For those of you that know me, you know I am a die hard supporter of Surface RT. I absolutely love the device and I’ll be picking up a Surface 2 here shortly. When the preview of Windows RT 8.1 came out over the summer, I jumped on it immediately. I was excited about it because it addressed some of the biggest concerns of users including Outlook and SkyDrive synchronization. The preview worked ok, but being a beta, it had a number of issues as expected. I would often times find that the device was turned off and I would have to hold the power button forever to get it to turn back on. Apps crashed fairly often and the Wi-Fi would just drop randomly. I wasn’t too worried though because I knew it was a beta and when you install a beta you accept those risks.
When RTM hit of Windows RT 8.1 last week, I was chomping at the bit to get it. I installed it on two different Surface RTs and didn’t have too many issues. Both devices had been running the preview version previously. When Surface RT 8.1 first became available it took me a few attempts to get the Windows Store app to start downloading the update. I suspect this was largely because of the sheer number of people trying to download. I started the process from this page which linked to the download link in the Windows Store app. As many people have complained, the Surface RT isn’t a very speedy device (which is why I am excited about Surface 2). As a result, installing it takes two hours or so. What was interesting is that my second Surface RT installed much quicker than the first and this was after the download. I am not sure if this is a result of how full the storage was or the apps installed or what so your results may vary. I installed the update on my laptop a few weeks ago and it installed in less than 20 minutes so the process is definitely slower on the Surface.
Once the install finished, on the first boot, I was prompted to join a Wi-Fi network. I found this odd because it should have already had this setting. I didn’t have to do this when I installed Windows 8.1 on my laptop. Everything there just worked. It turns out all of my stored Wi-Fi networks had been lost. Everywhere, I have gone I have had to reconnect. I keep hoping that they will sync from my laptop (like they did with Windows 8), but I haven’t seen it yet. This is not a huge deal for me, but something to be aware of.
During the install, it notified me that I would have to reinstall all of my apps. The new Windows Store makes this experience pretty easy though.
It shows you what apps you have on each device and provides you with a number of ways to reselect and download them. Going forward as you add more devices, you will find your apps synced across devices and you won’t have to worry about it.
The new Windows Store app is pretty nice and it makes it easy to find apps that are interesting. There are definitely more apps there than when Windows 8 came out and I am finding that there are fewer and fewer apps that I wish I had.
Windows 8.1 RT gives you seven apps that you can run in the background and have update on the start screen. I actually found that it’s no longer enough for me. Here is what I have on mine: Mail, Calendar, Alarms, Skype, Weather, Facebook, and Lync. I actually dropped Twitter so I could add Facebook. However, since I rarely use Facebook, I’ll probably go back to Twitter in that slot.
Once I started getting all of my apps downloaded, I immediately started working on customizing my Start screen. It had some of my customizations from the preview but I had to do a little work. The first thing I did was add another row of tiles. I think the Surface start screen looks better with four rows of tiles.
Don’t forget that you can change the size of tiles now too. Touch a tile and hold it for a few seconds and you’ll see a menu to make the tile smaller or larger. If you are using your mouse, you can just right click on it. For tiles that don’t update (like Office), I tend to go with smaller tiles. Tiles that actually do something, I got with larger ones.
I love the new feature to show your desktop background on your start screen. You can find this by going to the desktop, right clicking on your task bar and going to properties. You’ll then find the option Show my desktop background on Start on the Navigation tab. I’ve customized with a picture I took while in Dubai. This is also where you can force the desktop mode on startup or show apps first. Although, these features might be appealing to laptop users that can’t let go of their desktop mode, this probably isn’t very useful for a user of a Surface.
Windows is hosting a Start screen screenshot contest and I actually won. The prize is just $10 at the Microsoft store so I went and bought Halo: Spartan Assault. :) I think today is the last day to participate so if you want to take a screenshot and tweet it with the hash tag #MyStart. You can take a screenshot on the surface by holding down the Windows key and then press the Volume Down button. Your screen will flash and then you can find the screenshot in your This PC –> Pictures –> Screenshots folder.
