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Microsoft Surface tablet hands on: Less than a PC, more than an iPad

Press from around the world flocked to Microsoft’s Windows 8 event launch even in New York Cityon Thursday, but few expected to see anything new. Besides a Surface skateboard, that expectation held true. That said, we did get some hands-on time with Microsoft’s new Surface tablet (sans wheels), and we have to say, we liked what we saw and touched. Digital Trends will have a full review of the Surface very soon, but in the mean time, here are our preliminary thoughts on Microsoft’s flagship hardware for the new OS. If you’re wondering what’s new with the software, also make sure to check out our full Windows 8 review!

Tough as nails

Though a Microsoft presenter managed not to scratch the Surface when he dropped it onto the stage (twice) during today’s keynote, we didn’t think the security guys at the event would take too kindly on us testing that feature once the keynote was over and we had free reign to check out the tablet. At about 1.5 pounds for the RT version, and just under 2 pounds for the Windows 8 Pro version (slightly heavier than an iPad), it definitely has some heft to it. It feels sturdy, but at that weight, we’d be afraid to hold it with just one hand if it weren’t for the Gorilla Glass protection put to the test on stage earlier in the day. Made of a type of magnesium that uses Microsoft’s fancy new “Vapor Mg” process, the matte surface feels pretty sexy in the hand. The design and shape give it a comfortable feel when carrying it like a book under your arm.

Touch Cover is cool, but less functional

As for the Touch Cover ($120), we found of it a little odd at first. Many of us are used to typing on a keyboard with some sort of tactile feedback, but the Touch Cover doesn’t offer much. Aside from a slightly raised surface (yep) for each key, there’s no way to feel if you’re finger is really hitting the right button. We consider ourselves pretty good at typing, but our first go with the Touch Cover resulted in a fair amount of typing errors. With a few more hours with the thing, we might forget what a normal keyboard feels like, but we’ve only had a few minutes, so far. As for the material used for the Touch Cover, it feels a bit grainy, and we’re concerned that it’d be difficult to clean if it got dirty.

Type Cover feels better, but…

For $10 more, the $130 Type Cover is much more functional. It gave us the tactile feedback that’s missing from the Touch Cover, and made our typing experience much more comfortable. The problem with the Type Cover, though, is that when you want to use the tablet as simply a tablet, without an extra keyboard, flipping the cover to the back and holding the tablet in your hand is strange. You’re basically pressing keys with the hand holding the tablet, while your other hand navigates the screen. Though the keyboard is deactivated when you flip it over, it’s still uncomfortable to hold. You can remove the keyboard altogether, but if you just want to quickly flip the cover around to turn your “laptop” into a tablet, you’re out of luck. 

Mighty magnets

Whether you choose a Touch or a Type Cover – and you should choose one, since the experience won’t be equal without it – the keyboard connects to the Surface with six strong magnets that can hold the tablet’s weight, even if you dangle the Surface by its keyboard. After seeing it on stage during the Surface keynote, we tried it out ourselves. Indeed, those are some powerful magnets. 

Can I kick it? Yes, you can

The back of the Surface has a kickstand that allows the user to prop it up, turning the device into a laptop when attaching the Touch or Type Cover. Our one complaint is that you can’t adjust the angle. For those of us who are a bit taller, the way the screen sits when using the kickstand might not be exactly at the right position.

On a similar note, when holding the device in portrait mode, the hand naturally rests with your thumb covering the camera. That’s not a huge deal, but after only a brief time with the Surface, we noticed a fair amount of fingerprints in that very area that, which, if left un-cleaned, could lead to some smudgy photos. 

Display’s good enough

At 10.6 inches diagonally, the display looks fantastic. And even though the resolution is much lower than the new iPad at 1,366 x 768 pixels, it still looked pretty darn good to us.  The Surface uses Microsoft’s ClearType sub-pixel rendering technology to help make the words on the screen look “almost as sharp and clear as those printed on a piece of paper.” We tested Fruit Ninja, performed some basic Web browsing, and found the touch capabilities to be quick and responsive. 

Final thoughts

Few, if any, tablets are on the same level as the iPad, but the Surface is definitely up there as an option to consider when shopping for a tablet. It can double as a laptop and has features that Apple’s iPad lacks, such as a microSD slot, USB 2.0, and Micro HD video. In all, the Surface was a delight to use. The only downside to buying a Windows RT tablet like this will be apps: RT users will have to get them all from the Windows Store, and right now there are only around 5,000. That may lead power users to wait for the Surface Pro, available some time next year. Stay tuned for our full review of the Surface this weekend!