Tech Day – Checking Out the iPad mini and Microsoft Surface RT

Last weekend my buddy Matt and I visited some local tech stores. A few big companies (you might have heard of them) announced a flurry of new gadgets last week and we wanted to poke and prod them to see what all the fuss was about. One in particular intrigued me. Read on to see how the day went.

Our first stop was the Apple Store. We felt compelled (being past and present Apple geeks) to check out the iPad mini. As usual, the store was packed and it was challenging finding an open spot to grab one. Once I managed to elbow my way to the display table and picked one up, I instantly adored it. As lots and lots of pundits have already attested, the build quality and weight are the first things that hit you. I already began imagining myself with one in bed (reading NEWS…) as my fiancé and I watch our evening dose of The Golden Girls. The screen resolution, while standard at 1024×768, was not Retina quality and didn’t matter to me as much as I thought it would. Those reading this know me to be an Apple evangelist at times, though I try to keep my mind open, so my impression of the iPad mini comes with hefty bias. Suffice to say, the Mini is a solid device and fills out the “small tablet” mantra nicely.

Matt was more interested in the new Retina Macbook Pros. His tablet needs were already fulfilled by an Amazon Kindle Fire. A rooted Amazon Kindle Fire, which entertains me every time I think about it.

After we had our fill of the Apple glaze, we headed over to the Microsoft Store just a few suites down. This had been my second time in a Microsoft Store, and this time there were lots more people around for the Surface launch. Still, the ratio of employee to customer was slanted to the employee, so there were lots of people staring at us.

Through quick and polite evasion I dodged two Microsoft Store sales guys and sat myself down in front of a Surface RT. I looked it over and scrutinized every detail: the Touch Cover, the kickstand, the magnesium frame, the lack of security cabling. When I noticed this, I took a few steps away from the table. No one gunned me down. I assumed this had to be a mistake, so I waved a nearby employee over and asked if they were concerned someone would walk off with one. With a none-too-subtle slight to the folks a few stores up, he quipped “We absolutely trust our customers.” Right.

I went back to tinkering. The first thing I attempted to do was send an email. I tapped the Windows key on the Touch Cover and up came the Metro interface (I refuse to say ‘Windows 8-style UI’ as Microsoft is now forced to do). I scanned for the Mail app and launched it with the track pad on the Touch Cover – so far so good. When it came down to actually composing and sending an email, things got murky. Finding the buttons to edit, close or even save an email was difficult, and using the trackpad to click them seemed impractical because the buttons were far away from one another. Using the track pad, which in all respects is tiny, got tedious with multiple swipes to get where I needed to go. So, thinking I was doing the right thing with a touch tablet, I ditched the keyboard cover and dived into the touch screen. This turned out to be a far worse experience.

The Surface screen is so wide! That 16:9 aspect ratio is ridiculous for such a large tablet: it makes holding it in landscape awkward, especially with one hand. I ended up tabling the device in my left palm, using my right hand to tap buttons and type text. Then I attempted to execute a well known tablet use case: typing on the touchscreen on one’s lap. The kickstand didn’t open in such a way that I could prop up the device at a 45 degree angle for my wrists, so the device laid flat on my lap. This felt slightly more comfortable than using the Touch Cover as I could more easily tap buttons, etc, but it still felt a little weird.

As I navigated the rest of the Metro apps, I tried using the device in several orientations and tested multitasking – overall trying to get a better picture about how the device works. I have to go back to that aspect ratio- 16:9 sucks for such a big tablet. Metro apps in portrait mode look disgusting and I honestly thought some of the apps were incomplete because they didn’t make full use of the screen in that orientation. Transitions between apps felt sputtery, network connections were slow (wtf), and the built-in Office apps were all in Beta as Surface RT is NOT running x86 architecture. It’s running on ARM, which is a first for Microsoft. The whole experience felt messy; and I thought back to the security cable: Maybe they do want people to walk away with these things. 

Matt spent most of his time getting a demo of Windows 8 on a few new PCs. He enjoyed himself.

Now, the Surface isn’t all bad – there are some nifty things about it. There IS a desktop mode, wherein lies a full-on Windows Explorer. This is a big leg up against the iPad because it gives Surface a native file system with which to manage downloaded content from IE. Explorer also has few cool additions. The biggest improvement included checkboxes for file selection. This makes it far easier to maintain selected items in a list when moving files from one location to another. No more accidental left clicks ruining your day!

I walked away from the Surface RT table and strolled the rest of the store. There were no Windows Phone 8 devices on display, which disappointed me. While I have reservations about the Windows 8 Metro interface, I find it brilliant on a mobile device. Maybe we’ll get one at work to play around with. When Matt finished up with his demo we walked out and discussed our thoughts.

I kept comparing everything I observed about the Surface to my experiences with the iPad. I think this might be why I had such a hard time working with the Metro interface – there were no gradients to indicate tappable buttons and the overall flat nature of the UI felt foreign to me. I know having been entrenched in iOS for so long slants my criticism; but I was hoping that the Surface, a ‘revolutionary’ and ‘intuitive’ device, would find a way to make things work more fluidly. For now, it does not.

And I bought an iPad mini.

Feel free to comment with your own thoughts. We didn’t get a chance to look at the new Nexus devices from Google, so any neat things about those would be cool.

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