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 otherFollow @MobileGalen
App selection disappoints
The rest of the software provided on the Surface are Metro apps, lightweight widgets that are much less capable than their iPad counterparts. Two you're likely to use often, though, are serviceable: Mail and Calendar. That's a good thing because Outlook isn't part of the Surface's Office suite and can't be added. In fact, you can't install any traditional Windows apps beyond what Microsoft has preloaded (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, IE10, and File Manager).
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.