Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry

Is it a laptop or a tablet? The Surface makes a valiant attempt at being both -- but leaves you yearning for one or the other

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I noticed a bug in Mail: When you first try to use Mail, it crashes on launch. And it keeps doing so. The fix is to open Calendar first and set up your account. I thought the issue might be related to one of Mail's biggest flaws -- its lack of support for POP email accounts -- because my Microsoft account's email address is tied to a POP email account, but I had the exact same problem on a full Windows 8 laptop joined to my corporate domain and not my Microsoft account. There too I had to set up Calendar before Mail would launch. Others have reported the same problem.

Once Mail is running, it does a good job of displaying your email in each account you have, but it can't show you a unified inbox as iOS and Android Mail apps can. The biggest trick to using Mail -- or any Metro app -- is to know to open the App bar at the bottom of the screen to get the equivalent of a menu of options for whatever is selected or active. A swipe from the top of the screen or from the bottom will do that, as will the shortcut Windows-Z.

Calendar is likewise serviceable, offering the core capabilities you'd want for managing appointments, such as handling invitations. What you can't do is set complex meeting patterns, as you can in Outlook (but not in iOS or in most Android clients).

The most intriguing Metro app is People, a combination of contacts manager and social media monitoring tool. It's not a substitute for a Twitter or Facebook app, which let you monitor the full conversation set, but it's a handy way to see what a specific person is posting across multiple services.

Windows RT, like Windows 8, strongly encourages that you use its SkyDrive cloud storage service, to the extent that Office and other apps have hooks to it built in. If you use a different service, you're out of luck on the Surface. There are no Metro apps for Dropbox or Box as yet, and RT doesn't let you install regular Windows apps; you can't use their existing Windows apps instead. SkyDrive clients are available for iOS, Android, and OS X, so you could consider switching providers to SkyDrive -- but keep in mind that the major productivity apps for iOS do not support direct connection to SkyDrive. You'll find document management a real hassle if you have iOS devices in the mix. If you don't, SkyDrive should work fine, if you're willing to switch.

Windows RT comes with video and music apps, geared to getting you to buy from Microsoft's Xbox online stores. But you can play your own music and videos from those apps; just swipe to the left to find your media libraries. You transfer your files via the File Manager as you would any other files, from a USB device or network-attached storage device or PC. Keep in mind there is nothing like iTunes for Windows RT, and you can't install Apple's iTunes for Windows on it. If you use iTunes on your PC, you can't preserve that library or its playlists on the Surface.

The dearth of Metro apps greatly limits what you can do with the Surface. Right now, it's basically an Office appliance supplemented by basic communications capabilities and a good selection of news, finance, and sports apps. But the Surface falls behind Android and way behind iOS in terms of what you can do with it.

Synchronization and user accounts shineWindows RT (like Windows 8) excels in two areas. One is synchronization if you use a Microsoft account. Your settings sync automatically -- even Wi-Fi passwords -- across devices connected to the same Microsoft account. Your documents sync as well. More syncs across Windows RT and 8 devices than syncs across iOS and OS X devices using Apple's iCloud; if you like iCloud, you'll love Microsoft's version of it.

Windows RT (again, like Windows 8) is unique among tablet OSes in that it supports multiple users per device. Each user has a separate account they log into, with a wholly separate environment for each user. That's great for families and work groups alike. PCs and Macs both offer the same capability, but not iOS or Android devices.

Settings are straightforward, except for networkingThe Settings charm -- Metro's equivalent to a control panel -- offers a simple UI for configuring your Surface, way simpler to use than Windows' Control Panel and even simpler than iOS's and Android's Settings apps. Tap a pane's name, then set the switches as desired. Almost everything is handled through an On/Off switch.

If you connect a device to the Surface's USB port or MiniHDMI port, Windows RT is good at detecting it and setting it up. However, I found its bundled driver list to be inadequate, and Windows Update often didn't find older printers' drivers even though Windows RT correctly identified the printer. Of course you can't install drivers directly from vendor websites because Windows RT prohibits any installations outside of Windows Update and the Windows Store.

Accessing network printers is also a pain. They're not detected by the Add a Device control in the Settings charm, as they should be. Instead, you have to go to the Windows Desktop, open the Control Panel, go to the Hardware and Sound section, and tap Advanced Printer Setup. Like everything else in the Windows Desktop -- the File Explorer (what used to be called Windows Explorer in Windows 7), the Office RT apps, and the desktop version of IE10 -- the Control Panel is shrunk in size to fit the Surface's screen, making it both hard to read and hard to accurately tap.

If you want to access admin controls for networking, such as to override certificate settings, forget about it. These controls are gone in Windows RT. If your networks don't connect for some reason, the workarounds you likely use in Windows 7 or XP won't be there for you in Windows RT (or Windows 8). That's probably the right thing, to limit kludges and workarounds that muck up IT infrastructure, but there's a short-term cost of breakage when you bring Windows RT into such kludged environments.

Security is limitedWindows RT may sport Office and thus seem like a perfect business traveler's tablet, but Microsoft has undercut that use by providing just the barest security capabilities. There's no VPN client and so far none in the Windows Store. You can't use existing Windows VPN clients either.

Windows RT supports basic Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, such as for complex passwords, remote wipe, and on-device encryption; in low-security environments users can connect to Exchange to access email, calendars, and contacts, as well as to SharePoint. But Windows RT doesn't provide a means for mobile device management (MDM) tools to apply the kinds of controls many enterprises require, nor does it work with Active Directory group policies via domain joins. Microsoft says the 2013 version of Intune will introduce MDM-style management to Windows RT, but details are few and adopting it means bringing yet another management tool into IT's portfolio.

Generally good hardware has some odd flawsThe best part of the Surface is the tablet itself. It's fairly lightweight and compact, and the screen is clear and crisp, even if the 1,366-by-768 resolution is a bit cramped when running Windows Desktop apps such as Office. Those apps don't adjust for the small screen housing and dense resolution like Metro apps do.

You get a USB port to support standard input and storage peripherals, as well as a MiniHDMI port for video-out. You can "dock" the Surface into a regular desktop environment as well as use it to give presentations at a conference or meeting. (There are plenty of third-party MiniHDMI-to-VGA connectors available, so you can connect to older monitors and projectors, too.)

The Surface has an SD card slot that can accept up to 64GB of storage. But note that the Surface doesn't encrypt SD cards, and it doesn't support the EAS policy for doing so, which will be problematic for some businesses. The mic and speakers are good, and the battery life is comparable to an iPad's 10 to 12 hours, which is fantastic. But the Surface uses a proprietary charger that does not work with USB ports, so you can't charge it via your laptop, a smartphone's charger block, or the USB ports increasingly found in airport lobbies and airplane seats.

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