The new Microsoft Surface starts at $499 for the tablet only, without a type or touch cover (the detachable face cover with built-in keyboard), but including preview versions the Office RT apps: Word RT, Excel RT, PowerPoint RT, and OneNote RT. This review may be an extended effort to not only tell you about the Surface, but to attempt to answer the question “What were they thinking?”
I am attempting to type this review on the membrane touch cover, which I opted for as a $120 addition, but things are not going well. I think I have already pressed the Backspace key more often than the other keys combined, and I’m a good, fast typist. Maybe too good and fast, because adapting to a flat, unresponsive piece of foamy plastic is proving more difficult than I anticipated…
Let’s start at the beginning.
The case is a solid-feeling 10.81 x 6.77 x .37-inch, 1.5 pound hunk that is much too large to fit in any but the most capacious purse or jacket pocket. It is nearly laptop size, and reminds me of the heavy duty tablets of yesteryear designed for factory floors. The display is 10.6” diagonal, “Clear Type HD” screen at 1366 x 768 pixels, a 16:9 aspect ratio. This calculates out to 148 ppi (pixels per inch). The Surface Pro (once it is released) is slated to have 208 ppi. Rate this next to the iPad 3, at 264 ppi, The Kindle Fire HD 8.9” at 254 ppi, or the Nexus 10 at 299 ppi and it looks distinctly less attractive. The physical screen is Corning gorilla glass, same as the iPad, which makes it hard to scratch or break. Like the other mainline tablets it uses IPS technology to achieve a wide viewing angle.
The exterior of the case is beveled, which feels weird to me but that other people have said feels good to them. It has a one-position fold-out “kickstand” for propping the device up at a 22-degree angle (or 68-degree, depending on how you are looking at it). Now, I’m sure Microsoft paid someone lots to research the perfect angle, and maybe for most people it will be fine, but for me it’s too steep. I wish the kickstand was adjustable. But it if were, I’d have a laptop display on a hinge rather than a tablet… O yeah, I forgot. It’s not a laptop.
There is a power button and volume rocker on the edge of the case, and also a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a micro SDXC slot, a 3.5mm headset port, an HD video out port (though it will cost you $43 if you want the official HDMI out adapter from Microsoft, and then the cost of another HDMI cable to connect it to your TV). It also has a keyboard connector port on the bottom of the device for connecting the optional membrane touch cover or the tactile type cover (add $119.99 or $129.99) flanked by some truly industrial strength magnets that allow you to dangle the tablet from the cover without it detaching and falling to the floor. (Note: I am not recommending this). There have been some early, confirmed reports of problems with the touch cover splitting, so be warned.
Arggh. I am now typing the remainder of this review on my standard keyboard because typing quickly on the Surface touch cover proved impossible for me. It is flat and slightly spongy, but key spacing is an issue. I’m fast and pound on the keys, so it’s not a good fit for me, but others’ experience have varied. See this article in PC World for a comparison of the two covers.
The mag safe power connector on the side of the case is a huge problem. Its magnet is really iffy, and you have to fidget with the connector to get it seated properly. Fortunately there is a small LED indicator on the end of the thing to let me know it is seated and charging. It falls out at a touch, however. The first night I had the thing I left it charging overnight only to come in next day to find the janitors had moved the chair it was sitting on and the power cable had fallen out on the floor. If you are used to the mag safe connectors on the Mac, the connection is not nearly so strong.
Microsoft claims an 8-hour battery life for the RT model, but of course this will vary depending on your activities.
There are stereo speakers. They sound, but not good. You will want to use earphones for anything where sonic quality matters.
And then there are two of the worst built-in cameras I have ever experienced, facing forward and backward. They are not as bad as the Little Mermaid camera I once bought for my granddaughter at Toys R Us for $35, but almost. Whenever they are pointed in the direction of a light source they respond by creating all sorts of diffusion effects on the picture, with haloing and bleaching. When pointed away from a light source the picture fills with low-light noise. Getting a good picture is a matter of hit and miss, mostly miss. The only thing I like about the cameras is the built-in app that controls them. You can initiate a picture or movie by simply touching the screen anywhere (which might be good or bad, I suppose) but you don’t have to hit a specific small icon. While the cameras on competing tablets are not great, this is by far the worst of the bunch.
Like everything else about this tablet it is clearly meant to meet multiple needs, but succeeds well at none. It is too tall and narrow to feel like a book when turned to portrait mode for e-reading, and too wide for thumb typing on the screen in landscape. This observation can be extended further to its Windows RT OS. It is neither fish nor fowl, with some bad attributes of both.
The user interface is Windows RT, a close cousin to Windows 8 created to run on ARM-based processors. It has all the drawbacks of Windows 8, whose schizophrenic personality was created to bridge the worlds of touch tablets and keyboard and mouse driven desktops, with track pad driven laptops somewhere in between. It creates its bridge by mashing together the new and old. It will take you a good hour become oriented to Windows RT on the Surface, if you are an accomplished Windows 7 user. On a device made for touch, like the Surface (sort of), it has its advantages. On a desktop it sucks. In the non-touch desktop/laptop environment you will spend at least an hour getting up to speed with Windows 8 and then wonder why you bothered. The actual user interface adds no significant functionality, and imposes not only the penalty of having to re-learn old tasks in new ways, but litters your start screen. The Start button is gone, of course, replaced with a giant, dumb launch pad called the Start screen, which invokes old-style desktop apps and new-style full-screen Windows 8 (the OS formerly known as “Metro”) with a bunch of mono-colored “tiles” that light up with distracting updates every few seconds. You know, the sort of things you usually turn off to eliminate distractions. Now these are features.
