Surface Review

33p6eep_medium

From the moment Microsoft revealed the first device in their new "devices and services" strategy, right up until the moment I peeled the plastic back and ran my hands over the magnesium casing of my new Surface, my thoughts on the device had remained the same: it will be mine. Like Wayne Campbell admiring his beloved white Fender Stratocaster in Wayne's World, I frequented the Boston Microsoft Store to (even if just for a few minutes) get my hands on one. I tested the Type/Touch Covers, typing "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" over and over again into these machines that weren't even mine. I flipped the kickstand open and shut, holding it close to my ear to hear if Sinofsky's claim of it emitting the same noise as a luxury car door we're true. I swiped in from the edges, watched the Live Tiles cycle in the most recent updates, and even sliced some fruit in Fruit Ninja. I knew that this was the device for me.

Build quality

Dfjb02_medium

The Surface is solid. I mean ride on it as a skateboard or get it run over by cars going 60mph solid. If you put your hands on the sides of the device and try to get it to give and bend a little, it won't budge. The magnesium casing or VaporMg, as Microsoft calls it, is really nice. For the first few days out of the box, the exterior of the Surface feels almost gritty. The edges are tapered at 22°, which let's you get a nice grip on the sides of the device. Overall, I think Microsoft did a pretty solid job constructing an attractive, yet rugged device.

With that said, I noticed within the first few days after I bought it that the Windows logo on the backside of the Surface was already wearing off. I've seen this posted about by a lot of sites, so I wasn't too surprised. I wish it didn't wear off so quickly, but ultimately not a huge deal. And hey, who doesn't love a device that's broken in and looks unique to you?

Kickstand

Rvhmhg_medium

When it comes to the kickstand on the Surface, this is something I strongly believe Microsoft got right. A device this large needs a kickstand. The kickstand + Touch Cover combo beats out those awkward iPad keyboard + kickstand cases any day of the week. The angle that the device kicks back at, I think, is solid. I haven't really found a situation that I wanted to use the kickstand, but the angle prevented me from doing so. I am really curious to see how it will do when I'm back at school, taking notes on a desk in class, but so far the kickstand has been one of my favorite parts of the Surface.

Display

Li9zt_medium

After a few days of Surface-only computing, I picked up my laptop (a Dell Latitude E6410) to quickly do something in iTunes and couldn't believe that I had been looking at that screen for almost 3 years without any problems. Text looked blocky, colors washed out, and overall the screen seemed really dull. When I returned to my Surface I couldn't believe how good the screen looked. No, its not a Retina Display. And of course, Microsoft will claim that its not just about jamming as many pixels as possible into the display. But at the end of the day it is leaps and bounds ahead of my laptop's display, and that's more than I could ask for.

The viewing angles are good, colors are bright, and I'm really pleased with the display. The one thing that took some getting used to is the fact that I will rarely ever hold it in portrait. The 16x9 aspect ratio makes for a tablet that feels right at home in landscape, and feels bizarre and awkward in portrait. Having the ability to run apps side by side and not having to have movies be letterboxed, in my personal opinion, is definitely worth the awkwardness in portrait.

Input / Output

2m30nzb_medium

The clean lines of Microsoft's design are occasionally interrupted by the many ports that Surface adorns. These ports were some of the biggest selling points of the Surface for me.

USB Port

I am pretty well off in terms of cloud storage, seeing as I have two Microsoft accounts, each with 25GB of SkyDrive storage, but sometimes I need to throw some files on a USB and hand them over to a friend, or run to my college's library and print when my personal printer is acting up or the Wi-Fi is down. The fact that Microsoft fit a USB port in such a thin tablet amazes me. I can power my speakers through it, plug in my iPhone and transfer over some photos, and when my patience wears thin with the small touch targets in Desktop mode, plug in my mouse and get some work done. The USB port is a very welcome addition for me.

Type Cover and connector

2mmh5dw_medium

True to form, the Touch Cover attaches to the Surface with that famous 'reassuring click,' making the device worthy of its "click in" tagline. Very rarely does it take more than one try to get the cover to attach (I've even had it pick up the Touch Cover accidentally). As for typing on the Touch Cover, I'd say I'm at about 75% of my normal typing speed. My biggest problem with the keyboard is remembering to hold down 'Shift' and 'Ctrl' when trying to capitalize a letter or use a keyboard shortcut. I'm not sure why this happens, but I've just chalked it up to the lack of physical keys and how reminiscent of a software keyboard the Touch Cover is.


Beyond being a keyboard, the Touch Cover does a wonderful job of being, well, a cover. As mentioned before, the Windows logo on the back of my Surface began wearing off due to my constant putting down and picking up in the first few Touch Cover-less days, but with the cover attached I no longer have to place the device on it's back. The Polartec covering on the Touch Cover feels great in the hand and gives you a nice grippy surface to grab on to, to avoid drops. In fear of having my Touch Cover tear (as it has for some Surface owners) I generally keep it off unless I'm using it as a keyboard or as a cover (as opposed to folding it back to the rear side of the Surface).

Oh, and as you can tell I went for the cyan Touch Cover, which is ridiculously nice looking.

Speakers/ Volume Controls

2d0hqnq_medium

Seeing as the Surface is a tablet, which are generally great for media consumption, you'd expect the speakers to be pretty good. And that's all the speakers are: pretty good. The volume rocker on the left side of the device gives solid feedback when increasing or decreasing the volume. Having the stereo speakers located on the sides of the device is great. That was always one of my favorite things about my iPhone; no matter which way I lay it down, I can still hear my music and won't miss alerts. When I'm just listening to music while browsing the web, or watching a music video, having the speakers anywhere between 25-50% usually suffices. But when watching some movies on Netflix I have found the speakers to be lacking, and opted to plug in external speakers or headphones. In louder environments, as expected, the speakers don't hold up very well.

