Microsoft has a lot to prove with Windows 8, but it may have even more to prove with the Surface. This is one of the first times the software company has ventured full-bore into hardware (Xbox and Zune are two other examples), and in some ways, the Surface is carrying the weight of Windows RT on its back. There are a lot of Windows 8 machines, but Microsoft wants Windows to fully compete in the tablet market and to do that, it needs Surface to be a success. If it can prove that regular people are willing to go all in on its new vision for Windows, momentum will build. Has it delivered the goods? Find out below.
Design and Feel
I’ve tested and fooled around with countless tablets over the last couple years – everything from iPads to Xooms – and have to say, the Microsoft Surface RT exhibits a level of craftsmanship you don’t often see. This is the kind of attention to detail usually reserved for an Apple product. From the moment we opened the elegant packaging, I was impressed by the Surface as a piece of hardware. It’s downright pleasant to hold, look at, and fiddle around with.
Microsoft may be chasing Apple’s iPad in the tablet space, but the Surface is armed to kill. It offers several innovative features and feels like a different kind of tablet while matching Apple’s focus on design, feel, and durability. It’s so durable, in fact, that in a recent presentation, Microsoft executives dropped the Surface right on stage (it was carpeted). They then showed us a Surface skateboard. I was in such a rush to get the Surface home, I neglected to get the warranty and have not performed drop tests, nor used it as a skateboard. But the Surface feels durable. Microsoft opted for a magnesium shell (other tablets usually use plastic or aluminum) and a Gorilla Glass 2 screen. It’s not the thinnest or lightest (about 1.5lbs) tablet around, but it’s competitive in both areas.
Button placement is unique, but effective. Like all new Windows 8 tablets, the Surface is meant to be held in a landscape (widescreen, horizontal) orientation. Under the screen, a touch-sensitive haptic Windows Start button rests comfortably. This button, while sometimes unresponsive on the Asus VivoTab I reviewed last week, does its job on the Surface. It’s actually so responsive that you can wake the tablet up from rest with it – usually impossible without an actual, press-able button. Though most manufacturers usually stick the power and volume buttons together, Microsoft has separated them. The power button rests on the top of the tablet on the right side and the volume rocker is on the left side toward the top. For reasons we haven’t yet figured out, this button placement seems to work very well. I always know which way is Volume Up and which is Volume Down (which can be tough if the volume lever is on the top of a tablet) and I haven’t forgotten where the power button is yet. A full-size USB port, a micro HDMI port, a headphone jack, a magnetic charging port, a hidden microSD slot, and two speakers (good, but they don’t get very loud) also adorn the squared sides of the Surface RT.
The microSD slot on the Surface is hidden under the tablet’s built-in metal stand. Using an indented grip on the left side of the tablet, you can peel off (pull out) half of the Surface’s body armor to make a very effective metal kickstand. The Surface sits at a good 65-75 degree angle when the kickstand is in use. Though it’s, regrettably, not adjustable, the angle Microsoft has chosen seems to work well in most situations; I haven’t yet had a problem with viewing angles or discomfort related to the stand.
One small detail that I didn’t expect is how pleasant it is to open and close the stand. Its hinge makes a noise that’s almost as satisfying as the snap that you hear when you push the kickstand back in. I’m not usually one for silly details like this, but it does help the Surface make a good first impression. This is, again, the kind of detail usually reserved for an Apple product – the kind of detail that PC or Android users (yes, even me) may make fun of or dismiss, but would secretly love to have. And now we do.
The attachable covers are fantastic
The other major innovation Microsoft is touting with the Surface is its ability to magnetically connect to a cover that can type. I’m surprised and delighted to report that Microsoft has nailed this feature. There are two covers – a Touch Cover and a Type Cover. These covers can snap into the bottom of the Surface and be used to type and protect the screen. In another impressive point of detail, though it’s easy to magnetically rip these covers on and off, once they are attached, the magnetic seal doesn’t break. You can actually hang the tablet upside down, holding only the cover and the tablet won’t snap off. It’s an impressive little feat of engineering and may save your tablet’s life someday (or ours).
The $120 Touch Cover is thinner and comes in a variety of colors and themes, but only has touch buttons. While usable, I haven’t yet been able to get comfortable with this cover.
For an extra $10 though, you can get a Type Cover, and man those $10 are a good investment. The Type Cover only comes in black, but it’s far more comfortable to use. It’s so nice, in fact, that I’m typing this very review using it. I tried to type my review on the Asus VivoTab and its fancy keyboard dock, but couldn’t get far. Though it’s a tablet, with the Type Cover, you’ll be able to enter data almost as fast as you can on any PC. The only odd thing you have to get used to is how it feels when you fold the keyboard back to use the device as a straight tablet. The keys are automatically disabled when you fold the keyboard up behind the Surface, but your fingers will still press the keys, which feel … odd. You get used to it, though. If you don’t like it, just take the cover off.
The Microsoft Surface is the second Windows RT (a more limited, tablet version of Windows 8) device I’ve reviewed, and though I stand behind the criticisms I made of the Asus VivoTab and Windows 8 in general, I have to say that using the new Windows on a higher quality tablet has gone a long way to smooth out some of my many qualms with Microsoft’s latest OS. On Surface, Windows runs much faster than on any other tablet device I’ve used, which has brought out some of its more positive features. Flicking your finger from the left side of the screen to open up and resume any of your open apps has now become a habit and works quite fluidly. Using the charms menu has also become a fun habit.
And though I still wish that Windows 8 had a directly centered split screen so you could honestly perform two tasks at once, I’ve begun to notice a few apps that are using the limited split screen functionality in more useful ways. Hulu Plus, for example, lets you watch a shrunken version of whatever TV show you happen to be streaming on the side while you perform other tasks on the rest of the screen.
