There’s a lot of excitement, both positive and negative, about the new Microsoft Surface RT tablet. I thought I’d add to the noise.
Disclaimer and background: I’ve been an iPad user since they came out, and cling to my personal iPhone 4 even though I also have a Samsung Focus S Windows phone as my business line, as well as for better integration with my work Outlook mail and calendars. I’ve currently got the “New” iPad (which is no longer the newest iPad), with a Verizon 4G plan. Great device, even if it’s not so great for my work with Office docs. But that’s ok, my tablet really is more for consumption than creation. I also have a Verizon MIFI 4G hotspot, which predates the iPad, and doesn’t get much use, but it’s in my bag for when I need it.
When I read the specs for the Surface RT I was initially underwhelmed. Here are the key factors I thought would keep me from liking it as a business device (mind you, my iPad does just fine for my non-business use):
- Low-resolution screen (I hated netbooks for the same reason) useless to me for real work at 1366×768 unless hooked to an external monitor. When you live in SQL Server Management Studio or Visual Studio, less than 900 vertical pixels just sucks.
- Limited storage – even with an external SD card, the native Windows Video and Music apps won’t “see” media files on the external card without some opaque sorcery (sorcery to be described separately). To play a video from the card, you need to change to desktop mode and browse to the file, opening it from Windows Explorer. Hardly seamless, and though that’s a limitation of Windows 7/8 libraries, not the RT, it would be very annoying on a tablet. Desktop Windows Explorer is painful with a touch interface. And without a Dropbox RT app, I wouldn’t be able to conveniently get to all the stuff I need on any machine I’m using. Even the iPad has Dropbox access from apps like GoodReader and Dropbox.
- Limited memory – I keep a virtual machine with a SQL Server BI and SharePoint environment running almost all the time. I’ve been a VMWare Workstation user since the late 90s, but with the arrival of Hyper-v in Windows 8, I’m all Hyper-v now, all the time. This wasn’t going to happen on a Surface, not even on a Pro, unless I can add a LOT of RAM to the Pro.
- Lack of a full Office suite. Outlook is critical to me. Windows Mail can connect to my corporate Office365 account, but it’s minimally useful.
I figured I’d pass on the RT, and back-burner the whole idea until the Pro was due. But I chewed on it some more. I realized that the Surface Pro, for quite a bit more money, was still going to have the display, space and memory limitations of the RT, even though it would be more flexible in terms of allowing a greater range of applications to run on it. I couldn’t see myself using even a Surface Pro as a desktop/laptop replacement.
What was I looking for? I really wanted a lightweight backup machine for presentations, in case my ThinkPad failed. (My ThinkPad T420, as great a machine as it is, has eaten quite a few primary drives, once doing so 2 days before I left for a 10-long trip to Indonesia.) I want something very lightweight that can be there in a pinch to help me successfully deliver a class or presentation. Let’s be honest: it’s gonna spend more time in Season 4 of “The West Wing” than it is in Word.
My presentations and classes for SolidQ need two things: the ability to display PowerPoint decks (those I create and those provided for courses I teach), and the ability to run demos within a virtual machine. For example, last month I taught an online two-week class (Designing BI Report Solutions with SQL Server 2012 Reporting Services and SharePoint 2010) using GotoWebinar (for sharing of my decks and demos in a local VM), and using VMs hosted in Windows Azure for the student labs. Worked great, though I always miss the face-to-face energy of an in-person class.
Could I do that with a tablet? The subset of Office 2013 which ships with the Surface RT includes PowerPoint. With a Remote Desktop app on a tablet, I could theoretically connect to a hosted VM (I knew the x64 version of the Windows 8 desktop RDP client was just fine at connecting to VMs in Windows Azure; shouldn’t the RT version be able to do so?). With enough time and planning, I can build my own Hyper-v VMs locally, sysprep them, and upload them to Azure storage for later use in the VM role.