The speakers and volume controls have been the source of almost all of my issues with the Surface. When the Touch Cover is plugged in and I hit the volume up a few notches or down a few notches, it doesn't stop and shoots all the way to 0% or 100%. Occasionally, the device will mute itself, putting an 'x' where the volume level number should be. Also, when plugging in external headphones or speakers, music playing in the Music app sometimes skips or won't play. Now I don't know if these are software issues, hardware issues, or just bugs in the Music app, but they are pretty big annoyances while listening to music or watching videos.

Battery life

2wf1t8i_medium

Battery life on the Surface is incredibly good. The first charge lasted 21 hours. The second, 20 hours. The third 18 hours. I have never had a device that I felt so confident being away from the charger. I use it pretty regularly, basically 90% of my daily computing. I play games, I stream music and video, etc. The battery just doesn’t seem to want to die. Now of course battery life depends on how you use the Surface, I've had days that were closer to 15 hours, dramatically lower than that 21 hour day I mentioned before, but still, really, really good. This is another area where I don’t compare the Surface to other tablets, such as the iPad or Nexus 10, and I instead, compare it to what I got out of my laptop. My Dell Latitude E6410 gets roughly anywhere between 2 and 4 hours out of a single charge. As a student, I do not feel confident leaving my room and bringing it to class without my charger, but the Surface is a whole other beast. I plan on toting my new Surface around with me, all day, sans-charger.

Speaking of the charger, this is another part I really like about the Surface. On the outside, the charger is designed well, and isn't just another ugly cord I want to hide behind my desk. The magsafe-like connector clicks onto the side of the tablet and fills up the battery to 100% in just about 2 and a half hours in my (very unscientific) testing. Two and half hours for 15-20 hours of battery life? Count me in. Now some people claim to have a difficult time plugging their charger into the Surface and I, the first time I attempted to plug it in, struggled for a second as well. But then, using common sense, realized that, "oh yeah, the edges are angled, so I have to angle the connector to go along with it." From that moment on I have had zero frustration when plugging in my tablet.

Windows RT

4fu5g2_medium

I'm not going to discuss Windows RT at length, seeing as most of you already know the drill. No legacy applications, a slimmed down version Office 2013, etc. So far my experience with Windows RT has been very positive. Navigating the OS is smooth and lag-free, the new Windows gestures feel much more natural on a touch screen, and the ability to still have desktop mode, for me at least, is a huge plus. On the whole, I don't have any complaints about the OS. Microsoft has picked a direction for the Windows product to go in, and I really like what I'm seeing so far.

Windows Store Applications and Remote Desktop

2qvrskj_jpg_medium

So the majority of the conversation over Windows RT, and Windows 8 for that matter, has been about the new Windows Store. Many complain about the lack of apps, others throw numbers out about how fast the store is growing, and others give the excuse that "the store is young and the apps will come." For me, I found almost everything I was looking for, with some notable exceptions.

On a daily basis, on my laptop running Windows 8 Pro, I use a IE10, Office, ResophNotes (Simplenote client for Windows), SkyDrive, Xbox Music, iTunes (to manage my iPhone), Skype, and a few others. Most of those are present on Windows RT, and I haven't really been missing anything dearly. I mapped my SkyDrive as a network drive, to replicate the desktop SkyDrive experience on Windows 8. I switched to OneNote from ResophNotes, and actually like it better.

1zgq7uq_jpg_medium

To quench my thirst for the rest of my x86 applications, I simply connect to my laptop via Remote Desktop, and am able to get access to all of my regular old Windows apps, and it runs really well. I only need x86 apps for little things here and there, and Remote Desktop lets me get what I need.

As for new Windows Store apps, I have found a decent crop of apps and games that I didn't previously use. Milligram, a great Instagram client, has worked its way onto my Start Screen and is my preferred way to scroll through my feed. Nextgen Reader has welcomed my RSS feeds to my Start Screen from their previous home in the Google Reader web app. The ESPN app is essential for anyone who follows sports, and really showcases the benefits of Live Tiles. Oh, and I can't stop playing Radiant and Wordament.

Now since the Surface is a mobile device, so of course I wanted to get all of my social networking apps, but his is where the pickings get slim. There are no official Facebook or Twitter clients. The third party offerings are lacking, and the built in People app is really only good for quickly scrolling your feeds and not much else. For Twitter I tried MetroTwit. No luck. The application gets a really strange error for me that their support team was unable to fix. On to Rowi. It works, but has a terribly unattractive UI and is not what I would like from a Twitter app. I tried several others, but just landed on pinning the website to my Start Screen. And I went through a similar process with Facebook and Tumblr. So for now, I will keep their websites pinned and wait it out for official clients, or at least functioning, worthy 3rd party clients.

Wrap up

O93l75_medium

At the end of his review of the Surface, Joshua Topolsky posed the question, "Who is the Surface for?" And after spending some time with it, I can answer that question simply with, "Me."

Whether its the innovative Touch Cover, the sturdy and useful kickstand, or the better than expected battery life, I really like the Surface. Microsoft obviously thought long and hard about the future of computing and responded in a way that I think surprised many. With some more apps and a few bug fixes here and there, I think that the Surface will be the one device that I make sure to grab on my way out the door.