Does the Surface (RT) make sense for kids and homework?
September 30, 2013 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering a Microsoft Surface (the cheaper one with Windows RT) for basic productivity work, but it's been so maligned that I'm scared of it even though it seems to make sense.

My wife is working on her graduate degree, and my kids are all in high school / junior high, so there's a lot of internet research and writing going on, all of which could be accomplished with a browser and MS Office. (They're pretty much all comfortable with the Windows environment; trying an iPad, Mac, or any Linux variation would cause a revolt. I pushed Open Office a couple of years ago and everyone hated me.)

I know that Windows RT is pretty limited, but I don't really care. I'm looking for a familiar platform that isn't too expensive and allows internet browsing and Office. All in all, a surface RT sounds perfect.

However, the whole platform has been so negatively received that I'm really wary of plunking down the money. Is there some negative I'm overlooking? Anyone have experience with WinRT?
posted by Ickster to Computers & Internet (25 answers total)
Difficult to answer without more information about why you think a tablet would meet your needs.
posted by pipeski at 11:45 AM on September 30, 2013

The Surface 2 (aka Surface RT 2) was just announced. Skip the original, and get the new one. It's faster and gets much better battery life.

(Side note)Also, WinRT is something completely different, which will only cause confusion if you google it.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:48 AM on September 30, 2013

Best answer: What about a Chromebook with Microsoft Web Apps/SkyDrive for Word access? A surface still doesn't have a real keyboard (even the one built into the expensive cover is not the same thing as typing on a real keyboard). That would be a different operating environment, but not like going to an iPad or a Mac.
posted by brainmouse at 11:52 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why not a cheap desktop PC? Is a portable solution really what's required?
posted by Coffeemate at 11:54 AM on September 30, 2013

Best answer: I've only worked with a Surface Pro but since Windows 8 RT is sort of like a second OS on top of Windows 8 I've gotten a pretty good taste of what you can do with it.

Most of the negative feedback comes from the lack of apps and it is a VERY valid complaint. There isn't even an official Facebook app (but there are a ton of Facebook ++ double good apps by third parties wanting $1.99).

In terms of working productively in the Metro interface only you can have two apps snapped on the screen at once but you won't have a lot of real estate to work with. So that means flipping back and forth between browser and Word (which is, admittedly, pretty fun). But it is doable.

The other issue is the keyboard. Even if you get the expensive keyboard cover it really isn't the same - you'd at least want to hook up a USB keyboard, maybe a mouse if you get a USB hub.

On preview, perhaps a Chromebook might be more what you're looking for? Unless consistency with Word formatting is really important.
posted by charred husk at 11:56 AM on September 30, 2013

Oh, also, the IE10 that comes with Windows 8 RT doesn't support Java. So if your kids are using Blackboard at school that would also be a problem.
posted by charred husk at 11:58 AM on September 30, 2013

Best answer: I know that Windows RT is pretty limited, but I don't really care. I'm looking for a familiar platform that isn't too expensive and allows internet browsing and Office. All in all, a surface RT sounds perfect.

Do you spend a lot of time in Windows 8? If "Windows" for you means XP/Vista/7, the interface in RT is going to be a weird freakish alien thing that will confuse the crap out of you. It's not a familiar platform at all to most of the longtime Windows users who've tried it.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:58 AM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A Chromebook might be a valid option; I am looking for something portable because there's limited work space in the house with four people doing homework simultaneously.

the interface in RT is going to be a weird freakish alien thing

That's actually a really good point. For some reason, I'd forgotten about 8. I've tried both 8 and the 8.1 RC in virtual machines and they drove me nuts. That'd probably be a deal-breaker for my wife in particular.
posted by Ickster at 12:17 PM on September 30, 2013

My kids both have tablets, and they both use their desktops exclusively for homework. You can read on a tablet just fine, but I can't imagine doing any sort of typing beyond an email on one. I know MS has a keyboard available for the Surface, but it is going to be sufficient for typing a paper?
posted by COD at 12:28 PM on September 30, 2013

That's actually a really good point. For some reason, I'd forgotten about 8. I've tried both 8 and the 8.1 RC in virtual machines and they drove me nuts. That'd probably be a deal-breaker for my wife in particular.

On the other hand, the Modern interface (that's it's name...) isn't going anywhere and the world of Win7 isn't coming back. So, the tablet might be a good intro to something that's going to be around for a while, and a touchscreen is the best possible environment for Win8.x.
posted by The Michael The at 12:41 PM on September 30, 2013

Win 8 is crazymaking. Chromebook requires a little adjustment but may be a better option.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:43 PM on September 30, 2013

You can use a bluetooth keyboard with the Surface tablets if you end up going with one. Put the cost of the expensive cover toward a real (or real-ish) keyboard. I use a Bluetooth keyboard with my Ipad and Google docs on occasion. I can't stand the Google docs (or iCloud) word processor though compared to MS Word, but the keyboard works fine.
posted by sevenless at 1:04 PM on September 30, 2013

A tablet should work fine - but Microsoft has a habit of dropping support for products that are less than runaway hits, plus it was the baby of a CEO who's just left the building. My concern with the Surface tablet would be that they will stop support it in the next few months - while it will continue to work fine after being discontinued, no ongoing security updates would be a concern for me.