Using the classic Windows 7 style desktop still isn’t entirely pleasant. Microsoft has done next to nothing to make this legacy portion of Windows easier to use on a touchscreen tablet. However, on Surface, desktop applications like Microsoft Word (PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote are also included) do run fast enough to be useful – not fast enough to impress, but they are usable. I couldn’t say the same on other RT tablets. However, expect a bit of lag (even if you’re just typing a Word doc) and don’t expect to enjoy using the desktop environment. No, the iPad and Android tablets don’t have an Office suite on them or a desktop, but Microsoft has done its best to make you wish Surface didn’t either. The Ribbon menus in Office apps are too small to reliably press with your fingers, and it’s sometimes even difficult to hit the X to close windows. It’s all too small. And I have no idea why Microsoft chose not to make the onscreen keyboard pop up automatically. To get a keyboard at all, you have to press a keyboard button in the task bar. Why? I don’t know which team inside Microsoft was responsible for crafting the classic desktop, but they should be checked for brain deficiencies. That advice goes right up the chain of command. Any executive who approved the desktop exhibited questionable judgment.
There are some confusing elements of the new Windows 8 “Modern UI,” as well. Upon setup, the Surface doesn’t help you set up Wi-Fi, leaving you to find it in the Settings or Charms menu on your own. In addition, I tried setting up a Bluetooth speaker and found the process more confusing than it needs to be due to an odd “Devices” menu that needs tweaking.
Finally, I must note that there are still very few apps that run on Windows RT. Microsoft has around 5,000 or so apps in its new app store, but few of them are noteworthy. Evernote, Hulu, Netflix, Kindle, Skype, and AllRecipes make up most of the solid apps at this time. And because it’s Windows “RT,” you cannot install old-style Windows applications on the legacy desktop either. So if you want to run Chrome, iTunes, Spotify, Zune, Photoshop, a Windows 7 game, or anything else, you’ll be better off choosing a “Windows 8” computer that runs on an Intel processor. If you’re content waiting for the app library to build (it will) and only need to browse the net and use some basic Office applications, the Surface should satisfy your needs.
(*A moment of frustration: Though the two versions of Internet Explorer 10 that ship with the Surface both work well and usually load full-size websites, sometimes a site does load up in its mobile format. Unlike Chrome, however, there doesn’t seem to be a way to request the “full” version of a site in IE. This is an easy fix and a silly oversight. Get on it, Microsoft.)
The Surface may look different from other tablets on the outside, thanks to its fancy covers and kickstand, but on the inside, it’s specs are very similar to most Android tablets on the market, including the Nexus 7 and phones like the Galaxy S3. The Surface RT runs on a 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal file storage (microSD slot also included for additional storage). The screen measures an odd 10.6 inches, which is slightly larger than the average 10.1-inch tablet, but we don’t really have complaints, thanks to Microsoft’s Type Cover and excellent onscreen keyboards. Pixel-wise, the screen is definitely not “Retina,” or high-resolution like the iPad, but it does hold its own with a 1366 x 768 pixel resolution (148 pixels per inch). Though it isn’t high resolution, the screen has decent viewing angles and is one of the better tablet screens around when it comes to colors.
I’ll also mention that the Surface has front and rear cameras, but that’s all the mentioning they deserve. Strangely, both cameras are designed to be used when the kickstand is active, so if you aren’t using the stand, you’ll have to angle the tablet 15-30 or so degrees to get a straight shot. Both cameras can shoot 720p video and shots. If you’re into tablet photography, steer clear. These cameras appear to be designed to handle a Skype chat, but that’s about it.
Microsoft isn’t going for the gold on battery life, but it places well with the Surface. I’ve been getting about 8-9 hours per charge, which is pretty standard for a tablet. Windows RT freezes apps more reliably than Google’s Android OS, which makes resuming them better, but also seems to improve battery life when idling. The Surface holds a charge almost as well as an iPad – at least, so far.
I’ve really enjoyed using the Surface RT. It is one of the best-designed tablets on the market and performs so admirably that it’s convinced me that Windows RT has a serious shot at drawing an audience in the tablet world. The operating system still has a long way to go before it feels like a fluid and finished experience – especially the classic Windows 7 style desktop – but, like Never Never Land, the Surface sometimes makes you forget. It is a joy to use, thanks in no small part to an intense attention to detail on the physical hardware design. The kickstand and magnetic Type Cover are awesome and provide an experience I simply haven’t had on a tablet before. I just wish the whole package wasn’t so expensive. You don’t want to buy this tablet without a Type Cover, but it’s going to cost you $500 and an additional $130 to buy the bundle. That’s just … very expensive. As much as Microsoft wants to be on equal footing with the iPad, it would have been a smarter move to undercut Apple.
The Microsoft Surface is an impressive tablet with a lot of potential. It’s such a well-designed and innovative piece of hardware, with it’s elegant Type/Touch covers and kickstand, that it makes a strong case for an operating system that has its faults. The classic desktop is cumbersome and the app catalog has not yet filled out, but if you’re willing to live on the bleeding edge, this is the best way to experience Windows RT. I have no doubt that when Microsoft built the new version of Windows, they built if for Surface.
- Incredible design and feel
- Magnetic Type Cover rocks
- Runs Windows RT faster than other tablets
- Kickstand works wonderfully
- Durable hardware
- Made me enjoy Windows RT
- Legacy desktop is slow and difficult to navigate with touch
- Currently lacking solid app selection
- Lacking a good tutorial
- Price is too high