Microsoft Surface RT review, sort of in a context of Microsoft BI

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First, I have to explain why I am writing this review when so many websites have already covered the product – the only thing that I will cover that others haven’t is what features of Microsoft BI stack run on Surface and what don’t.

Let’s get through the bad stuff first. I don’t know if I should blame Microsoft for it or not, but somehow I had very high expectations for this device. Unfortunately, framing Surface as a work laptop replacement turned out to be a big mistake. Here are the details:

  1. Office:
    1. The Surface comes with the Office 2013 Preview preinstalled, however, after I went to the Control Panel and ran Windows Update, my version of office got upgraded to the retail version of the product. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this version of office supports neither PowerPivot nor PowerView. I can live with a lack of support for macros, but in this day and age, no PowerView is bad news since I expect that most of the new BI content will favor that technology over the more traditional pivot tables and charts
    2. Cube value functions are available, which is very exciting. There is still an option to create connections to Analysis Services, although I have not yet been able to test it out. Since there is no concept of domains and no ability to install a VPN client, I am still not clear how I would physically accomplish this (one workaround that may help is accessing the cube via a Data Pump), but what’s encouraging is that at least some BI features are available.
    3. Standard set of PivotCharts is still available
    4. There appears that out of the box, Excel has drivers to connect to SQL Server, Analysis Services and Oracle (!), again, this is something.
    5. No Add-ins support means that it is impossible to have MDS, PowerPivot and Data Mining features enabled
    6. SharePoint – first I wrote that it did not work, because I tried to use “Other Web Locations” option and got a bunch complaints about SilverLight (more on that later) and something about ActiveX not supported. However, after I selected “Computer” options and typed in the URL for a SharePoint site, I was able to log in and open an Excel file. This is very encouraging, although I am not getting to specify Excel Service options when I try to save the file back to SharePoint
    7. QuickExplore option is not available, this sucks.
    8. All of the now standard OLAP tools features are available, including writeback support and ability to create sets and calculated members, that is actually awesome
  2. SilverLight
    1. This is the biggest disappointment so far. I mean, yes it sucks not to have the new BI features available, but, SilverLight should have been there. It’s one thing to not be able to create PowerView reports (which obviously needs Silverlight), but it’s another not to be able to vew Powerview report from my SharePoint site… I was actually quite upset about that, this is almost a deal breaker for me. In fact I got so upset over this yesterday that I pretty much decided to return the Surface in the morning after I just bought it yesterday. Luckily, I decided to give it another chance today, but more on that later.
  3. SharePoint
    1. This is another piece of bad news for somebody who is trying to consume the BI related content using Surface as a touch only device. The experience for everything that requires Silverlight (Self Service Alerts in SSRS) or right click (Interacting with Performance Point reports) is downright maddening.

In short, generally speaking with few exceptions of occasional brilliance the Surface RT today is not a good choice to consume Microsoft BI content.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let me tell you why I decided not to return my Surface and am actually kida growing found of it.

The first thing that turned the tide was installing Lync. The version of Office that is bundled with the Surface has neither Lync nor Outlook. However I was able to download Lync from the Store and get it to work relatively quickly. Going through that exercise made me realize a few things. First and foremost, the Surface is not a laptop, therefore, expecting the legacy features to work simply does not make any sense. The right way to think about it is not in terms of what it does not do, but rather what and how it does what it in fact can do.

With respect to hardware I have to say that Surface is simply awesome. I will be the first to agree that it is a little bit on a heavy side and screen resolution could be improved. However, all of my negative experiences with the product were squarely on the software side. I am hardly the kind of the user that this product was meant to excite and delight, but the software features shortcomings aside, I have to admit I am excited and delighted with non-work related experience.

The TouchCover is amazing… I have written this review entirely on it. It is not anywhere close to the feel of a good traditional keyboard, but I have to say that the touch keyboard is completely usable. I am still struggling with the Space bar a little bit, but other than that I am typing on it almost as fast as I would on my office keyboard (and I am a very fast typist).. Microsoft says that it takes a few days to really get used to it, but I have to say that having done about an hour or so, I am sold, Surface is completely acceptable as a content creation device at least for typing. The arrow keys are also usable.

The mouse pad on the Touch Cover is also not bad. I think that having a touch screen along with a touch pad will take a little bit of getting used to but overall, I have to say that as long as the content can be rendered by Surface (remember Silverlight?) it does a very good job consuming it, definitely, runs circles around iPad.

So, it had to come out at some point I guess, and it just did. How does Surface compare to iPad? Well that’s actually very easy, all of the things that made me upset about the Surface are the same things that do not work on the iPad as well. The Surface even with all its software shortcomings literally runs circles around iPad with respect to content creation capabilities. The obvious issues is not having some of the key apps available in the Store and not all available apps run on the RT version of windows 8 (Google Search for example is not yet available on RT) but I don’t think anybody doubts this problem will go away very soon.

So to summarize, I think the Surface will find its place in my long list of gadgets that I use on a daily basis.

3 comments on “Microsoft Surface RT review, sort of in a context of Microsoft BI”

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