Tablets are fundamentally weird to the desktop experience, no matter which platform you settle on. I would choose an Android laptop from a "big name" (Google Nex, Samsung, Asus) or an Apple iPad - play with a few examples, and see which ecosystem feels "right" for you. That's the biggest determinant for your application - a web-browser appliance.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:24 PM on September 30, 2013

I have a Surface RT (I work for Microsoft, but I bought it for myself) and an iPad mini, and my boyfriend uses a Nexus 7 and a mini laptop running Ubuntu. The (expensive) Type Cover I got for my surface is way better than the bluetooth keyboard he has for his Nexus - the (default/cheaper) Touch Cover I got at first didn't stand up to sustained typing, my fingers got sore. The extra width of the device, although it makes it annoying to hold while standing on a bus (hence the mini) means that the keyboard is closer to regular size which is a relief - I have done a significant amount of typing in Word docs on mine, and for a while when my main PC had some power issues I used it as my default machine at home (using a bluetooth mouse).

The Surface feels basically designed for web surfing and Office docs - they can run either in Modern mode or on the normal desktop (even on the cheaper Surface), where they look and act pretty much the same as on Windows 7 IMO. There will be some adjustment from Windows 7, but if you can handle the switch to a Chromebook then you can handle the switch from 7 to 8.

My concern with the Surface tablet would be that they will stop support it in the next few months - while it will continue to work fine after being discontinued, no ongoing security updates would be a concern for me.
It runs Windows 8, I'm pretty sure security updates aren't stopping anytime in this decade.
posted by jacalata at 1:30 PM on September 30, 2013

If budget is a serious issue, then the Surface RT might be a good option. However, Windows RT as an operating system is kind of dead in the water. Right now, no one but Microsoft is making anything with Windows RT.

My recommendation would be to buy a tablet running Intel's "Bay Trail" chip. It will be *MUCH* faster than Windows RT, it runs a full version of Windows including all Windows apps, and size, weight and battery life will be similar to the Surface RT. They're also making "Bay Trail" tablets with detachable keyboard docks, so it can function both as a tablet and a laptop. The downside is that you pay more. However, I'd say that even on a very tight budget, you're better off spending the extra $100-$150 on the Bay Trail tablet.
posted by cnc at 1:37 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It runs Windows 8, I'm pretty sure security updates aren't stopping anytime in this decade.

Further, with the improvements and upgrades of the Surface 2 that was just released it really seems like MS is far more committed to the success of the Surface line than to prior devices (the Kin, for example).
posted by The Michael The at 1:38 PM on September 30, 2013

I like SkyDrive and wished more people would use it (I also use Google Docs at work). The SkyDrive web apps work really well (even better if you have a 365 subscription), so a Chromebook would seem to do the trick.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:15 PM on September 30, 2013

I ended up getting a Chromebook, but I really wish I had gone for the Surface tablet instead. I needed something for word processing, browsing, and watching netflix, and Google docs doesn't work as well for me as Word. There are so many little things missing, things that I didn't even know I used until they were gone. And it has been driving me crazy that I can't just plug a printer in and print.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:37 PM on September 30, 2013

If tablet use is for a table or desk with a Windows kickstand and touch cover, then just get better performance with a regular notebook. That is essentially what that use describes.

If tablet use will be away from a desk, then ANYTHING but Windows RT is better. If you look at the news stories, Windows RT days are numbered. It does not make sense for Microsoft to support the RT operating system when nobody is using it. (And based on the $900 million write-off Microsoft recently announced, and the loss of all third party manufacturers, people are not buying it either.) Their marketshare is minimal at best and it is frequently returned when people realize it is not compatible with any other Windows software.

Go for anything Android or iOS. Deal with the patent and security issues of Android or the closed garden approach of Apple. Either are better and a wiser purchase than Windows RT.

If a Windows tablet ~is~ needed, upgrade from RT to Pro and a standard version of Windows 8.
posted by Leenie at 2:39 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that Google recently acquired Quickoffice (an Android office suite that opens/edits MS Office documents), integrated it with Google Drive, and is now giving it away for free. So Android has got that going for it.
posted by kindall at 2:45 PM on September 30, 2013

You can get pretty affordable laptops for the same price. No touchscreen but real keyboard works for me.
posted by Mom at 11:07 AM on October 1, 2013

Hah, missed this. Posting for anyone else running across this.

I have a Surface RT. It's plain misunderstood, not to mention MS's own marketing killed it early. The vast majority of people who diss it never owned it and those who did try it only tried for a couple hours before giving up. What the above people failed to mention is that the complaints about Windows 8 come from the desktop user section: Win8/RT makes a lot more sense in tablet form. The ONLY really change was, believe it or not, changing the Start Menu to Start Screen. With tiles. That's it! Tiles are infinitely better to work with on a touchscreen. There, end of story.