The Office RT apps are just the old style office programs. Microsoft is calling them previews, which really means, I think, that the touch-oriented apps were not ready to launch along with the Surface. Word RT is nearly the same as the standard desktop Word 2013 preview, with some of the macro/add-in functionality subtracted. It makes no significant accommodations to touch. When launching dialog boxes or working on the ribbon most of the icons and controls are just too small to accurately manipulate. Let’s hope the actual touch versions are better. You really need a keyboard to make these apps work, which I suppose is the idea. The real claim to fame for the Surface seems to be the attached keyboard and the appeal to the potential business user of having Office on a tablet. But if that is so, why sell a model without the keyboard? Just to have a model priced comparably to the iPad? A laptop is a better choice.
The track pad built into the foam touch cover is of a piece with the rest of this keyboard. It works, but not well. I suppose this is all a function of what you are used to, but compared with the Apple track pads I have used it feels very tentative. I had to make some motions multiple times to get them to “register” with the device. It is not a smooth experience. I suppose it is amazing in itself that they could make a track pad out of this foamy plastic stuff and get it to act remotely like a real one, but I want to be productive, not amazed.
Do I have anything good to say about the touch cover? Yes, I really appreciate a keyboard that has both a Delete and Backspace key, arrow keys, and Home and End keys, along with special keys for activating the new Windows “charms.” (If you don’t know, don’t ask). The onscreen iPad and Android keyboards leave a lot to be desired, along with the Microsoft onscreen keyboard. The physical keyboard makes up for all those shortcomings, or would, that is, if it worked better.
With respect to “Metro” apps, I am still mystified. Why do they exist at all. Windows had a good thing going with apps you could run simultaneously and actually, yes, in windows. This is no longer possible with the full screen Metro apps (you can have two on screen simultaneously with a cumbersome screen trick). Most of the ones I have seen run full screen simply pad the screen with lots of white space. Then if you want to run a “real” Windows app, you have to launch and manage it from the “desktop,” familiar territory for all Windows users but which will undoubtedly mystify new users of the Surface. The real source of the problem was that in designing Windows 8 (and therefore RT) Microsoft locked themselves into a one-size-fits-all philosophy when tailoring operating systems for the touch and desktop worlds would have been far better. Let’s hope they reverse themselves before long and that Windows 8/RT becomes the Vista to something much better to come.
Also mysteriously, the Surface does not have NFC, GPS or 3G technologies or even options. Other similarly priced devices do have some or all of these technologies. Okay, so maybe a couple of these things aren’t all that important yet, but why not include them?
The App Store
The Microsoft app store is new, but not so new that it shouldn’t have a lot more content than it does. Microsoft is counting on developers to create apps that will generate demand for Windows RT and 8 devices, but so far it hasn’t happened. If you are used to the iTunes app store a tour through the Microsoft app store is like a stroll through an empty warehouse. Many of the apps that are there are of truly obscure interest, too.
When you do download the standard apps, Wikipedia, Kindle, Netflix, Evernote, and so on, you will wonder why? What was wrong with how these things operated on a laptop or desktop, to make another iteration of the same thing necessary? What’s the advantage?
That is a question that can be asked about the Surface in general, and at this point the answer has to be, not sure, but appears to be not much.
What Were They Thinking?
So what was Microsoft thinking by releasing their made in China Surface with their own brand name on it?
- I think they saw Apple selling 100,000,000 iPads for $499 and up and thought they should own a piece of that trade. They were probably encouraged by the success of their Xbox franchise to think they could seriously compete in the hardware market. My own opinion is that they are much too late to the dance, with far too little that is distinct to offer.
- They probably thought the edge they could get was to pitch it not only as an entertainment device, not only a personal organizer and assistant device, not only as a learning tool, but as a business device, Office included. Trouble is the version of Office they provide is not very effective on a touchscreen, and the keyboard experience at least with the touch cover, is disappointing. Maybe they will rectify these problems, maybe not. It may be too late.
- They wanted to build an infrastructure like the iTunes store, Amazon’s digital empire, and Google’s Play store, and they needed a consumer entry point to their “app” store. Unfortunately, they built it but the developers have so far not come.
The 32GB Surface, with touch cover will cost at least $599. If you want the 64GB model make that $699. If you want the type cover add another $20. If you want a 2-year extended warranty—which would probably be smart with a new, relatively untested device, add $99. If you want to display your output on an HDMI compatible screen, and want to use the official adapter from Microsoft, add $43. Now add tax. You are somewhere in the neighborhood of $750 to $950. For that kind of money you can get a heck of a laptop that has touch, with a fully functional tactile keyboard, and touch pad, with a higher screen resolution, that runs truly windowed apps, with a terabyte of storage, rather than 32 or 64 gigabytes, and you will be able to prop the screen at any angle you like. I just don’t think the Surface makes much sense for the business user, and if you intend to use it as a tablet the iPad, Kindle Fire HD and Nexus are all better choices.