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Lync on the Surface RT: It’s a Winner

Overview

I’ll start off by mentioning that I’ve been using the Surface as my only computer now for the last 4 weeks. No laptop, no desktop. It’s my work computer, my home computer, my tablet and of course my mobile computing platform. In fact, I’ve composed most of this blog post with the Surface on a flight to Minneapolis, as a passenger in a rental car, and at my hotel desk. How’s that for device versatility?

While this isn’t meant to be a full-on review of the Surface, it is important to note that I have been happily functioning without my laptop for some time now. The key to all of this happiness: the Lync client. I rely so heavily on Lync to do my job that a tablet without Lync was just not going to fly.

The all-up take for me is that the Surface Lync client is the best mobile Lync client out there – almost on par with the desktop Lync client. It even outshines the desktop Lync client in certain aspects, but leaves room for improvement in other key areas.

My overall rating: On a scale from 1 to 10 the Surface RT’s Lync client gets an 8. I weighted four Lync feature categories according to how important they are to me in my everyday use of Lync:

Category Score of 10 Weight Weighted Score
IM/Presence 9 35% 31.5
Voice 9 30% 27
Conferencing 5 20% 10
Video 7 15% 10.5
TOTAL 79 / 100

Below are the detailed reviews of each of my four categories.

IM & Presence – 9 out of 10

IM / Presence work great on Lync. I installed the Lync client from the Windows Store and moments later I was signed in and sending messages. As you would expect, presence information is timely & accurate. The visual interface is probably the biggest change for long-time Lync users: it’s totally adapted for Windows 8 & touch devices. While all my contacts and groups showed up immediately, it took some time getting used to the larger tiles and icons vs. the standard Lync client “buddy list”. As with the conventional Lync desktop client, the “search” function is probably still the best way to find contacts vs. long contact lists.

The major improvement that the Lync client for the Surface has over the traditional Lync client: spellcheck and autocorrect. Having this for IM conversations is a major blessing, given the speed that I rattle off instant messages.

Instant Messaging on the Surface is thousands of times better than it is on traditional mobile devices (phones & iPads). But it faces some of the same challenges as those other mobile devices because the new client runs in full-screen mode. Meaning that if you are accustomed to having dozens of conversations running, each in its own window (like on the Lync desktop client) you are in for an adjustment. All conversations show almost like “tabs” at the top of your screen. This actually works pretty well once you’ve used it for couple days. The one catch is that you’ll need to swipe up or swipe down to see the “tabs”; they are not displayed while you are in another conversation. Being full-screen also means it’s more difficult to “multi-task” (maybe this is a good thing!) because the app takes up so much real estate.

Like all Windows 8 apps, you can dock Lync to the right or left of the screen and work on one other Windows 8 app. I’ve found that connecting to an external monitor really improves this scenario. I can have Lync docked to the right side of my external monitor, leaving the Surface screen itself open to use with other applications.

Especially on a touchscreen device like the Surface, Lync’s IM & Presence are outstanding. Managing multiple conversations is fairly simple but does require some getting used to.

Voice – 9 out of 10

The best part about Lync voice on the Surface: it works. Calling a contact is as simple as clicking on the “call” icon.  The dial pad works well for calling standard (dare I say “old-fashioned”) PSTN numbers.

The surface will use your built-in mic and speakers; this functions remarkably well but in noisy areas you’re going to want a headset or handset. Surprisingly, every headset or handset I connected to the surface via USB worked immediately, with no fuss. I’ve tried the following devices

  • Polycom CX100
  • Polycom CX600
  • Polycom CX3000 (conference phone)
  • The Roundtable (yes, it’s that old – prior to Polycom’s acquisition and rebranding)
  • Jabra 520 speakerphone
  • Plantronics Voyager Pro Bluetooth headset (with and without USB dongle)

Plug and play worked in each case; there was absolutely no silliness with drivers or devices not being recognized. I did notice that you can’t use the “in-line” functions of the headsets, like mute, hangup, etc; I had to use the Lync client itself to mute & hang up. But this wasn’t a huge deal. Also of note: I even tried using my Bluetooth headset by just pairing it to the Surface without the USB dongle. Voice quality wasn’t as good as it is with USB, but I think it would do in a pinch.

Speaking of voice quality – nobody ever once has suspected me of calling them via a wireless tablet. The quality is identical to calling from any Lync Phone or other Lync client. There has been no latency, jitter or static issues. Don’t forget, however, that the Surface is wireless only. As goes your WiFi connection, so goes your Lync voice on the Surface. There is no option to plug in with an Ethernet cable because the Surface doesn’t have an Ethernet port. (Unless you buy a USB Ethernet adapter… which I’ve tried and it does work, but leaves you no USB port for a headset or handset).

I’ve probably logged close 100 hours of call time via Lync + Surface and I’ve been extremely happy with the results.

For me, the biggest drawback for voice is that you can’t cut & paste numbers into the dial pad nor click on numbers in a webpage. Clicking on numbers in a browser just launches Skype for me. (Foreshadowing…? Maybe??). Other than that voice on the Surface is a winner.

Video – 7 out of 10

My team has grown increasingly reliant on video so it was important for me to be able to use the Surface for that purpose. The Surface makes Peer-to-peer and video conferencing simple to use: clicking the video icon initiates a video call.

