The Surface RT – A Story of Tech Heartbreak

Jul 18, 2013 by

Everyone has a heartbreak story. It might be that pretty girl in third grade, who you picked on all the time during recess, but only because you loved her. Maybe it was your high school sweetheart, who dumped you right before heading off to college.

No matter who, or when, heartbreak sticks with you. You never forget it. It leaves scars, sometimes right at the surface (no pun intended), sometimes buried deep down, sometimes it only flares up when you hear that one Air Supply song (what, everyone listens to Air Supply, don’t lie).

If you’re a technology lover, then likely you know a different kind of heartbreak – tech heartbreak. This is the type of heartbreak known only to us early adopters. The ones who already preordered the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One.

We’re the people who watch product announcements live on the Web, despite already knowing before the announcement that we’re ordering whatever it is that’s being announced.

But there’s a dark side to that impetuousness. Sure, occasionally you get to show off new hardware to jealous friends or family. But what they don’t know is that hiding just beneath the sheen of pride you wear while displaying your new tech is a story. A story of excitement, anticipation, adoration, denial, and ultimately, heartbreak.

For me, that story is of my relationship with the Microsoft Surface RT.

I remember watching the announcement event live. Thinking how amazing it was that Microsoft actually managed to pull off a surprise announcement in this fashion. Stunned by the brilliance of the keyboard/cover. Wondering why (to this date still) Apple never put a USB port in an iPad. The kickstand, the angular, aggressive design, the promise of “no compromises”, and the realization that Microsoft designed something that looked like it belonged on the list of tech elite devices. It was (and still is) a drop-dead gorgeous piece of kit.

Even after hearing the announcement of the price – a too-high $499 starting point – it didn’t matter. I was hooked, a fool in love. I was already picturing myself strutting about town with this beautiful specimen on my arm. Nothing was going to stop me from ordering one of these when they first came out.

And so, even as people questioned the performance of the devices based on their specs, I waited for pre-orders to start, and I put myself out there. I saw that pretty girl across the bar, and I was going to give her my best line. Unlike the bar scenario, however, there was no chance she would say “no”.

I checked my order multiple times a day, like a hopeless romantic checking his phone, hoping for another text or email from the object of his affection. And soon enough, there it was, the line every tech-lover wants to read: “Out for Delivery”. It was all I could muster to not leave work that minute and sit on the porch waiting for it to arrive.

After repeated calls home to assure myself it had, indeed, arrived and was in the house, I finally made it home. There she was, just waiting to be opened. It just so happened we had people over that night, so I got to share in the unboxing with a friend. I was breathless, impatient (did the box need this much tape?), out of my mind. I couldn’t open it fast enough. When I finally got my hands on it, I just held it for a few minutes. Kind of like that first time holding hands with a new love, after you work up the courage to finally shuffle your fingers across that movie theater arm rest and grasp the hand of your date, and she squeezes back – ever so slightly – you know you’ve made it. You’re in.

For the first few weeks, it was all doe-eyes and sweet talk. The Surface RT came with me everywhere I went. Work, meetings, neighbors, the bathroom (we all do it, don’t act surprised). I couldn’t stand being apart from it. We were joined at the hip. It was the first device I ever owner that simply made me want to use it because of how well built and good looking it was.

But soon enough, the REAL Surface RT started showing its face – no make-up, wearing sweatpants, and giving a glimpse of what life with it was really going to be like.

In a relationship, the first time you get a hint of trouble, the first response is to deny it, write it off as a one-time thing. Soon your friends are telling you they see trouble. “You don’t know her like I do,” you reply. You continue to ignore the signs despite the mounting evidence that something bad is brewing.

For me, the Surface RT started showing its ugly side within the first few weeks. Battery life was miserable, discharging at a meteoric rate overnight. “I’m sure a Windows Update will fix this” I kept saying. But then soon enough, my Surface RT started reporting that it didn’t even have a battery. Something that was impossible because it was built in to the device.

Before I knew it, the display started to freak out in weird and wondrous ways. Still I was in denial. I contacted support, figuring all I needed was a replacement unit. I focused on the major issues while ignoring the fact that performance was lackluster. That IE was a disaster (just try going to a few web pages, and then hitting the back button. Still waiting for the page to load? Exactly.) That video performance in many apps was bad enough to render them borderline useless. I thought a replacement unit would fix all that ailed us. This was my “define the relationship” moment.

But the conversation did NOT go well. Despite talking to some of the nicest, most patient and polite customer service people I’ve ever dealt with, the replacement process was a mess. It took weeks to even get the order processed, before I could even order the replacement.

Finally the new device arrived, just before New Year. It was the morning after our first fight. Everything was fixed, or so I thought.

But this time, without the battery and screen woes to mask them, the other issues took center stage. Soon it became clear, this relationship was in trouble.

