UPDATE: Thanks to reader feedback, I've been able to publish a workaround that mostly fixes this issue. Please read Microsoft Surface Tip: Use microSD with Libraries and Metro-Style Apps for more information.
The more you use Windows RT—and, more specifically, Surface with Windows RT—the more you run into its often maddening limitations. Whether these limitations obviate your desire to buy one will vary by person, of course. But some limitations are more baffling than others.
Case in point: microSD expansion.
Windows RT, like any other Windows 8 version, does of course support external storage devices like USB memory keys and hard drives. In fact, they work seamlessly and exactly as expected.
Windows RT, like any other Windows 8 version, also supports various memory card formats, including SD and microSD, the latter of which is most frequently found in smart phones. It’s a way to bump up the storage in a mobile device, in a package that’s smaller than most people’s fingernails.
Surface with Windows RT ships with a microSD card slot. It’s really well hidden, but it’s there, and my guess is that most users will use it as I will, as permanently attached additional storage.
So here’s the thing.
Plugging in a microSD card, as I did with a 64 GB card that Microsoft loaned me, works exactly as it does in Windows 8. You get a new drive in File Explorer with a silly SD logo, and you can copy files to and from it like you would with any externally-attached drive. But because it’s such a tiny sliver of a thing, you’ll never even know it’s there from a weight perspective. And it’s hidden and protected, so you don’t have to worry about it popping out. (In fact, it’s very hard to remove.)
Windows RT is designed in such a way that using this storage seamlessly with the built-in Metro experiences is all but impossible. If you use Xbox Video to download purchased or rented videos, for example, they will be stored on the device’s internal storage—as low as 32 GB, with just 20 GB or so available for use—and not on the microSD card. There’s no way to change that.
And if you have your own content, as I do, yes, you can of course copy it to the microSD card and manually trigger playback through the desktop-based File Explorer. But you cannot add this card, or any folders on it, to your built-in libraries—which is what Xbox Music, Xbox Videos, and Photos use to determine which content to display—because … wait for it … Windows RT, like Windows 8, inexplicably doesn’t let you add a location from a removable device to a library.
This lack of attention to detail is exactly what Microsoft making its own hardware was supposed to avoid. Can you imagine copying music, photos, or videos to an iPad and not being able to access that content from the built-in media apps? Of course you can’t. Apple gets that end-to-end experiences matter, and it would never strand users in that way. Apple prevents you from expanding the iPad storage, yes. It doesn't let you plug in a card and then not be able to use it.
Microsoft pays lip service to end-to-end experiences, and while it’s clear that the people responsible for this device are clearly quite proud of their little invention—Steven Sinofsky actually hugged a Surface on stage this past Thursday—they can’t quite shake their Microsoftian inability to go the final mile and complete the circle. Making “hard choices” (Microsoft’s words) isn’t about limiting what people can do with a product, it’s about ensuring that what people can do is always delightful and correct. And when it comes to this admittedly small issue, one of many I have with this device, we find two things Microsoft did include in the device that cannot work together seamlessly as any reasonable person would expect them to.
The microSD expansion is not exactly useless—you can of course store content on the microSD card and then use it—but it is inelegant, poorly-conceived, and badly designed. This lack of foresight is troubling. And it’s not just disappointing, it’s unacceptable.
NOTE: I will publish a tip today that fixes this issue.