel room that I could use where the phone charger would fit was in the bathroom, so I had to walk between rooms to reset connections until I connected my Surface.

Battery Life

Surface doesn’t have the best battery life of the current Windows RT devices, but it’s a device I don’t have to charge daily. Even recent usage on a flight between Sydney and Los Angeles with occasional use when I needed to write some notes or update a to do list, and watching a few training videos, barely made an impact on the battery life. Normally after this flight the first thing I look for is a power source so that I can recharge and get back online, but this time round it was a more leisurely affair.

User Profiles

I have a user profile set up on my Surface that connects into the Microsoft CIE environment, so I can happily hand the device around during CIE deliveries so that attendees can experience Surface without me having to worry about them reading my email, updating my Facebook status etc,

Kickstand

The lengthy flight from Sydney to Los Angeles highlighted some of the issues that can occur with the kickstand. There were a few times I pushed the Surface too far back and the kickstand slipped off the rear edge of the tray. The Surface didn’t fall, the gap was too small, but still something to be wary of in other situations. The single angle of the kickstand wasn’t a problem for me, but if the person in front of me had been fully reclined, then it would have been an issue. Balancing on your legs can be problematic, except maybe for someone long femurs that are parallel to the ground.

Type Cover

If you have a Surface and don’t have the Type Cover, you really should get one. While initial impressions of the Touch Cover are usually favourable, they are normally favourable to it not being worse than it is. The Type Cover keys have travel, you know when you have hit a key and your touch typing will be better. As a long time Windows user I know Windows keyboard combinations, and Windows RT supports these Windows keyboard combinations. Using a Bluetooth keyboard with my iPad was another thing that frustrated me, it just didn’t work the way I wanted it to.

Device Compatibility

Okay, this isn’t perfect but overall it’s been pretty damn good. I tried the USB to Ethernet adapter from an Acer Aspire S7, and my USB 3G modem, and Windows RT doesn’t like either of them,  Otherwise I’ve been connecting different printers, mice, keyboards and other Bluetooth devices with great success. Having a single USB port has been problematic for me sometimes, but it has driven the use of additional Bluetooth devices which I’ve had sitting around unused for a while.

BitLocker

Most of my external HDDs and flash drives are encrypted with BitLocker, and Windows RT can access these once the password is entered. There is confusion about the BitLocker capabilities of Windows RT, which are best explained as follows

Internal storage is encrypted with a key applied after you sign in with your Microsoft account. This means that if you haven’t signed in with your Microsoft account the disk is encrypted, but with an open key. This is not a good state to keep your Surface in, so sign in with your Microsoft key. This is handled by the TPM 2.0 capabilities of the device.

The ability to encrypt external drives with BitLocker isn’t available, and this also means that you can’t write to a BitLocker encrypted drive. While it would be nice to be able to write to the drive, the next paragraph shows why it may not be the best option with current generation hardware.

Windows RT can read external drives that have been encrypted with BitLocker, but this is something that is very resource intensive. The image bellow shows the incredibly high CPU utilisation across all four of the Tegra 3 cores while decrypting and copying the content, which is less CPU intensive than encrypting the files on the drive.

BitLocker CPU
Surface’s Tegra 3 CPU usage while copying files from a BitLocker encrypted drive. Ouch!

Security

This is a mixed bag, I like that Windows RT doesn’t blindly accept self signed certificates, and that I can use the same methods inside of Windows to import certificates I choose to trust. Where the story doesn’t hold up as well is that not all of the Windows 8 apps recognise these certificates. The Mail app for example, does use them, and it even tells you they are required. The Lync app, on the other hand, just doesn’t work. The solution here is don’t use self signed certificates apart from in testing or for some very specific scenarios, even if you have worked around their limitations in the past.

Windows Intune Company Portal

The Company Portal app for Windows 8 and Windows RT is the way that Windows Intune users can install new apps that have been published by their administrators. On Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows, these apps are available via a web page. Windows Intune can publish the application from the online service, or it can push users to the Windows Store via a deep link.

Surface Intune

Leverage Your Existing Windows Skills

This is both incredibly useful and incredibly frustrating at times, depending on what you are trying to do. As mentioned in the above, many of the tools and technologies that are available in Windows 8 are available in Windows RT. The frustration comes when you discover some of the subtle and not so subtle differences with Windows RT and the tools or features that you want aren’t there.

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