The SkyDrive synchronization is great. It’s built right into the file system and you can work with it from the app as well. I have a particularly large SkyDrive myself. I had configured Windows RT 8.1 preview in a manner so that it wouldn’t download everything, but that setting got lost in the upgrade. As a result, I started to noticed that my Surface was nearly out of storage space after a couple of hours. If you have a large SkyDrive and you don’t want everything synced, go into the app or view the folder on your desktop and view your settings. Make sure that any folders that you don’t want synchronize is set to Online-only. I also had some issues where subfolders were marked Online-only but the files inside the folders were marked for synchronization (think broken permission inheritance). I had to go reset this but once I did my storage space on my device was freed up instantly.
Stability was a real issue during the preview. I was constantly frustrated with my Surface as apps crashed or it turned itself off or the Wi-Fi simply wouldn’t work. Since I’ve applied the update, I can’t say that I have had any stability issues at all. The apps have been working quite well and I am pretty happy with them. I haven’t had any of the issues I was facing before really at all and I’ve used the device a lot.
People were absolutely fuming about the Photos App losing functionality in the preview. It lost the ability to view photos from SkyDrive, Network shares, Flickr, and Facebook. The only thing that came back was SkyDrive integration. This was my biggest concern so I am relatively happy, but I am sure others are still concerned.
The new Bing Search app is deeply integrated into the OS and truly offers a great federated view of your content plus content on the web. Take a look at what happens when I search on my device for Dubai. It shows me documents that mention Dubai. However, it also shows photos that I took while in Dubai sitting in SkyDrive. Then it shows a map along with useful info like weather and information from Wikipedia. It’s pretty slick.
Just swipe in from the side and use the search charm to get started. You can also just start typing from your Start screen.
The Slide show functionality is neat. It shows photos from the location of your choosing (such as SkyDrive) as a screensaver whenever the device is locked. By default, it only does this when the device has external power. The slide show functionality in preview hardly ever worked for me. In fact I think it only worked maybe two or three times during the entire time I ran preview. With RTM, it works every time. I charge my Surface next to my phone when I go to bed, so I often times have to press the power button on the top to turn it off as the photos are lighting up the whole room at night. :) As a reminder, don’t forget to make use of the new Quiet Hours feature to keep your Surface from waking you up in the middle of the night as I mentioned in my last post.
The nice thing about Surface RT is that it works with a lot of printers. Even those on your network. When I upgraded from Preview, it managed to remember some of my printers, but some it did not and I had to reconnect.
Improved Snap View
The improved snap view is nice. The native apps and even some others like Skype have been updated to take advantage of this. By default now when you open an additional app, it opens in a 50 / 50 view. The ability to run multiple apps at the same time really sets Surface apart and I use it all the time. If you aren’t familiar with Snap view, you can use it by dragging down from the top on an app and then pulling it over to one side.
However, some apps like Twitter haven’t been updated yet so when you snap them, they look kind of strange. This will get better as the apps get updates but just something to be aware of.
Honestly, I still don’t use it that often. There are a few times when I use it to deal with tasks or mess around with calendar invites but I am pretty happy with the new and improved Mail app. It’s pretty snappy, has some nice filters, and I can view flagged messages. I try to use it as much as I can because I don’t want to go to desktop mode unless I just have to.
The new People and Calendar apps are pretty nice too. You can even customize the background of the Calendar app to make it a bit more personal. Notice the pictures from Las Vegas in my screenshots above.
I am quite happy with Windows RT 8.1 running on my Surface. I am super excited to get a Surface 2. I’m just waiting a few more weeks. Once I get my hands on one, be on the lookout for my review. If you haven’t updated your Surface RT yet, I definitely recommend it. The new features just make the Surface RT an even better device. Update today!