So I pre-ordered the Surface RT with the Type Cover, plus the dongles for VGA and HDMI output. The Surface arrived on a Friday, I left for my first trip on Saturday. I’d barely set up the Surface RT before I left, putting the slides and PDFs for my next several classes, as well as some TV episodes on it. I played with it on the 7-hour flight from Denver to Honolulu, enjoying the long battery life and the wide screen for watching TV. (It took me way too long to find the notch for easily opening the kickstand; I might have broken a nail prying it open.) I did not like the lack of integration between the Movies app and the external storage, nor the apparently inability to detect the season and episode numbers for the video files. Displaying them alpabetically or by date added were the only choices, which was annoying.
GET TO THE POINT
Here’s where the Surface earned its keep. I was teaching a 5 day class at a minimally-equipped customer facility: ethernet only (no visitor wireless access), a 1024×768 VGA projector, no additional display for me (which limits my use of PowerPoint presenter mode). Fine, I’ve done a million of those. The ThinkPad gets the ethernet and connects to the projector, presenter pointer in one USB slot, mouse receiver in another. I’m ready to go for slides and Hyper-v demos. I set up the Surface on the side as a PowerPoint teleprompter, so I see where I am in the presentation and what’s coming up next. The MIFI hotspot comes out of the bag and provides the net connection to the Surface. Fine and dandy for day 1.
Day 2: disaster strikes. 15 minutes before class will start, the ThinkPad won’t wake up. Moments go by, and it throws the dreaded “Drive not recognized” error. My SSD has shuffled off this mortal coil. (happily the SSD only held the OS and Programs – course docs, base images for all my VMs, etc., are on the second drive in the CD-ROM bay). I’m screwed. Students (wonderfully arrayed in aloha shirts – I’m in IT geek shirt heaven) are filtering in, unaware of my impending doom.
And then I remember the tablet sitting next to me. Ok, it has the slides and PDFs. I can even plug the presenter clicker into the single USB port. I hook the Surface to the projector with the dongle (really glad I have it now), plug in the presenter clicker, but can’t use the mouse. Teaching with touch? I guess we’ll see. What about the VMs? (My courses are very demo-heavy, as I don’t believe in death-by-PowerPoint). I head to the Azure management portal. I can’t use the Ethernet connection, but MIFI to the rescue. I have a Windows Azure account, and while I don’t have any capability to upload a sysprepped VHD from the tablet, especially over 4G, there are templates I can choose from to provision and launch.
One more little twist. This is a custom session based on SQL Server 2008 Integration Services, followed by a couple of days of Reporting Services 2008 R2, including Enterprise features.
Azure only offers a template for SQL Server 2012. Rats.
What about Amazon Web Services? I’d screwed around with AWS before, though certainly not to the depth to which my friend Lynn Langit (b|t) knows it. They too, have templates. Including one for a Standard Edition SQL Server 2008 VM. I pretend I know exactly what I’m doing as I quickly spelunk my way through the AWS screens (it turns out I initially grabbed an under-spec’d VM, but limped along until the morning break, when I traded it in for a template with more RAM)
Five minutes later, I have my SQL Server 2008 VM provisioned, have the encryption keys and Administrator password generated, and my RDP session is underway. Whew. Five minutes after that, the VM is pulling my course content and a copy of ZoomIt from my Dropbox account, it’s now 8:30am, and class is starting on schedule.
I’m teaching from the Surface RT, and I can barely tell that I’m not on my ThinkPad. Even across the 4G MIFI connection, the RDP session to the VM is smooth as silk.
I didn’t plan this test, and I certainly didn’t welcome it, but the Surface just earned its keep, for exactly the use case I’d considered. A one-pound backup presentation device.
The only laptop drive on the shelf at the Honolulu BestBuy went into the ThinkPad that night in my hotel room. I installed Windows 8 and Office 2013 from a flash drive, re-enabled the Hyper-v role, and allowed the Thinkpad to resume its primary duty on Wednesday to finish the week. The Surface went back to being a dedicated West Wing display device. I’ll deal with the RMA process when I get off the road next. I got my bill for ~$30 in usage charges from AWS later in the week. That is $30 I don’t mind paying.