The Surface’s built-in cameras, both front & back, can both be used for Lync video. You have the option to toggle the view from the front-facing to the rear-facing camera and this is nice for an-adhoc video conference where you have a few people in same room with you. I’ve read a lot of reviews that complain about the quality of the Surface’s cameras, but my experience with the video camera has been excellent. I believe the complaints stem from the quality of the “still shots” taken by the cameras. I can confirm that the Surface will not be replacing your fancy Nikon SLR anytime soon (and frankly, nor should it). You will, however, find that it makes for an outstanding video camera. It sends a crisp 720p HD video stream. Every person on the receiving end of my video stream has commented on the great clarity. In several cases, people were baffled when I told them I was using the built-in camera on my tablet. It’s that good.

Receiving video, on the other hand, has been slightly less amazing. The Surface can occasionally struggle to deliver smooth HD video. I’ve found that regular “VGA” quality video is always displayed extremely well. Very few hitches crop up during video conferences or peer-to-peer in non-HD scenarios. However, when you use the Lync “full screen” mode to display HD video it’s not as good as it is on a desktop. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good. But it falls short of the desktop experience. My gut feeling here is that this is due to processing power. I pulled up task manager while in a full-screen video call (I connected an external monitor to display task manager while the Surface itself was full-screen video). The processor was REALLY pegged: consistently around 80% and Lync was the program using most of it. Killing full-screen HD video saw the processor % drop quite a bit.

All in, the video experience is good; I’m very happy with quality, occasional HD hiccups notwithstanding. I continue to use video for just as many of my calls as I did with my laptop and for me that says it all.

Conferencing – 5 out of 10

This is where the Lync client struggles to meet my needs. It works, to be sure, but the experience needs some updating by Microsoft.

Joining scheduled meetings is a bit tricky: you can’t click on Lync invites in your calendar or OWA. If you try, it brings up the Lync Conference Website & prompts me to either install Silverlight or to install the Lync Attendee client. The problem is that not only are neither supported by Surface RT, clicking the “Join” link should launch my Lync Surface client. (Note: this may just be a problem joining conferences scheduled on Lync 2010. I’ve actually had some success joining Lync 2013 conferences via the “Join” links – but that has been inconsistent as well)

So instead of clicking on the link – how do you join conferences? Well, you need to go into your Lync client and find the little box that pulls your calendar info from Exchange. If it’s working properly it will display your next Lync Web Conference & you can click on it to join.

I’ve had problems doing this. Conferences scheduled by federated partners don’t always show up. Conferences that someone scheduled by cutting and pasting Lync info into a regular Outlook calendar meeting (as opposed to using the Outlook plugin to create the meeting) don’t show up. If for some reason your Lync client can’t connect to Exchange Web Services, nothing shows up. If you are late joining a meeting, you may not see the meeting in progress, but rather your next meeting.

Once you are in the meeting you can see the list of participants, use audio, video and see what people are sharing on their desktops. That’s the good news: the basic functionality works as a participant.

But you can’t:

  • “Manage” the meeting: admit, remove, promote attendees through the Lync UI
  • View or use the whiteboard / polling functions
  • Share your desktop
  • Schedule a Lync Meeting (no Outlook client on the Surface, hence no Lync calendar plugin to schedule meetings. Ugh!)

The last two in particular are what hurt the most. Because you can’t present anything at all, the Surface relegates you to pretty much just being a participant in all meetings. And because you can’t schedule new Lync meetings yourself, you are relegated to joining other’s meetings. Yes, you could cut-and-paste your conference info into a regular calendar appointment but, as described above, you won’t be able to join your own meeting if you do that. I also know that you can schedule new Lync meetings via the Web Scheduler (and with Exchange 2013 + Lync 2013 you’ll be able to through OWA). But really this isn’t good enough for me.

Short story on Lync meetings with the Surface is that it’s an OK experience as a participant and a bad experience as a presenter.

Conclusion

I realize that I’m a pretty demanding Lync user. It’s the application I use most each day and rely heavily on Lync performing well. For someone like me the Lync client gets a score of  8 / 10. The most important pieces of Lync are IM/Presence and Voice; the Surface client nails these two. And video is good. Conferencing is where most of my negatives come. The conferencing experience is adequate, but just not good enough yet for a hard-core Lync user like me. A more casual user  -  and some would claim the Surface RT is geared more towards casual users –  probably wouldn’t even ding the conference experience.

Overall, Lync on the Surface is by far and away the best mobile Lync client out there. Even given the areas where it needs to improve, Lync for Surface probably should be considered among the best mobile (I’m considering only tablets and phones here) UC client of any vendor’s solutions. I’m very pleased with this first version of Lync on Surface RT & I’m looking forward to some updates to the conferencing experience to make it even better.

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2 thoughts on “Lync on the Surface RT: It’s a Winner

  1. Matt McGillen Post author

    Hi,
    Thanks for the comment. Agreed about the tagging of contacts, though I don’t use that often I know others do. But with the speak 410, give it another go. I have a 410 and it works well. Again, no mute/unmute but the mic and speakers work well in the 410 on my Lync RT.
    -matt

  2. TimB

    Couple of other disappointments for me.

    1.No tagging of contacts. I am a frequent user of this useful feature on my desktop client.

    2. My Jabra speak 410 doesn’t work- I know its not a problem with the RT client but I was shocked. The surface RT speakers are so quiet a good USB device that offers hands free and portability is really needed.

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