Scratching the Surface

At work I tend to turn up to meetings with a MacBook Pro. This surprises a few people who know me as a former Microsoft MVP, a Windows Server/Infrastructure person and the manager of a IT system that is predominantly Windows based.

The MacBook Pro isn’t ideal; it’s a 15″ 2010 model and it is starting to be a problem. Even with a SSD installed, it’s starting to get slow and cranky when it comes to waking up. It’s surprisingly heavy to take into meetings, uses a lot of desk space, and doesn’t have a great battery life.

We’ve been looking for something to replace it (and equip other IT management) and I’ve tried the Surface 3. We got some a few months ago and I have to say that my reaction has been mixed. The hardware is really nice. The Surface 3 (and 3 Pro and 4 Pro that I’ve also played with) feels great as a tablet. The basic Surface “Type Cover” keyboard feels truly awful to me but gets good reviews, so perhaps that’s just down to personal preference.

Azure AD join is pretty cool and something I would recommend to anyone using the Surface or any other Windows tablet in an Office 365/Azure AD-enabled environment; signing into Azure AD is fast and easy and in my opinion, gives you a pretty good experience of using the Surface as a tablet instead of as a traditional laptop. Of course, if you’d prefer to use it as close to a traditional business laptop model as possible then you can join your on-premises AD domain in the normal way and that works fine too.

But we’re looking at giving people a “tablet experience” as much as possible on tablet computers at work, so we’re experimenting with joining devices like this to Azure AD. If you have your mail in Office 365, use OneDrive for Business, SharePoint Online and all the rest of it then this starts to make a lot of sense, I think.

The problem is Windows 10. I like Windows 10 as a desktop OS. I still have a Windows desktop at home that I’m using to write this article right now. It’s fast, reliable and a pretty good platform for what I need to do at home. I could move over to OSX or even Linux if I didn’t need a capable games PC, but Windows 10 still does a great job on the desktop in my mind.

It’s also been rock solid as a work platform. Oh sure, it took a while for Microsoft to support it properly for things like the System Centre Virtual Machine Manager console (pro-tip Microsoft, if you want sysadmins to run Windows Core on servers instead of leaving them in GUI mode, make sure your desktop remote admin tools actually work and get updated in a timely manner) but it does work and work well now.

But Windows 10 as a tablet OS is still clumsy. Before setting my tablet up for Azure AD join, we decided to do a ‘factory wipe’ on it. Booting to the Windows recovery system and going through the prompts leads you to a section where you can’t select which type of recovery you’d like to do from either the touchscreen or via the Type Cover keyboard or touchpad. Plugging a conventional mouse in allowed us to work around this, but nowhere was this documented. I can’t imagine your proverbial “average home user” getting this right.

On first sign in, after reset and logging in with my Azure AD account, Windows 10 Store apps took a while to set up (fine I guess) and applications I removed from the start menu (and even un-installed) somehow came back because Windows updated them after I removed them (not fine).

  • Despite not finding any updates prior to the factory reset, after signing in and going through the above application rigmarole, Windows decided to upgrade itself. This took several hours, which from a technical perspective I can understand but makes for an awful user experience, and resulted in the apps I had un-installed above returning again.
  • The apps are annoyingly basic and awful. Mail app doesn’t seem to support custom views for mail in any way I can see, for example.If you’re that desperate to get me to use the Windows Store Apps, Microsoft, try making apps that are actually useful(*) and you may find it annoys people a lot less than trying to shove rubbish apps down their throats. Just a thought.
  • Outlook, still not so good. I have an eye for the classics too.Connecting my Office 365 mailbox to Outlook 2016 on my Azure AD-joined Surface meant that Outlook asked for my mail password five times (and not because I typed it wrongly either).Why should it need to ask more than once? Microsoft’s Outlook app for iOS doesn’t need to ask multiple times, so why does Microsoft’s Outlook app on a Microsoft Windows device joined to the same directory service as the mailbox I’m logging into seem to struggle?
  • The type cover doesn’t always seem to work properly when you change from tablet mode back to laptop mode.
  • Windows can’t seem to remember Wireless connections reliably. This was a problem on Windows 8 tablets too, so it’s good to see that Microsoft still has an eye for their classics.

I’m honestly not sure at this point if I’m doing something wrong or if I’m just looking at this through the jaundiced eyes of someone who has spent 5 years getting used to working with Apple’s iPad as a tablet device, but this truly was a miserable experience for me. The Surface 3 is actually a pretty damn great tablet, but Windows 10 makes it the best advert for an iPad Pro I’ve ever seen.

(*) The Remote Desktop app is actually pretty nice, in fairness

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