The Surface requires a keyboard purchase to "make sense." It cannot be compared to the iPad in any way besides the "walled garden" OS, because it's so much more functional than an iPad. Which I also have, but gave away.

The lack of apps is NOT a valid complaint unless all you do is play app games. The killer app on any WinRT device is MS Office, and all students will need that. I personally require Track Changes. The only thing that might be an issue is whether these students require the more advanced features in the Office RT bundle, and the vast majority never will.

Someone whined about the lack of Facebook app. This is why Windows RT, unlike iOS or Android, comes with a fully functional web browser (IE10 with flash). Though it doesn't support Java. You can stream just about anything in IE10 just fine.

Surface RT and the upcoming Surface 2 are the perfect student tablet-hybrids. Most people who are just blind Apple/Google fanatics, though, won't admit that MS actually designed something really cool as a first generation device (though MS shot themselves in the foot with the marketing, again).

You should read the actual user reviews and not the "official" reviews that tried to compare to iPad. "There are so many more apps on iOS!" Irrelevant for students, sorry. You can dismiss all the ones that whine about not being able to install their own applications--that was kind of the point. You get 9-plus hours in a sitting doing actual productive work and don't have to worry about viruses and malware ever.
posted by Ky at 7:01 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Ky. I have a Dell Latitude 10 with full blown Windows 8 Pro as opposed to the RT version, and I think it would probably be a great student device. I love that I can use it as an iPad-like tablet, and then also use it as a normal desktop PC. A lack of "apps" can be a problem, but that will only improve over time.

Things that I LOVE about it:

- I installed my ancient Office 2003 on it and it works great. I can install any other modern application onto it I want. (The only thing it won't do is old (OLD!) 16 bit programs.)

- It has a USB port that I can plug a flash drive into for moving around files. HUGE productivity booster.

- With same USB port, you can plug it into a printer and print your documents.

- Since it is real Windows, it has a full networking stack. You can map drives and print to network printers.

- Though I haven't tried it, I can allegedly boot into an alternate OS (linux) with a flash drive.

- The on screen keyboard is really nice. The only time I miss a real keyboard is when I need to do annoying data-entry things. Those kinds of full screen apps where you need to look at the app, and then open the keyboard, and then close the keyboard, etc. But that's fairly rare, and easy enough to just plod through when a keyboard isn't around.

- When I need to do desktop style work, I have a $39 wireless USB keyboard + mouse combo that works perfectly. I'm sure bluetooth would work fine as well, but I'm too cheap to buy a BT keyboard and mouse.

- You can run all the standard dropbox and skydrive and google drive file sharing apps natively. What I did was map my relevant C:\users\USERNAME folders into a Skydrive folder on both my desktop and my tablet. (Nearly) instant synching of my favorites, documents, downloads, etc. onto the cloud drive. If I favorite a page on my desktop, it shows up on the tablet within seconds. (And it's not some app or service that will break, it's just sharing the favorites folder) If the tablet dies in a fire, I lose nothing.

- The Microsoft Live account (or whatever they call it) works pretty well if you buy into the idea of it.

My next "real" computer may well be something like a Core i5 full-size tablet with a foldable keyboard case. Plug it into a full size monitor and keyboard when I want to sit at a desk and work.

Windows 8 isn't perfect, but no operating system is. It took me a little time to re-learn some habits when switching to it, and to learn the "language" of the OS. But it would have taken me just as long, or longer, to learn Android or iOS. To be honest, I don't use the Metro Apps very often because they are kind of limited. But the nice thing about that is that I CAN use the desktop versions of the applications and it works just fine. I can't think of anything I haven't been able to do with it.

TL;DR - If you buy a non-RT version with an x86 processor, it's not just a tablet that can do some computer things. It's a computer that can also do tablet things. Instead of giving the kid a phone, iPad and computer, you give them an iPhone and a Win8 tablet and they can do everything they need or want to do. One less device to manage/break/lose. PERFECT for student use, IMHO.
posted by gjc at 4:25 AM on October 2, 2013

Leaving for posterity.

An interesting analysis of Surface and how biases never gave it a chance. All the people who recommended different products without even trying a Surface are just sad fanboys. :)
posted by Ky at 1:50 PM on November 30, 2013

Much the same things were said of the Apple Newton by its staunchest supporters, and even it's best examplar, the MessagePad 2100, failed completely to address the the "unfair" criticisms. iOS is the Newton done right, blasting out of the water issues with form factor, sync and data input, and everyone, including the hoariest die-hard eMate owner, knows it.

Microsoft is likewise unwilling to learn from its critics, and is instead doubling down, and it now has new hardware from Asus and Nokia that isn't setting the world afire, despite being really, really nice hardware. I'd avoid the ecosystem, and stick to Google or Apple. Those companies have a clear vision for the direction of their platforms, and the developer and user support to get there. Alternatively, just get a tablet or convertible PC running Windows 8.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:57 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

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