By springtime, when love it supposed to be in the air, the relationship was – at best – tenuous. The modern version of Internet Explorer crashed with more regularity than a four-year-old coming off a sugar high. The video performance never improved (seriously, try to watch a game on the MLB.com app, it’s impossible). And soon enough, the battery issues returned (though not as bad as the first time). Various other issues crept in and put things on life-support. Finally, it came time for a last-ditch effort to fix the relationship – a restore.

But even that Hail Mary play refused to be run. Despite following the Microsoft-provided instructions for deleting the recovery partition and putting it on a USB stick, my Surface RT refused to refresh or restore. It was back to Microsoft Support for a new device.

The writing was on the wall, we both knew what this relationship was. And despite this second return process running smoothly, at this point we were both just being nice. This relationship had no real future.

The new device came, along with some last-ditch feelings of excitement that maybe, just maybe, this time it would be different. But that feeling quickly disappeared. Even after putting Windows 8.1 on it (which helped, but only slightly), it was not to be. That IE is among the worst apps is a shame, and something Microsoft NEEDS to fix. But that’s not the only blemish. At times, despite having a charged battery, the device simply won’t power on unless it’s plugged in to the wall. It’s clear: the Surface RT and I have an expiration date, and it’s rapidly approaching.

This is NOT an indictment of Windows RT. There was only one time in our relationship I found myself wishing for a desktop app (Vudu) and that has been solved by Paramount’s app adding Ultraviolet support. I don’t need iTunes, Photoshop, or any other desktop app on a tablet. In my opinion, the grenades lobbed at Windows RT have been shortsighted and hypocritical.

I still believe, had the hardware lived up to billing, I can get WAY more done in Windows RT than I could with an iPad. And even in this late state of our relationship, I still use the Surface daily and ignore my iPad. I know the complaints: more apps, better apps, fix Xbox Music. I don’t disagree with them.

But apps can get better, this hardware is what it is. Not good enough, not even with a $150 price drop. It’s not anything I would get down on one knee and offer to spend my life with.

We haven’t broken up. I’ve cheated more times than I care to admit with our new Samsung Series 7 Ultratouch (an AWESOME Ultrabook), and had a brief fling with the thought of a Surface Pro, but I still find myself going home to the Surface RT every night. But really, we are more roommates than anything else now. There’s no spark anymore.

In the end, the Surface RT has beauty but no brawn. It’s the sports car that looks amazing, and begs to be driven, but every time you take it out you remember the gas mileage stinks, it’s uncomfortable, and it keeps breaking down.

I hold out hope that the Surface RT 2 will fix these issues (I know, we’ve been down this road before). Matched with proper performance, Windows RT is everything and more that you need for a tablet OS. The fact that most other RT devices have near identical specs means it’s likely the issues lie in hardware and not software.

And when the announcement of the next generation of Surface hardware comes along, I’ll be there watching live on my laptop (not my Surface RT because video performance, remember), and the process will likely start all over again. This time, however, hopefully there will be a happy ever after.

 

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  • jpollarddmz

    Great article Phil! I’ve felt most of the same emotions as you with my Surface RT. I’m not sure that I could so beautifully describe the point at which we are now. I still adore my Surface RT. I still use it every day, despite having a Surface Pro now. Fortunately I haven’t had any of the weird hardware issues that you have. Of course there is still the performance issue. I’m left wondering daily “what could this have been with a much better processor?”

  • http://davepermen.net davepermen

    I always wished it to be atom based, not arm based. as the first atom win8 tablets came out, they proved my fear: arm is slower, and, obviously, lacks backwards compatibility.

    if there would be an atom based surface, same price, i know so many people having one by now.

    they all need that one or two apps. be it itunes, or something else. and they all need good-enough performance. which typically, the atom-win8 tablets deliver (better than the arm ones, at least).

    i’d have promoted it to everyone. i’d have one, or two, myself. and i’d love each.

    i now (finally) have the surface pro, and love it. i look beyond it’s flaws, waiting for 2.0 to fix it. but gladly, the stuff it can do, it does exceptionally well. so, unlike in your case, the flaws are only minor things.

    i felt the same emotions for the RT, without ever owning one. i always looked at it from afar, got close to each i saw live somewhere. i always was amazed at it’s build quality, and wanted to take it with me. i knew it’s not a good idea, and i have to wait for pro to deliver what i need. but till today, i love the rt for what it is. but i look at it now, seeing it fade into past without ever having “it’s time” for me. and it makes me sad.

    can’t wait for the 2.0 for both.

  • TaylorLing

    Wow, I must say I have the exact same story as yours. I believed in Windows RT (particularly in Surface RT), but the battery life really let me down (I don’t have this problem with my iPad previously). I am a designer and I need Photoshop, but I convinced myself I can do the design draft in Powerpoint, but due to the bad battery life, it wasn’t there for me when I need it. And the new IE in W8.1 RT Preview? You can never imagine how their development team is breaking the UX of RT users. I understand it is a preview version but if it wasn’t ready for preview, just don’t release it.

    Never ever been so let down by a gadget before – I must say I am regretted at this moment.